A Polite—and Fascinating—Conversation

modestThe other day, the easygoing and brilliant editor Cheryl Klein made “a modest proposal” on her blog (here) that, unlike Jonathan Swift’s, actually makes a lot of cynicism-free good sense. It’s a long, complicated post that you should read, but the gist of it is that when agented manuscripts garner pre-empt offers and then hasty auctions, the book may not land at the best house. There are all sorts of considerations that should be made in matching manuscript to house and editor, and to give all of those a backseat to Speed is to ill serve the book. So Cheryl proposes that manuscripts be submitted with timelines attached to them—well, here’s the proposal:

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.


Then super-agent and bran-muffin-afficionado Michael Bourret answered her here. And she responded to him here, and he replied again to her here. Both sides are winningly articulate, both make good points, and, I think, both are in the right to a good degree. Really, this kind of calm, impassioned debate is the whole reason I love to read blogs.

So, I’ve now been on both sides of this divide, as agent and editor, and I sympathize with both sides. But while I think Cheryl’s proposal has a certain utopian grace about it—really, that is how the world should be—I do not believe it is possible to get every agent in the industry to agree not to accept pre-empts, nor do I believe it is possible to get houses to stop trying to take books “off the table” with big piles of money and promises. This problem—if indeed it is a problem—is one that has come about due to the enthusiasm and cupidity of both agents and publishers.

I think Michael’s final response is entirely correct: Yes, it is difficult to quickly marshall the forces of a publishing house and gain support for an auction—but it is always difficult, isn’t it? I mean, if an editor can’t gather support now, what faith should we have that he or she will be able to stoke the fires of enthusiasm later in the process when it matters even more?

And honestly, most agents will allow passionate editors more time to put together an offer, because of course, we want the best advocate for the book and the author, but letting a hot submission sit idly for two months while the editor gets around to it doesn’t serve the manuscript so well, either. Michael is right that procrastination will rear its head (there is always another fire to put out), and it will be read quickly, at the last minute, and any offers assembled hastily. And we’re back where we started at. I know from my years in the trenches that the interest from other editors flagged certain submissions as worth dropping everything to look at (which is to say easily commercial or of unarguable literary merit).

It’s a thorny issue, and one with no solutions that will please everyone. How would you feel if your agent were to not accept any offers or interest for two months? Is this a modest proposal that the industry should adopt?

  1. Publishing works slowly enough without writers having to wait even longer to figure out whether or not they will even get an offer, let alone take an offer.

    I think this also forgets that many authors live hand to mouth, so getting even a modest advance may mean the difference between pulling an extra shift at the salt mine (which is not conducive to writing) or spending that time working on the next book.

    After reading both sides, I can’t really see how setting up an arbitrary timeline helps the writer. Like Michael pointed out, that just punishes the editors that did make the effort to get their stuff together.


  2. Ooh, this has been interesting. In my experience, pre-empts and auctions haven’t been the norm, but maybe I just suck.

    It wouldn’t bother me to have to wait for offers and I would rather work with the right editor and house. Publishing is so slow generally. Why the rush here?

    I might be talking out of my arse here, but this sort of seems like something that often could be planned with conversations ahead of submissions, so people don’t have to drop everything to give attention to a promising work. (It’s awesome when they do, though, so props to those people.)

    I recall reading somewhere that Jennifer Weiner’s agent did a lot of advance chatter for GOOD IN BED, so editors were ready for it. Maybe the element of surprise builds extra mouth-foaminess for some people, but I am a bit on the persnickety side and have to manage my schedule a couple of months ahead of time to meet my deadlines. If I were an editor, I think I’d like to know roughly what might cross my desk and when.


  3. I think it would depend on the situation and the reasoning behind wanting to wait. I agree about the problem of procrastination. When a person has their plate full and overflowing, there’s always going to be something that needs doing now.

    I’m not sure I would want the industry to adopt this way of doing things, because every situation is different: the timing, the book, and the people involved.

    I think this just underscores how important it is to find an agent that the writer feels has all of their best interests at heart.


  4. Fascinating discussion. Thanks for linking to it.

    I was convinced by her original plea and then I was swayed by his last answer. heh heh Im so easy. (Though I was sorry that he brought us back to reality and reminded us that most of us, if we are fortunate to be published, will never have a book go to auction. Bummer.)

    I just hope I find a smart agent who will take care of this stuff for me.

    My preference would be to find an editor who loves my work. But I assumed, and Michael affirmed, that agents match manuscripts to editors before they even send them out. So whoever makes the fast offer was already a good match, and his speed in offering proves that out, maybe.


