The Saturation Point

To recap our hypothetical auction from last week, our agent has guided her client to create the best possible narrative nonfiction proposal she can. Putting her years of experience in book publishing to work, the agent has submitted the work to publishers and there is enough interest in the project that she’s set a closing (auction) date and time. Just when she and her client hunker down and wait it out until a mid-week day at high noon, an editor calls offering a “pre-empt.” What now?

To best answer this question it’s best to take a step back and reconsider the agent’s work that brought the project to auction. To how many editors did she initially send the proposal? Did she go for broke and send it to every possible publishing house at exactly the same time? Or did she start with only a few submissions to her top choices?

Each project demands a unique approach. Some projects benefit from a blanket submission (15+ publishers), while others benefit from a select submission (1 to 5). And many times, the content of the proposal does not dictate the strategy. Let’s assume the proposal, if given appropriate attention and consideration, will win over at least three editors representing three of the big six conglomerates. Sometimes hooking those three editors takes a lot more than just a phone call and email.

More often than not, the “mojo” of the agent dictates the strategy. What does that mean?

Like every other human being on the planet, an agent has ups and downs. Sometimes she’s on fire and everything she submits to the market sells quickly and for substantial guarantees. But then there are dips in her life, when no one returns her calls and everyone passes on her projects or worse, doesn’t even respond to her submission. It’s happened to all of us.

The longer you work in the business the less you have to face the icy waters of indifference, but a green agent with no reputation will face a very deep resistance to her projects right out of the gate. There’s a real art to being an agent. Firm handshakes and BS get you only so far. There’s a reason why some of the most respected people in publishing are agents.

Every day of her life, an agent has to walk into her office and in the face of withering rejection (writers don’t experience rejection directly, but their agents do) she has to make something happen, or the even more difficult decision…do nothing and wait it out. Knowing every editor and having a keen editorial eye is great. But if she can’t handle stress, play a good hand of poker, or tell which way market winds are blowing, she should be doing something else.

Let’s say our agent has a strong reputation. She’s done a lot of big deals in the past and has a number of bestselling clients. Even she faces rejection. Let’s say her last few projects didn’t sell. She needs to get back her mojo and remind all of those editors who think she’s slipping that she is still very much in the arena. How does she do it?

She has an amazing proposal, but that’s not enough. (Nikola Tesla had a great proposal for alternating electric current, but the market bought in to Edison’s inferior direct current plan instead.) She understands that she needs an editor to read her project fast and register “interest.” And then, she can get others to read it fast too who will then register their interest and so on.

Because she’s paid her dues, our agent has like-minded compadres out there. She knows that she can call in a chit with her circle of professional friends every now and then. Perhaps it’s an editor who works with one of her bestselling writers. Maybe it’s an old friend from her own days as an editor (a substantial number of agents are former editors). The colleague is someone who trusts the agent and values their relationship. The editor is smart enough to know that if her agent friend calls her and tells her to read something quickly, she will be rewarded. The agent only sends this editor her finest stuff.

The agent makes her first call to her trusted editor friend. The agent knows that editor won’t mince words. The editor will either love the proposal or she won’t. More importantly, the editor will read the proposal immediately and call the agent back with her opinion….before she even makes the internal decision about whether or not she should take the proposal to her bosses and colleagues. The editor may even tell the agent that the project is perfect for her and ask the agent not to “go wide” with the proposal. The editor will ask for a window of time in order to put a “pre-empt” together.

A “pre-empt,” as a dictionary defines it is “to appropriate, seize, or take for oneself before others.” The editor wants the agent to hold off on sharing the proposal with anyone else. She wants to literally walk down the hall, pitch her editor-in-chief and publisher the idea of the proposal, personally hand them copies of the proposal and ask them to close their doors and read it. And then she will ask their approval to offer a substantial amount of money to take the project off the table.

