Real talk about manuscript submissions
On common worries, pitfalls, and Submittable status updates
Forest Avenue Press is open for novel submissions through Feb. 10. We have assembled a fabulous committee of women and nonbinary readers, led by our editor at large Liz Prato. We’re searching for our next two or three manuscripts—as we only publish a handful of titles each year.
As readers who write, we know that sending your manuscript to an agent or editor makes you vulnerable. Puts us, writers, in the direct line of being judged. It’s how the system works.
But when you’re sitting outside the process, on the sidelines, waiting for a response, it’s easy to make up stories about what’s happening. Storytelling is a way to keep our minds busy during what is often an excruciatingly long wait time. But it’s not the healthiest way we could be spending our days, because everything we imagine from the outside is a guess. And our wildest guesses are often far from the mark, which makes rejections, when they come, sting even more than they might have if we had spent that time writing.
Here are a few guesses and myths, debunked, with a focus on the Submittable platform, since that’s what Forest Avenue uses these days.
My submission moving from RECEIVED to IN PROGRESS in Submittable. A reader might love the query! Or the opening pages! Oh wow!
In reality, if a press has multiple readers and uses the label function or the comment boxes to communicate with the team, an in-progress marker appears when someone touches your submission. That could be to add a label. Publishers can customize their own labels, depending on what they are looking for, what they absolutely don’t want to see, and how they operate as a team.
Ours are a mix of positives and negatives—didn’t follow guidelines, offensive, needs more readers, priority, total contender.
It could also mean one of the readers has left a note in the queue—sharing their interest (or lack) in the manuscript. Comments can be good signs that someone is interested, but then again, they can be notes like, There are so many typos or This person single-spaced their work and it’s hard to read. If I find a piece of work emotionally difficult because of my lived experience brushing up against the author’s storytelling, I’ll mark that as a way to be gentle with myself while browsing the queue.
When you see your submission change status, it’s exciting, but don’t read too much into it.
My submission stayed marked RECEIVED until I got a decline notice. That means they didn’t read it, right? How mean! How awful!
It’s impossible to know for sure what a press’s process is—unless you’re one of the readers inside the system. Not all teams use the label and comment functions in Submittable, both of which move a submission into the IN PROGRESS category. If one person is in charge of the queue, they might read everything without making a single mark that would show up on the author’s side. So you can’t assume that you didn’t get a fair shake; you probably did.
I can’t imagine rejecting a manuscript without (at the very least) taking a look at the query and seeing if it fits my vision or offers an interesting plot or set of characters. Other submissions readers likely feel the same way; after all, we sign up for this task because we want to be surprised and amazed.
I tend to think of submissions readers as sweeping through a room, seeking something that catches their attention. If a query doesn’t interest me, or the title doesn’t grip me, I’ll keep moving through the list. We always have multiple readers in the queue to make sure we don’t miss something special.
If I’m rejected, that means my manuscript isn’t good. Maybe I should give up.
Whoa—this is one of the reasons I love to talk to writers, especially unpublished ones. A rejection can certainly feel like this, devastating, like every no is an editorial knife cutting through your pages. But in reality, the process is a lot more nuanced.
I’ve rejected plenty of projects that sound absolutely incredible and go on to sell to other houses and earn awards.
Rejections aren’t strict valuations of your work. They’re a decision based on a variety of factors; quality is only one of them. What each individual reader’s interests are, the books we’ve published in the recent past, the kinds of stories we’re hoping to see—all of this combines in our heads as we sift through the many options that are in front of us. It’s hard to say no to a great book, but if it’s not for us, we try to offer encouragement, suggestions for other presses, and hope when we write those letters.
If this process feels too personal, imagine someone at the local ice cream shop, choosing mint chocolate chip over butter pecan or a non-dairy lemon sorbet. The not-chosen flavors might appeal to the buyer, but they only have enough cash in their pocket for one scoop.
What if I left some typos in my work?
Not a big deal, I promise. It’d be really petty to reject a whole novel just because there’s a mistake on the third page. That being said, a manuscript riddled with errors might not last as long in consideration as one that has been polished to a resonant shine. Same with the query letter—if it’s full of mistakes and doesn’t clearly share the arc of the novel, that’s not as compelling as a query that makes a strong case for the project.
After all, we’re sweeping through the room, or peering in the ice-cream case, looking for reasons to not choose something so we can narrow the field a bit and hone in on our favorites.
What if I panic and decide I should have sent a different version of my novel? Can I withdraw my manuscript and resubmit?
