Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In response to "A Modest Proposal Regarding Submissions"

In scanning tweets this morning, I came across a link to this, from editor extraordinaire Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books. I was curious, when I saw her tweet, what her modest proposal might be. Instead of summarizing her points, I'll ask that you read it, as I don't want to be seen as putting words in her mouth. Finished?

And, as much as I'd like to help Cheryl and her fellow editors out here, this comes down to just one question for me: what do I tell the editor who manages to read the manuscript and get the in-house support to make a good offer on a book in 48 hours? Clearly, in that situation, the editor and the house are enthusiastic enough to get their ducks in a row very quickly. They want the book, and they want it badly enough to beat other people to the punch. Editors, would you be willing to let a preempt sit for weeks while I tested the waters with slower editors? I think not.

For me, finding the best fit means finding an editor with the energy and enthusiasm to make a book happen. Doing all of the work necessary to make an offer in a short period of time is one (though certainly not the only) measure of that. While I understand that sometimes outside factors (vacations, illnesses, sales conferences and other meetings) may negatively impact an interested editor, it's just an unfortunate reality that we all miss out on things because of timing. In an industry as challenging as ours, a bird in the hand is always worth more than vague interest.

Not that any agent worth their 15% would go around selling books to the highest bidder even when the highest bidder isn't a good match for the project. We carefully select the editors we approach for each project; I know there are times that I agonize over which editor at a house full of amazing talent I'll submit a particular project to. If you're in an auction for one of my books, you are someone I want to buy it. You wouldn't be reading it otherwise.

Now, this isn't to say that I entirely disagree. I know that editors are rightfully frustrated when agents call auctions for projects too early -- before they have the offers to truly justify it. I know that moving quickly can lead to a lemming mentality that then leads to unjustifiably high advances offered in the heat of the moment, and that helps no one. But I don't think putting artificial time lines on projects helps, either. In fact, for most editors, I think that will mean putting something to the bottom of the pile.

In the end, my interests are those of the client, not of the editor, and I don't think timelines benefit authors. So, I'll continue to operate without them.

- Michael


  1. My two cents: If you're happy with the editor who made the initial offer, and also happy with the offer itself, then by all means accept the pre-empt and go with that editor. But if you're going to go to auction, then give the other editors enough time to gather support as needed (in my mind, this means one to two weeks to not be super rushed), especially if you've picked those other editors so carefully as being a good fit for the manuscript, too.

  2. Alvina -

    First, hi! And yes, I agree, but two weeks is more time than an editor is going to let an offer sit (please tell me if I'm wrong). A week is about right.

    - Michael

  3. Very interesting. Reason #142,876 why I'm so thankful you're my agent!

    And I swear I'm going to figure out a way to use the words "lemming mentality" today in conversation.

  4. Are your clients generally content to go with that first enthusiastic offer? If so, than it seems reasonable to push things forward.

    However, what if the writer wants to see what other offers will be brought to the table, and who else they'll have the chance to work with?

    I also don't think it's unreasonable to tell that eager editor to wait a few weeks on the author's behalf. If they truly want the project, they'll definitely stick around, and they won't pull their offer or preempt (that just seems like bad business to me.).

    Of course, I've never worked on either side of the agent/editor fence, so this is my truly inexperienced perspective and opinion. It's been really interesting reading both Cheryl's and your perspectives on this!

  5. Ditto to Michael. I'm not in it to insult any editors, whether they jump in first or later. I value those relationships. If an offer comes in, I want to give it the right amount of consideration and give the other editors a chance to get on board. Just not at the expense of that first editor who got it together more quickly (and that just happens to speak volumes).

  6. I've let an offer I've made sit for over two weeks while waiting for other publishers to scramble because of various scheduling conflicts, etc. When I haven't made an offer of a certain preemptive level, I'm perfectly willing to wait (although I don't know if my publisher feels the same way!). If we've made a preemptive offer, then by all means, I won't wait that long! But in all cases, I think a week is reasonable. And second, hi back!

  7. I think there's a happy medium to be found somewhere. The difference between 48 hours and a week may bring something better to the table.

  8. This whole discussion (debate?) was fascinating!

    As I teacher, I know in my heart each child requires their own special care and handling.

    I would hope that those who handle a writer's "child" feels the same way.

