Some time ago I wrote about the nonfiction submission process, and in my example I gave a respond-by date, letting editors know that I was hoping to hear of their interest by a certain date. Well, one wise reader asked what happens next. What do you do when you have more than one publisher interested, or worse, what happens if no one is interested?
First let me clarify that every agent is different and every agent’s response will be different. Some feel no need to ever set such deadlines, not wanting to rush editors, while others think every project they have is worth setting a respond-by date for; it rushes the submission process and moves things along more quickly for them. I tend to fall in the middle. If I have a project that I am 100% confident will be hot I will set a respond-by date, but often I like to give editors time to explore something new at their leisure and let it grow on them if necessary. Why? I know I for one don’t always like to be rushed. Sometimes it’s good to have time to process and slowly fall in love rather than be pushed into it.
But when I do use a respond-by date, what might I expect?
After having worked on both sides of the submission process, I can honestly tell you that most respond-by dates go by unnoticed. The truth is that people are going to offer if they’re going to offer and the only thing that’s going to make them move faster is a bona fide offer from another publisher. One of the reasons a respond-by date can backfire is because it also shows your hand. If no one comes in and offers, all other publishers will know this and they’ll know where they stand. If SuperBooks was interested and planning to make a $50,000 offer, the lack of interest from others could quickly drop that to $25,000. Why not? They suspect that no one else is out there to raise their price.
But what if no one offers at all? Do you then submit around to other publishers and set a new respond-by date? I don’t. I think a respond-by date is a one-shot deal. If no one responds it is definitely time to go to your second-tier group, but I wouldn’t set another respond-by date. I would simply submit the old-fashioned way . . . send to my group of editors and bug the heck out of them until they respond.
And what if everyone (or at least two or three people) call to tell you that they’ll definitely be making offers? Again, this is a situation where every agent is different, but my strategy is to set an auction date. I like to give everyone a day or two to put their offers together, so let’s say two days after the respond-by date I’ll hold the auction. In this case I set guidelines. If one publisher came in before the respond-by date with a decent offer, but not as high as I would like, I’ll often use that as my basis. Let’s say we’re starting all bids at $5,000. I then give a time. All bids need to be presented before a certain time, let’s say noon. If by 12:30 I haven’t heard from some publishers who mentioned that they would be biddin,g I will call and remind them as well as let them know where the price stands. You would be surprised at how things can play out from respond-by date to auction. Some publishers will drop out and others will suddenly show up. You never know what’s going to happen until the bids come in.
There are different ways to hold an auction too. Some can do final and best, which means everyone simply comes in with their very best bid the first time around and winner takes all. Another technique is a round robin. You keep calling all bidding editors to let them know what the current high bid is until the last man is standing. A round robin auction can take days, or even weeks.
I’m sure I’m missing something. An auction can be as complicated or as simple as an agent wants and each one is different depending on the editors involved, the agent, and the project, but I think this gives you, in a nutshell, an idea of what you might expect if an agent tells you that she’s asking for a respond-by date and hoping to go to auction.