5 Things to Do When You Haven't Heard Back From an Editor or Agent: The Art of Following Up

In the 1980s and ‘90s, before most trade publishing houses were “closed” to unsolicited material, writers would submit hard copies of their manuscripts to editors and proceed to wait months for a reply.  Sometimes the writers would screw up their courage and call or write the editor, and ask when they might expect a response.  They would get no reply.

In the current era, manuscripts are sent electronically, and most publishers will only consider submissions that come from agents.  So now it’s agents sending your manuscript to an editor via email.  The agent then proceeds to wait months for a reply.  They make a call to follow up, and ask when they might expect a response.  They get no reply.

Ok, it’s true that agents do get replies from editors most of the time.  But maybe less often than you think.  And this blog post is about you, and about how to take the reins in your career and not wait for those right-brained, gone-into-the-witness-protection-plan editors to get back to you.

5 WAYS TO FOLLOW UP WITH AN EDITOR OR AGENT AND WHEN TO DO IT:

Waiting for a reply can seem like watching the tumbleweeds roll...

Waiting for a reply can seem like watching the tumbleweeds roll...

#1.  Maybe an editor said something encouraging to you at a conference, and, as requested, you sent them your manuscript.  Since then it has been radio silence.  Here’s what you can do.  After 10-12 weeks, follow up with an email, reminding him or her, “we met at XXX, you said you’d like to take a look at my story about XXX, and because 10-12 weeks have passed, I wanted to follow up.  Here is my manuscript again, thank you very much for your time and consideration.”  That’s right, attach the manuscript, don’t have the editor go hunting for your email from 10 weeks ago. This way they can click and start reading.  If you haven’t heard back in another month, move on.

(In this case, move on means submit to the next person on your list, and don’t expect ever to hear back from the original publishing house. You don’t need to officially withdraw the manuscript.  If by some miracle the first editor later says he or she is interested in your book, and you haven’t yet sold it, then great.  But meanwhile you’ve taken your career into your own hands.)

Mandy and Bernadette knew it in Sunday in the Park with George: you've got to Move On.

Mandy and Bernadette knew it in Sunday in the Park with George: you've got to Move On.

#2.  Regrettably, in this era, silence is the new no.  Many literary agents have realized they don’t have the time to reply to every query they receive, so they’ve enacted a policy of “if you don’t hear from us in ____ weeks, assume we’ve passed.”   Here’s what to do when you’ve queried and agent and the allotted time to hear back has passed: MOVE ON.  Waiting for just the right literary agent or editor, the one you've got your heart set on, to say yes to you is like being in 7th grade and waiting for just the right boy, the really cute one you know is perfect, to ask you out.  You are much, much better off moving on to the guy standing right next to him in the lunch line.

This is also a good rule for a publishing house accepting unsolicited manuscripts, and for editors or publishers who are accepting submissions for a certain period after a conference. If you don’t hear back from them after 12-16 weeks, assume it’s a no and move on.

#3.  You have signed with a literary agent, but they aren’t getting back to you.  Maybe they don’t return your calls, maybe they don’t answer your emails.  Everyone slips up now and again, of course, and that’s not what I’m talking about.  Have you left a few messages in a row for your agent, either by email or phone, and not gotten a reply? Has that happened several times? End the relationship.  The LAST thing you want is an agent who doesn’t return your calls or emailsThe publishing process is frustratingly slow and thorny and fraught with all sorts of issues.  Your agent is your champion; he or she goes into battle for you.  You do not want to be in that battle not knowing when your weaponry is going to show up.  Send an email and say you’re terminating the relationship. Do it now.

(And don’t be scared. Most agents are excellent.  But I get asked about this every few months, so I’m including it.)

#4.   An editor tells you he is taking your manuscript to an acquisitions meeting, then you don’t hear anything further. Follow up, by phone or email, remembering the rule, “always be polite and to the point.”  Say You said you were bringing my book to the committee, has there been a response?” I know, I know, who wants to send that email and hasten the chance of hearing “I’m afraid the committee passed?”  But it’s better to hear “no” and move on. It’s also possible your editor needs to be prodded to get that book onto the meeting agenda.  You just don’t know.  You need to follow up. 

