Today, I went out to lunch with a prospective author whose proposal I was thinking really seriously about (his agent came too). The proposal as I had received it wasn't quite right for me, but I had some clear-cut editorial suggestions that I had run by the agent, who thought they were very interesting and that we might all be very happy going forward together.
About 3/4 of the way through the meal, after we had discussed my ideas for development--the author seemed to get really excited about them, and all signs were good--he asked what my boss, Robert the Publisher, had thought of his sample chapters--about 200 pages of material on his original concept. I was honest with him.
"Robert hasn't read the sample," I admitted. "But obviously I've read it and I've discussed the concept of the book and my vision with him and my colleagues. That's why we're so excited about it."
"Oh, well make sure you have him read it right away," the author told me. "We shouldn't talk any further until I hear his thoughts about it. I'd really like his specific guidance about the manuscript and how he thinks he'd like me to develop it."
I was silent for a moment, thinking about how to reply. "Of course I've made the sample available to Robert," I told the author. "But he has piles and piles of reading to do and since it's not a final sample anyway I can't guarantee I can convince him to prioritize it. I'm also worried that if we commit to not moving forward until he's read it that you will probably never hear from me again," I said truthfully.
"Just run it by him," the author told me. "I know it will be up his ally. It's really his type of book. I think he'll get it in a way you might not be able to."
Let me step back here to say that what the author knows about Robert the Publisher is as follows: 1) he's a man, 2) he's more important than me. That's the sum total. From this, the author must have extrapolated what "up Robert's ally" and "Robert's type of book" were. Which is just plain psychic!
The agent and I exchanged glances at this point, and the agent piped up, "I was actually the one who suggested lunch today, [Author's Name], so that you could meet Moonrat. She's a very proactive and creative editor, which you can tell from the ideas she put together for us."
"I'm very glad you did suggest lunch," the author said. "It's been very interesting. Next time, when we have more time, we should have lunch up by you so that Robert can join us."
The message to me was pretty clear--he felt he was too high-profile to be working with someone as junior as I am. He deserved someone more important.
To be honest and objective about this, I cannot fault him for his thought process--it's true in certain (many) cases that the more important the agent/editor you're working with, the more attention your book ends up getting. The trouble, of course, with the most important people is that they have no time for anyone (time and importance are inversely proportional). People at Robert's level rarely edit anything at all, and certainly don't have time to even read every single book published under their aegis (that, hopefully, is what your editor is doing).
So it's a toss-up: work with someone really important who won't have any developmental time for you, or work with one of the working editors who is hoping to make your book something fantastic to enhance their career. I'm not going to be a pig about this: I see the clear arguments for either (if I were an author, which way would I pick? I'm not even sure I can answer). HOWEVER. The fact is, in my mind, regardless of what the author thought about my position, it was really pretty rude of him to make himself that clear to me.
After all, I had taken out the time to take him out to lunch and to provide thoughtful feedback on his proposal. Feedback, incidentally, that his very classy agent had thought worthwhile. Robert had been involved in none of that; Robert, in fact, has so many things to keep track of and think about that he will not waste any brain space on an unacquired project until he has the input of the editorial board AND it looks like we're reasonably close to closing in. Did this author honestly think that I would be really happy about championing his book to Robert when he didn't respect me that much and saw himself working better with someone far more important than I am?
I don't want you to think I am overly judgmental. There were several other things that happened and were said during the lunch to make me realize that our working personalities were not going to be compatible, which I won't go into here. But this one conversation point was the one that upset me the most.
It actually reminds me vividly of something I witnessed during my earliest days in the industry. I was a lowly unpaid intern at a literary agency where one of the agents in particular has a kind of celebrity status. My "boss" was Charlene, a junior agent who became a dear friend. I worked very closely with her for about a year, over the course of which she was originating a number of projects as well as coordinating all the administrative aspects of the agency--big job.
Charlene had plucked one proposal out of the slush pile (through which she actually dug at the end of each day, often until 9 at night when the agents had gone home). The author had an original idea but needed some work on the execution. Charlene sent her a detailed editorial letter, and the author worked on it for awhile before sending edits back. The manuscript, when it came back, still had some issues that took some heavy going through, and Charlene worked away on it (and everything else) for about two weeks before the problem came along.
The author, who from corresponding with Charlene now knew the agency's email format, decided to send an email to "Charlene's boss," the very famous agent I mentioned earlier. The email said that the author had done all this hard work on the proposal, but two weeks had passed and Charlene hadn't responded with further feedback or a plan about submitting the project to editors yet. It was clear to the author that Charlene wasn't as dedicated to proactive agenting as it might be hoped, and the author thought she'd probably be in better hands with her boss, the famous agent.
Needless to say, that was the end of that book deal. I put the author's materials through the shredder myself. But Charlene was heartbroken--she had put a lot of energy and thought into working up feedback for the author. That is time straight down the drain when you realize that the person you are working with does not respect you. But my question--what was that author thinking? That colleagues in one company happily backstab each other for clients? That her book is so very extraordinary that people would be willing to erode working relationships to compete for it? That seems to me like a pretty extraordinary assumption for anyone to make in any case. And yet. This is far from an isolated incident.
Of course every author wants the best for their book. Like I said, I wouldn't blame anyone for secretly hoping that they could work with a more important editor than I am. I don't even blame that crazy lady for wanting to work with a more important agent than Charlene. But two quick notes about this:
1) It's important to hedge your bets. What is actually better for you? What is your best case scenario? Really, really, totally objectively, in your situation with your book, are you better off with the less famous person who has the time to work with you? Are you as great as you think you are, that you can afford to blow that person off for someone more important? Was that more junior person just a foot in the door for you into the publishing industry, or was that person your actual door into the publishing industry? Different people are in different positions. Try to be really honest with yourself about your project and platform and, like I said, hedge your bets.
2) It is UNFORGIVABLE to ever tell someone (or their boss) that you're too important to be working with them, or to imply the same. I'm sorry. Even if it's true. Those are bridges burned. I feel like I shouldn't even have to say that here, but clearly this is something that actually does happen, and not infrequently.
Publishing is a funny industry, since there is so much (fairly artificial) prestige attached to so many facets of the business. Meanwhile, it's also a creative industry, in which everyone involved, from author to agent to editor to cover designer to marketer, has invested energy and intellectual capital. Everything is subjective and not easily quantified with dollar signs, which means we measure our successes on softer, less tangible indexes. Pride and egos, therefore, are at stake in a way they are not elsewhere. We all should tread with a light step.