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Do editors not say no because they can no longer say yes?

31 May 2012

From FutureBook:

When I was starting out in the book business the commonly accepted period for an editor to consider a submission was one month. Longer than that was not only considered rude, but unprofessional. If you couldn’t make your mind up after a month then that probably meant you didn’t care for it sufficiently to be the person to take it on, were too indecisive or too disorganised.

Above all though I was told it was a matter of respect to the writer: the people on whose shoulders we all of us stand. Every manuscript we ever look at represents years of distilled effort and hope and deserves to be treated with fundamental respect.

. . . .

None of us are perfect: any agent or editor is processing more submissions than they comfortably know what to do with and things do fall through the cracks, but the death of communication skills has reached epidemic proportions. It has of course coincided with the period when the power and authority of editors has been eroded as never before. Do editors not say no because they can no longer say yes?

The slowness and tortuousness of the acquisition process generates some absurd scenarios. It is far from uncommon for books to be acquired a full year after submission.

. . . .

It is certainly not an efficient system. Agents are (by and large) sympathetic to the tough times publishers are having and we all know that books are acquired by committee and that that can take time and be something of an arbitrary and political process. Editors do not need to pretend (as they generally do) that the decision to acquire is theirs alone.

Not only is that pompous, but their failure to communicate, even to say no, really does anger authors. They hate it with a passion. Rightly so. They feel messed around and treated with contempt: at best some sort of cats paw to the editor’s career, to be kept in play just in case they might be making a mistake in turning it down and at worst like a talentless waste of space polluting the world with their trash: not even worth rejecting.

. . . .

One of Amazon’s more brilliant strokes has been the way in which it has made common cause with the internet’s huge authorial community against the ‘legacy’ publishers. Every self publishing success that Amazon helps create seems like one in the eye for publishers to all of those authors out there who feel angry NOT because they were rejected, but because of the WAY they were rejected, or because no one actually bothered to respond at all.

Link to the rest at FutureBook and thanks to Tony for the tip.

Big Publishing

19 Comments to “Do editors not say no because they can no longer say yes?”

  1. Amazon is a wonderful vetting space to see how well a book will sell. If an author is able to sell many copies of an ebook, this is a good indication that it will do well for a publisher. In my opinion, we will see more publishers and agents taking their cue from Amazon, B&N, as well as other ebook publishers. This will take much of the gamble out of publishing a book, since the publisher will be able to see how well said book sells as an ebook. Will this be 100% accurate? Not likely, but being successful as an ebook would likely make it much easier to sell it to publishing’s managers as a good buy. The likelihood of such a book to become a big seller is much better than a book with no track record.

  2. If it plays out as you predict, it may also take the agent out of the equation. I can’t see a publisher looking at good self-publishing numbers, agreeing to approach the author about a deal, and then saying, “Oh, wait, let’s see if she’s agented first.”

  3. “Yes” is the short answer to the question. I spent ten years as a trade acquisition editor. When I started, I needed one person’s yes to approve a book and the details were what had to be worked out. When I left, I needed a committee to approve a book, any book. The committee met once a week. Key people sometimes missed the meeting, because of travel or illness or vacation or just life. Once — just once — I told an author that I would continue taking his book to the meeting until they gave up and let me publish it, but most of the time that wasn’t a viable strategy. And the meeting, of course, had an agenda. If one book wound up taking half an hour, the books at the end of the list got pushed out to the next week’s meeting.

    Basically, the marketing people — who were really the ones with the power — hated to say no. It made them uncomfortable. They were nice, sociable people who liked to make others happy and they didn’t ever want to disappoint the editor who’d brought the book to the meeting, so they’d say, maybe. And let’s do a little more research on the idea. And “I see you picked these two comparative titles, but they don’t really work, can you find some different titles?” or “you mention that the author has an active blog, exactly how many subscribers? how many monthly hits? can you get those details?” and “I’m not sure the premise is clear enough, can you have the author rewrite the proposal?” Unlike an editor, who can just write a nice formal rejection (one year I sent 500 of them), they had to say no in person to someone who might be unhappy and argue about it. They didn’t like to do it, so they didn’t. And our timetable for approving books moved from six weeks to months. Sometimes many months.

    At one point, an executive decree was made that all proposals sent to us — all of them! — should be reviewed at the meeting. Naturally, this was made by someone who didn’t have to attend the meetings. It didn’t last, but those meetings were so frustrating. We’d spend ten minutes discussing a proposal and then it would turn out that no one wanted it, no one thought it was good idea, no one thought it would make any money — and meanwhile the entire editorial staff and half the marketing team had lost ten minutes of our day that we’d never get back.

    I think I’m reminding myself why I don’t want to go back to that job. :)

    • It takes a village to raise a book.

    • Wow, what a nightmare. I’m a bit of a process geek and I have a morbid fascination with stories like this. I recognize some classic signs of a company in decline. When companies give marketing control over product design (book acquisition is the functional equivalent of product design for the publishing industry) that means they have no clue about what they are doing. It’s good to let market research (not marketing) have input into product design, but marketing’s job is to market the products you produce. Full stop.

