“I’m about to go on sub,” I used to say to friends.
“What’s that?” said my friends.
“It means my agent is submitting my manuscript to editors.”
“Or you could say, my manuscript is on submission to editors.”
“So good luck! How long does that take?”
“Two weeks, two months, two years. Not sure.”
Wait: Don’t books just appear on shelves and screens, like perfectly-packaged bacon?
(There’s a song about bacon in my book on sub, by the way.)
And if you happen to be a person who’s writing a new book every 18 months or so, and trying to sell another, sometimes you stop telling and your friends stop asking. This whole thing you’re doing, it’s just too confusing.
This is for all the friends of authors who are on sub. Trust me, your published author pals will always be on sub. Just because they got a book deal doesn’t mean that they are “done.” An editor can turn down a book proposal anytime. An editor can ask for something totally different. Or an editor can change publishing houses. The ground is never stable beneath the shoes of an author.
Bright Side Alert: Those tremors make good fodder for fiction.
Question 1: What’s your book about again?
Don’t be afraid to ask this. It’s quite possible your friend is submitting Book Number Three in Round Number Two to a whole new slew of editors and you’ve never even heard of this book.
Super-Cool Friend Move: Follow with, How in the world did you come up with that?
(rhetorical questions, always welcome)
Olympic Gold Move: You are so prolific. Remind me what the other books were about?
Out-of-the-Stratosphere Move: Why the hell doesn’t anyone want that? I am incensed!
Question 2: How does subbing work?
Super-Sweet Friend Move: Feign interest in things like pitches, rounds, and spreadsheets.
Olympic Gold Move: How long does it take editors to get back to your agent? That long? You mean your agent nudged an editor three times and never got a response? Wow. Those editors sound overwhelmed.
Question 3: What are editors saying about your work? I’m sure there are compliments!
Super-Kind Friend Move: Don’t ask about rejections unless they tell you, and if you remain forever a skeptic about said rejections, you will be forever beloved. Listen avidly and with sympathy. Steel thyself for ranting.
Let the author share any doubts and fears and obsessive tracking of non-patterns across feedback such as “I just didn’t connect with the manuscript” or “It’s just not a good fit.”
Question 4: How are you feeling today?
You know the drill. Let your friend cry.
And if this world is still foreign and where you’re afraid to tread here, just remember that time when you
lost a really important game
got rejected from that job you wanted so badly
got rejected by a person you loved.
Now picture your author friend hearing NO every other week or so, or maybe at least once a month. For months. About the very thing they’ve been spending years creating. Life lost in the pursuit of something, a dream beyond a grasp, big brass ring misses.
It’s all in the same territory. Trust me.
Question 5: How in the world do you stick this out?
Be ready for your author friend to not be so sure how they do manage this whole process. Be ready for your friend to not be sure how much longer they can.
Questions You Really Shouldn’t Ask
Hey, did you hear about that 22 year-old debut author who just got the six-figure deal?
Hey, did you hear about that author whose book is hitting Netflix?
Hey, do you love [INSERT ANY AUTHOR’S NAME]’s books? I love them! Have you read them? Why don’t you write something like that?
Being on sub is like…
Forget figurative language. Being on sub is simply not fun.
It’s especially not fun if you feel you’re doing everything under your control. Like writing every day. Bouncing back when someone says no and not bitching to people about it. Looking at the feedback and making notes of how you might edit. Taking a walk, cooking a great meal, planning some travel. Starting a new book.
Let’s say your book is awesome. Are editors in the best space to find your awesomeness, or are they reading your book in bits on a tiny screen while trying to survive this pandemic?
Editors are really busy. Editors are exhausted. Editors are underpaid. Editors are bombarded by piles and piles of hopeful stories and inquiring agents and authors.
Acquisitions wants an immediate sell. They don’t want the marketing meeting to be a heavy lift. Are there already wagon tracks and ruts in the dirt of the manifestly-destined prairie, showing the corporation where to go? Where the gold rush is?
