When it’s a query ms.
In a recent e-mail I mentioned to a wonderful debut novelist with whom I’ve been working for a while that I was awaiting the “query ms” for my new book (Commercial: City of God by Beverly Swerling, due from Simon & Schuster this coming October) and would have my nose to the grindstone for a couple of weeks after it arrived. She immediately wrote back to ask what the hell I was talking about. Surely after having the same agent for twenty-plus years, selling/publishing a lot of books, and this one being the fourth in a series, I was past the dreaded query process?
Yes, thank God. I am. (Think of how you felt when you found ‘the one’ and could stop dating and looking. Now magnify it by a factor of maybe twenty. That good.) But query ms is another of publishing’s many misnomers. (I don’t know how a business based on words manages to screw them up so frequently, but that’s another post.) Here’s what I wrote to her by way of explanation; as soon as I finished I knew it was worth a blog entry.
Query ms is the term for the hard copy ms after the main editor has worked on it for story and characterization and such (which is called line editing and is another misnomer). After that it goes to the copy-editor - usually a free-lance, incidentally - who reads for consistency of style, time line, fact checking. Those items inevitably lead to questions/queries of the ‘X’s eyes are brown in chapter two and green in chapter seven, which do you want’ variety. The c.e. writes them out on stickies and sometimes scribbles in the ms’s margins (and the two editors deliberately work in different color pencils so the author can tell who is asking/doing what on this now horribly marked up ms.) That’s then sent to the author and it’s called the query ms. Author then takes up a third color pencil/pen and works through every word, letter, punctuation mark and answers every posed question. All of this must be on the same ms, i.e. the query ms; you can’t produce a clean copy with all the changes. Any rewriting/additions/deleting you decide to do is created and clipped to the original relevant page. This now incredibly difficult to follow thing is sent back to your editor who will look it over and pass it to production. They will send it to be type-set. What you’ll see next are page proofs (used to be called galleys, but technically real galleys have gone the way of the dodo) and you’ll repeat the process again.
All this may also serve as an explanation for why it’s useless to tell us that you need an agent right away because the book you’ve written is topical and has to do with the next president’s inauguration day… A year from turning in the ms - which is bound to be some months from finding an agent, probably doing rewrites, and him/her selling the book - to seeing it on the shelves is normal, and longer is quite common.