Agents and geological time

I would wish you a happy Columbus Day, dear readers, but I happen to have grown up in an area renowned for the nastiness of how European settlers dealt with the locals. (I’ll spare you the whole story; it involved waiting until the native males were gathered in a ritual steam bath, then nailing the door shut. Fire, I’m told, was negatively involved.) Rather changes one’s view of Columbus, it does. But happy bank holiday anyway.

I’ve been concentrating in my last few postings on dealing with agencies, in the hope that some of you are even now being solicited by some of the best agents in the biz. For many writers, the actual moment of solicitation can be very, very disconcerting: after years of plowing through uncertainty and rejection, an agent who says yes can look a whole lot like the Archangel Gabriel. Often, writers are too dazzled by their own good fortune to ask pertinent questions.

One of the big questions that does get asked unasked is, unsurprisingly, “What are your plans for my book?” Equally surprisingly, at least to me, agents’ replies to this question are often rather vague, and this can give a false impression that they are either being evasive or that they have not thought about it much.

Actually, to the ear of a good agent, this question translates thus: “Who specifically will you be approaching first? Will it be a phone call, lunch, or coffee? Why is this the best publishing house for it?” Agents, in short, do not tend to think in vague terms.

So throw ’em a lifeline. Ask instead, “Are you planning to do individual submissions, or multiple submissions?” This question does not require translation for the agent to understand, and will elicit much of the information that most writers have in mind when they ask for a plan.

Did you think I was going on without explaining the difference between individual and mass submissions? Would I do that to you? Individual submissions are the more common for fiction. The agent pitches your work to an editor (via phone, lunch, coffee, chance meeting), and if the editor sounds interested, your manuscript or book proposal will wend its way to the editor’s desk. I would like to report that once there, it is instantly pounced upon and eagerly read by the editor, but in all likelihood, it will sit there for awhile, in a pile with other manuscripts. Here is where your agent’s persistence will really pay off: a good agent who cares about a project will keep on nagging unmercifully until your manuscript gets read.

How long can it sit there? Well, as I have mentioned, my agent is one of the wonders of the modern world. She believes deeply in my work, likes my projects — and I have now had a novel sitting at a well-known publishing house for seven months. In a way, this is good: I hear it has been read by most of the underlings who need to read it before the editor in charge, and if any of them had hated it, the manuscript would have been tossed out of the building. However, as you may see, this is not a situation where anyone concerned should be holding her breath, waiting for a response.

I wish I could say that such time lapses are unusual, but they are not. I know writers who have had good books held by editors for over a year — both books that the editor eventually acquired and books that the editor rejected. What will NOT happen, however, is that a book will be rejected and STILL remain sequestered in editorial files. While there is holding, there is hope.

From the writer’s point of view of course, this is maddening. The only sane response is to leave the whole matter in your agent’s hands and start working on your next book, but few among us have that kind of sang froid. In my case, I am lucky enough to have a memoir coming out next year: I certainly have plenty to do. Yet even I find myself wondering if the manuscript of my novel will sit so long in one place that the paper will spontaneously produce leaves, acorns, perhaps even an entire tree. Someday, will archeologists be trying to estimate the age of my manuscript by its rings? Or in geological time, if it petrifies?

This is, of course, the primary drawback to individual submissions of a manuscript. “Aha!” I hear you cry, “then I should press my agent for multiple submissions!”

Well, not necessarily. Multiple submission (also known as simultaneous submission; check out my postings for the end of September for a glossary of standard publishing terms) is, as the name implies, when your book or book proposal is sent to many editors at once. Nonfiction is very often sold this way, as is any book expected to generate an auction. Your agent will pitch your book (over the phone or the aforementioned comestibles), the editor will express interest, your book or book proposal will be sent, and this process is repeated with your agent’s entire A-list of editors.

