Friday, April 04, 2008

Stacked Decks

Aspiring writers know the "no simultaneous submissions" rule. This quaint admonition, often given by literary agents and publishing firms, says that when you submit a book manuscript to them for consideration, you should not simultaneously send it to another firm. They are to be your sole object of attention if not affection.

Fair enough, you may say. It would be frustrating indeed for an editor or agent to devote time to the careful review of a prospective author's work only to learn that the manuscript has been accepted elsewhere.

But then you note another line in their conditions. It says that they respond in four to six weeks.

So let's sort this out. The writer is supposed to submit a manuscript or query to only one agent or publisher and then wait for four to six weeks for a reply?

That doesn't get within a thousand miles of being fair but it exists -and, I should note, is wisely ignored - because agents and publishing houses regard writers as having the bargaining power of illegal immigrants. The unspoken message is "If you don't like it, pal, there is a long line of people behind you who will eagerly accept our Dickensian conditions."

Which brings me to the subject of stacked decks. Some organizations routinely operate with rules or practices that are hugely slanted. These are often defended with the old chestnut of "That's the way we've always done it." Each time I encounter one, I marvel at how otherwise good people can rationalize shabby practices.

As groups strive for excellence, they frequently scrutinize policies and procedures to see how higher quality can be attained. How about conducting a Loathsome Practices Review?


Anonymous said...

I assume that if a publisher decided to drop this stipulation, then all manuscripts would go to them first, and they would have a competitive advantage as a result, and grow rich, and inspire other publishers to imitate their example.

On the other hand, if such a practice would cause their review and editing costs to skyrocket, it would cause them to lose money and lay off their employees and default on their loans, hardly inspiring others to join in the idea.

In other words, what we have is the market regulating itself on transactions between willing participants. The fact is there are a lot more writers than publishers, and the barriers to entry are very low, while the potential payoff is very high.

Therefore the results will always be a long line of people quite willing to put up with the Dickensian conditions, because the alternative use of their time is not worth it to them.

The free market works, and everyone is happy. You can tell everyone is happy because they continue to abide by the conditions imposed.

Michael Wade said...


I'm a major free market advocate and would certainly not advocate any governmental action to correct the situation but the parties are far from happy.

The policy on simultaneous submissions is different from the one on not accepting manuscripts directly. The latter is understandable because the "slush pile" is a drain on resources. That's why many publishers will only accept submissions from literary agents. The agents, however, also discourage simultaneous submissions.

I think telling writers that they are free to submit elsewhere if no word is received after two weeks is fair to both sides. Attempting to lock in a longer period simply encourages inefficiency at the firm and, by all accounts, such firms are hardly examples of efficiency.

The barriers to submission may be low but the ones for acceptance are high and can be arbitrary. {We've all heard of the multiple rejections of what became beloved books. Look how how often Stephen Covey's first book was rejected.) Most manuscripts are not accepted and the payoff for the ones that are is usually not very high. Covey's is an exception.

The good news is the Internet and e-publishing may well open up the market.