Secrets: Why to Keep Them on Submission

This Side of Paradise coverIn the book FLAPPERS: A MADCAP STORY OF SEX, STYLE, CELEBRITY, AND THE WOMEN WHO MADE AMERICA MODERN, the author Joshua Zeitz quotes a letter from editor Maxwell Perkins to F. Scott Fitzgerald about THIS SIDE OF PARADISE:

I am very glad, personally, to be able to write you that we are all for publishing your book….[It] is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell but we are all for taking a chance.

Ah, weren’t those the days? When books were a primary form of entertainment and editors had the liberty of “taking a chance”? The publishing world has changed considerably since 1919, for both the better and the worse, I think, and it’s safe to say that it’s rare that a publisher can go too far afield and take a risk on an author. More people are (happily) writing. More people are submitting. Yet fewer publishers exist as they merge or—ack!—fold. Getting published is hard. But not everyone out there knows that.

For years when people asked me what I did, I said I was a writer because that’s what I was paid to do: I wrote for websites, for magazines, for annual reports. But when they asked about my creative writing, I became vague. Yes, I had published short pieces. Yes, I was writing a novel. No, it hadn’t been published.

And then I got my agent. Oh, I got an agent! I trumpeted the news from my car window, on the elementary school playground, to my Facebook friends, and basically, to anyone who would listen. “Here’s the $2.95 for the box of cereal. And I have an agent!”

Big mistake. Everyone was so happy for me. So of course, all I ever heard was, “So when’s the novel going to be published?”

I responded, “Soon, I hope! My agent is out on submission with it!” But of course (geez, why do I have keep saying this?) that novel didn’t sell. I had to shrug my shoulders finally and say, “Not going to be published.” It wasn’t a huge deal to my friends; they still loved and supported me. But not being published was devastating to me and having to say it out loud over and over and over again to every acquaintance was a constant ego blow.

confidentialMy younger sister is a college professor and when she was working on her dissertation, our family was forbidden to ask her about it. The minute anyone said, “How’s the diss—” she’d cut us off with a “Not going to talk about it!” She went so far as to tell us about her dissertation defense only after it happened. Not “Hey, I’m going to defend my dissertation next week” but “Hey, I defended my dissertation. I’m getting my PhD.”

We mocked her about it, usually behind her back (sorry, little sister, true story). But after my experience with the first novel, it all made a lot of sense. I wrote MODERN GIRLS, not exactly in secret, but not broadcasting it either. My writers’ group and my family (who read and critique for me) knew. But when my agent went on submission, I told no one. I barely kept my immediate family in the loop. When “the call” came, I waited to tell everyone until is were dotted and ts were crossed.

While keeping quiet while on submissions is a good idea business-wise—you don’t want to broadcast who your agent is submitting to on your blog because editors can Google you, and it’s not always in your best interest for them to see your entire submission list—it’s what I need sanity-wise. Because if the nos do come in, it’s painful to have to tell everyone.

I am working on my next novel. That’s no secret at this point. But when I go on submission with that novel? You won’t hear a word about it until it’s sold! Not “Hey, my agent is sending my novel to editors” but “Hey, my novel is being published.” Until then, shhhhh!

Author: Jennifer S. Brown

Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at

4 Replies to “Secrets: Why to Keep Them on Submission”

  1. Jennifer, I totally identify with the unsold first book (and second…) but I never got an agent for those. Sometimes these days, people hear I have a book coming out & ask: “The one with the college girls and the racist newspaper?” No. “The black FBI agent and the teenagers?” No. “The safe cracking escorts?” Yes, that one.

    1. First off, and that’s why we were all so happily surprised when you signed that book contract for CLOSE ENOUGH TO TOUCH yesterday!(Congrats, congrats!!) And second, I got my agent about five years ago–food was cheaper (though I can be queen of the bargains and last week bought a butt-load of Cheerios when they were 2 boxes for $5! So that would be “Here’s $2.50 for the box of cereal. And I have an agent!”).

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