I was having lunch with an editor today, discussing a proposal I am currently submitting to publishers.
"So," he said, "are you out wide with it?" He continued. "I always think you guys (agents) have a real decision to make every time you go out with something. Is there a time you only go to one or two people? To five? How does it work?"
And I knew I had today's blog post.
It is in fact one of the more interesting decisions to make when a book is ready and I'm thinking about where to send it. Sometimes I feel like there are particular editors who are perfect for it--certain novels, when I describe them to my assistant Danielle, get a "well THAT one has Prime Crime written all over it." (Or Midnight Ink. Or Knopf. Or Mulholland. Or Touchstone.) And she will tell me which editor she thinks I'm going to approach. And most of the time, at this stage, she is correct.
But why, then, don't I just send the book to that editor alone, wait for the offer, and be done with it? Well, for a couple of reasons.
The first, certainly, is that I'm not always right (shocking, I know). A great example was when I was submitting a novel where a real, famous, historical character, and it felt perfect for a particular editor at Simon and Schuster. I called, smugly, got around 30 seconds into my spiel when she interrupted. "Oh my God I HATE when people do that. HATE it. Send it somewhere else." Um, ok.
Another reason a First Choice Editor doesn't work is because the book IS up her alley--so much so that she has three other books just like it and her list is full.
Finally, of course, there is always the chance that the FCE will simply not like the particular projection have submitted--and these are the times we are reminded that this is an art, not a science.
So, then, how do we do this? How many people at a time is the "right" number?
Well, when I started in publishing for my first sojourn, in the early 90s, manuscripts were printed out and submitted by mail. There was expense and physical effort involved--printing, copying, mailing--and agents did small rounds of submissions. The problem with this method is that it has a tendency to be inefficient. Now, with advent of electronic submissions, there is an ease to the process (which we also see on the agent side, when authors regularly query tens and tens of agents simultaneously. I’m not saying this is wrong, although if you’re a writer you should not indiscriminately carpet bomb agents any more than we should send, say, a cozy to Crown Business.). The trick (which is also true for writers) is not to send a book to EVERYONE just because you can, but send to enough reasonable places so there is the best chance for the most people to like it. Then there can be what we call a Competitive Situation but writers call an auction.
So what's the "right" number? Most of the time, for a reasonably commercial novel or nonfiction proposal, I want to send to at least one imprint at each of the Big Six (five? Four?) houses (and most of the time more than one imprint each), and then to the relevant independent publishers (for literary fiction that could be Grove or Algonquin, for crime, Midnight Ink or Pegasus...). In the end, most of the time I settle at between 12 and 15 editors for a round.
Of course, many agents have different philosophies--some still prefer smaller, shorter rounds with only the absolutely most likely editors first. I feel like that’s overly limiting, and I like sending my manuscript to a “reach” or two (although not the cozy-to-Business example from before). The litmus test, I always feel, is that I don’t want an editor to read the first 50 pages of my submission, throw up his hands, and say “why is he wasting my time?” Then the next time I send him a submission he will have a bad attitude before he even starts.
This is all only an overview, of course, and different books require different numbers of editors. But it’s a reasonable generalization, and I suspect I’m within the industry norm. And I know I am glad—and my interns, too—that we’re no longer printing, copying, and mailing out the manuscripts. Although there is something classic about getting a padded envelope with a manuscript box, and wondering if THIS is IT…