Recently I attended an interesting literary event that raised some difficult questions. It was held at Massey College, in the University of Toronto, and the Upper Library was filled for a Book Club meeting. The regular Chair, my friend Charles Foran, was gadding about on the West Coast, so his wife Mary stepped in and handled the event with aplomb.
Our speaker, whom I won’t name, was talking about her recent book, which has been a considerable success. She spoke about the book’s genesis, and how she learned the skills of writing, and enjoyed the experience of working with an editor. Then, in the course of a long Q and A session , she went into troubling detail.
She told us that she had worked first with a freelance editor who was helpful in getting her manuscript into such good shape that she found a literary agent in Canada, who placed the book with a Canadian house. The author then worked on the book through the pre-publication process, until she had proofs to check.
At this point her agent was trying to sell the rights to the book to a number of US publishers. She sent out copies of the Canadian proofs to several interested New York houses and arranged to hold an auction for the rights, where, traditionally, the publisher bidding the most money in advance royalties will be the winner.
In this case, however, the editor on the case at Penguin became very excited about the book,and so creatively engaged with it, that she sent a TEN-PAGE letter full of detailed instructions about how the author could improve the book, by expanding this or compressing that, or switching this with that.
The author told us that this detailed editorial advice was so convincing, and so obviously good, that she excitedly worked through the entire weekend, rewriting the proofs of the book, to follow the Penguin editor’s suggestions.
Then her agent went ahead, presumably with the author’s approval, and sold the rights to the book to the highest bidder in the US — which was not Penguin.
There was distinct unease in the Massey room, not just, I think, among former editors and publishers. She was telling us that she eagerly took all of the Penguin editor’s work (freely offered, of course, with no formal quid pro quo) but then went off elsewhere, with a wave of the hand?
This didn’t seem right.
In my opinion there was an ethical way to handle this situation. In the circumstances, I think that her agent should have contacted all of the interested US companies that were involved in the auction, saying : “I must tell you that the auction has now changed. The book will be awarded to Penguin, although their respectable bid did not involve the highest amount of money. What made the Penguin offer the decisive winner was the fact that their editor invested a large amount of time in crafting a ten-page editorial letter that was so helpful to the author that she has now re-written the book to incorporate the changes suggested. We are thrilled that this editor understands the book so perfectly. As all of us in publishing know, that sort of enthusiastic editorial understanding is so rare that it should never be disregarded, and is of immense value.”
I believe that the other publishers would have accepted this, Penguin would have got the book, and justice would have been done. What do you think?