As you may have seen around the Book Internetosphere, there was an interesting back and forth blog discussion between Cheryl Klein, editor extraordinaire, and Michael Bourret, agent extraordinaire.
If I may butcher their (very nuanced) discussion with this rough summary: Ms. Klein suggested that agents should allow editors more time (say, two months) to put offers together as the editor who is able to assemble their offer the quickest and richest may not necessarily be the best editor for the book. Mr. Bourret then countered that the editor who gets an offer together quickly deserves credit for getting it together quickly, which bodes well for said editor’s ability to make other things happen for the book. Ms. Klein then countered that assembling an offer quickly reflects the editor’s and the house’s speed at putting together offers, not necessarily that they’re the best editor for the project, and that giving everyone time to weigh in assures that the project will find the most enthusiastic editor. Mr. Bourret then countered that the waiting two months for all offers idea really only works if every single agent adheres to it and thus is probably better in theory than in practice, although agents tend to give editors the time they need anyway.
And, in a major breath of fresh air, throughout the discussion they were very calm and respectful of each other’s opinions and after it was all finished they went bowling and drank lemonade together in a meadow full of tulips. I may have made that last part up. But seriously: it was great to see such an illuminating and respectful discussion and my hat’s off to them.
I’m not going to weigh in directly on their back and forth because I think they both raised interesting points and I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Instead there’s something that was tangentially part of the discussion (How long, really, should it take a publisher to get an offer together?) that has been on my mind lately. And that is: publishing time.
As anyone even remotely connected with the book world knows: things take forever in publishing. The industry works according to its own speed, and it’s a speed that people in other industries tend to find equal parts bewildering and maddening.
It can take ages for aspiring authors to hear back on their queries and manuscripts. It can take ages for an agent to hear back from editors about a book project, even on something like a short nonfiction proposal or a picture book manuscript. It takes forever for books to come out. It takes forever for checks to come from publishers (I shake my fist at you!!).
Now, let me first say that there is a fairly good, if incomplete, explanation for the pace of publishing. As I have said previously, a lot of people have to read a book in order to get it from an unsolicited query to a bookstore. And reading takes time. Selling into bookstores and developing and executing marketing plans takes lead time. There’s more reading to be done than is humanly possible. I get that. After the latest round of layoffs there are fewer people doing more work. The industry is also populated by a lot of very creative people, and creative types aren’t exactly known for their punctuality. And I will also say that there are plenty of very punctual people in publishing who work with incredible speed and dexterity.
But I kind of feel like the languid pace gets into some people in the industry and suddenly it takes two weeks or more to hear back on something that takes three key strokes and a one sentence e-mail to respond to. People don’t blush at getting back to people weeks or even months later, even about very simple questions. Some agents and editors don’t respond… ever. In what other industry would this be acceptable?
In case you haven’t noticed: it kind of drives me crazy.
I know we agents and editors are besieged with submissions that often have to be read at nights and on weekends. Part of the job is that it’s more than a 40 hour work week kind of a job. That’s why we’re paid the big bucks! Oh… we’re not? Hmmm… But free books, right??
I also completely agree with Jessica Faust that an agent’s response time on queries and manuscripts may not be indicative of how that agent works with their clients, because existing clients have to take absolute precedence. Agents who take a very long time to read manuscripts they’ve requested may actually be incredibly punctual with their clients and with editors. Yes, some agents are just slow at everything, but some agents have a full list and aren’t jumping on every query or manuscript that comes through the Inbox for the simple reason that they aren’t looking to take on many more clients.
But I disagree slightly with the idea that the reverse is also true: as in, some agents who handle their submissions quickly may actually be slow to get back to their own clients. While I’m sure there’s someone out there who fits this description, I don’t really think it’s very possible these days.
There’s a wealth of information about an agent’s query/manuscript response times on message boards, blogs… heck, there’s a whole website basically devoted to tracking how agents respond to queries. It’s hugely public information, probably the most public information about an agent that’s out there. If an agent was known for getting back to queries quickly and yet neglected their clients: whoa boy would those clients know quickly.
So, I may well be biased, but I do tend to think a fast query/manuscript response time is indicative of punctuality with clients.
But even aside from judging response times, if punctuality is important to you: talk to your agent before you sign with them. Ask about their response times with their clients, about their follow-up policy with editors, about how much they like to be in touch with their clients. Your prospective agent may try to mask their Publishing Time infection, but asking good questions may help you make a correct diagnosis.