Capitalism has rules. It risks things occasionally, but it must go for the gold in the rearview mirror first.
It isn’t a question of quality but what institutions are willing to do. What systems are willing to sacrifice. Kacen Callender said it in a blog, far better than I (one I can no longer locate), regarding the fraught situation that is bestseller status, how some books are gamed to win. This system makes perfect sense in a culture that is scarcity model focused, where the money engine is put behind certain books and authors and not others. Where the system doesn’t diversity to see a lot of folks succeed some but just a few to succeed a lot. (Please note, this is my riff off my memory of what they wrote, and thus my own interpretation.)
How I’ve loved many a reality show, Chopped, Blown Away, and RuPaul’s Drag Race for the thrill of competition. The fierceness of the creativity, more like–not the strategic meanness and calculations some angling competitors prefer; I’ve had enough of Mean Girls and Boys for this lifetime. They operate on a Scarcity Model, mirroring the capitalist system we live in. They glory in success over others because they’ve bought, hook, line, and sinker the idea that THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE WINNER.
Because if there’s a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses and demi-goddettes, no Zeus or Hera, well, then, aren’t I, The Winner, somehow lesser?
That’s the Big Lie from the Big System built by…you know who.
Now I’ve heard of America’s Next Great Author and am super-curious to see whether this show can go the way of my favorite shows that emphasize competition less and collaboration more. I’ve loved Lizzo’s reality show and Blown Away for having these leanings toward kindness rather than going for the kill. We’ve emerged from an era where the goal was to unseat so-and-so, where There Can Only Be One Winner is the only reigning truth.
I can tell from my own intuitive finger on the pulse of the culture that a lot of us are damn sick of this. Can’t there be another way to include more folks? Why are only very few authors and athletes and actors and other artists paid six figures and millions? What if that pie were shared? Who needs three homes and three yachts? (I guess Betsy DeVos needed 10.)
This sub zone I’m in: this part, most don’t write about. I talked about this in another post where I analyze the veil of silence and shame cast over the process for authors. If we do, we talk about it at the exciting start when the world glows fresh and new, like anything could happen, as I did when I subbed out NO SMALL THING.
Plus, it’s just not as interesting as the finishing the book part, the getting the agent part, or getting a book deal part. And I don’t want to SUBject people to the SUBstrata of the SUBmission process–because who really wants to know how the sausage gets made?
“late 14c., ‘act of referring to a third party for judgment or decision,’ from Old French submission or directly from Latin submissionem (nominative submissio) ‘a lowering, letting down; sinking, noun of action from past participle stem of submittere ‘to let down, put down, lower, reduce, yield'”Online Etymology Dictionary
We sink intentionally as authors, seeking judgment. We lower our guards to know whether those with experience birthing books in a traditional manner will see fit to publish ours. We reduce ourselves, our time, and our work to the very narrow pipeline of submission to see if a select few will see us for what we see.
Life is about submission. In wise words to me and fellow students at Vermont College of Fine Arts, visiting author Rita Williams-Garcia reminded us at my summer 2021 residency to submit. Submit to feedback. Submit to the work ahead, eyes only on that work and not what others are doing, winning, achieving.
So I leave you with
An Ode to Subbing
SUB SUB SUB glub glub glub
writers sink in our subs
to the depths of despair
or perhaps where hope hides
among the wavy green sea of weeds
and watery wastes and wonderings
of where we fit
in the sublime settings above.
We stay below, making tiny waves
in hallowed stony halls,
the whalebones of spiny titans
bleached white by the sun
slipping through the watery depths
to show us where we might lurk one day,
alongside other buried treasure.
(Can you tell I was in A.S. King‘s seminar on surrealist writing at my VCFA residency when I wrote this? In my last semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts’ program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I feel freed up to write rough and random stuff and see what unfurls.)
Oooh. Just noticed something.
The other half of SUBMISSION–nay, most of the word–is MISSION.
Back to work.
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