How the traditional submission process works
You've completed your manuscript. What comes next?
Firstly, congratulate yourself on an amazing achievement. Most people who say they'll write a book, or who start writing one, never finish. You're already ahead.
Next, no matter how great you and your friends think your book is, find someone (or a couple of someones) who know your genre and ask them to crit your work. Do not expect them to pat you on the back. A crit partner's job is to find the holes in your work and to help you make your writing stronger. That inevitably means some criticism in with the praise. But this is a whole topic on its own! Alternately, you can pay a professional to edit or critique your manuscript.
When you finally think your manuscript is as strong as you can possibly get it, you need to submit it. This is an important step. You cannot believe how many people complete novels and then never send them out into the world. Yes, you should be writing because you love writing, but you are also denying yourself the incredible opportunity to be published.
Now you're ready to hit send - but where do you send it?
Research the options available for your kind of novel. Who publishes your genre? Do they accept unsolicited submissions, or do they only accept submissions via agents?
Are you going to submit to literary agents first, or direct to one of the publishing houses with accept direct submissions? UK, US or SA?
Then check out the submission guidelines for the publishers or agents you've chosen to target. Many agents or editors (the people at the publishing houses who read the submissions) want a query letter, a synopsis and the first 3 chapters. This is known as a Partial Submission. All publishing houses and literary agents differ in what they want and how they want it, so make sure you read and follow their submission guidelines, or you will be unnecessarily sabotaging your own submission.
Once you've hit 'send' on the email, be prepared for a very long wait. Publishing is probably the slowest business in existence. No matter what publisher you submit to, the average wait time on a response is 3-4 months! The best thing you can do now is start work on your next project and try to forget that your little baby has left home.
What happens next?
Your partial manuscript arrives in the submissions email inbox of the editor or agent. You should hopefully receive an acknowledgement of receipt. Hopefully!
Your submission will be handed to the relevant editor, or passed on to a reader (a freelancer who reads the slush pile submissions on behalf of the editor or agent). Since editors and agents have to make a priority to the authors they already have under contract, it could be many weeks (or months) before they get around to reading your submission.
If the response is a rejection, allow yourself a short period to mourn (24 hours is good) then put it behind you and move on to the next project. If you're like me, by the time you receive your first rejection you will already have learned so much during your wait that you'll have a good idea how you can make the next one better.
However, if you've received a request to see your full manuscript, dance up and down for joy and break open the champagne. You are now officially out of the slush pile! Before you send off your complete manuscript, take note of any suggestions you may have received in your request letter. This is the start of your working relationship with an editor and you want to show that you can work with them and learn from them.
Again, expect the editor to take anywhere from 3-9 months to respond to your full manuscript submission. All editors are busy people, especially in these days of budget and staff cut-backs, so be patient. At this stage, you could receive a rejection, a request for a different manuscript, or a request for revisions. All of these are invaluable, because you're getting real feedback on your writing.
Please, please do not ignore a revision request! According to the editors I've spoken to, many people fail at this hurdle. Many of the manuscripts requested by agents and editors are never sent! Authors read the critique in the editor's letter and assume it is a rejection. Unless the editor has clearly said "I don't want to see more of this particular story" this is NOT a rejection. It is an R&R (Revise & Re-submit).
A revision request, while it is exciting and worth celebrating, can be be very scary. As with a rejection, allow yourself a couple of days to get over it. Your initial reaction may be "but that's a huge re-write! How am I ever going to do this?" or even "how dare the editor criticise my precious work of art?!" Take a day or two, then re-read the letter. Break it down into manageable bits, starting with the big stuff and working down to the smaller stuff. Take your time and do it right. It'll be worth it.
Unfortunately, revision requests can still lead to rejection ... or to yet more revision requests. There are enough bruised writers out there who can tell you that they've been rejected after multiple revisions. It's heart-breaking, but you're so close. Don't give up!
With every story you write, you are learning and growing. In publishing, perseverance pays off. There are many successful published writers out there who wrote 10 or more manuscripts before they finally sold. Those who gave up after the first rejection never get to be published!
Note: this post first appeared as two posts on the ROSA blog in August 2009. It has been re-edited for content.