Cat Winters On the Submission Experience

I managed to cobble together a few non-specific questions that some debut authors have agreed to answer (bless them). And so I bring you the submission interview series - Submission Hell - It's True. Yes, it's the SHIT.


Today's guest is a fellow member of the Lucky13's, a group of YA novelists who debut in 2013. Cat Winters is the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, the story of a teen girl mourning the loss of her first love in 1918 California, where a flu has turned deadlier than a world war, and spirit communication has become a dark and dangerous obsession. The novel will be illustrated with early-twentieth-century photographs and is slated to be published by Amulet Books in Spring 2013. Cat is represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Cat can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

How much did you know about the submission process before you were out on subs yourself?

I had been out on submission with two adult fiction manuscripts that never sold before I even wrote In the Shadow of Blackbirds, so I already knew quite a bit about the process. My first experience with having a book out with publishers occurred thirteen years ago and involved an entirely different agent. I didn't find any differences between trying to sell YA fiction versus adult fiction, aside from the fact that I learned what it's like to actually receive an offer!

Did anything about the process surprise you?

Speaking to that first experience, what surprised me most was how much a book's genre could affect its potential. At the time, I was trying to sell mainstream historical fiction for adults, but historical fiction was considered a dead market. I received glowing rejection letters from editors, saying, "I couldn't stop reading this book, even though I knew I'd have to turn it down." There's no way to predict when a market will be "hot" or "dead" or "oversaturated," so I found that particular reason for a pass extremely frustrating.

Also, I was surprised to learn that not all agented manuscripts find publishers. As many authors will tell you, it's not always your first books that sell, even if you're represented by extraordinary, superhuman agents.

Did you research the editors you knew had your ms? Do you recommend doing that?

I only researched the editors who took a serious interest in In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I felt like I was jinxing myself by doing so, but curiosity got the best of me. I'd discourage researching an editor before he or she shows actual signs of potentially buying your book. It becomes a waste of your time and energy.

What was the average amount of time it took to hear back from editors?

With In the Shadow of Blackbirds, the turnaround time was fast. Amulet made an offer on the book less than two months after they received it, and I knew about their interest even sooner.

From my past experiences, though, I'd say the "we're just not interested in this book in the slightest" types of passes came within a month. If an editor showed signs of liking the manuscript, it could take up to six months before we heard a response, and those were still rejections. Keep in mind there are numerous factors that can delay a publisher's decision—vacations, illnesses, jury duty, book fairs, etc. And it takes an entire editorial board, not just one editor, to approve the purchase of a book.

What do you think is the best way for an author out on submission to deal with the anxiety?

Like everyone always says, keep busy. Write. Blog. Get caught up on your household to-do list you were putting off when you were polishing your manuscript. Read. Take a yoga class. Spend more time with your family and friends. Commiserate with other authors going through the same process. Just try not to watch the clock and wonder when that call will be coming. It always comes when you're not expecting it.

If you had any rejections, how did you deal with that emotionally? How did this kind of rejection compare to query rejections?

The difference with rejections at this stage is that sometimes you hear how ridiculously close you were to getting a yes, which can drive you crazy.

If an editor gave me constructive feedback about how I could improve my book, I greatly appreciated the advice and discussed it with my agent. However, there are often generic "It wasn't for us" sorts of passes, and those you just have to shrug off. Eat some comfort food, take a long walk, and then get right back into your writing chair and keep going.

If you got feedback on a rejection, how did you process it? How do you compare processing an editor’s feedback as compared to a beta reader’s?

I always got my agent's take on the feedback. If she said, "Okay, that editor just didn't get the book," I filed the rejection away and moved on. If an editor addressed a concern that continually came up, I would definitely try to figure out how to incorporate the suggestion. The experience is very similar to working with critique partners, but with editors, opinions become a matter of selling or not selling a book. The stakes definitely feel higher. You have to figure out how much you're willing to change your book and potentially compromise your original ideas in order to give the novel a chance in the world.

When you got your YES! how did that feel? How did you find out – email, telephone, smoke signal?

I found out by telephone. I had just dropped off my son at his elementary school and was about to get the newspaper, when my twelve-year-old daughter opened the door to the house and said my agent was calling. My journey to this point had been such a long, grueling one that I had to hold onto the kitchen counter for support and went into a semi-state of shock when my agent said we'd received an offer. I was thrilled and grateful that my daughter was with me for that experience. She's read In the Shadow of Blackbirds, and she's shared me with my fictional characters all her life.

Did you have to wait a period of time before sharing your big news, because of details being ironed out? Was that difficult?

Yes, there was some waiting, which was difficult. I wanted to shout the news from the rooftops that very day, but I understood the need for secrecy when deals are being finalized. Instead, I bought myself some presents and took my family out to a celebratory dinner. I had been imagining that particular book-deal dinner for a very long time, and it was extraordinary.