Life on Submission, or How I Got My Book Deal

Hey friends! I know I’ve been MIA for a while around here, but if you follow me on social media or subscribe to my newsletter, then you probably heard my big announcement in November: my YA thriller THIN AIR is going to be a real book! My agent and I accepted an offer from Razorbill (a Penguin Random House imprint) back in March, and we were finally free to share the news last month.

Today, I want to talk a little more about how the deal went down and what it took to get here. Agented writers don’t often share about going on sub. I guess it’s kind of like Fight Club, where you feel like you aren’t supposed to talk about it. After all, the publishing world is small and you don’t want acquiring editors to hear you whining about how hard it is to get published, so the chatter mostly goes on behind the scenes. But if you’re newly agented or still querying, it’s helpful to hear people’s stories so you know what to expect. 

There will always be that blessed person who writes an amazing novel in a month, signs with an agent a week after they start querying and sells the book two weeks later. Kind of like how someone has to win that $247-million-dollar Powerball jackpot.

Don’t spend it all at once…

But odds are, that’s not going to be you. (Sorry to dump cold water on your dreams.)

It wasn’t me, either. Most people query for a long time before finding an agent. Many don’t sign with the first manuscript, or even the second, or even the third. And that’s just to get the agent.

Submission is like a repeat of querying, only the stakes have skyrocketed. Not only are you so much closer to your dream, but there are only so many editors and imprints who would be a good fit for your book. Each pass is a permanently closed door on that manuscript. And with the way things have tightened in publishing over the last year as editors are stretched thin, the waits are longer and the passes more likely.

On the upside, as anyone knows who reads Publisher’s Marketplace or Book Twitter, editors ARE still buying books and making debut authors’ dreams come true. The journey just looks different for each of us. Onward to my story for a firsthand look at what it took me to get here.

My querying journey (the serious part of it, anyway) wasn’t as long as lot of people’s is, but it still felt brutal. I started querying in August 2018 with a YA fantasy, which was my second completed manuscript. Fast forward through nine months of dreadful query trenches (which in hindsight was actually short, I’m sorry to tell you), and in June 2019, I signed with my wonderful agent. (You can read the nitty gritty details here). A month or so later my freshly revised YA fantasy went on submission.

Poor, naïve Kellie of 2019, full of ambition and hope.

I felt so sure that now that I had an agent, it was only a matter of patiently waiting for an offer from a top publishing house. I mean, someone from Tor Teen was looking at my manuscript! And if she didn’t like it, there were at least five or six others! One of them was bound to fall in love with my story!

But after six months of tough passes and a couple of close misses, my agent gently reminded me that going on sub is like querying all over again. It’s really hard to be one of the lucky few who “hit the bullseye” and win over an editor (who then has to win over the acquisitions board). So I sent her another YA fantasy, one I’d written before signing with her and just finished editing. She was very enthusiastic about the story and we had a whopping request rate from very excited editors within days of sending it out on submission…in early March of 2020.

You can imagine how that went. A week of over-the-top, surely-this-is-the-one excitement followed by a complete crash as the U.S. went into lockdown. My manuscript probably sat around untouched in editors’ inboxes for weeks. The passes didn’t start rolling in until late summer, and I was crushed. Not only because a second story that I loved had failed to win anyone over, but because we were in a global pandemic, which was already exhausting enough, and now I had to write something new. Again. With no promise anyone would want it either. (Side note: writing is an act of faith if I’ve ever seen one. 😉)

While we were waiting on a few more responses, my savvy agent suggested I apply my adult suspense-writing skills to the YA market and try my hand at a thriller. I mulled the idea over and decided it might be fun to try something new, so from August to October of 2020 I hashed out a story about teens trapped on an airplane with a killer, melding together ideas from The Westing Game, And Then There Were None, and the movie Red Eye.

I set it aside while finishing up edits for one of my LIS books (at least my adult romantic suspenses were selling), then revised my second draft and sent it to a critique partner. Winter of 2021 was spent revising again. Once my agent got ahold of it, we went through another crash course of revisions until it was ready to send out on sub.

In March of 2021. Nearly exactly one year to the day after my last exciting submission went nowhere.

