Ultimatums – a double-edged sword

From an agent: “A publishing contract has been offered on this manuscript, so please get back to me soon if you’re still interested.”

It’s a common enough  occurrence in our world, and when these come in, I drop what I’m doing to take a look at the submission to see if I want to jump into the fray. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking about the other publisher in terms of who can provide a better publishing experience for the author. But there are times when I wonder if that other publisher actually exists, and this is merely a ploy to get editors to respond more quickly.

It’s effective, to say the least, but it’s incredibly irritating if I suspect it’s a ruse. That happens when I get the “hurry up, or you’ll lose out” email, I express interest in the submission, and suddenly, we have all the time in the world. Instead of mere hours or days, I’m granted weeks to read and respond. In response, I apologize for my tardiness and express hope that I’m not holding up “the contract offer.” Oh no, the agent gushes, we’re good…take your time.


All’s fair in love and publishing, but it irritates me because I detest dishonesty. The agent is basically saying, “I’m not willing to wait my turn for an answer, so I’m going to jump to the front of the line by any means.” Hello, fake contract offer.

I get it because agents are looking out for their client’s best interests. But what does it say about them if they unintentionally expose their hand? I will remember them, and I will distrust them immediately. And where does that put you if they are your agent?

I had a recent experience where an agent sent me the ultimatum email. I looked at the query and was only quasi interested, so I decided to let it go. I emailed the agent explaining that I had only received the query two weeks before and hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. I closed by wishing her and her client best of luck with her new contract. The agent wrote back almost immediately giving me an open-ended time frame to review the work. What about the other publisher, I asked? I mean, surely they won’t hang on forever. I certainly won’t – not without an explanation. No worries, the agent replied.

Either the agent is dumber than a box of rocks, or the other contract offer is abysmal – or there is no contract offer. What’s worse, is the agent doesn’t realize these thoughts are running through my head and, therefore, doesn’t realize she’s weakening her position with me. Yes, it can be a silly dance, and there’s nothing you can do about it, unless you’re aware of it.

But I’ve been seeing agentless authors doing the same thing; they sing the “get it while it’s hot,” only to grant me endless weeks of review once I express interest. So sure, the ruse works, but it leaves a sticky film on my tongue because I wonder what other lengths you’re willing to go to get what you want. Does this portend someone who will be difficult to work with?

Thankfully agents I’ve suspected of pulling this trick aren’t the respected, top-notch agents. Rather, it’s agents who are new or don’t make many solid sales. If they act like a used-car salesman, how can they expect to climb to the top? If your work is achingly fabulous, it’s going to attract attention, and you (or your agent) need not resort to parlor tricks. Instead, just hang in there. One thing editors don’t have a lot of is time, and we appreciate those who are patient.

Besides, Karma is a beast just aching to dangle your participle. Be honest. If you’re going to deliver a fake ultimatum, you need to be prepared to suffer the consequences that the editor will see right through you.

2 Responses to Ultimatums – a double-edged sword

  1. John Allan says:

    Slightly off-subject, but I live in Thailand, and this is an oft attempted ‘close’ by shop sales staff in any number of retail outlets. As a salesman, I understand the desire to close the sale, but their [mis]perception that I am dumb enough to fall for such a banal line is intensely irritating; the more so in view of my long experience in how the Thai mind works.

  2. Frank Mazur says:

    Sounds like the previous line of work for those agents might have been real estate.

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