Working at a Snail’s Pace

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 18 2010

I was editing a proposal for a client recently and thinking how much has changed in the fifteen years since I first started working in publishing Really I was thinking about how slow things used to be, and while I know many of you will say things are slow now, you should have been around fifteen years ago.

Fifteen years ago an author would finish a book proposal or manuscript. She would proofread, revise, and edit. Then she would head down to the nearest office supply store, buy paper, and print out 50 to 400 pages. She’d then carefully bind it together with either a rubber band or binder clip, place it in an envelope, drive to the post office, and mail it off to her agent. The material would arrive on her agent’s desk roughly 2 to 5 days later.

Now the author finishes the book proposal or manuscript, proofreads, revises, and edits. She then hits “Save,” opens her email program, types in her agent’s name, hits the “Attach” icon, and then “Send.” The material arrives on her agent’s desk roughly 2 to 5 minutes later.

Fifteen years ago the agent would unwrap the package, pull out the pages and a blue or red pen, and read while making notes and marks all over the pages, and possibly composing a letter in a notebook at the same time. Once finished, the agent would sit down at the computer or typewriter (and yes, this is what we had in the office when I first started in publishing) and compose her revision letter using the notes in the notebook. The agent would then bundle up the entire package in an envelope and send it off to the author for arrival 2 to 5 days later.

Now the agent opens her email, opens the attachment in Word, or some other word-processing program, turns on track changes, and begins reading and editing. She make her notes in the margins of the manuscript and tracks any changes she makes. While making the changes the agent (or me) writes notes on overarching problems in an email to the author. When she’s finished editing, the manuscript or proposal is attached to the email and sent off to the author for arrival 2 to 5 minutes later.

Fifteen years ago, when a manuscript was ready to go out on submission, the agent would send a copy to the printer and have roughly six copies made. Once those copies were back from the printer, they would be collated into boxes with a query letter that had been written six different times and printed. The manuscript boxes would be placed in envelopes and hauled to the post office for mailing. The submission would arrive in the editor’s mailroom roughly 2 to 5 days later, to be delivered to the editor a day or so later.

Now the agent prepares six different submission emails and attaches the manuscript to each email. The emails are then sent off to the editor for arrival on the editor’s desk 2 to 5 minutes later.

I have to admit, I don’t miss those days.


19 responses to “Working at a Snail’s Pace”

  1. I laughed at this post! I've only been writing in an attempt to be published for about 2 years, so I've had it really easy! I think of those movies where a novelist types THE END, wraps it lovingly in brown paper, ties with twine and mails it with a smile. A few weeks later, a box of packing peanuts and a dozen copies of his novel are inside. LOL. Oh, *imagine*.
    I'll take the new technology any day, but those movie ideas are tempting too 🙂

  2. Avatar wry wryter says:

    That’s what it was, and is like, at your end…well how about our end when you young pups were just getting house broken.

    Then, if you wanted to change one word of your manuscript, oops, well retype the whole page, oops, changes the page ending, oops, retype the whole chapter.

    Oh wait, I want to cut and paste…ah…scissors my dear, cut out the line or paragraph, move it on down and literally paste, ah, I used scotch tape, and oh well, retype, but wait there’s more…transition sentences, word counts, retype, retype, retype.
    I could go on and on because I used to go on and on.
    Sometimes we didn't use the perfect word because it changed everything.
    Now, maybe not perfection but pretty damned close.

    Now, highlight, move, insert, and save, save, SAVE.
    Ah, ain’t life easy.

  3. I don't miss the old days either. For some reason, putting together a submission package seemed to take FOREVER. Print the letter. Print the ms. Package. Double-check address. Panic that you forgot the SASE, rip open the envelope, start over. Take to the PO, weigh, mail.

    Not to mention all the things to debate and obsess over: rubber band or binder clip? Envelope or manuscript box? Priority mail or regular? Did the ms ever arrive, or is it sitting in a PO somewhere in Wichita?

    When I signed with my agent, she assured me that her office put together beautiful submission packages. I was thrilled no end to realize that I wouldn't have to do it myself anymore!

  4. Avatar Kimber An says:

    As a history buff, I don't believe there was ever any such thing as 'the good ol' days.'

  5. Seven years ago when I suggested authors be able to review their galleys in PDF form rather than printed, I had to fill out a business case and get three signatures just so I could give it a test run on my authors (this being when I worked in print not media). Speaking to a team member of mine, I commented that I didn't understand why it was so difficult to get the green light. The amount of time spent on shipping galleys alone would net me a week of production time.

    She, having started in the industry before I was born, reminded me that when she was my age, page composition involved scissors and tape. The fact that we had moved up to word processors was something she found drained the magic of publishing and abandoning galleys all together was something she hoped never happened.

  6. Avatar Layla Fiske says:

    I have a block sign on my desk that says…I "heart" computers.

