In this second in a series of guest articles on writing and getting published, Sunday Times bestselling author GILLIAN McALLISTER shares her experience of being out on submission to publishers.
So you finished your novel. You signed with an agent. Now what?
Submission is when your agent sends your novel off to publishers for their consideration. It seems to me to be remarkably like querying: they pitch and editors ask for the full, if they want it. If the editor likes it, they then take it to various boards who decide if they also like it, and if it is feasible from a business perspective. If it is, they make an offer to buy your book.
The task I set myself when writing these articles was to be honest. There can be a bit of spin in the online world – Mayfair Instagram filter to make your tan look better, hashtag feeling blessed, etc, and, of course, those people who get an agent, a publishing deal, and sell in thirty-one territories all in the space of twenty-four hours. Sometimes, it feels as though the whole world is succeeding. So then, against the backdrop to this twenty-first century world we live in, how do you stay sane on submission?
Manage your expectations
I find the line between being hopeful and realistic is a difficult one to tread. I would never want to tell an aspiring author that the chances of them publishing their very first novel is slim, because it would discourage them. However, when you have just signed with an agent (and you likely never dared dream this would happen) it’s hard to manage those expectations that naturally tend towards six-figure pre-empts and film deals.
Here’s where the statistics are most helpful, not only to keep your feet on the ground during submission but also to know that there is a safety net beneath you: it doesn’t have to happen now. There will be other books. There will be other chances. And it is also possible to get published without being an overnight sensation, for those of you on week one/two/three/four who have had no news.
I think the statistics would tell you that selling your second novel is more common than selling your debut. They would also tell you that plenty of sales happen after more than 4-6 weeks. Submission can be a long and tricky process (especially so if there is interest in your book: a ‘yes’ takes longer than a ‘no’ in publishing) and it can feel as though hope is diminishing with each day but that’s simply not true.
The best advice I can give is to come to terms – now – with this book not selling. Not a small or an easy task, I know. But try to see a world beyond the book deal for this book. What would it look like? You’d survive it. You’d be okay. It might make you more ready for everything that’s to come, if you have to write two. You might be a better writer having two agented books under your belt by the time you’re under contract to write another. Besides, you’d have to write another whatever the outcome. (Speaking of…)
Write another book
This is the most cliched advice out there but it is the only reliable thing which actually took my mind off submission. Writing is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Writing takes me away from the real world. Creating something that wasn’t there half an hour previously is a very unique and special thing; it cures many ills. Not only that, but getting excited about a second project will make the first feel less important.
I know you don’t want your first-born book to feel less important, but it’s necessary to spread the risk, even if it feels like cheating on somebody. What you want, really, is to feel that idea spark, and turn your attention entirely away from book one, and start getting excited about book two, so that when you think of book one, you hope, dispassionately, that it gets a deal, but you secretly feel what you’re writing now is actually much better. That’s the thing that helps. Improving. Writing. Carrying on.
Do things you enjoy
While I was on submission, I pretended every evening was my birthday evening. This is very sad, but true. I figured, I had written a whole book, and got an agent, and got an agent who was prepared to send the book out under her name, i.e. she was proud of it: that was an achievement on its own. (If you’re feeling in doubt about this, tell a non-writer you have an agent and observe their interested reaction).
And, while I tried to write on submission, I did also cut myself more slack than usual, as I would do if it were my birthday. I ate a lot of nice food, I took long baths, I read entire books on rainy Sundays. Whatever I wanted to do. Besides, right after delivering a book is when you need to replenish the creative well the most. I watched excellent television shows and read brilliant books and thoroughly enjoyed that. I plotted out a second novel and got excited about it, because I’d been watching so many brilliant things on the television and absorbing so many well-written words.
Correlation is not causation
I think, somewhere deep in the writers’ primitive brain, we think that if we check hard enough, something will happen. Likewise, wishing on stars, reading tarot cards (guilty) and looking for ‘signs’ as we walk down the street. I am not remotely mystical in any area of my life and yet on submission I became obsessed.
The reality is that I would still have received the phone call saying Penguin had made me an offer whether or not I had made wishes, pressed the refresh button on my email seventy-five times during my lunch hour or rehearsed The Offer phone call every morning in the shower.
If you’re worried about being reachable, you could give your agent an emergency number they can always get you on (a landline), if possible, so you know you can put that phone away.
Stop trying to control it
This is related to number four but is quite distinct from it. Most authors I know tend to a. like to achieve and b. be in control. After all, that is how we finished an entire novel alone: with the grit that’s needed to keep writing (through the bad days and missed social occasions and ferocious winter colds and right up until the deadline), and with the knowledge that we are totally in control of the world we create (nobody else has any real say in my writing until I deliver it to my agent and my publisher, and going from that to someone else submitting your manuscript is bizarre, to say the least). Not only that, but people will be discussing your book without you being there! The book you wrote!
What I tried to tell myself was that this was why I got an agent. I don’t know how to sell a book. I wouldn’t know who to send it to, I don’t understand what happens at an acquisitions meeting and I don’t understand the finances involved in sales and marketing. And if you want somebody to be your agent, you must give them control. You signed with them because you trust them, and so now is the time to trust them.
Knowing more about the process won’t help you stay sane: it’s the opposite. The more you know about where it’s gone and who to and when, the more you will be under the illusion that you can control the process by twitter-stalking the editors, looking up that imprint’s latest acquisitions and googling their average response times.
Far better to channel point four and simply do your best to ignore it. It will feel counter-intuitive and weird at first, as though you must be thinking about it (and wanting it) for it to happen, but I got a pre-empt on the day I was most distracted by something else (food for thought).
I hope this is helpful to those of you out on submission. Know that every other author who’s been there before you (did Shakespeare sub his plays?) is standing with you in solidarity. Getting through it with your mind intact might just be enough.
Gillian McAllister is a former lawyer and Sunday Times Top 10 bestselling author of Everything But The Truth, Anything You Do Say, No Further Questions, The Evidence Against You, How to Disappear and That Night.
Her latest release is Wrong Place Wrong Time which has been sold in over 35 languages.
She lives out in the countryside with her husband, son and dog. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @gillianmauthor. She also blogs at www.gillianmcallister.com
Biography info updated April 2023
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