Please don’t do this. We totally get the tendency—how perfectionism and anxiety can make withdrawing and resubmitting seem like the best choice. But if your manuscript is for us, is the one we want, we’ll revise with you. It’s like meeting someone with a terrible haircut; the haircut will grow out.
If you withdraw and resubmit, it confuses the readers who have already made notes on your project. And we’ll all sigh a bit, having to redo that work when we’re dealing with a high volume of manuscripts. And we might worry that you are the kind of author who will ask too much of us all throughout the process and step over any boundaries we’ve set together.
If I get an offer, should I tell you? Will you be annoyed? Will you send me a counteroffer right away?
We celebrate every time an author gets an offer while they’re being considered by our press. It’s honestly a relief, too, because we get so many more quality manuscripts than we could possibly publish. We usually make an offer on about one percent of the pile, which amounts to two or three novels in a group of several hundred. There are so many great presses and deserving authors out there, and if a match is made before we can decide on a project, we are happy for everyone involved and we try to promote those books when they hit the shelves.
As far as our process, we have never rushed our final decisions to make an offer when faced with this situation. We winnow the pile down to a semifinalist group, then a finalist group, and making an offer before all the choices are even on the table isn’t something we do.
Have a submission question I didn’t answer here? Drop it in the comments!
In health news
My bout with COVID took me down for all of November and much of December, despite being fully vaccinated. On the positive, my autoimmune issues are finally getting diagnosed and treated after decades of strange symptoms, debilitating pain flares, and shrugs from the medical establishment. While I’m still in the maze of unknown symptoms and confusing jargon, it’s become ever clearer that I can’t keep up my usual quick pace. Which means prioritizing and organizing and handing off tasks that are physically difficult these days—including laying out our books and opening jars in the kitchen.
As a result, I’m rebalancing my life to include more Zoom consults, which aren’t so hard on my finger joints and wrists as working in InDesign. I’m hoping to schedule three more consults by the end of the first week in February so I can hire a freelance designer at a fair market rate. I’ve picked out my freelancer and she’ll work on the interior of Soul Jar, a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories by disabled authors and edited by disabled bookstore owner Annie Carl. Anthologies are especially tricky for me, with all the pieces and parts, and now that I know that pain means actual damage is occurring to my joints, I’m trying to let go.
If you want professional advice on which project to focus on, or why your manuscript isn’t getting attention, or wanting to set up a DIY publicity plan, I’d love to use my ten years of publishing experience to help you figure it all out. My rate is $150 for an hour focused exclusively on your projects, questions, and worries, with a follow-up email of links and notes. Hit reply if you’re on my mailing list to start a conversation or contact me here.
(And just to be clear: if you’ve recently submitted your manuscript to Forest Ave, now’s not the time to work with me. Once our decisions are final, I’d be happy to see if your needs and my skillset are a fit.)
I’ll be rolling out some more coaching options in the coming months, and when our new Forest Ave website goes live, the process to hire me and schedule a date will be streamlined and easy to follow.
YOUR BRIGHT SIDE INVITATION: How do you take care of yourself when you get a rejection? Do you have a certain ritual or phrase you share with yourself? Do you submit to new places right away? If you don’t have an answer to these questions, take some time to create a regular practice you can put into place the next time you hear a no about your creative work.
Feel free to leave a comment! I started this newsletter to create an intimate but accessible conversation space about creativity, publishing, and the societal reset that the pandemic has offered creatives like us. I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can reply to this email to have a conversation just with me, or you can comment on the post to connect with other readers too.
Just sharing the best rejection story ever, in the hope that it will help someone--I got my first rejection in 1991, and I brought the letter with me to my friend Jill's house. We went to her brother's house--author Tom Bates, who noticed I was "off" and asked what was wrong. I showed him the rejection and fought tears as he read it. He went inside and I waited, confused, until he came out with a tray of champagne flutes. He said "Kristin became a real writer today; let's celebrate!" It transformed my experience and I remember it every time I get another rejection.
Thank you so much, Laura, for sharing the inner working of submissions to Forest Avenue Press. My biggest rejection came when my agent, someone I'd worked hard to get, rejected my novel after what she claimed were two rounds in New York. She then suggested small presses. I did that. Then COVID descended. No word from the small presses. I decided to take my novel in hand and approach a reputable hybrid press. I have not regretted that decision. She Writes Press has done an admirable job with up upcoming debut novel, About the Carleton Sisters. The novel is where it belongs. Thank you. I celebrate you prioritizing your health.