Before the 2008 financial meltdown, the number of single submission pre-empts in a publishing year were in the scores. Today, not so much. Publisher purse strings no longer loosen without outside influence. That is, a publisher rarely makes a pre-empt for a new writer without gauging competitive market demand. Conventional wisdom these days is that pre-empts without competitive pressure result in that dreaded publishing house phenomenon—overpaying. Overpaying is when a publisher’s guaranteed payment sucks the life out of or exceeds that book’s total revenue. The publisher puts resources toward a product that does not return anywhere near what it took to publish or it bleeds money.

So hoping for a “pre-empt” from just one submission isn’t the best way to take an incredible proposal to market today. There are exceptions, but that’s a good rule of thumb.

Our agent went to six editors for her “first round” submission. She called in the chit with a friend who did read the proposal immediately and did register interest. Our agent left the other five editors know that things were heating up with the project. Then one of two things happened.

1) Our agent widened her net and pitched 8 to 10 more editors at other houses so that she could increase her chances of more auction players, or

2) She played it cool.  She didn’t expand her submission. She waited for the buzz from her first five submissions to circulate throughout the industry. Book scouts for movie companies and foreign publishers have publicity, marketing, editorial, assistant friends at every publishing house. They talk to them just about every day to get the scoop about what projects on submission are hot. When they hear about one, they do everything in their power to get a proposal “slipped” to them so that they can evaluate it for their clients.

Agents today understand that with our brave new digital world, it’s impossible to stop “slipping” of submissions. When information wasn’t so widely disseminated years ago, agents used to spend a lot of time doing what they could to stop “slipping.” A bad read or opinion can suck the life out of a submission.

This is why agents push their clients so hard to make their proposals as airtight as possible. Great material always overcomes one or two bad-mouthers that just didn’t get it.

The speed of the industry can be your friend or your worst enemy.

Our agent held fast and it paid off. After announcing her interest to her first five editors, she didn’t widen her submission of the proposal. Rather she waited for her email to ding and her phone to ring.  These messages are from the very editors that she would have had to cold call with the proposal. Now the speed of the industry has made her job much easier. The editors who have contacted her have heard about her project from scouts and are now asking her to send it to them instead of her having to ask them.

And the velocity increases. Now the proposal is being read all over town. Overnight.

The next morning, the agent has to sit still and wait for more “interest” calls. She can’t call the editors and hard sell them. They’ve read the proposal. They either want it or they don’t. After the flurry of activity, there is nothing she will be able to say that will convince an editor to want to acquire the proposal.

Our agent gets six calls and six more emails telling her of “interest.”

She sets the auction day. Lets everyone know. And then gets the “pre-empt” call prior to the actual auction.

The traditions of the “pre-empt” offer are clear. It’s bad form for an agent to “shop” the offer. Ethically, the agent is expected not to call every other publishing house and tell the editors how much or on what terms the pre-empt is being offered. A lot of agents do it anyway because the agent wants to know if there are any other publishers willing to pay more than what they already have on the table.

So to combat that behavior, publishers put a clock on their pre-empts. The agent has to get back to the publisher very quickly with their client’s answer, or the offer is withdrawn. The time is usually just enough for the agent to get in touch with the client and have a reasonable conversation.

Our agent calls her client. “Publisher X has offered $xxx,xxx to publish your book, but we have to tell them immediately if we accept or not. If we don’t answer them by 5:00 p.m., they will withdraw the offer.  And they won’t guarantee that they will play in our auction tomorrow…What do you want to do?”


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  1. Randy Cantrell on May 13, 2011 at 5:24 am

    Thanks, Shawn. This is a terrific series. Very insightful.

  2. Jeremy Brown on May 13, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I now see my agent as a badass action hero – thanks Shawn! I really appreciate the information and insight you’re sharing with us.

  3. Colleen Hannegan on May 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    I so appreciate this insider info…like stocks info that pays…except this is legal. Thanks for these publishing lessons…..shared Do The Work with three people this past week….no wait….4 people….~~

  4. Tricia on May 19, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Very helpful for all of us who have no idea what goes on behind those closed doors.

    Please continue, and thanks.

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