Revising without a contract

Dear Miss Snark:

What is your feeling on requests for a writer to revise a novel multiple times before a contract? Do you advise your clients to do this? Is the editor taking that particular writer for a ride? How often do you see these revision efforts pay off at the house where the revisions were requested?

Pay to play babeeee.

I don't like to do extensive revisions without a concrete expression of interest and some money i.e. a contract.

If they like it but not enough that means "no" and it's really hard to get to yes from that. Better to shop elsewhere or start again.

When I call an editor, the question is "do you want to buy this" not "what will it take for you to buy it". yes/no/show me the cash.

On the other hand I've had very very intense conversations with editors about they'll want changed if they offer and I make sure the client is ok with that before we sign up.

And this is always the client's call. If they want to revise without a contract I'll let them do it but I hardly ever advise them it's a good choice.

This is a classic example of "your mileage may vary" so don't write this down on that Stone Tablet of Snarkly Commandments.


Anonymous said...

I'm an exception. I did this for an editor and it worked out. But the editor in question showed a true interest in the book, and I happened to agree with the notes and suggested changes. Done under the right circumstances, you have the added benefits of knowing how the editor "works" (with your own work), and impressing on him/her your ability and willingness to work cooperatively with a common goal in mind (as well as demonstrating that you are not a total pain in the arse).

But I can see how it could spin out of control.

Simon Haynes said...

I was approached by a publisher and the understanding was that I'd work with their editor on my first novel before a contract was offered. They weren't the only ones wondering whether I could do it, so I was happy with the arrangement.
I busted a gut doing a total rewrite, and when I handed in the finished book the publisher didn't offer me a contract for one book ... instead, it was a contract for three books in the same series.
I realise it's best to get a firm offer up front, but in this case I was happy to do the work on spec and trust that something saleable would pull the right levers. After all, they were also investing time and money by assigning an editor, and if the result was crap I wouldn't have wanted to go ahead either.
As it happens the first book has just undergone a second printing so it's worked out all round.

JulieLeto said...

I'm another one who revised her way, sans contract, to a first sale. I had no agent at the time, but trusted the editor, who I knew wanted to make the buy, but was so low on the totem pole (at the time) that she couldn't unless it was in tip-top shape. I always knew that the revisions didn't guarantee a sale, but I was certainly closer doing the revisions than not!

It was a first sale...I think I'd balk at doing so now. But I never say never. Circumstances would definitely come into play.

Anonymous said...

I revised my first novel without a contract for a pretty junior editor at a big publishing house. The publisher didn't buy the manuscript in the end. BUT the revision made the manuscript stronger and the next publisher who saw the revised manuscript proceeded to buy it.

Also, the editor at the first publisher rose to become a pretty senior editor and even suggested an idea for another book if I wanted to work with her.

Simon Haynes said...

I agree with Julie - with sales under my belt I know I can deliver, so in future I'd look for more certainty.

Apart from that, I now have an agent who can protect me from myself ;-)

Anonymous said...

I think this is actually becoming a new standard for first-time authors....the publisher wants to see that the writer is actually capable of revising before putting down the money. My first book was sold after one editor-requested rewrite. They sent me a reader report along with the revision request, so it was obvious they'd already put some effort into the project and were actually interested in it. I agreed with what they wanted done, did it, and got a four-book contract. Many of the other first-time authors at this publisher have said they've done two or three rewrites before the contract came.

I would NOT expect agented work to have to go through this rigamarole, since presumably the writer has already proven their ability to play well with others by virtue of having secured an agent. But I can understand publishers wanting to establish some sort of track record for those who have none.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me it depends on what you think of the suggested revisions. If you think the agent or editor's suggestions will improve the book anyway, then go ahead, regarding their input as free editorial help, and a sale as a bonus. If your only motive for making the changes is to make a sale, and you hate what you're doing to the book, you're going to be unhappy with the book (and the editor) for ever.

If you're not keen on the changes, though, it may also be a hint that they're not the agent/editor for you. Do they see the book as something other than what it really is? They're unlikely to sell it successfully if they do.

Anonymous said...

I revised my first book without a contract (or an agent) too. Agreeing with the suggested changes and sensing that this is a person you can work with, and who really wants to buy your book if you can come through, are key reasons to go ahead with this. You also prove to them that you aren't some prima dona stuck on your own deathless prose. The other important thing to keep in mind is that they can still say no.

