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How Long is Too Long?

Query Etiquette -- or How Long is Too Long?

by Andrew Burt

So, some science fiction, fantasy, or horror editor has had your manuscript for a "long" time? Was it lost in the mail? Is the editor sitting on it? Will they hate you forever if you ask them to search those thousands of manuscripts for yours?

Most fiction writers will face this at some time or other; the more you write, the more you'll face it. Learning what to do can save you at least a modicum of grief.

The first question is...

How long is too long?

Alas, there's no consensus on how long is too long to wait for an editor to reply on a manuscript. In most businesses, if you as a salesperson gave your one and only product for evaluation to one potential buyer of many, you'd probably want it back fairly quickly. However, publishing is a peculiar business. Many editors are poorly paid, have too much work (or Real Life intrusions), little or no staff, and insufficient financial backing with which to rectify the situation. This is not an apology for that, and some may argue that this is no excuse, that if editors are unable to operate in ordinary businesslike fashion, but in more of a hobby-like fashion, then they ought not to have or need exclusive access to your product beyond a certain amount of time. (And that perhaps their exclusivity should expire after some time, e.g., two months.) However, in this game, editors hold all the cards (aka, it's a buyer's market and exclusivity is how it works), so the answer is: It depends.

A safe first step toward finding out if your manuscript has been "too long" on an editor's desk is to check their guidelines. There the editor may say they take a month, or two, or six. If you're within their stated limit, don't panic.

Two months is probably the minimum you should ever wait before becoming even the slightest bit antsy, even with an ordinarily fast market. (Editors do get sick, or have family emergencies, etc., and nobody else is likely to do their reading for them.) Some folks suggest nothing happens in the novel market in less than three months. Yet another rule of thumb is to wait twice the guideline-stated or average response time. Still another metric is to wait until you've exceeded the maximum from whatever response time lists you read, such as the Black Holes web page, or the others mentioned thereon.

What this all means is: In the end, it's up to you. :-)

Okay, it's been too long. Now what?

Once you've decided it's been too darn long, the most common action is to send the editor a query. A query is a short, politely worded letter asking if they've either received your manuscript entitled "Whatever You Called It" and/or already sent you a reply. Bear in mind that while lost mail is rare, it can happen -- on either your submission or the editor's reply.

(However, do not send your manuscript registered mail or by any other means that requires someone to sign for the manuscript. Editors have too little time already and this does not endear them to you or your work! For that matter, since it bears repeating, the same holds true if you violate any of the other standard submission rules, like not using standard manuscript format or ignoring any personal preferences the editor sets forth in their guidelines. Note that some editors open their mail right away and aren't offended if you've enclosed a self-addressed, stamped postcard that alerts you the manuscript arrived [separate from your SASE for their response]; however, some editors don't open their mail for a while, hence won't see it until they're poised to accept or reject your work anyway; and this still doesn't tell you if their reply was lost in the mail.)

A sample query letter would be:

Dear {Name of editor},

I submitted a {story/novel} entitled "{Title}" on {date}. Could you please tell me its status?


{Your Name}
[Using the pseudonym of {Pen Name} -- if appropriate.]

If you choose to deviate from that form and compose your own query letter, you should take the position that either your manuscript or the editor's reply was lost. Of course, if you want to annoy the editor, you can accuse them of sitting on your manuscript, etc. But most of us are hoping they'll buy something, either now or later, thus exercising maximum tact is highly encouraged. Remember that you're asking them to engage in a considerable amount of work -- looking through hundreds or possibly thousands of manuscripts is time consuming. (Some places keep logs they can look in, but you can't assume this.) You might even consider saying that since you know this is a difficult and time consuming task, you'll simply assume the manuscript was read and rejected if you haven't heard back by such-and-such a date.

