Melissa Caruso: The Powerlessness of an Author on Submission

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 for the SHIT (Submission Hell, It's True) Is Melissa Caruso, author of the Swords & Fire trilogy, an adult fantasy series of intrigue and magic from Orbit Books. The first book, The Tethered Mage, has been shortlisted for a Gemmell Award. Book two, The Defiant Heir, is out now, and the third book is coming in 2019.

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

I found all the posts and internet articles I could on the process, but even going in informed it was still very mysterious. The whole process is so opaque to the writer (and there are enough variations between publishers) that it’s still very much a black box. Your book goes in one end, and, after a completely unknown period of time, a yes or no comes out the other end. So being informed helps you understand why the process can take a long time, for instance, but it doesn’t help you actually see what’s happening to your book inside that black box.

Did anything about the process surprise you?

I wasn’t prepared for how completely uninvolved and powerless you are as the author. When you’re querying agents, you can send out another query if you get a rejection, or if you’re going crazy waiting to hear back on the last batch. You’re in control of when or whether to nudge, and you’re the first person to hear if there’s any news. On sub, you hand 100% of what control you ever had over to your agent, and you have absolutely nothing you can do to help your book succeed. I understood intellectually how that worked, but I was surprised by how incredibly hard it was to accept in practice.

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

My agency didn’t tell authors the names of the specific editors, which actually I think was a good thing, because I was already being way too obsessive about the process, and I’m not sure I could have refrained from silently stalking every editor who had my ms and reading way too much into every single tweet they made. Not knowing forced me to step back and chill out and not obsess, which helped me think of other things and get on with my creative life while on sub.

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

It really varied a huge amount. I was on sub with two different books, and I think the average across both books was about two months. Or, as I like to call it, A THOUSAND YEARS.


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

Write the next book! When I was out on sub with my first book, I was well into writing the next one (The Tethered Mage, which would become my debut). I already knew it was a better book, and I had a gut feeling that this was the one that would sell. It made it so much easier to deal with the anxiety of waiting and with the rejections, because I was really excited about this new book and had a lot of hope invested in it that couldn’t be ground down by going through submission hell with the previous book.

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

Sub rejections hurt more than query rejections, at least for me, for two reasons.

First, if I got a query rejection, I could send out another query or revise my book—there were actions I could take to try to make the next one a yes. On sub, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

And second, every rejection on sub is a final closed door out of a fairly limited total number of doors for that particular book. You’re at the end of the road in a way you aren’t for a query.

That said, I got a great tip from an author friend on how to deal with rejections when on sub! I had a specific special treat that I promised myself for the next rejection, like going out to eat at a restaurant I liked or buying some special tea I really wanted. It had to be something I really wanted and would look forward to. Then I would even catch myself thinking things like “Wow, I hope I get a rejection soon, so I can go out for fondue!” When a rejection came in, it still stung, but at the same time it meant I was getting a present, and that really helped move past the gloom to something positive.

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?

One nice thing about editorial rejections is that they often come with feedback. Sadly, sometimes that feedback is something you can do absolutely nothing about, like “We already have a book similar to this on our list” or “I loved this, but we just decided not to publish this age category anymore.”

The feedback is less likely to be about how to make the book better, like a beta reader’s or an agent’s would be, and more likely to be giving a reason for why they didn’t fall in love with it enough to take it on—or why they have to pass despite falling in love with it, which can happen. It’s a different perspective, and is also very different from the kind of feedback you get from an editor after you sign with them (which is a bit more like a beta reader’s, if your beta reader was really, really, really good at it).

Sub rejection feedback (especially on my first book) was a bit of an eye opener for me into how editors are looking at the big picture—how books will fit into the market, and not just whether it was a good read.

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

Okay, so first my agent calls me ON MY ACTUAL BIRTHDAY, no lie, to tell me an editor has some questions about my book. The editor wanted to know whether I’d be willing to make certain revisions (changing it from YA to Adult and a couple other things). I was completely freaking out, and I could tell my agent was really excited too, and we both were trying not to get TOO excited because it wasn’t an offer yet….But if it were an R&R, she would probably just have sent an email and not called to ask if I’d consider making the changes, right?

So I was ABSOLUTELY DYING of suspense for the rest of my birthday, knowing that SOMETHING was in the works. And then the next day I couldn’t take it anymore and emailed my agent with some spurious question and was like BY THE WAY DID YOU HEAR ANYTHING, and she wrote back saying something like “Actually, I heard back, but I’m on my way to do some urgent beekeeping, can I call you tonight? We have a lot to talk about.”


And then finally, FINALLY I had my phone call, and it was an offer not just for one book, but for a trilogy. I completely lost my mind and was running around my house squeeing and bumping into things and babbling to my kids and my husband. For days. I smiled so much I felt like my cheeks were going to pop off. My kids thought I was hilarious, and would set me off on purpose by going “Hey, Mom, your book is going to be published,” and then sit back and giggle as I freaked out with glee all over again.

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

I had to wait almost THREE MONTHS, and it was torture. I verbally told my closest friends and family and swore them to secrecy, which helped get it out of my system a bit, but it was so hard not to talk about it on social media that I had to kind of mostly stay off it for a while, because how do you not talk about something that big? But we were waiting until we had a finalized title to make the announcement, and it took a while.