In my case, everybody won. I did the rewrite, the book was better for it, and I got a series contract.

If I'd had an agent, though, especially being that new, I'd have followed whatever advice s/he gave. They're the marketing people, and my own tendency, not being very snarkly, is to do too much for free.

Caitlyn said...

Depends very much on the revisions. I write a lot of plays, which have been performed by am dram groups. Some directors ask for changes. I always listen, look, think about it. If I agree with the changes, I make them, and usually those improve the product. If I don't like the changes, I say no, but I usually explain why. I have built a reputation for being easy to work with and not too precious about my work, which stands me in good stead.
I would think working on changes for a novel with an editor would be similar. And anything that makes my book stronger is definitely a plus.

Anonymous said...

I'm the not-exception to this rule. A major house asked for extensive revisions, with notes, once, twice, then even a phone call for more notes, but when the fourth round of notes came, I balked. The assistant editor with whom I was working offered nothing except a promise to look at it again after these notes, she had a sudden desire to completely change the story (can you take the ghost out of this ghost story? Erm...) and I got impression that I was being kept on base. They didn't want me to go anywhere else with the manuscript, but they didn't want to do anything with the manuscript, either. I made some changes, but not all- the ghost stayed in my ghost story. Then suddenly, silence- from the editor, from my agent, and after a year, I walked away from both of them.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be negative but I went ahead with an agent's requests for changes. No contract. He showed it to his publisher pal who rejected it. Then the agent dropped me without explanation, so now I'm left wondering what's wrong with the novel.

Anonymous said...

I just did two MAJOR revisions without a contract for a prominent publisher (over a year's time). They turned it down in the end. I wouldn't have agreed with you earlier, but I do now. On the other hand, the book is much, much better, but it's a totally different beast too and what I started with got her interest but was never shopped around so someone else might've liked it as it was, who knows? I don't think I would do this again.

The Gambino Crime Family said...

This supposedly happens a lot in the film industry. A producer will have a writer tear down and revise their screenplay over and over again with nary a cent exchanged, then walk away when they balk at the seventeenth polish. I think it comes from the desire to see themselves as a player without having to put up the cold hard cash.

Than again, like the examples cited above, I've read of it leading to big sales and a career, so who knows?

Anonymous said...

A Cautionary Tale

I did extensive changes for an agent, without - cluegun needed - having clarified exactly whether she was taking me on or not. I didn't like all the changes, but she was a great agent, etc. etc.

Then she rejected it, very apologetically: everything she loved was in the last third, the rest she couldn't sell with real enthusiasm. Worst of the many rejections I've had.

I sent it out again and was taken on by an even better agent, who loved everything about it that was most interesting and original. I had to spend a while undoing most of the original revisions, and doing a few more. But at least the novel was back to its own, original, peculiar, cross-over self... Result: I'm very proud of it, I have a great deal, a place on prize shortlists, and a paperback heading for bestseller lists. Thank Dog the first agent did reject it.

Simon Haynes said...

"If you think the agent or editor's suggestions will improve the book anyway, then go ahead, regarding their input as free editorial help, and a sale as a bonus."

I agree with this. So often you hear writers wishing they could get feedback on their query or sample chapters. Here you stand to get a whole education, and all you have to invest is time.

Anonymous said...

This happens so many times to writers, from agents and publishers, I can't even make a comment without kicking the computer through the wall.

Anonymous said...

Dissertation nightmare.

Professor Difficult, The Unavoidable Expert, likes dissertation overall, but required a rewrite involving massive switching of material from opening to middle.
My friend totters off and rewrites (so long ago that this meant retyping).

Comes back six months later, diss all squeeky fresh and revised.
Professor Difficult: Looks fine, but this stuff in the middle belongs in your opening.

Lesson: Some people just like to muddle around in other peoples' work. Doesn't mean they're right.

JulieLeto said...

lauwolf, but sometimes they are right. That was my case. The editor saw things from her perspective that I hadn't even thought about in terms of tone and her comments made all the difference to not only making the book something she could buy, but also something that sold very well.

However, I agree with whoever said that you shouldn't do the revisions if you don't agree with them and can't get behind them. Keeping in mind that the author isn't woefully in love with their own words. It's a fine line. An author has to be open to revisions...and sometimes, I think that's part of the exercise.

Katie Alender said...

I don't think it's wise to give the agent/editor in question exclusivity. In the event that their changes bring about a marked improvement, the thought that people all over town are getting a chance to look at the improved pages may be enough to entice them to grab it.

