Holly McGhee: A Literary Agent On the Other Side of the Submission Process

If there's one thing that many aspiring writers have few clues about, it's the submission process. There are good reasons for that; authors aren't exactly encouraged to talk in detail about our own submission experiences, and - just like agent hunting - everyone's story is different. 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 Holly McGhee, author of MATYLDA BRIGHT & TENDER. What makes this interview particularly interesting to me is that Holly happens to be an agent as well as an author. And not just any agent. Holly is the President and Creative Director of Pippin Properties, so she knew the ins and outs of the industry already. But what was it like being on the other side of the desk?

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

As a literary agent by trade I knew quite a lot about it, but being the author is completely different. First you have to revise and revise and revise until your agent thinks there’s a decent chance of placing the story . . . and then the book goes out . . . and you have no idea who’s reading it when, if ever . . . and if they are loving / hating it / figuring out how to pass on it without hurting your feelings . . . you feel so exposed, naked really—all these people reading something that you put everything you had into, something so personal, something that you hope resonates . . . these editors are forming an opinion, deciding your fate at that publishing house. It’s the most uncomfortable situation in the world!

Did anything about the process surprise you? 

I was surprised by how difficult it was to try to forget that the manuscript was on submission; I was haunted 24 /7 wondering if somebody would like the story. I felt lucky sometimes that I had a full-time job and three children and a husband and a dog and a leopard gecko to distract myself. But the only time I truly got respite was when I was sleeping or watching The Voice (and that was only on two nights a week . . .)

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

We tried our best to submit to people I don’t do much business with as an agent / to try to keep it simple that way. So I wouldn’t be calling the editor one day as an author and the next as an author’s advocate . . . We did tons of research on what each editor had acquired and then we read as much as we could about the way they work. I wanted to be sure to work with someone who had enough time to help me make the story as strong as it could be / who was ready to roll up their sleeves with me.

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

There is no average. We had our first great response in two days (!) but that spoiled us because the entire process took two months . . . I knew enough to try not to get excited till we had a firm offer but it was hard . . . I know how easily everything can fall apart and that a deal’s not a deal till you have the contract . . . wine helped . . . as did working on a new project while waiting. Doing planks helped too—I did them every single night. I thought even if the whole thing implodes I’d have a tight core.

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

If you can compartmentalize that’s undoubtedly the way to go. I can’t—but I think assuring yourself that it’s going to be over at some point and then committing that no matter what the verdict, you will keep on writing is essential. Surrounding yourself with people who’ve been through it helps a lot; also focusing on anything positive you hear back, even if it’s not an offer—it’s so much easier to think about the negative notes than the positive ones . . . and give yourself permission to be anxious too / I mean here you’ve put your heart out there for the world to see / it’s the hardest thing ever, but you know you’d do it again in a second. 

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

Reading about other people’s rejections helped / knowing that some of the biggest success stories are novels that only had one offer (and dozens of rejections). For me, what got me through too was knowing that I’d written the best book I was capable of at the time, that I held nothing back, that I offered up the highest level of writing I could do then . . . that makes it a lot easier. The hope is that you’ll always keep growing and improving as a writer, but you have to be able to look in the mirror and say that you gave it all you had.

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? 

My beta reader gave me three hundred track changes and tore the book apart . . . what the editor had to say was easy to take after that . . . And as far as rejections, as long as you find somebody who loves your story to pieces, the rejections don’t matter.

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

I talked to the editors who were interested and then they made their offers . . . I loved them all and so it came down to figuring which editor seemed to love my story and my characters the most . . . you have to rely on your gut, and it’s not always the editor offering the highest advance. The road to publication is so difficult; if you don’t start with absolute love then your foundation’s always shaky.

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

We were able to share the news immediately and had some pink champagne!!!! The time between selling the book and receiving the editorial letter is precious. You have nothing to do but share your good news . . . it’s the lull before the storm of revising rolls in. Enjoy it!!!