It’s all in the timing

Have you finished sending out your fall’s quota of query letters to agents yet? Or, if you are dealing directly with editors, have they already received your manuscripts? Well done, if so: I release you to pursue a well-deserved long winter’s nap. I’ll wake you up around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

If you have not, and if you are the kind of impatient person who gets upset if her letters are not answered within a month or two, I would seriously advise delaying your next set of queries until well after everyone’s New Year’s resolutions have had time to peter out — the experts say that takes about three weeks, on average.

As regular readers of this blog already know, you’re far better off using the intervening time to polish your submissions into perfection than sending out fresh queries. From now through the end of the year, the publishing world is a dead zone; for the first month of the year, it is a madhouse. Either way, it means delays and frustration for writers caught in the maelstrom.

For those new to the sad reality, almost no new business is conducted between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the NYC publishing industry. Agencies recognize this, and roll back their efforts accordingly. Some ambitious souls do launch back in with a will between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, although it is rare, because everyone is cringing with anticipation over the annual descent of the twin horrors of January: both publishing houses and agencies need to get all of their tax data out to authors by the end of the month, which invariably causes a flurry of paperwork, and almost every unpublished author in North America sends at least one query letter in the first month of the year.

Including all of those timid souls who were too intimidated by the process even to consider sending out queries back in June. Think about it: if you have spent the last eight or ten months working up nerve to show your work to others, what’s your single most likely New Year’s resolution?

The result, as any agent or editor will tell you with rays of horror shooting from her eyes, is a perfect avalanche of queries and unsolicited manuscripts. Tends to make the readers a might testy – and testy is the last thing you want the person screening your precious submission to be, right?

If you were not aware of this two-month hiatus, it’s not your fault: it is just one of those rules of the game that someone has to tell you. I have met writers with YEARS of submissions under their belts who continued, mystified, to rush to their mailboxes throughout each Yuletide season, only to be disappointed to find nothing more than holiday cards from long-lost friends, presents from close kith and kin, and perhaps a few candy canes left by the postman. That most coveted of presents, a contract from an agent or a publisher, is almost never found under the Christmas tree.

So don’t bother asking your local department store Santa for it. I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.

Fortunately, you have come to the right place to avoid your work getting lost in the crowd. In the first place, NEVER send an unsolicited manuscript — even if you read in a fairly credible guide that the publishing house or agency will consider them. Yes, you should always send exactly what the agent or editor has asked to see, but trust me, you are ALWAYS better off asking first, rather than going to the considerable expense and trouble of sending an entire manuscript. Unsolicited manuscripts almost always end up in one of three places: in the garbage can/recycling bin, in the author’s mailbox, accompanied by a form letter stating that it does not meet our needs at this time, or, in the best-case scenario, sitting in a dank storeroom with hundreds of other unsolicited manuscripts, waiting for the company’s annual let’s-go-through-the-slush-pile party or the Second Coming, whichever comes first.

Second, and even more important for your sanity, don’t bother querying during the dead time. It’s far, far better to be one of three hundred query letters in a week than one of three thousand.

I found out only this last week what publishing houses and agencies are DOING during the December dead time. I had always thought that they just whooped it up during the holidays, but no: it is a sort of winter cleaning, when everyone catches up on the work that has fallen through the cracks in the previous eleven months. Think of it as the chrysalis stage of the publishing process, when all the little editors are wrapped up tight in their cocoons, waiting for spring.

Did you find that image soothing? Did it reconcile you to the long wait to come?

I didn’t think so. But once again, here is a situation where knowing a bit about how the publishing industry works can save you minutes, hours, or even weeks of soul-wrenching doubt about whether the quality of your work is the reason you have not heard back yet.

Let me save you some chagrin: the quality of the work, good or bad, is almost NEVER the reason for a delayed response; internal pressures at the agency or publishing house almost always are to blame. (For a more complete explanation of how these factors work, see my postings from early September.) It’s tempting to attribute a long turn-around time to the agent’s showing your query or your manuscript around to a delighted staff, in order to get everyone on board, or to an editor’s wanting to read your submission for the third time, in order to convince himself that it really is as brilliant as he had thought the first time through. For the more masochistically-minded, it is tempting to conclude that the work is terrible, and so has been set aside, pending future guffaws.

But the simple fact is, this is an industry where people are EAGER to clear paper off their desks: if you have not heard back on a submission, far and away the most probable explanation is that no one has read it yet. And if you sent it between Thanksgiving and MLK, Jr., Day, that probability soars to a near certainty. Is it really worth torturing yourself with that kind of delay?

Instead, why not treat your work to a stimulating rewrite during the holiday season? Better still, why not read it from front to back in hard copy, so you can catch any lingering errors? Then – rested, refreshed, and perfected by its holiday spa treatment – you can send it out into the world in the new year, confident that your work is at its best and brightest.

Just an early holiday notion, my friends, designed to keep that seasonal sparkle alight in your eye. Keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

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