Monday, November 30, 2009

Is there a change in submission preferences?

I’ve been sensing a change in the way editors look at receiving submissions where the person submitting indicated the manuscript is finished versus a person submitting on proposal with a deadline for completion. We’ve long known the book needed to be completed for a person submitting on their first book, but how about for a person with previous publishing experience?

To see if there is indeed a different attitude I surveyed 175 editors, both mainstream and Christian. Most have now responded. What did I learn?

In nonfiction, selling on proposal seems unchanged except a majority said on a new author they wanted to know the work was complete even on nonfiction.

In fiction, most still say an author with no publishing credentials needs to have the manuscript completed. As to being able to sell on proposal once they have publication credits,
• 20% require the full mss submitted with the proposal instead of sample chapters.
• 33% - respondents said they required the manuscript be complete no matter the writers credentials.
• 12%- said they did not require a full manuscript but preferred knowing that it was.
• 30% - said that the manuscript needed to be completed before submitting unless they are a well published (some said A list) author or someone they had worked with before.
• 7% said they always bought on proposal. (mostly nonfiction)

I would say my new conventional wisdom is that a manuscript should be complete before submitting unless the editor has worked with the author before or if the author been not only published, but very well published with good sales numbers. Changing genre very much puts an author in a new author position in the new genre. Even though it was not part of the survey a number of editors volunteered the information that platform was very important on non-fiction and fiction alike.

Some specific comments that were mentioned:

An editor's job is so fast-paced and overloaded these days, if a manuscript needs a complete overhaul, it can leave us in a pickle

Well, I hate to buy a full-length novel from proposal if I haven't seen the author's published work or even a completed manuscript of a different title that proves the author knows how to start, bridge the middle, and wrap up a story.

I wouldn't say I've found myself giving precedence to completed projects for Heartsong. My search for new books hasn't changed much.

I have in the past contracted books from new authors just on the proposal...but there is a comfort level in seeing more, rather than less, of a manuscript.

Sales history is becoming a more important factor in our decisions than ever before. An author with a shaky sales history is more likely to sway me with a full manuscript I can read fully vs. simply a proposal.

We've been burned a few times by authors who told us they were going to write one thing and then wrote something totally different, or who did not offer the quality of manuscript we believed they would after reading their previous work. So whenever possible, we love to see the complete manuscript because then everybody is on the same page.

I think all editors have their own MO's and I can't generalize, but I'd say in my case I've always bought on complete ms unless I've worked with the author before, myself.

Publishers are overall more cautious in this economic climate. Sales history of authors' previous work weighs heavily on acquisitions decisions...not just the fact that these authors have completed work.

I'm afraid I do require complete manuscripts from unpublished fiction authors. However, we have always accepted proposals from fiction authors who have established themselves

Unless the fiction author is a name author (Angela Hunt, Janette Oke, James Scott Bell), we are probably going to want to see the entire manuscript. My exception in this case is because I do know the author and can vouch for her ability to complete a project.

I'm a bit more of a stickler in wanting to see the whole manuscript even from a previously published author. The reason is that I don't know how much work the other house or houses put into that author's unedited manuscripts before publication. I wouldn't feel comfortable going to the publishing committee unless I had read the entire unedited work by a new author to our house.

Yes, it’s changing. I’m told that it’s been true in New York publishing for some time that fiction tended to be sold on the basis of completed mss., rather than proposals. And that was true, in many or most cases, even with well-established authors. In that sense, the world of “Christian publishing” (and let’s face it—the line between the two is disappearing) has been behind the curve and is just now catching up. I have a much better chance of getting a project approved in Pub Board if I have a completed ms. rather than simply a proposal.

We are working sometimes a year in advance. For the author that means if we accept a proposal, the manuscript takes a year, and it takes us another year for editing, production, etc., the result is a two year time frame. I know a lot of authors feel like that's an eternity. So for us, the more finished the manuscript, or the more available for consideration, the sooner we know we can get it into the marketing cycle.

I want to see the completed manuscript before I buy anything. Especially since I'm new and still finding my feet here, I want to make sure that whatever I take to my editorial meeting is solid and well grounded.

For fiction, if an author had a big enough name and I really liked the project and the proposal included a good synopsis, I'd likely go ahead with it. But I admit I do feel much more comfortable with seeing the entire MS, especially if the subject is a controversial one.

Yes, I prefer to see a completed project over just a proposal. Gives me a better sense of the writing and the author's thought process.

If the author is one with whom I've personally had previous experience, I don't mind contracting based on a proposal and sample chapter/s. However, unless the author is WELL established in the fiction industry, all things being equal, if I am considering two similar proposals from authors of similar standing in regards to their publishing history, I would naturally go with the one who has submitted a complete manuscript.

No, I can't say this is the case with us. We'd never sign a new project without sample chapters of the writing, but whether the manuscript is complete or not is not a determining factor in our decisions.

As I know you've experienced, there can be a vast difference between a proposal and three chapters that have been honed to perfection and what we sometimes see as the completed novel. The current marketplace is being particularly difficult on mid-list and emerging authors. Even with publishing history, I have to be very selective about contract extensions and/or commitments to new authors at this level. The market is very crowded with competent authors at this level. With authors whose sales figures are consistent, but below the 25,000 range it is often much easier to sell in a first time/debut author. So . . books at this level need to deliver and publishers need to know that they're not committing to a book that will require rounds of rewrite. That's a long way around the bush to say . . yes, I think authors will almost always have a better chance with a complete novel.

Yes, I am much more likely to consider new(er) authors if they have a complete manuscript because then I know exactly what I'm buying. Publishers, including us, are not taking as much risk on B and C level material because the market is so tough. Obviously, for high-profile, A-level authors/books, incompletion isn't really an issue.

In general it is more beneficial for our company to read through the entire manuscript, however, we can certainly give a feel for general interest based on a proposal.

For established authors new-to-our house, I want to see a detailed synopsis, sales history, and sample chapters. The mss does not have to be complete unless the author is changing genres and is writing in a different style than their previously published work.

With first-time fiction authors, or those taking on a new genre (be it fiction to nonfiction or vice versa, or a writing style change like going from romance to supernatural suspense), I almost need a full manuscript to know how the book will play out.


Karina Fabian said...

Excellent post, Terry, and very useful. I often run into authors who want to pitch or are sending out queries without having finished the book. I try to discourage this. The competition is tough enough and editors busy enough without adding half-done projects to the mix.

Anonymous said...

Terry, Thanks for such a beneficial post. I have been talking with someone who is close to submitting a proposal for a non-fiction book. This will be helpful for them and I have already sent them the link.

Teresa Slack said...

Very informative, Terry. Lots to chew on for those of us hoping to earn a contract. Would love to post to my blogs today and tomorrow, while giving you credit and links of course.

Thanks again.

Nikole Hahn said...

I think as writers we should have a completed manuscript ready to show. When I write, my outline is a guideline which invariably changes as the story progresses. My work in progress, while still staying true to the original story, has all ready strayed away from the outline. I remember reading in Writer's Digest years ago how a well known writer starting writing her novel without knowing the end. I don't know about anyone else, but it is sure nice knowing a novel is finished when (and if) an editor asks for it.

Terry Burns said...

Good comments - as a writer I have over 30 books in print but I'[ve never tried to sell one of my own on proposal. For one thing I want to be satisfied myself that I can finish it in a manner that I'm happy with before I let anyone else see it. I do have a couple of clients with credentials to sell on proposal however, and I'm trying to do that for them. That's what prompted this survey, I think the proposal thing is working against them.