A while back 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.
I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.
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.
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. The industry is also populated by a lot of very creative people, and creative types aren’t exactly known for their punctuality.
(I will also say that there are plenty of very punctual people in publishing who work with incredible speed and dexterity.)
What’s “normal” in publishing isn’t normal elsewhere
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 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 they’re paid the big bucks! Oh… they’re not? Hmmm… But free books, right??
Can you judge agents and editors by their response times?
I agree with literary agent 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.
But I disagree slightly with the idea that the reverse is also true: as in, some agents and editors who handle their submissions quickly may actually be slow to get back to their own clients and authors. 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 devoted to tracking how agents respond to queries. If an agent was known for getting back to queries quickly and yet neglected their clients: whoa boy would those clients know quickly.
I tend to think a fast query/manuscript response time is indicative of punctuality with clients.
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.
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D. G. Hudson says
Thanks, Nathan, for sharing your thoughts on the discussion of 'wait' times between the editor and the agent. We need patience – or a Zen garden to rake.
It's always good to know what we're up against,so we can endure the waiting period. No matter how much research is done, there's no way of knowing if a particular agent is bombarded with queries or manuscripts when we seek representation.
You are one of the exceptions, as you have stated that you are still open to being queried, but do all agents provide that information?
Jen C says
I made a comment on a popular writing forum about what I think is excessive amount of time to get books onto the shelves and I got flammmmmmed.
So it is with trepidation that I say I think 18 months – 2 years to publish a book is crazy. Crazeeee. (I have a thing for extending letters in words today. I expect it to pass sooooon.)
Jen C says
Ummm, not saying it ALWAYS takes over 18 months to publish, but I think even a year is a bit too long.
It's taking me more than a few weeks to complete my first novel. I should have patience for the rest of the process. After all, it's not fast food we're making here! Then again, I'm so wet behind the ears I could drown, so what do I know?
Nathan, as to your point about those who take days, weeks or months to reply to a simple question, I think that’s indicative of a pervasive lack of manners that has somehow crept into the social norms of today. It's sad when we fall over ourselves in appreciation for the one or two people who actually reply promptly!
While in the library yesterday, I picked up a bookmark for the fantasy genre which lists the currently most popular authors for that genre. I noticed most of those names, like David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, T.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, etc, are authors who've been around for twenty plus years. Only a couple of names I wasn't familiar with so I hoped they might be new authors.
I Googled one, Traci Harding, (an Aussie) and her first novel was published in 1996. The other author, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, is a fellow Aussie, too, whose work was ‘discovered’ on the Internet and published by Time Warner in 2000. Wow – how lucky for her. No waiting time for editor/publisher responses there.
In my never-ending and eternal intellectual property lawsuit, I've had to deal with the copyright office several times.
They may have finally gone to an online application system, but the website masks one of the most provincial organizations in government. I swear, they don't print documents, they have monks render them in calligraphy. Must be former publishing professionals!
BTW, average wait time in federal court for a request for a 7-day continuance is 90 days. Then, they will give you a written opinion granting you the seven days you asked for three months earlier. Response time on a real motion? Somewhere between 60 days and never . . .
I will comment on this post in two months.
Laura Martone says
I agree with you, Jen C. I often don't understand why it takes so long to produce a book. I really don't. (*head shaking*)
I know I'm a "newbie" in the fiction world, but for my travel guides… it usually takes a year, too. For my last one, I wrote the outline in May 2008, worked on the text/photos/maps through the summer and fall, proofed it in January 2009, and saw the finished book in April.
At least with the travel guides, the lag time makes a little more sense. After all, the Avalon editors has to layout more than just text – there are maps, callout boxes, photos and captions, an index, etc. Sometimes, the lag time for a novel makes less sense to me. But, remember, I am a "newbie". 🙂
Laura Martone says
Haha, Liz. Oh, wait, that was a joke, right?
P.S. I meant to say "the Avalon editors HAVE to" – oops.
Marilyn Peake says
Interesting blog post and discussion. Coincidentally, I saw the movie JULIE AND JULIA tonight. I knew part of it was about a blog, but I didn’t realize beforehand how much of the movie was about books, including Julia Child’s first book, and the long and painful road to publication. I'm so glad I went to see it. It’s an awesome movie, especially for writers!
N.Hasnat (sometimes Senzai) says
I was torn during this amazing back and forth volley of ideas, all rooted in solid logic. Michael in my agent and of course I want him to get the best deal for me as possible, but I also want all the editors he subs to have ample time to consider my work. Aaahhh, so hard!