  5. There must be a minimum time period acceptable to editors and a maximum acceptable to agents. Perhaps most agents and editors have already reached a compromise at 8 weeks?

    As a new author, I’m on the edge of my seat the whole time, but the reality is that 8 weeks are a blip in the overall life span of a book (I HOPE!), so I should get on with the next thing. I don’t always succeed, but I know that’s what I should do.


  6. I have been following Cheryl’s discussion, as well, and find it fascinating. Brooklyn Arden is an amazing blog and a treasure trove of writing information.

    Michael, I was excited to see this discussion highlighted in Upstart Crow’s blog and loved reading your take on the debate. I agree that there does not seem to be a clear answer to the issue. I can fully appreciate the “pressure cooker” atmosphere editors must be under when trying to push through a manuscript but I can also understand an agent wanting to jump on a great offer.

    However, not having experienced either side personally, I can only speak to my reaction as a writer. Regardless of the time frame given by the agent and accepted by the editors, I would trust the agent to send my manuscript to compatible editors, thus ensuring a good “home” if and when an offer is made, be it days or months later.


  7. This is a fascinating discussion that I’ve been following with interest. I, too, can appreciate both sides of the argument. In the cases where I’ve been lucky enough to have enough interest in a project to warrant an auction, I’ve always tried to give the other editors a chance to participate, even going so far as extending a deadline. But I also wasn’t going to ignore passion when I saw it.

    I really think what’s key is striking that perfect balance. You let everyone know if there’s serious interest and if one contender steps up above all the rest and makes a serious and substantial play and it feels like the right fit for the author, it’s best not to keep that person waiting too long. Cheryl’s point about the difficulties of announcing an auction three days after submission is completely valid, as are Michael B.’s counter points.

    Ultimately, it’s still about what is best for the book and the client, in my modest opinion.


  8. Cheryl Klien … pre-empt … how nice would that be?

    As a writer, I am finding this whole conversation/debate fascinating. I’m happy to see agents chime in with responses that put the client first but still respect the editor and what she has to go through within a reasonable amount of time to acquire a manuscript.

    Ultimately for me, I want my agent to sell to the best editor for me and my book and not to the highest bidder (although it would be nice if they were the same:). After all, I’m going to be working with this editor for the next however many months and maybe years. I want it to be the right fit. So I’ll defer to his expertise (which he has in spades) when it comes to how long and for whom we wait. That’s his job (thank God) and not mine.


  9. Thanks for the post, Michael. I love reading these insider discussions about the publishing business. Very enlightening!

    Regarding this topic, it’s hard to come down on one side over the other. However, I would imagine that successfully finessing an auction is akin to the ubiquitous wave story structure theory in that timing is everything. Establishing a uniform timeline disregards any kind of inherent momentum a particular project may engender. Force momentum to peak too soon and the anticipated offers may never materialize. Stretch the process out too long and the result may be a dribble of interest instead of a splash.

    On another note, how often do agents set up auctions? I’m sure every agent is different and editors get a constant stream of submissions, but are auctions the norm rather than the exception? Cheryl’s post prompted me to wonder if editors are forced to “drop everything” to read manuscripts up for auction all the time, which understandably would be very frustrating.


  10. Agents being in the writer’s court is what matters most. Of course, this comes from a writer’s perspective! The whole submission process is fascinating, and I love hearing agents and editors discuss it. Thanks for letting us be voyeurs in your conversations.;-)


  11. The problem with putting too much weight on the identity of the editor is that it’s a game of musical chairs. Editors frequently quit, get fired, suffer mental breakdowns and disappear on weeks-long alcohol and cocaine binges.

    Money, on the other hand, is money.

    Everyone should bear in mind that editors are employees of huge, soulless corporations which have a powerful interest in screwing writers out of their last penny. During negotiations the editor is not your friend. Once negotiations are done they may be your friend. And during negotiations they may be your passionate supporter. But as long as the money is at issue no one is a friend.

    Of course its your agent’s job to watch the money. But it’s your job to watch the agent. As my (slumlord and used car dealer) grandfather used to tell me: no one cares as much about your business as you do.


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  13. Compromise is clearly the key. After months and years of writing and a bajillion manuscript revisions, I’d be happy to give one or two months for editors to get their heads in the right place before they made an offer at auction. I’m guessing that for the success of a book, finding an editor that fits is far better than finding one fast, though I’m happy to put that responsibility in the agent’s lap.


  14. Michael Grant, you are so funny. Sad, but funny.

    Since you are so funny, I clicked your link. Got sucked in to the free reading of Gone at the Harper site. Now I’ll have to buy the books.

    Who says flitting around the blogosphere leaving comments expressing an informed but jaded opinion doesn’t pay off?


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