Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An Open Letter to Agents, with a Modest Proposal Regarding Submissions

Dear Agents:

I love you. You guide difficult manuscripts into submissible shape; you send me the resulting interesting projects; you look out for your authors' best interests in a contract negotiation (even if we don't always agree on what those are); you act as sounding board and go-between should some sticky situation arise in the publication process; and ultimately you are our partners in working with the author to publish the book.

But there is one pattern in our current submissions system that I wish you and I (or rather, all agents and all editors) could work together to break. In the past few months, I’ve several times had members of your esteemed company submit a project to me and other editors on Monday, then call on Wednesday (once even Tuesday) to say that they’re expecting an offer, and on Thursday to announce that the auction will be held early the next week, if not sooner. This is understandably exciting for the authors and agents involved, and it must be very gratifying for you all to have such intense and immediate interest.

But I would argue that this is not a good process for helping your authors build the long-term, profitable, sustainable careers they’re (and you're) looking for. Why not? Because you’re limiting the pool of editors who are going to be able to respond with a strong offer in that super-short period of time. Not only is it usually difficult to drop everything on our desks to read and consider a 250-page manuscript (see Alvina’s post here for what that “everything” includes), we often have to get other people on board as well. Some editors have to take a manuscript to an editorial board and get second reads. Some of us have to take it to our bosses. Some have to go before an acquisitions committee, which often means preparing cover sheets, P&Ls, an author bio, a pitch to pass on to Sales—more or less an entire, well-thought-out publication plan. Sometimes we want to get Marketing to weigh in and craft a marketing plan as part of our offer. Some editors—like me—like to talk to the author to be sure that the author-editor relationship is the right fit and we're on the same page regarding future revisions. There are lots of pieces involved in putting an offer together, one that will be both financially and artistically sustainable and successful for both the book and the house—

And none of those pieces are improved by speed. Indeed, oftentimes they’re hurt by speed. The editor who’s desperate to get that second read has to give the ms. to a colleague who’s already stressed out—so she doesn’t like it. Marketing has no time to read the manuscript, so they have to craft a plan based on a plot summary. It's much harder to think through what a book needs editorially and publishing-wise when you're doing it under extreme pressure to make an offer or pass a ms. on. And when you have to get reads from everyone immediately, the burden of proof on a manuscript becomes proportional to the size of the interruption you’re demanding . . . because if you want everyone to drop everything to read it, plus you have to justify what will likely be a high advance in an auction situation, by God, it better be great. And never mind all the participation you agents aren't getting from editors who are out on vacation, or at Sales Conference, or simply swamped with deadlines when you want a response in 72 hours.

Now I am not protesting here against multiple submissions or auctions or having to work hard to acquire a manuscript; those are all facts of modern publishing life, and what you agents need to do to find the right (or at least most lucrative) home for a book. And I can read as fast as anyone else when I need to—I’ve acquired projects at auction, and I’ve been that damnable editor preempting a manuscript myself.

Still, I’d like to make a modest proposal regarding the multiple submission procedure. This is a method some agents and foreign-rights directors already use; we always appreciate it when we see it, and I don’t think it’s hurt their manuscript sales. It’s this: When you send out the manuscript, say in your cover letter that you will not make a decision about any offers until a certain date—at a minimum, a day three weeks from the date of the submission, and better still four to eight weeks out. And then stick to that, please.

This allows all of us editors a reasonable time frame in which to read the manuscript, and then:

  • If we are at houses that have an editorial or acquisitions board, it gives us time to get second reads or prepare our materials for the committee; and if there is some additional material an editor alone cannot provide, like a marketing plan, it gives those people time to create those materials with thoughtfulness and imagination.
  • If we are the kind of editors who like to talk to authors before we acquire a book, it gives us time to have these conversations in a rational rather than pressured manner, and time for the author to think through what he or she wants in an editor and look at prospective editors’ previous books and lists.
  • If we editors are on vacation/at Sales Conference/tied up in a big editorial project (like editing a novel by another one of the authors you represent), we won’t miss the opportunity to participate in the auction just because we are otherwise occupied when the submission arrives.
And it will benefit you agents and authors too, in that:
  • You know the editor is coming to the table with the full support of their house;
  • you know the editor has genuine enthusiasm for the project—it’s not just speed and competitiveness;
  • you can still take early offers, but you’re not beholden to them—you get to wait and see the full range of what might come in.
  • Then you will be able to craft the right deal for the book based upon a multitude of factors and not just who reads a manuscript the quickest.
  • And finally, if you have not heard from an editor by the date specified, you are perfectly justified in thinking that he or she does not have any interest, and letting him or her go by the wayside.
Will you please consider this? I, and several editors with whom I discussed the idea, would appreciate it, and editors who know you're reasonable and considerate of our needs will give your submissions priority. Authors who think “I don’t want to give up hearing news quickly” should remember that their purchased manuscripts might eventually get pushed aside so their editor can read the next must-be-read-yesterday submission. And patience is a great virtue for all of us to learn in publishing anyway.