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Joseph L. Selby says
Aside from all the jobs I had in my teenage and college, I've only ever worked in publishing, so perhaps this is the same all over. There are two types of "takes three months to respond" people. There are the people who are required to perform far more than their job is supposed to do. This happens more and more often. They keep up with things for awhile until a mistake is made. A mistake isn't just an inconvenient error that may upset a few people. Mistakes back everything up. There are meetings and phone calls and more meetings and more meetings. Once these people fall behind, there's little they can do to catch up and the rest of their career seems to be in a perpetual state of trying to catch up. The other people are in positions they shouldn't be in. They're disorganized and don't understand their jobs. I have encounter more people in publishing that I honestly can't fathom how they were hired to do their job. They have no understanding of what they do or how to do it. It takes them forever to answer email because they have to ask a hundred other people what the answer is before they can reply. Not only are they slow, but they slow other people down who have to hold their hands (yet we don't get a percentage of their salary and they usually make more then us, what the hell is that about?). These people will never improve and will always be slow. You can only hope a new position is created they can be promoted into so someone more capable may move into their spot.
Joseph L. Selby says
Time of year also makes a huge difference. If you're emailing a low priority or unsolicited email in certain months, don't expect the person to spend time on an immediate answer. Sending a survey to a media department in educational publishing in June-August or December is a waste of your time and theirs. Send it in February or March when things are slow and they have more time then they have projects.
Very interesting read- Nathan, I remember long ago you had suggested that authors not send queries around the holidays. What is the best time to send queries? I'm reading that books are being sold to bookstores for spring 2010-is there a time when agents and editors are voraciously looking for that new best seller?
Example: If an author has two picture book manuscripts sitting in a drawer waiting for yet another rewrite, should said author plan ahead and get those books out at a specific time?
Christine H says
Side note: publishing people are word people, and some of us have trouble banging out quick emails. I've watched my boss write a three sentence email and squint at it for 15 minutes changing back and forth between "expediently" and "speedily" on word choice. Torture.
ROFLMAO!!!!! I can totally picture that.
Christine H says
By the way, all of this has just reduced the pressure I've been feeling to hurry up and finish my manuscript. What's a year or two more in the whole process?
Cody Bye says
I currently work as an online website editor, and the pace comparison between print publishing and 'net publishing is incredible. If I don't respond to a client in 5-15 minutes, I may lose the story/advertising forever.
I'd love to see the publishing world speed the pace up a bit, even it it's only a week or two.
Christine H says
F. P. said:
"When you, a writer, query on speculation, you're basically spamming. No one's obligated to get back to you right away on your spam. Really, people aren't obligated to get back to you at all."
By definition, spam is "Spam is the abuse of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately." (a la Wikipedia.)
If an agent requests that queries be submitted to him or her via email, then those queries are not unsolicited, nor are they abusive of the email system, nor are they sent in bulk.
Agents who request email submissions therefore *do* have a professional obligation to respond in a timely manner. Even an auto-reply is preferable, IMO, to no response at all. For me, timely would be within a week, knowing the massive amount of material they receive.
Christine H says
P.S. By "reply" I meant an acknowledgment that the query had been received, not a decision about representation.
Wow. I know I would hate it if someone judged me entirely based on how long of a response time I gave them. My abilities are so much more than time-based.
Good point, Christine.
Way long ago, 9 months to be exact, before I even came to this blog, I wrote a pretty bad query letter and sent off my sweet but unexciting PB to some random agency. I liked their website; it was pretty.
The agency said on their website that they would respond within 3 months no matter what.
Nothing. At 6 months I sent a follow-up (they said I could.) Nothing.
I just got my form rejection a couple of days ago. It was an exceedingly nice form rejection, really nice. They even apologized for being late with their response.
So adding this up: bad query, PB that's probably not publishable unless I was a known name and a very nice rejection letter, it all still doesn't matter.
I would have a terrible time getting myself to ever query them again. 9 months to send a form rejection on a 500 word PB. They may not care that they lost a potential client, after all I may never write something they want to publish, but they did.
I just couldn't bring myself to ever query them again.
Thank you for the agenttracker link, Nathan. That's a great resource. Only there's no "memoir" on the agent genre list.
I feel rejected already.
I've noticed that writers are tending to pick up the same bad habit of not responding to emails and private messages. It's rude. In the real world, it is not acceptable.
I reply to every submission that I get and I tell people if they don't hear back from me within a certain amount of time or by a certain date to ask me about it. I have inadvertently deleted a submission before. There really is no reason not to let writers know what is going on with their submission and when they can expect to hear from the agent or editor. Even if it is going to be three months to a year before the person can give a yay or nay, at least the writer knows when to expect an answer.
