Okay, so you get the email to say that we're intrigued by your query and that we'd like to request the full thing. We give you the instructions, you (hopefully) upload it as we've asked, and … then what?
Getting a full MS request is a pretty big deal. We know what it's like to get excited when someone is interested in our work, and, after all, if you've got this far the signs are promising, right? The publisher has the synopsis so the story must hold some interest, they must appreciate your style of writing, and you've been picked out of all the other submitters as having potential. And so it can be disheartening to wait for weeks and weeks, maybe even months, to hear any kind of update. We swiped right, but we aren't carrying the conversation (yep, sometimes Laura likes to think of the author/publisher dynamic as something like a dating site to find the perfect match).
It's not you, it's us
So, what are we waiting around for? After all, it doesn't take six weeks to read a 90,000 word novel. Have we forgotten all about it and left it to fester on Submittable? The truth is, it's not taking so long because we can't be bothered or we got bored halfway through and don't have the heart to tell you; it's just that it takes a while to read them and then to make a decision as to how to proceed.
Isn't reading novels a priority?
Our day-to-day business in running Stirling Publishing is focussed -- unfortunately -- on the nitty-gritty, boring stuff. Some of it's interesting, a little of it is exciting, but it's just not the case that we're spending our days in office armchairs with tea/coffee and occasionally exclaiming to each other such publishing phrases as "I think we've got something here" and "This one could make us a lot of money" or "We might have the next J K Rowling on our hands." (By the way, no one says the J K Rowling thing, unless it's that weird older relative when you tell them you wrote a book.) We're securing rights, organising distribution, creating events, marketing our existing books, balancing the money side of things, and generally doing what we can to ensure that our writers are paid for their sales and that we manage to pay ourselves a salary.
So what does happen when we read your novel?
Your full novel will be available on Submittable for the first reader. This is usually, although not always, Laura, who is Associate Editor. She'll read the full manuscript, making notes as she goes. She may not be able to decide from a single reading: it may take two or three to make a solid yes or no. If the first reader thinks your manuscript could be a good fit for us, they'll pass it on to the second reader accompanied by their thoughts on it. They might think the manuscript stands up well as it is, or they might have some ideas for editing or concerns about other aspects.
You'll receive an email to let you know if your novel has been passed on. If the first reader doesn't think that it's something we can successfully publish, they'll decline the manuscript through Submittable and do their best to let you know why.
The second reader (typically Commissioning Editor Tabatha Stirling) will then read through the manuscript and the first reader's recommendations to make the final decision. Tabby is obviously occupied with, you know, running a successful publishing company, so it can be extremely difficult to find the time to read a full novel and make a definite decision on whether we should take it on. Hopefully you'll get a congratulations email to say that we've agreed to publish it, but we receive so many submissions and we are such a small indie press that it's impossible for us to publish all the titles we like. Only a tiny percentage are chosen, and to even have the full manuscript requested is a great achievement.
What kind of things are you looking for?
Novels are notoriously subjective, which makes our jobs a lot more difficult than we'd like. But there are some things we can look at with a more objective eye to help us decide whether we should publish it.
Does it have an engaging narrator?
It's nice to have a narrator or main character that we like: we're rooting for them, we want to see them succeed, we're upset when bad things happen to them. It's harder to get behind a novel with an unlikeable protagonist, but not impossible. What matters more is that we're carried along by their journey. Whether it's first or third person, your main character often provides the voice for telling their story, which is the bridge between the fiction and the reader.
Do they have a decent supporting cast?
Often it's the interactions between characters that make a novel so engaging. Your lone ranger can wander lonely as a cloud throughout the wilderness, but it might be a bit of a slog for your accompanying reader. Even a rambunctious rattlesnake can be a character in its own right.
Is it well-written?
This is probably the over-riding factor. You don't need to pepper your prose with fancy writing to convince us that you have an English degree: it just needs to carry us along in a way that makes us forget that we're reading the same 26 letters arranged in different ways.
Does it fit the imprint?
We have two imprints: Stone Cold Fox and Skiddaw Books. They each have their own genres, and we'd like to create cohesive imprints with novels that know they belong. Between the two of them we've pretty much got all bases covered, but we still get a few surprises every now and then.
Is it different to what we've published before?
On the flip side, we don't want things too similar. If we've just published a book about talking polar bears loose in London, we probably won't publish a novel about talking grizzlies rampaging in Paris (unless it's a metaphor for a rugby team on a bender or something).
Does it need much work?
We're not averse to recommending a little editing. Maybe the speech is a little stilted, or the old-fashioned dialect is hard-going for a YA novel. We might ask you to make some changes, but if it means a complete over-haul then we probably would ask for you to re-submit when it's done rather than offer to publish.
Do you have a track record?
If we're undecided, a bibliography can give us a nudge in a more positive direction. We do take on debut authors, but if you already have a fan base and a proven record of selling plenty of books then you look like a more solid investment from our side of things.
Do we like it?
If we fall in love with a manuscript, that's great for us. We get passionate about it, we defend it, we want to see it in print and for everyone else to have the chance to read it (and for the writer who created it to get fairly paid for their work, of course). And if we enjoyed reading it, we're fairly sure that there are more people out there that are going to like it too.
Je ne sais quoi
It's hard, but sometimes we're just not feeling it. It's good, there's nothing wrong with it, but we just don't love it as much as we want to. Those are the hardest to decline because it's difficult to give a concrete reason as to why we couldn't take it on.
What's the time frame?
We aim to reply to initial queries (synopsis, cover letter, three chapters) within six to twelve weeks.
Our full manuscripts need a lot longer for us to consider them. We might read it and like it -- but our subjective liking unfortunately isn't enough for us to take it on. It's a subtle business deciding whether we think it's right for publication, and so we ask for three to six months for the first reader to examine it in detail. We aim to be as quick as possible, but we won't rush through it.
If the first reader thinks we should publish the manuscript, then they will pass it on to the next reader. It's difficult to say how long this will take, since this is making the final decision and we would never dream of hurrying it.
What can I do while I'm waiting?
I'm afraid there's nothing much you can do to make us go faster. We think we're a pretty fair publisher in that we don't ask for exclusivity, meaning that you can continue sending your manuscript to other agents and publishing houses while we read it. If you do get an offer, we do appreciate it if you let us know.
We've never forgotten a manuscript, but if you've been waiting to hear about yours for longer than six months, please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.