A Polite—and Fascinating—Conversation
August 27, 2009

The 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.

Well.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?