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.