The Publishing Mystique

This weekend I finally followed up with the agencies who have asked to see the full manuscript of my WWII zombie novel.

I had been dragging my feet, unsure of whether I would be breaking protocol to email agents at this stage. I’m not an agent or acquisitions editor, but I sit on the acquisitions committee at the publishing house where I work, and I know exactly what it feels like to have unsolicited manuscripts sitting in my inbox that I haven’t gotten to yet. I may even be excited about the projects, I just have other tasks on my to-do list that take priority.

As I should have guessed, I needn’t have put off writing a few brief follow-up emails. A quick search of reputable publishing blogs confirmed that it’s perfectly normal to send follow-up emails after agents have requested materials (provided, of course, that you’ve waited at least as long as their typical response time listed on their website). One article even suggested following up regularly, say every month or so after the first follow-up email.

Sorting through why I was procrastinating on these potentially very exciting leads, I realized again that I’m afraid of rejection. Reminding them that I’m waiting for a response could (so I told myself) trigger them to review the materials and subsequently reject my manuscript. Still being in the running feels better than not being in the running, and even the possibility of failure can feel defeating sometimes.

The other reason I was procrastinating, though, was the mystique that seems to shroud the whole publishing industry. In few other sectors would I wonder whether it was okay or not okay to send a follow-up email to someone who was considering me as a future business partner. I wouldn’t be asking Google if it was okay to follow up with, say, my real-estate agent or financial adviser. And as one blogger pointed out, I wouldn’t want to work anyway with an agent who wrote back a nastygram to a brief, polite follow-up email.

The thing that struck me is that I work in the publishing industry—I correspond with agents on the other side of the desk as an editor for my day-to-day work—and I feel this uninformed and insecure about the publishing process. I’ve wanted to be a published author since my teen years, I’ve read many books on writing and getting published, and I feel paralyzed by writing a three-sentence email to a person who has already expressed interest in my work.

To be fair to myself, I’ve never been in this exact spot before. I’ve tried to sell novel manuscripts before, but I’ve never had a full manuscript out with multiple agencies before. And as an editor, I’ve never had reason to ask an agent what their process is when they’re reviewing a manuscript under consideration with other agencies.

And yet the feeling remains that I should know exactly what to do at this stage—that if I were inside the magic publishing circle, I would know the right things to say and do to get my work published in a quick, successful manner. For better or worse, though, it seems like there aren’t any magic formulas in publishing. I wish I would remember that more often than I do. 

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