Nota bene: ALWAYS be nice. Never lose your cool and yell at an editor, even by email, even when he deserves it.  First, you never know the full story—I got screamed at, really screamed at, once when it was my boss causing the delay, but what could I do but take the heat? And second, venting is what you have friends for.  The editor is disorganized, doesn’t value your time, has kept you hanging, repeatedly breaks her word about when she’s going to reply… all true.  Still, be professional, courteous, and polite. For one thing, when a writer is nice and understanding, we, the editors, only feel more guilty and determined to treat you well and to finally get you an answer.  Secondly, one day you may need that person you just reamed out.  He may be sitting in the audience at sales conference, and be able to tell a rep “Oh, I know that author, so talented.” Or you may end up sitting next to that editor on a panel at a conference, who knows? Don’t burn bridges.  Act professionally and then go out for drinks with your BFF and get it all off your chest. 

#5:  Perhaps your book is under contract, but your editor isn’t getting back to you with editorial notes, or with anything else.  You want to revise, you have another book you need to work on, and you need to know what’s going on.  But although you’ve emailed the editor three times to ask about the book’s schedule, you hear nothing.  If you have an agent, easy, just tell the agent and he or she will deal with it.  (Unless the agent doesn’t return your calls, in which case, see #2).  But if you don’t have an agent, and you aren’t hearing back from your editor? Email her boss.  Yup.  Email the publisher, remembering to be professional and concise, saying “I haven’t had an answer to my questions about the book’s schedule and I’m getting worried that my revision might conflict with another project; of course I understand how busy my editor is, but I wonder if you have information for me?”  The publisher then forwards it to the editor who deals with it immediately.

Ok, everyone hates that answer, but it really works. 

The credenza at one venerable publisher held the manuscripts of a famous editor. Legend had it that its capacity to hold manuscripts was bottomless, making it the Roach Motel of furniture.  Manuscripts went in, but they never checked out.

The credenza at one venerable publisher held the manuscripts of a famous editor. Legend had it that its capacity to hold manuscripts was bottomless, making it the Roach Motel of furniture.  Manuscripts went in, but they never checked out.

#6.  Bonus tip!  Believe me when I say this: The long, seemingly endless wait for a reply is not personal. It is SO not personal.  You’ve probably had a great conversation with a lovely, warm editor at a conference, and that editor gave a speech and talked about 5 award-winning novels he edited.  And yet you can’t get this person to even say “no” to the manuscript he asked you to send.  What you don’t know is, everyone else has the same experience with this editor, too.  Yes, he (or she) turns out some great books, but they are usually quite late, involve many delays, and he or she has hundreds of people in their past whom they have pissed off. Every publishing house has one or two genius editors who are brilliant visionaries and will understand your book like no one else, and you may even end up publishing one book every 6 years with them.  But it won’t be speedy, and there will be weeks and months when you don’t know what’s going on.  And, my point is, that’s not happening just to you.

Back when The Satanic Verses was first published, Yalta the explosive-sniffing dog had to check all of Viking's mail, which also caused delays.

Back when The Satanic Verses was first published, Yalta the explosive-sniffing dog had to check all of Viking's mail, which also caused delays.

When I think back on the writers I didn’t respond to, mostly in the first ten years or so of my career, I am mortified.  Here’s what would happen.  I would read something, and it would almost work as a novel, or there would be an element of it I liked. I would think, “I need to write that author and ask them to try starting on page 25 and to make the girl two years older and to maybe think about the next-door neighbor.”  I know, that seems so easy to do when I remember it now, so why didn’t I just write to all those people whose manuscripts were piled up?  I can’t even say.  I always meant to.  And as time went by, I felt I owed them a better letter and even more help.  About twice a year I would do a major clean of my office and write lots of apologetic letters, but there were always a few manuscripts I couldn't quite say no to.

I remember a story from when Jill Davis and I were both editors at Viking Children’s Books, which Jill has given me permission to tell.  In those days, when hard copies of manuscripts sat piled up in our offices, we periodically stayed late to read through them and see if there was anything good.  Once Jill found a promising novel in the bottom of a long-overlooked pile and called the author to see if it was still available.  The author said, “No. In fact, it was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book in January.”

See what I mean? It happens to everybody, and it’s never personal.  I’m sorry it’s not a better system, but go out there and follow up.  And good luck, everybody.  

Elizabeth Law is available for consultation on your manuscript and career and for social networking tutorials, among other services. See her website, ELawReads.com, for more information.