Thus I think that as long as the parties are open with each other and the agent is trying to be helpful, an author would be foolish not to seriously consider the suggestions.
I could always go back to the version I had pre-editorial changes, and I'd like to think I'd have learned a good deal through the process.
I guess I'm wondering why an agent/editor would put a writer through multiple rounds of revision, only to turn it down. If the writer wasn't doing a good job with the revisions, wouldn't the process have stopped much earlier?
So, while I'm sure you're great at your job, and a real asset to the authors you work with, there does come a time where I think you need to assess if your revisions are tailoring the book to the needs of you and your house. If so, I think it's fair for you to contract the book before those revisions happen. Because another editor might be turned off by what's cut or added at your request.
But, as Laura said, the author can always go back to the original, can't she?
A couple comments makes me realize that what I might consider "free advice", many writers will consider "unasked for interference without a contract."
The downside is, of course, that if I have to send out a contract before it's "right," I'll turn down stories that I think have promise, because I can't gamble on the author being able to reach that potential, and I won't go to contract before I know that. So... I think if Stephen's suggestion is helpful-- be absolutely upfront about what your expectations are.
But I also think the AUTHOR has to be the one to broach this, as it's clear many authors are happy to get free editorial advice whether or not it leads to a contract. (And most editors assume that, I think.) So if we editors have the perhaps silly notion that any feedback is helpful, the writer might say, "I'm happy to do this revision round, but after that (whatever)."
Now the question is, how would editors react to that. I probably would respond (having been through the whole contract/revision refusal situation) that I have no idea if this story will be right until I see all the suggestions enacted, and thanks and good luck placing it elsewhere, and you don't need to worry that I'll send a bill for my advice, because I did offer it freely. :)
That is, if I were a writer who really wanted to sell to this publisher or this editor, or to be represented by this agent, I wouldn't make any ultimatums. But if this was the book of my heart, one I couldn't imagine changing, especially for market reasons, I wouldn't even do one round of revisions, probably. I think I'd even be a bit resentful if the editor suggested I change something about the plot or characters, because if I love it Just Like This, I don't want to hear suggestion for improvement. And I have a book, actually, that I love Just Like This, and I won't change a word, and that could be why it's never sold.
What I'm doing now is asking with the initial rejection letter (and only when I can identify some aspect for improvement that isn't "write better" -- I mean, something useful-- "I have some suggestions on how to improve the (aspect), so let me know if you want that advice."
So I'd only give advice if it is asked for. So far, everyone's asked for it.
I should say there are two basic scenarios where I'd ask for major revisions:
1) There's some big issue that if the writer can fix, then the story will work for me. For example, a lot of writers start with a chapter or a scene which really is disposable-- it adds very little to the story, and maybe even detracts or sends the wrong initial message to the reader, like "this is going to be a book about two girlfriends and their bond," when it's really an action/adventure novel. This is very common, and it's also pretty easily fixable, because the story will go on very well without it, or maybe with just a bit of that first-scene information sprinkled in. In that case, if it's a pretty easy fix, I would suggest that and say that I'd like another look afterwards. And if it comes back, and I think it works, I'll probably offer a contract, and might say that further revisions could be needed, but we can get to that after the contract. The danger is, of course, what if what I think of as a minor revision after the contract-- and I'll be reading the book again (and doing the line edit) after that, and I might then notice other problems... it does happen-- might be a dealbreaker for the writer. And breaking the deal AFTER the contract is a pain for all concerned. But that's never happened yet, though I have had a couple painful post-contract wrangles that made me think, "I don't want to go through this again." :)
2) But just as common is a story that has promise, but needs a lot of work, and I doubt one round will do it. Maybe the writer has a great voice, but the plot is too contrived or over-complicated, or too much of the action is committed by secondary characters, or there's no control of point of view. I know this is going to take real advanced work on the writer's part to fix, and he might not get it perfect the first time-- or maybe ever. If I say, for example, that he's headhopping a lot, and he needs to get control over his POV, well, he might be one of those writers who need only to have this pointed out to them to suddenly grasp POV and make it work. Or he could need a couple manuscripts to practice on before he gets POV right. I don't know. And he might fix the POV, but in doing so, make a character unsympathetic (nothing like internalization to reveal unpleasant personality aspects, huh?). Or he might have terrific deep POV in one scene, and then the rest of the scenes are distant, making for a jarring contrast. So at any point here, I really can't know if the manuscript's going to end up as something I want to contract. And I must remember, I'm employed by my publisher, not by the submitter, and my job is to bring to contract only manuscripts she'll want to publish-- not to reward writers for their hard work with a contract. We can both work very hard on a manuscript and it's still not going to be ready for our contract (though of course, another publisher might be happy with it). So what then?
I just know this-- I can't offer a contract without being sure it's right or shortly to be right. It wouldn't be fair to the publisher, whose reputation, not to mention money, is on the line.
So suggestions? Thoughts? I really wonder if it makes a difference where you are in your career. If you're starting out, maybe it's true, all feedback is welcomed, but maybe later, you are not as eager to take advice because you are more confident? Or more savvy about the market, knowing that what one publisher wants "fixed" (say, Harry Potter), another might want as is?
Now that I think of it, I'm far more likely to trust in the ability of a well-published veteran to do revisions-- and to know what a contract means in terms of revision-- that is, it's not a contract to publish whatever the author wants to send me.
I know I have several times told a submitter that what is needed to make it work for me would change the book too much-- often, by the way, that's what "not right for us" really means, that it's not right for us. There is a difference between "a terrific book that we just can't publish because of subject matter or innovative style or genre considerations," and "a book that might be terrific for us except for these PROBLEMS." And maybe that should be made clearer-- well, actually, I meant to address that in the next post, because often this is a matter of the submission being in the wrong-but-closely-related category, and thus both "fixable" by my estimation while "just right" by the author's estimation. (And we're both right. But not, perhaps, right for each other.)