Wednesday, December 16, 2009

INTERN Spills: A behind-the-scenes look at a manuscript's journey through a publishing house

Today I am absolutely thrilled to present a guest post by INTERN. Who is INTERN you ask?

THE INTERN is the unpaid toiler on the publishing house floor, licking stamps, reading slush, and copy-editing your train-wreck of a manuscript (for free) because the "real" copyeditor is down with the genital crabs. THE INTERN wears mismatched socks, clunky glasses, the same shirt she wears every day and jeans she found in the dumpster. No bra—bras are expensive, and THE INTERN is unpaid. THE INTERN sees all, hears all—the tense phone calls, the well-oiled editorial meetings at which your manuscript is used as a receptacle for pretzel crumbs, the wheeling, dealing, and long hours of apathy that make publishing publishing. THE INTERN knows everything about—your ambitions, your secret shames. She knows you pee in the shower. Basically, THE INTERN has you dialed.

INTERN writes some of the funniest, incisive posts on publishing in the blogoverse. If you don't follow her already, you should start now. Find her here. And without further ado ...


Part 1: Getting from Slush to Desk!

If you have an agent, she’ll send your manuscript out to specific editors at different publishing houses. Different editors have different specialties—some love self-help and detest YA, some devour mysteries but don’t get memoirs—and a good agent will know the right editor to pitch for your project. Once your manuscript arrives at the publisher, it will be logged by the editorial assistant and dropped on that editor’s desk.

If you submit without an agent, the editorial assistant will log your manuscript and then put it in the slush pile. Everybody knows about slush piles (interminable limbo! sneering disdain!) so let’s move on to what happens if your manuscript is plucky enough to escape the first round of mass paper-recycling.

If an intern or editorial assistant comes across your query while going through the slush and thinks it has potential, she will write up a project summary or manuscript assessment. The exact format of a project summary varies by publisher, but it generally involves the following first impressions: what are the proposed book’s strengths and weaknesses, and does it seem marketable?

Once the project summary is written, the intern or assistant will put your manuscript on the appropriate editor’s desk. And once your manuscript is on an editor’s desk, you can look forward to…several more months of interminable limbo until that editor gets around to thinking about your project!

Part 2: Getting to Desk to Table!

So now your manuscript is on an editor’s desk, within touching and breathing distance (theoretically) of a person who (more or less) has the power to turn your project into a book. This is all well and good, but not a great improvement: where you really want to be is on the table at an editorial meeting, not sitting on a desk where your chances of being declined are still about 90%.

If the editor in question reads your query and doesn’t decline it immediately, she will either sit on it for a few months and then decline it, or sit on it for a while (perhaps requesting more materials from you, if she doesn’t already have the full manuscript) and then bring it to an editorial meeting.

An editorial meeting is where editors sit around a table and present possible projects. If your manuscript is on that table, it might get as little as five seconds of discussion (“Teen sleuths solve global warming?” “Nah.”) or as much as several minutes (“Teen sleuths solve global warming?” “Maybe! Check comp sales.”)

At this stage, most projects are still getting declined. If your manuscript isn’t declined after the first editorial meeting, the editor will poke around a bit, checking sales figures and calling up relevant people (marketing staff, the buyers for chain bookstores, etc.) and running the idea by them. Another month or two might sneak by before you hear from the editor again (that is, unless you and your manuscript are super hot and your agent has successfully incited a bidding war, in which case, hold on to your hat!)

Part 3: Getting from Table to Whiteboard!

If everything checks out and your project seems both appealing and profitable, an editor will contact you/your agent to make an offer. You/your agent might rally with a counter-offer. Eventually, you’ll either come to an agreement or storm off to a different publisher. Contracts will get drawn up and signed.

Now your manuscript has become a project of the publisher, and some bizarre shorthand version of its working title will get written on various whiteboards and dry-erase production calendars and six or seven absolute strangers will hustle to make sure your book (your own dear book!) is edited/copy-edited/coded/designed/typeset in time for its publication date.

Over the next year, you’ll hear from your publisher sporadically. They will send you copy-edited versions of your manuscript for your review, FedEx you the designed and layed-out pages, and gently (OK, ruthlessly) command you to expand to your Facebook presence so that a million “friends” will buy your book when it comes out.

Meanwhile, the intern and editorial assistant will be writing jacket copy for your book, seeking endorsements from other authors, and sending out galleys for review. At some point, boxes of your book will fill the office and everyone will ooh and aah over the beautiful cover.

Then the book will go on sale.

And that’s all there is to it!


Thanks so much INTERN! I can see where my manuscript is now: in limbo, gracing an editor or two's desk, perhaps even on a Kindle for some take-home holiday reading. That 90% decline rate freaks me out, but really, all I need is one little yes...


  1. That was fascinating! Good luck with your manuscript!

  2. Awesome! I love hearing behind the scenes stories.

  3. This was a really neat look in on the action. Great post!

  4. In six months of reading agent and editor blogs, this is the first time I've seen what goes on after the MS arrives at a publishing house. Thanks!

    In an unrelated note, this has to be one of the least snarky posts I've read by the INTERN. Are you losing your edge, good lady, or are you just on good behavior as a guest blogger? Just curious, is all...

  5. This is a very insightful post. Thanks for sharing it. :D I've read her blog before and she's hilarious.

  6. Awesome awesome post. Super insightful - thanks so much for sharing it! I haven't even come close enough to that part of the stage to have pondered of this process... It's really interesting! (And, sigh, nerve-wracking...)

  7. Loveeeeeeee the INTERN! Excellent info.

  8. As much as I do love and appreciate THE INTERN, or maybe she hasn't experienced this at the Big Fancy Publishing House, but there's also a lot of talk BEFORE the ed meeting. Many editors share ideas with select, fellow ed-heads to make sure the project they are bringing to the table won't be [laughed/scoffed/sneered] at by [creative execs/marketing/sales/CFO], either in that meeting or in a future one.

    But THE INTERN has been taking good notes. And if it seems [unfair/cruel and unusual/incredibly complicated], it kind of is... If you haven't heard it before (which I doubt), I will say it again: Publishing is subjective. Opinions matter. Deal with it.

    Editors can have their jobs on the line from acquiring poorly, so look with their eyes. Make your work so crazy amazing and mind-blowingly awesome that they have no choice but to take it to the table. And find an agent to bring it to them, acting as your knight in shining armor. (Yes, my intern is buffing my breastplate right now.)

  9. Snarky Agent-man, you make a good point. It's good to consider things from another perspective. (Picturing agents in shining armour also helps very much!)

  10. Wow, insightful...good to know.

    Thanks for sharing! :-)

    So glad I found this great to find other writers/readers.

    Happy writing!