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."
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.