I admit, I was a jumbled mix of excitement and panic on the inside. What if this one went nowhere too? Did I have it in me to write another story that nobody wanted to publish? And yet I felt deep in my bones this one was different. From the first time I texted my agent a short pitch, I knew the concept could be big, and sure enough, we had requests from nearly every editor in our first batch within two days.

Of course, I’d been here before. I knew how it went—get all excited, nervously check phone for agent updates, console self with the reality check nobody reads that fast, slip into despair as the weeks of silence turn into months… The soonest anybody would realistically get back to us was a week, right? If you don’t know how the process works, usually an editor reads the manuscript, then gets second reads, then there’s often a senior editor and the acquisitions board to convince. All that takes time.

If I just stare at it long enough, there will be news, right?

That doesn’t stop us eternally hopeful writers from clinging to our cells phone every waking minute during business hours Monday through Friday, though. By 5 PM Friday of that week, I muted my phone and stuck it on the recharger. No news yet, which really shouldn’t have been a surprise considering we’d only been on sub for four days, but I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.

Maybe two hours later I picked up my phone to check something and nearly dropped it. My agent had called, and texted, just a half hour earlier. Nothing causes an adrenaline burst when you’re on submission like calls from your agent. I called her back, and she told me those magical words, WE HAD AN OFFER.

Yes, after four days. My third YA manuscript (sixth manuscript overall), nearly three years since I started querying, almost two years on submission…and it had an offer in four days.

And so began two weeks of intensive phone calls, Zoom sessions, regretful passes from editors who didn’t have time to read or weren’t interested enough to compete, and a couple of moments we thought we might actually be going to auction. In the end, we had two offers from Big Five houses. I was able to chat with both editors via Zoom to get a feel for their editing process and what they had in mind for the story. In the end, while either editor would have been a dream to work with, I chose to go with the second offer because I felt our visions were more closely aligned for what I wanted with this book.

The official deal announcement

So what can you take away from my long story?

  • Selling your debut is usually a long process. From the time I started drafting that first YA fantasy (winter 2015) to the time I sold a YA manuscript took six years. And that doesn’t include the earlier years I spent writing romantic suspense. As I said in my “How I Got My Agent” blog post, a successful writing career isn’t about innate talent, it’s all about perseverance and grit. If this is truly your dream, don’t give up.
Actual footage of me getting a book deal
  • Your first manuscript might not (probably won’t) be the one. Yes, we all know people who sign with agents and/ or sell their first manuscript, but it’s not what usually happens. Most of us need more practice than that. In my case, I wrote and rewrote (completely) the same YA fantasy over a number of years before it was good enough to get attention from agents. And when it didn’t sell on sub, I had to write another manuscript. And another.
  • Submission is a just as hard as querying. Maybe even harder, honestly, because it’s much more isolating. You lose that sense of camaraderie in suffering and “we’re all in this together” that writers share in the query trenches. By the time you have an agent, all your friends who are still querying think you’ve made it. (Because let’s be honest, signing with an agent is a HUGE step in the right direction.) But that doesn’t guarantee your book will sell. Meanwhile your agented friends are slowly announcing book deals around you and moving into the ranks of published authors while you’re stuck in the middle, hoping for good news and trying to pry yourself away from e-mail long enough to start writing something new.
  • You might have to start over again. As hard as it is, many writers fail to sell their first manuscript while on sub and end up parting ways with their agents. Maybe they didn’t like how the agent handled their submission, or maybe their agent wasn’t excited about their next project. Or, maybe when they signed, it was only for this one book. Of course, if you and your agent aren’t a good fit, it’s important to be willing to move on and find someone who is. But regardless of how it happened, you might find yourself back in the query trenches with nothing to show for it except a manuscript that didn’t sell. For a submission “horror” story with a happy ending, check out YA thriller author Diana Urban’s blog post here.

For tons of great info on querying, submission, and publishing in general, check out Susan Dennard’s website and newsletter. Here’s a link to one of her posts about the submission process to get you started.

What’s the takeaway from my story? If you want an agent, don’t give up. If you want a book deal, don’t give up. If you want a second book deal, don’t give up. Dig deeper into the craft, make some writing friends to encourage and help you, and above all, keep writing.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

6 thoughts on “Life on Submission, or How I Got My Book Deal

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