You can query by email if you know the editor's email address. (And that it's a "public" address, i.e., that they don't mind queries sent there. As an aside definitely do not assume that because an editor has an email address it's ok to email them your manuscripts -- no! no! and no! unless that editor has specifically stated their willingness to receive emailed manuscripts. Most editors are ardently opposed to email submissions; not because they're Luddites, but because manuscripts by email are extraordinarily difficult to deal with: Unreadable formats, weird mailer encodings, can't read them in bed, screens are harder to read on than paper, etc. Don't argue about it, just accept it. :-) Lastly, make sure you provide a valid return email address; it's amazing how many people have misconfigured software and send mail that can't be replied to.

Do not call by phone unless you've been specifically told it is acceptable to that editor.

If you don't know an acceptable email address for your query, send it on paper to the same address you sent the manuscript. Paper is often safer anyway, as some editors may have become too busy to check their email. If you send it on paper, enclose a SASE for their response (or at least a self-addressed, stamped postcard).

Then you start the whole process over again -- waiting for a reply to your query. A month may be reasonable here, but again, it depends on all those same factors that may slow down the manuscript itself. You may choose to write more query letters.

Ultimately, though, when your patience expires (which is years in the case of some writers), your only actual recourse is to withdraw the manuscript. To do that, send another polite letter stating that you're withdrawing your manuscript entitled "Whatever."

A slight variant is to notify them that rather than a straight withdrawl, you'll be sending the manuscript elsewhere and they can either consider the manuscript withdrawn, or, should they eventually come across it and desire it, you'll put them second in line for the manuscript behind the market the manuscript is current visiting. (Note that you're on your honor to take an acceptance from the new market you're sending it to, even if the second-in-line market replies first wanting it and even if the current first-in-line market isn't as good. Also note that this is not the same as a "simultaneous" submission, which many editors hate; it's a sort of "serial" submission. For your own peace of mind, you should assume you'll never hear back from the now-second-in-line market, i.e., that they've assumed the manuscript is withdrawn.)

You may, of course, elect to withdraw the manuscript without a query first. (If done politely it shouldn't upset the editor, but don't harbor any ideas about your own importance to that editor. E.g., don't get cocky assuming your manuscript is so astoundingly well written that they'll be mortified you're withdrawing it. In other words, don't be rude. Ever. Publishing is a small world, and you're likely to run across these same folks many a time.)

Some magazines have stated preferences on what you should do if they've taken a long time. A list of known preferences is summarized here (NOTE: This is the original list from the article, which now includes dead markets -- which I've left in to give a sense of the range; if you edit a pro or semi-pro 'zine and want to be listed, drop me a line):

Absolute Magnitude Query after two months by snail mail or email.
Altair Speculative Fiction Magazine Check your progress on their story log web page.
Amazing Stories Query after two months by snail mail or email.
Analog Query after two months.
Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine Assume lost after three months; send again if you so desire.
Eternity On-line (e-zine) Check your progress on their story log web page.
Event Horizon, or Ellen Datlow's anthologies Query after two months.
F&SF (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) Query after two months by snail mail (preferably) or email.
Mind's Eye Query by email after two months. May not get to query right away, but will get to it. Typically a long response time on mss. Strongly recommends submitting simultaneously elsewhere (only to markets that also accept sim.subs, of course); is more likely to purchase work sold elsewhere.
Odyssey Magazine Query after two months; statement in original cover letter saying it's automatically withdrawn after two months is also acceptable.
Pirate Writings Assume lost after three months; send again if you so desire.
Pulp Eternity Magazine Check your progress on their story log web page.
Science Fiction Age Magazine Query any time you feel the need; responds to 95% of submissions within 10 days, a month at most.
St. Martin's Press Query after two months by snail mail (preferably) or email.
Weird Tales (Formerly Worlds of Fantasy & Horror) Magazine Query after 4-6 weeks. Email queries are acceptable. Include snail mail address in email.

But in the end, since it's a slow business, the best advice of all for how to deal with the long response times blues is: Write another story. :-)

Copyright 1998 by Andrew L. Burt.
Originally published in Speculations.


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