A newbie author recently asked if it really takes 3 - 6 months to hear back from an editor after furnishing him with sample chapters and a synopsis for a book. Naturally, Queenie jumped in with her usual inaccurate response, detailing the life of an unsolicited manuscript ending up in the ubiquitous "slush pile." Here's the reality of the situation.
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Not to question the integrity of the reply from the Queen of Wrong, but, no, not all publishers take 3 - 6 months to respond after receiving sample chapters and a synopsis. I imagine that if she had taken the time to read your question more carefully instead of shooting from the lip, she would have seen the critical elements to your question: "receiving the sample chapters and synopsis."
For a writer to have gotten far enough into correspondence with a publisher for an editor to ask to see sample chapters and a synopsis of a book submission, the author already queried that publisher and met with a positive reaction. Acquisitions editors who request chapters and synopses don't throw them in the slush pile. Ever. They tag them for reading and additional consideration as soon as practical.
In such cases, contrary to Queenie's generalizations that are nearly always misleading and usually wrong, many publishers give high priority to such requested follow-up materials and respond as promptly as within a day or two. That's especially true if the editor has already given the samples a quick read and decided that the material isn't suitable for his list after all. It doesn't take an editor long to figure that out.
But, if an editor takes a month or longer to send a response to your requested samples, chances are good that he or she still has an interest in the property and is impressed enough with the material to take it to the publisher's editorial board for discussion. In such cases, the editor will often contact the writer, letting him know that he's going to be presenting the property to the board and approximately when the writer can expect a decision—thumbs up or thumbs down—often within four or five weeks. (Most publishers' editorial boards meet once a month.) Unfortunately, not all editors show that courtesy, so if it's been more than a month or two since you heard a response to your sample chapters, that may portend good fortune, indicating that the book is still under consideration.
Now, in cases that are the opposite of what you presented, where an author submits an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher (a "cold" submission), that property is extremely likely to find its way into the slush pile, where it will languor until someone gets around to perusing and rejecting it. The rare exception is when the secretary or editorial assistant opening the unsolicited envelope or e-mail attachment glances at the materials and sees something promising. In that case, that person may short-circuit the process by sending the unsolicited manuscript to the next person up the editorial ladder for review. That, however, happens extremely rarely.
Regardless, in the case of such unsolicited manuscripts, no one (including Queenie) can say with any authority that it will take 3 - 6 months for a response. When I was an acquisitions editor, I often turned down unsolicited manuscripts within a week or two, if only to prevent my slush pile from becoming unmanageably large. Admittedly, I was a rarity in that regard, as I have since learned, but even within the normal range of turndowns, for her to define the length of time required for the ax to fall is ridiculous. I've seen unsolicited manuscript rejections arrive within weeks of submission, and I've seen others take years.
It's all part of the big, wide, wonderful world we call, umm, oh, yeah. Freelance writing.
Hope this helps clear the tainted air somewhat and breathes a touch of reality into the scenario. Meanwhile ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.