    (don't know how to make a heart picture)

    Not to age myself, but I remember when cc really meant carbon copy.

    yikes! 😮

  7. Avatar ryan field says:

    I'm so glad you wrote this post, so people can grasp the magnitude of all the changes through technology. I'm in publishing almost twenty years (I started as an associate with Conde Nast) and I used to know the people at the Post Office on a first name basis thanks to hardcopy submissions.

    But there are some things I miss about the way things used to be done. And if I had to go back to the old ways this minute, I could slip right into it without any problems at all.

  8. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    LOL…well, not all are like this. I'm working on my copy edits right now for StarFire. My publisher still works in hard copy, which I love. I still use my pencil to add changes and make corrections, the pages were still handled by a copy editor and are covered with little post it notes. And I will admit that I'll be sad when, eventually, as it must, this process will go to digital copies. I think something important will be lost.

    I started out on an IBM Selectric and thought I was such hot stuff. I do love my computer, but I also love the feel of those pages in my hands and the excitement of printing out my ms. and sending it off to my editor. And one thing remains–while it's faster to move the content through cyberspace, a human still has to read it, another still has to copy edit and the author still needs to spend the time going through those corrections and revisions. The human element has become the slowest part of the process, but we're still the most important part of it.

  9. I started writing in the days of typewriters and carbon paper and mailing a manuscript in a cardboard box. All that is a lot easier now, but back then an aspiring author wasn't expected to maintain a following via a website and/or a blog (not to mention Facebook, Twitter, etc.) in addition to writing. So I guess everything's a trade off.

  10. Kinda makes you wonder what things will be like 15 years from now… huh?

  11. Avatar Abby says:

    I'm glad I didn't have to edit in the typewriter era, but I'm still a pencil-on-paper girl. Most of all, though, I miss the agency manuscript boxes! My shelf looked so much tidier when all the submissions were tucked in their colored cardboard cradles.

  12. Avatar Anonymous says:

    So why do agents still ask for FULL or partial mss. to be snail-mailed? My last request took me almost two days to complete: printing it out, finding a box, creating a label, going to the PO…WHY do they still insist on hard copies when e-mail is so much more efficient?

    Also Jessica, why did you ask for my snail-mailed partial if you realize how long it takes? Do agents request hard copies to separate the newbies from their clients? Waste of time…

  13. If not the time saved, the money saved in this process is really nice.

    It was a rare year when I was looking for my first agent as well as sending out submissions on my own to publishers that I didn't spend hundreds of dollars on the process of typing, printing and snail mailing.

    On the other hand, I read a study about how all the time saving appliances and products that entered women's lives from the Fifties onward changed things.

    Instead of saving time, they changed expectations. The clothes washers and driers meant that clothes would be washed much more often. A cake mix meant that cakes weren't just for major occasion.

    The time "saved" was used by the higher expectations, and other expectations were added under the assumption that the wife/mother had all this extra time to do other things.

    I see the same thing happening with publishing.

  14. Avatar jfaust says:


    Well there are some agents who are still more comfortable with hardcopy. As for me asking for a snail mail, it's been quite a while since I've done that, probably close to a year or more. I made the change slowly primarily because I would have my interns read some submissions and they didn't all have ereaders. Now I just request fewer submissions.


  15. Avatar Kathy says:

    The whole process seems easier now. Less daunting maybe. I guess that's what doing everything electronically will do for you. 🙂

    I must admit, I like the idea of submitting electronically much better. It makes me think I'll get a response faster. Though, I still like the idea of reading hand written suggestions too.

  16. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Kate Douglas…I too had an IBM Selectric. Mine hummed so loud I thought it would wake my kids while I typed and they napped. Then an ADAM word processor, now that was big time, print with that bugger and you would have thought you were living through a baseball sized hail storm in Kansas.
    Then a real word processor where you could see half a page on the screen, I don't remember the brand but it was the size of a microwave, and then…my beautiful, wonderful, I would have married it if I could have, Gateway,mooooooooooo !
    Now I have a laptop but I still love my Gateway. Ah…old habits die hard.
    There was another ancient computer in there somewhere, it sits in a corner of my office with lots of writing somewhere in it innards. I haven't the heart to get rid of it.

  17. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    wry wryter–isn't it funny how we get attached to things? I'd forgotten how noisy the Selectric was–that's what I used when I was a newspaper reporter in the 1980s–when cutting and pasting really WAS cutting and pasting! My first computer was a CTex (or something like that!) that didn't even have a hard drive. Everything went on a floppy (a REAL 5 1/4" floppy floppy!)disk and I wrote my first four books on that old thing. Now I've got two laptops, a PC and a netbook, two printers and numerous other little electronic dohickies. And I'm still doing copy edits on hard copy…

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The only problem is that it still takes as long for the agent or editor to read the manuscript.

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Jessica. Just can't understand why some young agents and agencies insist on snail-mailed queries as well–guess it cuts down on their workload and submissions. E-mail is more efficient and better environmentally…