  9. Have you considered that maybe those editors would be able to do a much better job, and pay your clients higher advances, if you granted those extra two/three weeks?

    Of course there are people capable of doing their jobs under extreme pressure, but the whole publishing process requires so much patience from all parties involved, why not wait another couple of weeks?

    I find the proposal extremely coherent and I'd like my (future) agent to consider it. (Also because editors are also human beings that should be allowed to breathe as the rest of us. Three days? wow)

  10. Mariana -

    To be clear, I've never asked for an offer in three days. But if an editor makes one, I'm not going to turn it down.

    And, no, I don't think granting time means higher advances (not that higher advances are all I'm looking for). I think it means that the editor who offered after three days is going to pull his or her offer -- big offers often come with deadlines.

    We agents are expected to move quickly, too, when there's a lot of interest in a project. Those who are THAT interested do move quickly. That's business.

    And I think the editors I work with would say that while I'm tough, I'm very fair.

    - Michael

  11. Considering editors- and this particular editor- is perfectly happy to sit on agented submissions for 6 months or more if you don't push her, I really don't think she deserves her very modest proposal.

  12. It's so interesting to get all of this insight into how agents/editors work together!

    I hadn't thought about the editors having deadlines for a preemptive offer... that does change the dynamics a bit.

    It will be interesting to see if any other agents chime in on this one :).

  13. Wow! So there's a chance they would pull the offer? Within a month or two even? Interesting.

    If they were already willing to tie up the amount of the offer in their budget, why pull it? Scheduling?

    I'd love it if someone explained the reasoning. This is very informative.

  14. Personally, I try to give heads up when there is interest, a fairly generous timeframe before a closing date, and if a party is serious but they need more time to put it all together, they need only ask.

    Still, I can well understand the frustration of agents who are dealing with a bleak landscape of non-responsive editors. Perhaps if these editors made it a bit more of a priority to reply to agents in a timely manner, even if the answer is "no thanks!" or "don't have time for this sorry!", that would help.

    I'm not a delicate flower who is hurt by a no, I am just looking for a yes - so if you're a no, then let's get it out of the way quickly and we can all move on.

    (Interestingly, the higher-up an editor is, the faster and more decisive they are with both No AND Yes. Which makes me much more likely to sub and sell to Publisher Jean than Associate Jane. Gotta love decisive!)

    If agents in general knew that editors'd make it a priority to get back to them in a reasonable amount of time, they might be less compelled to push so far and fast.

  15. This would be a good topic to cover at a writers conference! I just finished my first manuscript and am in the process of working with an editor as part of the revision process. I've tried to pick up as much information as I can find on the business of publishing. Getting a feel for the usual timeline, what to expect from an agent, publishing house editor, copy editor, etc. This is the kind of issue I would never consider. I assumed that an editor would act quickly if they were interested. So if several weeks went by with no interest, I would figure my manuscript was not a good fit (or they didn't care for it, but I'm trying to keep up the optimism here). Knowing the many steps involved before an offer might be made helps with the 'patient factor'. Thanks!

  16. The title of her post made me wonder if she plans to eat submissions.

  17. Thanks for all of the great comments!

    To Casey: yes, editors do pull offers if you sit on them too long. They realize that the more time passes, the more likely they are to have competition.

    To anonymous agent: As editors can attest, I submit to everyone from assistant editors to publishers, depending on who I think will be the most enthusiastic champion for the project. As for unresponsive editors, I find it much less of a problem on the children's side of the business. I'll speak to this in my post today in response to Cheryl's response. So much responding!

    To Catherine: I was going to propose to Cheryl that we discuss this at a conference. I think it's a good idea, too.

    To anonymous: After I responded yesterday, I worried for a moment that the title of her post meant it was satire and I'd missed the joke. Fortunately, that was not the case.

    - Michael

  18. As I see it, part of the point of a pre-empt is to convincingly show your enthusiasm: $$-wise, speed-wise, and in whatever other wise and masterful ways it can be shown. But I will say that I didn't see Cheryl's post as being only about pre-empts, which are very much their own beast, but moreso the more standard sort of interest/offer/auction situation.