Thank you for your time and consideration, dear agents, and I look forward to seeing more of the wonderful manuscripts you send my way.

With best wishes,

Cheryl Klein
Senior Editor
Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic

ETA: You can see further discussion of this idea in Michael Bourret's post here and my response to it here.


  1. That was wonderful! Great points.

  2. I would be very interested to read this from the agent's side, see their response.

  3. I agree with the others- very interesting. And I agree with you-if speed is so necessary, one has to wonder if the work is motivated by top of the moment fad, not a book that will last.

  4. I've never heard this, but what a good idea. I hope you guys get some participation on the agent side - I'm curious to hear if you get any feedback from them. Good luck!

  5. I concur. Another suggestion/solution: give editors two weeks (after you've alerted them that the book has received its first offer) to gather excitement from the group.

  6. I'm an agent and I agree 100% with everything written here.

    Do keep in mind, however, that ultimately it is the client calling the shots, and if the client chooses not to take an agent's advice, and wants to close an auction in a hurry, the agent must comply.

  7. I also agree with not rushing unnecessarily with a huge BUT...

    Individual editors are also big variables. Some are notoriously slow and some are notoriously fast. And each house has a different process to make an offer. So we're up against that too sometimes.

  8. Valid points, indeed. This is a business after all. a business with a schedule, with the desire to make profits. Sometimes speedy decisions are required to get on the fall list, or use the budget money, or lock in with that specific editor/ house...
    From the agent's viewpoint, going to auction can boost the price, and pump up interest. Nothing bad about that.
    From the author's viewpoint, after taking years to write and perfect the manuscript, years to find and sign with the right agent, the last thing you want to hear is that you have to wait some more. Most editors know within moments with a manu if it's right for them, if it's saleable, if it resonates with them, if they love it enough to work with the project. It seems the delays are all just reasons to NOT buy. To not take a chance, to lose out, to play it safe.
    And I think that's a disservice to debut authors, to the literary world and its evolution, to the promise you made when you sat behind that desk-- wasn't it your desire to find and support new writers and great books? Even if you had to lose some sleep to do it?

  9. Great article. As a former editor I do think about all an editor has to go through before she's able to make that offer and try to take that into consideration as much as possible when I get an offer. It's a tough balance. Sometimes the offering house doesn't want to wait as long (for obvious reasons) as I would like them to and sometimes editors just don't move quickly no matter how much we push them.

    The flipside to this is, I suspect, that if I say I won't make a decision until a certain date a lot of editors are going to sit on the material until that date is passed. No one wants to be the first in for some reason and the same rush is going to happen.


  10. 100% on board with this one as well. I do my best to give the editors I send something to a lot of time. Of course, the only thing I ask from the agent side is... if an editor says they will get back to us in say 4-6 weeks, when we do follow up, please answer the calls and emails. I am happy if an editor states, they simply haven't gotten to it due to schedules.

    Keep up the good work editors!

    Scott Eagan
    Greyhaus Literary Agency

  11. As exciting as it would be to have immediate interest and an auction at hand for one of my books, I really wouldn't want everything rushed like this.

    The only benefit I see is that it might create a sense of excitement over the manuscript and push the bidding higher, faster. If given eight weeks, some of that interest might die down.

    In the end, however, you're getting a lot more if everyone is making patient, informed decisions. Though, I'm among those that thinks a smaller advance is a smarter career decision anyway.

    Great post!

  12. Great topic! As a writer, it's interesting to hear how agents and editors feel about the finer points of submissions.

  13. It's great to hear a publisher's perspective on the crazy publishing process. It always amazes me how much goes into getting a novel to readers.

    As daunting as the process can seem (esp. after reading what you had to say), I am still pumped to the max to get my chance!

  14. Wow. Very interesting. My biggest reaction is just to say that I am so glad I'm an author and don't have to be involved in this process! :)

  15. I think writers need to hear this too! Logically, I know that waiting is a good thing, but it's sometimes hard to reconcile that with my eagerness to hold my book in my hands. A little insight into the whole process helps make it a little easier. (And I'm sure my agent thanks you too.)

