The tightening of publishers’ purse strings in response to the economic fallout of Covid-19 has added a new wrinkle to an age-old dilemma for agents: when is the best time to submit their clients’ new manuscripts?
In normal times, deciding when to submit books, and whom to submit them to, is something agents constantly weigh. Now, with huge swaths of the country under quarantine, pub dates of forthcoming titles in limbo, and questions about how long the pandemic will last, literary agents are divided on the best approach. All agents interviewed acknowledged that publishers will need to keep buying books, but many are uncertain about whether they want to send new projects out at such a difficult moment.
“I am definitely thinking about which projects make sense to submit now—in terms of author profile and subject matter—and which ones it’s better to hold,” said Markus Hoffmann, a partner at Regal Hoffmann Associates. “Arguably the right project will get more attention, since there will be fewer submissions overall. And even if lists contract across the board, publishers will need new books for when this crisis is over.”
That publishers still need new material is a given. Yet all agents who spoke with PW are concerned about how quickly and dramatically the market is contracting. With print sales of new releases cratering—according to NPD BookScan, only six new titles were among the top 50 adult fiction print bestsellers in the week ended March 28—agents are particularly worried about how heavily the pandemic will damage publishers’ bottom lines. And publisher cutbacks have already begun.
Pointing to the layoffs Macmillan announced recently, agents said they expect other big houses to enact cost-cutting measures. A number of sources noted that the biggest of the Big Five—Penguin Random House—has lengthened the period of payment on the first installments of significant advances. (While this is not a cost-cutting measure per se, it allows the publisher to bring down overhead in the short term.) These moves, said the agents interviewed for this story, suggest that advances are likely to go down.
“We are out with material,” said Jennifer Weltz at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. Noting that she and her colleagues are submitting “carefully,” she said she is being realistic about how long it may take to hear back from editors. “Many have kids at home and are struggling to balance everything, others are in crisis mode on the books that are scheduled to come out in the near future, and then others are very eager to read.”
Echoing Weltz, several agents said it’s as important to gauge what kind of material to submit right now as it is to decide which editors to target. For Gail Hochman, at Brandt and Hochman, this is a key component of her strategy. Though she said she has not submitted material since the crisis hit, when she does start submitting again, she will think carefully about who receives what. “I will be submitting to editors who swear they are very eager and very able to buy,” she explained. “I will be very cautious about submitting as if things were normal, because things are clearly not normal.”
Hochman also said that only the most exceptional projects will stand out. “So many of us are feeling a financial pinch. Bookstores are closed. No one is browsing. People are focused on buying groceries and medicines. So the books we want to work with now, and publish in the future, must be truly special and exciting.”
And what about clients whose projects don’t meet that standard? Hochman believes it might be a good time to help them tackle revisions, so they can “be ready to submit in a number of weeks, or a number of months.”
The notion that only the biggest books will jump to the head of the queue was cited by many agents. Laura Rennert, at the Andrew Brown Literary Agency, said she’s focused on “going out with special projects where there’s already a preexisting relationship with the author and the house.” She added that these are “mostly exclusives.”
Sandra Dijkstra, who runs an eponymous shingle, said she just closed a $250,000 deal. The sale, she believes, is proof that business is continuing. But, she warned, the nature of the deal speaks to where she believes the market has moved. “The bar is very high, and I suspect selling into this sphere will be tougher than ever.”
Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary and Media has also been busy. “I just closed a deal, and two of my colleagues at New Leaf also held auctions while sheltering in place,” she said. “In 18 months, publishers will still need to have new titles. That said, I think many agents will be trying to be strategic about what they’re submitting right now. It might be a great time to sell a high-concept rom-com. It might not be the best time to submit a bleak apocalyptic novel.”
For Doug Stewart at Sterling Lord, the pandemic has put a hold on submissions. “My list is almost 100% fiction,” he said, “and I feel like it’s a very tough time for people to be focusing on a submission that actually needs to be read from beginning to end, passed out for backup reads from colleagues, and so on.” But he also acknowledged that, even at his own agency, opinions on this topic “vary widely.” Noting that his own strategy could shift at any moment, he said that, for the time being, he will only go out with “something very high profile and unturndownable.”
Some felt that there could be opportunity in this otherwise grim landscape. Doug Grad, who runs his own agency, is out on submission with a number of new projects. While he’s having discussions with all of his clients about whether, and when, to take material out, he feels that now could be a good time to sell a smaller book. “If publishers are wary of throwing their big name authors out into this mess,” he said, “maybe it will open up a chance for some new authors or midlist authors.”
And how do editors feel? Jennifer Enderlin, publisher at St. Martin’s Press, said she’s been surprised by how little acquisitions have been affected by the pandemic. “We’ve been in several auctions over the past few weeks and have bought several books. Even in these nutty times, editors are all still fiercely competitive for good content.”
But how much does Enderlin think they will pay? “While maybe things won’t go as absolutely crazy high as they have done in the past, I will not be surprised to see some substantial advances during this time—for the right books.”