Surviving the Offer – and Letting the Agent Deal

After your agent sends your work on submission, you’ll spend several weeks – or, more likely, months- learning to “manage your expectations.”

“Managing expectations” while on submission means learning to wait patiently AND working on your next book.

For most authors, the submission process contains at least one rejection (and often more) before an offer comes in. Some agents share the rejections with the author, some do not. (File this under “things to ask before you sign with the agent.”)

Some editors’ rejections look a lot like the form rejections agents send to authors: “Thanks, but not for me.” Other editors, when rejecting a manuscript, offer specific feedback about the work. There is no “right” or “wrong” rejection format – it’s a matter of the editor’s personal style.

If things work out well, eventually (or sometimes sooner) your agent will call with the news all authors long for: “We have an offer!”

It’s normal to respond to news of an offer with shock, screaming, jumping up and down or Snoopy dances. Feel no shame.

In most cases, however, the offer itself is not the end of the process – it’s just the beginning.

Once a publisher makes an offer, your agent will normally contact the other publishers considering the work and let them know an offer has come in. Sometimes the agent will also ask the offering publisher for some time – from a day to a week or two – to contact the other publishers reading the work.

In some cases, the other publishers will pass on a work when they learn that someone else made an offer. In many cases, however, an offer will prompt an editor at a rival house to complete a read of the manuscript quickly, to see whether (s)he wants to make a competing offer.

If only one house makes an offer, the agent and author must consider the terms of the publisher’s offer and decide whether or not to accept. Yes, I said “decide” – there are reasons why an author might not want to accept a publisher’s offer, including poor terms or past experiences. (However, agents generally submit an author’s work only to reputable houses with which the agent wants to make a deal.) 

If multiple houses decide to offer, the agent will handle the offers in one of three ways. First, the agent can accept independent offers from each of the interested publishers and decide, with the author, on the basis of the initial offers alone. Second, the manuscript can sell “at auction,” meaning the publishers have the chance to outbid one another. Finally, a publisher can step up and make an offer good enough to avoid an auction – a situation known as a “pre-empt.”

Not all manuscripts go out on multiple submissions – meaning to more than one publisher at a time. Agents might send only to a single publisher for a variety of reasons – from option fulfillment to a desire to work with a certain house. If your work doesn’t go out on multiple submissions, you won’t have an auction or a pre-empt, but that’s not a bad thing.

Remember: you only need one offer, and it’s more important to get the right offer, editor, and publisher than anything else.

Authors often think an offer is all about the money, or the format (hardback is not actually “uber alles”) – in reality, a good editorial fit is more important. An author’s relationship with a publisher can outlast the author’s life – a major fact to consider when looking at offers.

Once the agent and author decide to accept an offer (or negotiate one to an acceptable place) the author acquires another new business partner: an editor and a publishing house.

Join me next week when we take a look at what happens right AFTER the author accepts the publisher’s offer – it might surprise you!