    Because when you're not in a situation where's there's a pre-empt (and let's face it, an editor can't pre-empt everything, but that doesn't mean they aren't *really* eager at the thought of working on a project just the same), then I think agents DO serve themselves and their authors best to allow enough time for an editor to take a project through the standard channels her house has in place for getting an offer together. Because (most) editors don't get to work in a vacuum of taste alone, making offers dependent entirely upon their enthusiasm-—if they did, I don’t think we’d even need to be having this conversation.

    Absolutely, an editor can (and will) drop everything to read, especially when it’s a project that she feels has been carefully targeted to her, or when it’s from an agent whose taste she regards highly. But it's harder to assure that her colleagues in Sales, Marketing, Finance, etc. will be able/equally motivated to read and respond on extremely short notice, especially depending on whatever is happening at that moment in their piece of the publishing arena--and the responses of all those key colleagues are directly reflected in the offer I get to make to an agent/author. That said, I think some of this comes down to relationships, too—as I feel that ALL of publishing does. It’s my hope (and has been my experience in several recent situations, actually) that if I lay out a rational timeline and explanation of what hurdles I need to get through in order to make the offer I’m hoping to make, an agent will recognize the serious intent and choose to work WITH me, not against me, even if they’d have preferred to have sold the book yesterday.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but while I’m glad the conversation has been opened (thanks, Cheryl & Michael!), I do think the whole things unscores something worrying about the current system, which feels a bit unsustainable to me—there more and more agents every day, submitting more and more and more manuscripts to less and less editors (who are also managing more and more projects)—and something is going to break down eventually! As editors, do we dare miss the opportunity to buy a project that an agent went out with 2 or 3 days ago that we’d really love if only we had time to read it and get an offer together? And what if doing so means poorly serving the books-in-progress that we also really loved when we bought them--projects that also now desperately need our attention right now, too? I wonder what Ursula Nordstrom would say to it all?

  19. Thanks for your comments, Molly! Brilliant as usual.

    And, yes, I think agents and editors can work together to make sure the time that is necessary is given for an editor to get done what needs to get done.

    On your final paragraph, I think that while the current situation in publishing -- with many editors being let go and becoming agents -- will cycle again and balance out. There just isn't enough good material to go around to support too many agents.

    - Michael

  20. Hello Michael,

    I feel I need to clarify something I said. I didn't mean that longer deadlines will guarantee higher advances, but only that they'd grant more time to analyze the projects and make wiser decisions, which is good for the publishing industry as a whole.

    However, you obviously know the market better than I (unpublished as I am, for now) and if you say, and the editors agree, that you are fair then I have nothing less to say. This is what I'd expect from an agent (tough but fair). Maybe I was too harsh on my comment, and I apologize if you felt it was somehow unpleasant. It was not my intention.

    Finally, I must say the debate is most interesting and valid. Something important to reflect upon. Thanks for sharing your opinion and stimulating this.

  21. Mariana -

    No offense taken! I've got a pretty thick skin, anyway. Glad you enjoyed the debate. I'm hoping to bring more to the blog!

    - Michael

  22. Editor wants to have her cake and sit on it for a while too.

  23. I don't think Cheryl Klein's proposal deserves such a snide remark. I also don't think any of us authors out here would truly mind waiting for two to three weeks for a response (which is what was suggested by Ms. Klein, I believe.)

    For that matter, I would rather feel that my manuscript had been carefully considered and attended to by several editors, and choose the best combination of editor-house from the greatest number of choices, than to have my offer 10 days faster. I'd hope my book would be around for years, and that the relationships would last for years, and that those 10 days would recede into irrelevance.

  24. Michael,
    My hopes are that I will find an agent who loves my characters and wants to put them with the best home. I'm not really bothered about how much money each MS makes. I write because I love it. I go into my own world when I write, nothing else matters.

    I've had several personal positive rejections from editors, but by the time they arrive in the mail my heart has moved on to another story.

    I've been researching agents and the most important thing I look for on their websites or blogs is that if they are an agent for the writer, not for the book. Michael, it sounds like you do that.

    Jany Yolen told me she has been with the same agency her whole career. They represent her no matter what genre she writes. That's what I want, I never know what whether it will be a poetry day, a picture book day, a non-fiction article day, to work on my MG WIP or my YA WIP. She said having an agent means you don't have to spend time trying to find a home for your work, you can concentrate on producing more work.

    That is what I want. The freedom to write and not worry about where to send my work.