The advantage of this is that interest from several editors can engender a bidding war. It can also speed up the submission process considerably. The disadvantage, however, is that it makes your book very subject to the winds of gossip. If half the editors say no, the other half will probably hear about it. (Yes, New York is a big city, but in many ways, its publishing world is a small town. Your agent’s assistant probably went to college with assistants of a couple of the editors who will see your book. People talk.) If one editor makes an offer, you can bet your boots that Books can go from very hot to very not in a matter of days.

For those of us who reside in more laid-back portions of the country, the speed of Manhattanite collective changes of mind can be perplexing. Why, we Pacific Northwesterners wonder, does everyone want the same thing at the same time? Surely, the book market is more complex than that?

I wish I could explain this phenomenon, my friends, but I can no more explain fads in the book market than I can fads in fashion. Why is it that when you walk into an NYC publishing house, all of the editorial assistants will be dressed more or less the same? Beyond me. (For a more extensive discussion of editorial fads and how they affect writers, see my posting of Sept. 6.)

Every time I encounter it, I am reminded of the time that I was writing for LET’S GO. It was my first post-college writing gig: I had been assigned to cover practically every small town of remote interest to tourists in Washington and Oregon. (What do you want to know about the pie at truck stops?) Because the job paid, essentially, nothing, I generally wrote my copy by firelight on rickety picnic tables while my boyfriend-at-the-time fended off marauding bears and curious squirrels. A good time was had by all.

In one such small town, the local tourist bureau had directed us to a genuinely unspoiled masterpiece of nature: 21 miles of unbroken beach, so much sand that intrepid souls were allowed to drive along it. It was the middle of a lovely summer day, so my boyfriend and I parked the car on a deserted patch of sand and settled down for lunch. Nothing but seagulls, water, and sand, as far as the eye could see. Until a car with New York plates came driving down the beach, parked about ten feet away from our car, and disgorged a flock of chattering children.

To West Coast eyes, this was just a tad strange. After some preliminary pleasantries, I asked the driver why, with so much empty beach, he had elected to stop right next to us. He looked at me very strangely. “It was where the people were,” he said. “It must be the best place.”

This same mentality seems to pervade the publishing world, alas. If the editor holding your book at the moment knows that other editors want it, it automatically becomes more valuable to him. Don’t try to reason it out more than that: it is one of the great mysteries of life, like the origin of evil and why the line you chose always moves more slowly than the others. Just look out your window at the Pacific Northwest verdure, reflect that you can probably see more trees from your office window than are in the entirety of Central Park, and reconcile yourself to regional differences in character. Remember that you perplex them, too.

So, too, should you regard the mystery of the alternation of glacially-slow reading times and we-need-you-to-overnight-your-changes urgency. Panic and apathy often seem to be the only two possible states of being. It might occur to you, living in an environment where the air is breathable, that it would in fact be theoretically possible for agents and editors to come up with a temporal plan, where one event follows another in a logical manner, and deadlines may be met with the calm tranquility that only comes from advance preparation.

Take my advice: don’t try to present this quaint view to people in the New York-based publishing industry, lest you be labeled a West Coast Flake. Instead, just take quiet steps to insure your own inner peace and personal tranquility, and let them get on with their heart-stopping perpetual panic. And no, I am not talking about meditation: I’m talking about adding two weeks to any negotiated deadline, so you may finish making your changes without losing too much sleep. I’m talking about pretending that FedEx does not serve your remote part of the country; the USPS’s Priority mail is more than fast enough for a manuscript that will sit on an editor’s desk until the next Ice Age.

My point here (and I’m relatively sure that I still have one) is that the more you know about your prospective agent’s preferred solicitation style up front, the more stress you will be able to save yourself down the line. Will you be dealing in the geological timeframes of individual submissions, or the live-or-die gamble of multiple submissions? Either way, get a solid explanation now, before the panic begins, because honey, trying to get an explanation from a Manhattanite agent in the middle of a panic is like Dorothy trying to talk philosophy with the cyclone that landed her in Oz.

Learn what you can first, then hold on for the ride.

And wherever you are in the process, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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