When should you submit your book to publishers?

Jason Pettus is the owner of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography

As the owner of an arts organization during the day, of course a lot of my own time is spent pondering the more ephemeral questions of the creative process, the ones based more on craft than commerciality and ones that usually lack objective "right" answers. For example –when does an author know that it’s finally time to stop working on a book and actually start shopping it around? When does an author stop and finally acknowledge that a manuscript is just about as good as it’s ever going to get, and that any edits after that point will be for incremental gain only?

There’s as many different kinds of answers to this question as there are types of writers, and even conventional wisdom can profoundly change from group to group: when I was spending time with performance poets in the 1990s, for example, a piece was considered to be finished and ready for the public in however long it took you to drunkenly jot it down on a napkin in the back of the bar as you waited for your name to be called; while when touring Germany in the early 2000s and staying with more academic writers at each stop, the consensus seemed to be that not only were a dozen rounds of edits in order but also a full peer review, before an author should even contemplate submitting it to presses in the first place. And of course we all seem to know at least one person who once wrote what was probably a decent little first novel right after college, but who has now been "tinkering" with it for a decade, adding and adding to it every weekend like one would to a model train set, until creating a Proustian mess that would never stand a chance anymore of getting published.

And I know this is going to frustrate some people, but when it comes to this subject, I believe that the true key is something almost impossible to teach -- that it’s a matter of more and more learning to trust yourself, to be able to say to yourself that a manuscript is finished because it feels finished. And if this sounds like a bit of unquantifiable magic I’m talking about, it’s because that’s the way I’ve always felt about the arts in general, even since a very young age; that it’s not just a matter of adding A to B to C, that a true artist really does possess skills that can seem like unknowable magic to those who don’t, an insight into the human soul that can seem to others at points like witchcraft. This is one of those lessons about writing that I feel can only be taught by more and more writing; by simply finishing manuscript after manuscript, recognizing what it feels like to do so, then watching more and more for that feeling when writing yet more manuscripts in the future.

It’s an intuitive process, in other words, one that some writers are simply going to find easier to pull off than others; but make no mistake, there are things a writer can do to get better at all this as well. For example, I think nearly everyone besides Jack Kerouac will agree that a full-length book needs at least more than one draft in order to be considered "complete;" but the important lesson regarding the other end of this equation, the one that so many writers seemingly fail to ever learn, is that a book will rarely ever reach a 100-percent "perfect" state either, and that an author is essentially grinding their gears once they get to the 95-percent mark or so of a book being "finished." Also, understand that there are many types of editing one can do when going through a manuscript, and that some come to a definitive conclusion before others: there is editing a story simply for typos and grammar mistakes; editing for "flow," or whether the sentences and paragraphs roll smoothly over the mind’s tongue; there is editing for story, making sure that all the details of your plot match from beginning to end; and there is editing for character, going through the whole thing with a fresh eye and seeing if you’re describing a good picture of the people at the heart of the story, at the correct pace that the uninitiated reader needs.

Just to show you how volatile a subject this is, I once again asked the editors over at HarperCollins (in the UK and the US) for their own opinions on this subject, of how "ready" they like to see a manuscript be before they’ll seriously consider signing it, in this case asking them to express that on a scale of 1 to 10; the responses I got back ran the entire gamut of the scale. Here’s a representative sample of what I heard, chosen specifically to show the wide range of responses I received...

"Generally in non-fiction, I’m often sent a sample chapter and a contents breakdown rather than a full M/s to begin with. However, one chapter is often enough to give you a sense of the author’s style and ability to write. So if the subject matter grabs me and the writing has potential then I’d say I’d accept anything from a 5 upwards.However, bad grammar/spelling/poor layout etc is always off-putting and indicates that the author is probably a bit slack and sloppy."

"I’d say 8. It can be a little way off, but not too far. You have to be sure that the author is going to trust and follow your judgement; if you feel a lot of the book needs to be rewritten, and sign it anyway, and then realise that the author doesn’t want to change it, there’s not, finally, much you can do about that... When you sign a book, therefore, you’ve got to be sure you’d be at least vaguely happy if you have to publish it as it stands."

"I was once sent a non-fiction proposal that was very dry, practical and reference-like in its approach. I could see that the subject matter was promising, but that the book would be far more commercial as a narrative non-fiction read. I suggested this to the author (a journalist who could turn her hand to pretty much anything) and she emailed back a few really quirky paras of her own narrative. Based on those paras, I carried the book idea forward because I could see that the subject had potential and that she could write really well. So there’s my example of accepting something at level 1!"

If you read between the lines of all these, though, I believe you see the same attitude I’m espousing today; that debate over number definitions aside, all of these literary professionals feel confident that they will always “know it when they see it”. Like I said, this is simply one of the abstract skills that a person must pick up in order to be a true professional within the literary industry, no matter how impossible it is to traditionally teach these things to someone else.

A writer must eventually learn to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, must learn how to look at a project and say, "Yes, this is now finished," must be able to reconcile their personal interests with what the general culture is interested in at any given moment too. And these things only come with experience, with heightened intuition, and with a certain natural talent for it all; and that’s why there are so many craftspeople in the arts at any given moment, and so few true artists.