  16. I'm an author who was born patient, and in most situations, I'm always more comfortable with a slower situation than a fast one. Thanks for posting this and making it available for all the world to read -- it's a great inside look at what's happening in the editorial world.

  17. As a writer, I find this all fascinating! And now I'm off to read the reply over at Dystal!

    I'll meet you over there....I hear they're serving cocktails.

  18. I'm just pleased to know my agent is doing things the right way. :)

  19. This is fascinating!

    As a writer, I have to say I'd much rather wait and give my book the best chance it has, then push for a quick answer.

    To answer Another Good Thing's point, I honestly think patience is the one thing aspiring authors need the most of, aside from perserverance. This industry is all about waiting, and we have to be okay with that if we want to be successful.

    Jessica Faust also has a good point (which Moonrat blogged about last week) in that sometimes editors wait for the agents to nudge before moving on a project, so that may pose a problem. I'd be interested to hear what other editors think of this idea?

    I think it's brilliant if the editors can realistically work within that timeframe :).

  20. There is a response to your proposal here: with which I disagree.

    I find your proposal very coherent and professional, and hope my (future) agent will agree with this.

    After all editors are human beings too, and should be allowed to breathe. Three days? C'mon!

  21. Just out of curiosity ... what IS the fastest that you've ever acquired a manuscript? And did it pay off?

    This is an interesting discussion. I can see the point of both sides, and am not sure what the answer is ... but I sure hope my agent does!!

  22. Responding to some comments here (I'm working on a longer individual response to Michael):

    Elanaroth -- agreed with individual editors and houses varying widely. But with this process, everyone has a reasonable time frame in which to go through whatever process their house has, and you have a reasonable date at which you can say "No response? Fine, I'm going with Editor X."

    Another Good Thing -- Yes, I LOVE debut authors, and I'm saying I can acquire them more and publish them BETTER if their agents will give me more time to make an offer and build support for the book internally.

    Chris -- I read Sara Lewis Holmes's OPERATION YES within a week, IIRC, and preempted it a week later. It has paid off in all senses.

  23. Thank you Cheryl, for mentioning that the editor might want to speak to the author as well as the agent! I may be unpublished as yet, but I want to care about and be appreciated in a mutual admiration bond with my editor....once upon a time.

    Kate Lacy

  24. Very interesting. I would say something about what speed cost, quality-wise, but I won't. However, then there's always the other foot-dragging side of the coin that we usually have to deal with.

  25. Having waited months (and heard of authors who waited YEARS) plural for editors to get around to reading agented submissions that I'm not too sympathetic to Cheryl on this one. The editor who responds quickly deserves to get the ms.

  26. Several points:

    1. As an ex-editor, I'd like to point out that most editors know immediately if a mss IS NOT for them more than that they know immediately that it IS for them. (Whih is why those should be dealt with at once and not left lingering on a pile.) But there is that stack of tickling mss. that have some problems but are otherwise speaking in a siren's voice, that we need to think a bit more about.

    2. Having been an author who has had a few books auctioned, I know about the rush of Auction Fever. But one can still make a decision at the end of the day (as long as it is not a pre-empt auction, and even then the author and agent make a decision early to allow a pre-empt) to go with a slightly lower bid in order to get a particular editor or house.

    3. What it all underlines for authors, though, is that editors CAN move fast if motivated. We just have to remember that it's the project itself that motivates them. Long waits are annoying--even at times devastatingly so--but they are NOT personal.

    Jane Yolen

  27. Whether it's personal or not, I think it's an abuse of power. They don't have to move, so they don't. If they can't make up their mind in six months, how effective a champion are they going to be for a book they hemmed and hawed over? My guess is- not very.

  28. Terrific blog post! Thank you, Cheryl.

    What I hope is that a really good agent knows which houses require committee and marketing dept. approval to make an offer on a book and that the agent would assist with this process... That a really good agent knows which editors in particular aquire quickly and which prefer a conversation with the author prior to making an offer, etc.

    And that a really good agent knows when you are on vacation.

    A super duper agent knows which editor at which house is likely the best shepherd for a particular work coming to the market and would assist this editor in accpeting a client's work in whatever manner required.

    Perhaps it's a crime of the heart to hope that an agent knows the one best opportunity for a client's work, and subsequent work, and would tailor a submission to this sole best opportunity for their client regardless of amount of advance and time required for an offer or a pass.

    And if a really good agent doesn't know what your editorial situation requires for you to aquire a book and make a successful publishing venture of it, they should be taking you to lunch next week to find out.

    P.S. Order dessert.