(The real reason I had to post is that my word verf is "suwutbut".)

Unknown said...

I revised one novel twice for 2 different editors (after the first one left)-and I mean substantial edits. It took 6 months but we sold it to them.
I was recently asked by a large NY publisher to re-work my proposal/novel very substantially and then they would bid on it.
After talking to my agent, we decided the story wouldn't be the same and went with the first offer.
So I'm on the fence about this...sometimes it works but sometimes, if it destroys the essence of your book, don't do it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all who posted about their experiences. This is very helpful.

I'm surprised to hear that it's not unusual for editors to request for full-ms revisions without a contract. I feel lucky that the editor who was interested in my book asked only for a revised synopsis and first chapter. (In the end, it was a "no"). But I can't imagine rewriting an entire book for an editor multiple times and being turned down. How frustrating and sad!

The more I learn about this business, the crazier it gets.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, and helpful to hear about the experiences with editors, since my agent has just started sending my proposal package around. So I'll be prepared--especially since I already went through something similar during my six months of querying agents.

Agent #1 (a NY agent without much of a track record) sounded wildly enthusiastic about my subject in her e-mail to me, but felt I'd need to do some revisions, and wanted to set up a phone call to discuss this. It all sounded reasonable initially, but the tone of the phone call turned out to be very negative, critical, and just plain strange. She asked questions that suggested she hadn't really read what I'd sent her, pronounced my book "boring" but thought maybe she could "teach me how to write." Fortunately, by that time I'd done some online research (Absolute Write, Writer Beware) and had learned she had a questionable reputation (not fee-charging, though.) This was her pattern, to take on writers without a contract, get heavily involved in editing, then suddenly drop them. We kind of mutually disengaged after that phone call!

Agent #2 (a West Coast agent with a good reputation) sent me a lovely, detailed written critique of the proposal/sample chapters, noting the strengths, but laying out some significant concerns. He encouraged me to get feedback from other agents--and most definitely left the door open if I decided to revise along the lines he suggested. I sent him a thank you note, incorporated some of his suggestions, but realized the others would have turned it into a very different kind of book (ie, narrative nonfiction, his specialty, rather than the memoir I'd set out to write.)

Finally I found my way to Agent #3, a reputable NY agent. This agent esponded very positively, but asked to see additional chapters beyond what I'd first sent with the proposal. He then made an offer of representation, assuming I was comfortable working with with some of the suggestions he laid out for me in an e-mail. These were all very reasonable, but because of my bad experience with Agent #1, I wanted to arrange a phone call before signing. The phone call (and a subsequent meeting) went very well, and I had that experience you sometimes have of near immediate comfort and connection. I very happily signed, then got to work on the revisions.

Interestingly, some of agent #1's feedback, heavy handed though it was, was echoed to some degree by the other two. For me, the question was whether I could work comfortably with someone. I could have done that with #2, though I am very glad I had enough of a commitment to my own vision of my book that I kept looking until I found an agent who seems the ideal choice for me.

Anonymous said...

I did extensive revisions on the first five chapters of my YA novel without a contract - BUT I only had to write the first five chaps and the editor had suggested the project to me and been extensively involved with the idea, so it was her baby too and I hadn't had to do any pitching or solo brainstorming - just having a couple of martinis at her expense while sitting in a nice NYC bar coming up with ideas for a series! After the second set of revisions for the first five chaps I wouldn't have done more without an offer. But I knew she wanted a series (thus it would be at least a 2-book deal, which is what I got) and she had already talked a nice price to my agent. So, though there wasn't 100% certainty, it was as close as it could be. I wouldn't have done anything like revisions on a completed novel without a contract. But I have been writing for a long time and have a track record. For a first-time author - well, it's the balance between being ripped-off, and an editor wanting to check that you're serious about your career and willing to take notes and do the work that comes with being edited. Best advice: get your agent involved and let them handle this for you. That's what you have an agent for.

Anonymous said...

I was busy forging a golden cat when KY came down from the mountain top. Anyone have a copy of the Snarkly Commandments handy?

Anonymous said...

Ok, another good news story: I revised fairly extensively for an editor at a large NY house, and she bought the ms about two months after I submitted via my agent. I think she wanted to see some improvements in the ms, and see if I was up to actually rewriting, which, happily, I was. Later, I went thru about five editorial letters, so yes, writing for the big boys really is about REwriting.