      Then there is the “better decisions come from bigger committees” idea. Bigger committees -> slower decisions. Always. Iron rule of the bureaucratic universe. The only time that bigger committees don’t also mean worse decisions is when your groups are so siloed that you must have representation from different functional areas. The ideal decision-making unit is exactly one person who has the skills and access to make good decisions. The right way to do this job would be to give every acquisition editor an annual “budget” of books and hold them accountable for their success or failure.

      The ultimate corporate disaster is the edict from on high that says everybody has to vote on everything. Unless the corporate masters are trying to get everyone to quit so that they don’t have to fire them, this is totally counter-productive. Where do these people get these ideas?

      • Your right way is basically how it was done when I started. Ironically, I think 9/11/2001 actually began our process decline: no sales from 9/12/2001 through sometime in November (the best sales months of the year, usually) made for a really bad year that started a reactionary process spiral. But that’s the kind of insight that’s so much easier to have in retrospect.

        • What is spooky to me is that I see this same pattern across many different industries. At one level, I know exactly why it happens. Middle managers have the same instinct for self-preservation that everyone else has. Things start to go south, often, just like in your case, for reasons that are completely external to the company and the industry as a whole. Sales are down and the sales and marketing folks blame the product. So, managers give the marketing folks control over product decisions, just to take that excuse away. Then, things keep going downhill (when, in all likelihood, the company would have recovered) because marketing people don’t understand designing and building products. They are in marketing for a reason. But, their excuse now is that the ideas are getting filtered out earlier in the process, so the edict comes down that everybody sees everything.

          I don’t blame the marketing people for this. It’s the managers who let it happen who are the villains.

    • Thanks for sharing, Sarah. This will help a lot of authors understand what’s happening as the months pass.

    • Eek. I see that behind the curtain the publishing industry is even more broken than I had imagined.
      Thank goodness for the e-book revolution and Indie Publishing platforms at Amazon et.al. Otherwise it seems I’d have despaired of ever getting published, let alone of ever making a living at it.
      Stephanie Queen

    • There’s a bestseller writer whose first book (also a bestseller) went into multiple submissions via a literary agent. They wound up taking the only offer they got for it (and thus that house hit the jackpot) precisely because:

      At the other houses, the acquiring editors who’d read the MS weren’t actually authorized to -acquire- books. They had to get permission from multiple people. And in every instance, these editors were unable to offer an answer at ALL in the MONTH that the agent was saying to them, “I have an offer from another house; I need an answer from you–do you want to bid for this book?” BECAUSE… none of these editors, during a MONTH LONG period of trying to get an aswer for an agented novel where they KNEW there was already an offer on the table, were able to locate all the people in-house whose permission/approval they needed to secure in order to make a modest buy. (Note: MODEST. This was a first-time author and there wasn’t a lot of money on the table.)

      So the house that got it, got it because they were the only house whose internal structure was such that they could… MAKE AN OFFER on a book. Or, at least, make an offer within a month of having read the MS. And it worked out well for them, since the author went on to sell like gangbusters and bring in pots of money.

      So the sheer inability to acquire stock is a HUGE flaw in the way publishing houses are being run these days. A huge and BIZARRE flaw. But one that we’re hearing about more and more. It’s not just an urban myth.

  4. I had an agent who lost a client’s novel under her sofa for six months (Not yours! she told me hurriedly). But it might as well have been mine for the lax manner in which she did business for me.

    • Before I came to my senses and self-published, I sent out a grand total of four query letters to big agencies. I received one rejection after about two months and I never heard from two others. I think the most insulting response was from the fourth, not because it was a rejection, but because it was fifteen months later.

  5. Fascinating insight. Makes the slog through committes at the day job seem turbo-charged in comparison.

  6. “When I was starting out in the book business, the commonly accepted period for an editor to consider a submission was one month. Longer than that was not only considered rude, but unprofessional.” — Wow, what year was that?

    http://www.deannawriter.com

  7. Patricia Sierra

    I sent a book directly to a publisher and heard nothing for a year or more. Finally, I sent an inquiry. That brought a reply saying they were getting to it. Soon after, they purchased it.

    Later, I received an explanation for the delay. Seems I put a “helpful” note on the title page describing the type of book it was, and that was a type they didn’t want. Thus, the book kept going to the bottom of the slush pile. After they read the book, they discovered that I hadn’t described the book accurately (I didn’t use publishing terms that placed it easily in a genre). I learned not to be helpful with title-page notes in the future.

  8. An acquaintance of mine, Ann Charles, had the whole editorial board excited about her book at a Big 6 publisher. But… after a meeting with marketing, they were told they couldn’t buy her award-winning book (winner in a couple big RWA contests) because it didn’t fit in an easy genre pigeonhole.

    She self-published it, found an *enormous* following, and is doing very well now, thank you. Here’s the link – and I had no idea, but apparently it’s free today, as well. http://www.amazon.com/Nearly-Departed-Deadwood-Mystery-ebook/dp/B004JF4MME/

  9. Not hearing anything at all is probably the most frustrating part of querying. It’d still hurt to be rejected, but it’s maddening to hear nothing at all. It smacks of arrogance and a lack of courage(because they’re afraid to say, “Not for us, please move on”).

    This, above all other things, began my push towards self-publishing.

  10. I submitted a book to a publisher that accepted unsolicited work. What I got back amounted to ‘We liked your book, but we don’t know how to market it. Best of luck’. After 19 months.

    I published the book myself.

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