F. P. says
That's one definition of spam; others don't require bulk mailing. They only require an unsolicited communication. Even directly putting out an ad in a newspaper advertising something and then everyone responding expecting a response back–that seems ridiculous to me. The newspaper ad didn't solicit each and every person individually. Also, spam doesn't require emailing; that word's used for snail-mail junk mail too, at least I've always used it for that.
Any not-specifically-requested "selling"-like communication received by an individual or place–that's basically spam to me. Some kinds of spam are worse than others, the bulk kind being the absolute worst, which sending in to publishing insiders could fit, because few writers send manuscripts only to one or two places and that's it. And too many writers DO bulk send in the worst way, not even targeting insiders. These writers make their way down a list, sending to one after another.
In my opinion and experience, many publishing insiders don't really want writers sending in or don't want, period, any unsolicited materials. Sometimes without their consent these insiders are listed at aggregate-listing places; they may also post contact info on their own sites as a courtesy, and even directions for how to send in, but they don't necessarily want to take on new clients, new projects. They don't say this outright, maybe because they're afraid they may put off someone who winds up being "somebody" someday, but that's how they really operate.
Too much of publishing (and business in general) operates fakely. Unfortunately, this is reality. And reality can be more subtle than most people would like. And you won't necessarily find this reality in a Wikipedia entry. Reality's something people must learn by for-a-long-time actually experiencing what's going on from the inside of whatever's in question.
This is the way I think things work in this "submission" system. If writers don't like that system, they should try to change it and/or stop using it. I have, because I don't like it, not that I'm against the minor spamming of sending in manuscripts; I'm primarily against insiders not reading manuscript pages first. I'm against requirements that writers provide about-the-writer info (credentials, who they know or don't know) when only the actual works should count when judging the actual works. And those works should be seen FIRST. Writing's primarily about wriTING to me, not wriTERS.
When I did solicit insiders for my works–see, IIII solicited them, not the other way around–I'd always include some manuscript pages (and SASEs of course). As I've said, I worked in publishing; I know publishing people turn into obsessive readers and will glance at stuff they don't want to read, as long as that stuff's in front of their faces. I later got confirmation of this at a writer's conference when someone asked about this and the agent there admitted–reluctantly–that, yeah, if you include actual pages, most agents will look at them even when they've said they wouldn't.
One last thing: in my opinion, editors and agents have a professional obligation to respond TO THEIR CLIENTS, TO THE WRITERS THEY'RE LEGALLY INVOLVED WITH, and to no one else (not counting when they specifically request something, as I said in my first post here). At places like this too many writers spend lots of time wasting insider time, asking questions that have already been answered, asking questions that maybe should have never been asked, just basically wasting time NOT WORKING ON THEIR MANUSCRIPTS. These writers are often short-term thinking: let's say they someday land an agent or publisher; would they honestly want those insiders wasting half their days responding to non-clients? Always put yourself in someone else's place because you may actually be there someday.
Whenever I sent in unsolicited material, I knew I came LAST. That's the way it should be.
Cheryl Klein's comments – in her own name (which give her more credibility, to my thinking) – and then Bouret's response create an interesting dialogue. I"m not familiar with her imprint but I couldn't help wonder, are there auctions happening in the YA / middle grade / picture book world? Her points – and Bouret's counterpoints – seemed more keyed towards a Curtis Settenfield or Dave Eggers than even the most well regarded children/teen author.
F. P. says
Christine, more simply:
You said, "If an agent requests that queries be submitted to him or her via email, then those queries are not unsolicited…"
–I think there's a difference between statements like
"Any queries should be sent to this address…"
and, point blank,
"Send me queries at this address. I'm actively looking for new material."
–The former statement isn't an advertisement to me; the latter statement is somewhat (though this does depend on the context of where they're made).
I think if writers are going to query, that they distinguish between the two types is important. Expect nothing from the author of the first statement.
However, I still think responding to either without a personalized invitation would be an unsolicited response, would basically be spamming (by my definition above). But if an insider doesn't respond after making the second type of statement, that does look bad.
Nathan – I saw on here before that you said it may take you 3-6 hours to read a client's manuscript. But how long does it to take to actually make the time to sit down and read it?
I wonder if taking a few weeks to get back to a client on their latest draft is normal.
Nathan Bransford says
I personally think writers should allow their agents a month or more before getting back to clients on manuscripts. I try my very best to get back to clients within a week or two, but sometimes there's a reading queue and that's not always possible.
LOL you are soo funny! I busted a gut! "Borgs are real"! Soooo funny!
But yes he answered my pitiful query (It was pretty bad as it was months ago and I didn't know how to really 'sell' my piece) in no less than eleven minutes after I sent it. Rejected of course, but Borg is sooo funny! Had too laugh. Startled my husband!