Hi Manuscript Workers,
Anxiety is in the air, isn’t it? I’m sure part of it is the impending anniversary of our world going into crisis mode for Covid-19 (at least here in the US). But part of it is also that ever-present anxiety that goes with wanting to move forward in your publishing goals but feeling that you don’t quite know how to make that happen, especially when you are depending on other people to facilitate that process. These two anxiety sources interlock of course, especially when you aren’t sure whether you can keep the same expectations you had pre-Covid or whether you’ll be able to satisfy what someone might have expected of you in an earlier era.
This is all a roundabout way of getting to the fact that a lot of the anxiety-riddled questions I’ve been receiving from author clients lately have to do how they should be communicating with editors right now. I’ve heard from several authors who are understandably bewildered about when they should be following up on earlier conversations, whether those were pre-Covid talks about a book project or more recent proposal submissions. I figured a lot of readers might share similar questions, so I wanted to present a few possible scenarios and share how I’ve advised authors to navigate them in each case.
Scenario 1: You talked to an editor over a year ago and they expressed interest in your book project. You said you’d send them something to look at and then Covid hit and, oops, a year went by and you still haven’t sent them anything. You’re worried you blew your shot at publishing with that editor and that you will seem irresponsible if you get back in touch now.
This is the easiest scenario to address. The short version is: DON’T FEEL BAD ABOUT DROPPING THE CONVERSATION DURING COVID.
Academic editors are extremely accustomed to authors being overly optimistic about when they’ll have a manuscript or proposal ready to show them. The professional obligations of academic life almost feel as if they are designed to foil people’s plans of finishing manuscripts or proposals on time, even in the best of times. If an editor doesn’t hear from an author when the author said they would, I’d wager that most editors don’t even notice, and if they do, they don’t give it a second thought, because it simply happens all the time. If the editor does make note of the fact that the author hasn’t been in touch, the editor might decide to prod the author a little bit by checking in, or they might think “well, I did like that project, hope to hear from that author again someday!”
So it’s completely fine to just re-initiate a conversation you were having with an editor before Covid got in the way. Don’t feel the need to apologize profusely or express your deep shame at having failed to send something earlier — everyone knows that time for research and writing has all but disappeared in the last year, especially for those with care obligations (and if the editor isn’t someone who understands that, I probably wouldn’t advise you to work on your book with them). Just remind them of where you left things and say what you’re ready for right now. If you’d talked before of sending them a proposal or manuscript, go ahead and ask if they might still be interested in seeing those things. You might want to wait until you actually have something ready to send, should they still be interested, but when you’re ready to send something, just ask. The worst that will happen is they’ll say that they’ve moved on, and then you can move on too! It won’t be personal, and it’ll be useful to know where you stand so you can explore your options now.
Scenario 2: You sent materials to an editor at some point in the last year and understood that they would be sending them out for peer review. Or you had a really great conversation with the editor about your project and sent materials along for them to look at. Then you didn’t hear anything for months. You’re afraid the editor isn’t interested in the project anymore and has just decided to ghost you.
The first thing I’ll say about this is that it’s highly unlikely that an editor would say they were going to seek peer reviews of your materials and then change their mind and not tell you. What’s most likely going on is that the editor is having trouble finding peer reviewers—they’re notoriously hard to secure commitments from right now, because of Covid conditions—or the materials are still with the peer reviewers and they’re taking longer than the editor had hoped or expected. In either of these scenarios you should in theory be able to email your editor after a few months and ask if they can give you a status update. (If they’re reviewing a proposal, allow 2-3 months; if it’s a full manuscript, give it a bit longer, maybe 3-4 months, or however long they told you the process would take.) A nice responsive editor should write you back promptly and let you know what’s up.
Of course, editors are people too and feeling all of the same crunches as everyone else. They may have illness in their family. They may have care obligations that are taking them away from their inboxes. They may have a dozen other authors asking similar questions and making it hard to keep up. So you may need to follow up a few times. Leave a few weeks between emails, just to give the editor a chance to catch their breath. If you’ve sent two or three emails and still aren’t getting a response, it might be time to bring up the idea of moving on to another publisher. Not in a threatening way, but in a way that comes from genuine concern about the future of your project. Sometimes an editor doesn’t realize how serious the lack of communication has been until the author seems ready to pull their project. So if you’re at a point where you haven’t heard anything and you’re legitimately worried that your project doesn’t have a future at the press you’ve sent it to, you can be direct about that. If you still don’t get a response after that, then I would say it’s reasonable to move on and start talking to other editors.
Scenario 3: You’ve sent a proposal to an editor and haven’t received any response at all. You’re wondering if and when you should follow up to see if they’re even interested in your project.
This is the trickiest one to advise on, because every editor has their own email response rhythms and preferences about receiving reminder emails. Some will try to get back to you within a few days to at least acknowledge receipt, whereas some will feel it’s appropriate to take up to 12 weeks to respond to a proposal submission. Look for guidance about expectations on the publisher’s website. Some specify their typical response time; if they do, then I would wait that amount of time before following up, unless you have a status update to share (such as another press wanting to move forward with peer review or offer you a contract).
If the publisher you submitted to doesn’t give a timeframe on their website, then in normal times I would say that it’s reasonable to follow up after 2-3 weeks, to confirm receipt at least. Emails fall through the cracks and most editors won’t mind a memory jog. That said, it’s still Covid. So I might suggest extending a little more grace and waiting 3-4 weeks before checking in. And then I’d do the same as I said above in Scenario 2. Give it a few tries (with a few weeks in between messages) and if you still don’t hear anything, take it as an indication that this editor isn’t in a place to give you the attention you deserve as an author. Again, it’s almost certainly not personal or an indication of disgust with your project. But communication style and responsiveness are real things to consider when deciding which press to partner with, and you should work with someone who makes you feel confident that they’re taking care with your project.
If you find yourself in one of these scenarios, don’t assume the editor hates your project and that’s why they aren’t writing back. That’s really probably not happening. If they don’t feel your project is a fit for their press and don’t want to publish it, they will probably want to tell you that as soon as possible to get it out of their pipeline. (Some of the larger publishers receive so many submissions that they don’t send actual rejections. I personally think that’s pretty messed up and unfair to authors, and I wouldn’t put all your eggs in the basket of one of those publishers. Go ahead and send your proposal to them if you want, but have a few other options lined up if you don’t hear back within several weeks.) If you write to an editor about your project before sending a formal submission, and you don’t get a response, don’t let that prevent you from sending the proposal when you’re ready. Silence is not a no; it’s more likely a “I didn’t see this or it got buried in my inbox and I totally forgot about it.”
We are living in turbulent times, and they’re hard for everybody, including editors. Try to be understanding. Try not to assume the worst. Try to word your messages so they’re very clear about what you’re requesting or how the editor should respond (these are the easiest emails to deal with promptly and the least likely to get buried). Good luck, and may the email responses be ever in your favor!