Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Response to "In Response to [My Previous Post]"

Agent extraordinaire Michael Bourret wrote a swift response to my modest proposal of last night; as he did me the courtesy of not putting words in my mouth, I'll do the same for him, and you can read his full reply here. He writes in part:

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.
Well, honestly, assuming a submission was made under the terms of my post, you would tell that editor to go back and read his or her cover letter, because you would have said clearly that you would not be making a decision on offers until a specified date. In other words: You'd be passing up the chance of a pre-empt in return for the chance of having all the editors to whom you submitted a manuscript giving it their best and most thoughtful reads and crafting a thorough and substantive offer. Sure, it's a risk, and one that might not be right for every agent or every project; but if you're a good agent with good authors (as Michael is), and thus fairly sure of having several editors interested, it might pay off even further in the range of participation you'd get and the number of editors who might come to the auction table. As Arthur pointed out once, "If EVERYONE is given the same timeline, then no one benefits from being first. It's being best that counts."

Michael continues:
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.
But the fact that "doing all of that work in a short period of time" is the only way to have a shot at buying said manuscript makes speed the most important measure of the editor's energy and enthusiasm. And this is not a good thing, as it creates the "lemming mentality" and unsustainable advances Michael speaks of later in his post. To quote Arthur again: "The fact that one editor may be able to marshal an offer more quickly than another isn't a definite indication that that editor will bring the most skill or influence or passion to a project ultimately, or to an author in the long run. And it's CERTAINLY not an indication that the house will be behind the author more firmly, or better able to publish her/him. It's simply an indication that the house's acquisitions procedures are more streamlined" -- that said editor could get approval quickest. Which is great for that editor, but which counts for very little in the long, long life of a book.

Michael concludes, "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." It is his perfect right to do this, and I certainly wish him and his clients well. And, for the record, the proposal was a suggestion of a useful method for submitting to me (and all editors) -- certainly not a prerequisite for agented submissions, since every agent is free to set his or her own terms, as Michael is doing here.

But I would say that publishing works best when all of our interests are served -- when editors have time to bring their best energies to a project; when houses have time to craft their best offers for that project; when an author and agent have time to consider all of these offers' strengths and weaknesses, and match those with their plans for the author's long-term success. This is not fiction. It really does happen. We'd love to see it happen more. My thanks to Michael for engaging this conversation, and thanks again to all agents for considering these ideas.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Cheryl, that was very interesting... I can see exactly what both of you are saying, although I think I'd like to see things happen your way, because you are right, more time means having a house more behind a project and it also means more options for the author to find the editor who is their publishing soul mate...but waiting is hard too. Would love to see other responses to this.

  2. Oh wow...this is fascinating. This is one of those rare situations where I see both sides clearly--and have no idea which is the better solution.

    Either way, I love seeing the debate!

  3. Yes, thanks for posting both sides of the debate! Such good points all around it's hard to choose just one side.

  4. As an author, I'd prefer for an editor to take the time to read my manuscript thoughtfully; and all the editors I know are swamped. This rush-rush thing sounds like those big kids who used to cut in line in grade school, frankly. It even smacks of what Jean Twenge calls "The Narcissism Epidemic" in her book by that name. ("MY project matters more than anybody else's!") Besides, considering some of the wait times I've seen over the years, eight weeks sounds wonderfully short!

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Cheryl! I read both your post and Michael's yesterday, and like Beth, I can see cases for both sides. But . . . I think I hedge more to your perspective as giving ALL interested editors sufficient time to read a manuscript & get their respective houses on board would really be the best means of matching the right editor to the right manuscript.

  6. Thanks all! For the record, Michael posted a gracious response (on which I've commented) here:

  7. Perhaps I'm stating the obvious here (as you may recall, I tend to do that), and perhaps my point of view is biased by my world (i.e. what investment bankers and lawyers do when they auction companies or sell large blocks of stock), but I note the following:

    1. based on what you have described, everyone is acting like a rational actor would in a market.

    1a. when publishers pre-empt, they are trying to avoid getting into a situation where there will be a bidding war over a manuscript that they like alot, and therefore, by pre-empting, publishers may avoid overpaying for a manuscript. At the same time, pre-empting does tip the editor's hand about his or her interest level in a manuscript, which might affect future negotiations relating to the manuscript and which might influence the agent's decision to launch an auction on the manuscript.

    1b. when agents try to force publishers into this auction situation, I imagine that the whole purpose is to whip up interest and create "pricing tension" (i.e. a situation where there are lots of bids that force the price up) and to extract a "full" price for the manuscript.

    2. By asking agents to provide a deadline for editors to respond, you're potentially weakening an agent's ability to get the best price because you're potentially limiting their ability to whip up interest among editors. Imagine if an agent in his or her cover letter asked that editors send indications of interest and offers by date X. By date X, isn't an agent's position potentially weakened if no one or not many people respond? Because in that situation, the agent is forced to call around to try to drum up more interest--you can't negotiate a better price without having an alternative.

    (I must confess that an agent's job might be more than just to get the best "price" -- softer considerations like editorial "fit" are probably considered as well).

  8. To me, this sounds like the smell of money is the main guideline in all of this. What Michael reminds me of is the salesmen who understands that if someone is left the time to think about the purchase, it probably won't happen. What has publishing become, that's my question? Where are the days when literature was the prime consideration? All I hear here is let's bid up the price and make my agency some money. Good for the agent but is it really good for the writers, and what about publishing in general? Have NYC agents ever heard of killing the goose who lays golden eggs? You all know that sooner or later the money is going to be gone, don't you? This can't go on forever, can it? Seems you guys are trying to make it happen as quickly as possible.

    There should be a moratorium where reasonable limits are set on advances. A few years ago seven figures made news. Now seven is no big deal. Now it's five or six or even god knows many millions it now takes. Where does it stop? I agree with Cheryl here. Time should be given to read and consider the MS and to come up with a deal that's reasonable for everyone. Publishers should not be forced by agents or anyone into making decisions that don't make good business sense.

  9. This has been a really interesting dialogue to follow. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. It's good to know where editors are coming from.