Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The truth about being an editorial agent

Lately I’ve heard more and more writers say that they want an editorial agent. Long gone is the notion that an agent’s duties are limited to finding the right editor, yelling “SHOW ME THE MONEY!”, and negotiating a contract (though all of that is really fun). In our increasingly competitive publishing world, it’s not uncommon for agents to put extensive editorial work into projects before submitting them to editors. We want each manuscript to be as strong as possible before we send it out, because it increases the chances that the project will sell. Yes, there are plenty of good agents who take a more hands-off approach, and there are many great authors who prefer it that way. That’s A-OK, too! But the influx of writers wanting a more editorial agent makes me happy. I consider myself to be one, so hey, more awesome writers for me! 

The idea of working with an agent who wants to help you elevate your already-great manuscript to the “WHOA!” level before going on submission can sound good in theory. And in practice, it can—and should—be extremely rewarding for both agent and author. That said, it’s not always kumbaya-‘round-the-fire in Editorial Agent Land. Before you decide to query or sign with a self-proclaimed “editorial agent,” you should know what that entails. If the below doesn’t sound bad to you (or better, if it sounds fantastic), great! If the reality makes you want to head for the hills, though, you might prefer an agent who leaves the craft aspect to you, which is also a valid choice. Regardless of where you stand, have this discussion before you sign with an agent. So let's commence with the truthiness.

Truth #1: You won’t always agree

I love my clients, and sometimes it feels like we share a brain. But that’s not always the case. When I offer representation, I usually mention a few overarching editorial ideas I have for the project. I’m not going to go into tons of detail, though: that’s something I reserve for our first editorial letter. My thoughts on your manuscript will change throughout the revision process, just like yours do, and I will almost certainly float some ideas during revisions that weren’t discussed in that first phone call. If there’s an aspect of your novel that you know you absolutely will not rethink under any circumstances, The Call would be a good time to float that point by your potential agent. Otherwise, assume all aspects of your novel are up for discussion post-signing.

“Discussion” is just that, though – a discussion, not a command or a deal-breaker. Hopefully it’s productive, lively, and illuminating for both author and agent. Obviously your agent loves your manuscript the way it is, or they wouldn’t have signed you as a client! But that doesn’t mean we won’t ask you to consider killing a darling at some point. Sometimes major character issues or plot holes don’t reveal themselves until after a first revision. Sometimes we might need two or three rounds to work it out, and that’s hard to predict from the initial phone call. Ultimately, we both want the same thing: for the book to be successful and still true to the author’s vision. In my experience, this sometimes-tough process is actually great preparation for when a book sells and an author works with an editor for the first time. They’ve already been through it with me, and I like to think that they’re a little more prepared for it.

Truth #2: It’s all in the timing

Being an editorial agent means reading our authors’ work a lot. I read a manuscript once or twice before signing the author, and then I want to read it again once I need to write that first editorial letter. Introducing new ideas to an author’s baby is a responsibility I don’t take lightly, so I need to be thorough and take my time. That nail-biting wait for your edit letter can be tough, I know! But it’s better to give your agent time to really think his or her thoughts through. You don’t want us doing a rush job on something that could end up shaping your manuscript. We also don’t want to miss something important that would have been obvious had we read more carefully.

When you get that letter, you might be really excited to dig in, revise, and send that manuscript off to your agent again. I can’t emphasize this enough, though: it’s okay to take your time. Not only does a rushed revision not do you any good (you might have regrets later, and it likely won’t be your strongest work), but it can be a bit frustrating to your agent. When we spend dozens of hours reading your manuscript, taking copious notes, and formulating what’s likely a multi-page edit letter, we want your best work in return. If you turn that revision around in a week or two, it’s likely not quite there yet. There’s also no way I, your agent, will have the brain space to read your book again that quickly. I need to be able to see your manuscript with fresh eyes each time I read, and the more times I read it, the harder it is to evaluate it from a first-time reader’s (or potential editor’s) perspective. Sometimes I have to say, sorry, but as excited as I am to dive back into this, I think you need to take more time away from the project to see it clearly—and so do I. Waiting isn’t fun, but at the end of the day, your book will hopefully be stronger for it. When your book sells, your editor won’t be turning around your manuscript in a week or two, either, because she also has many other projects on her list, other responsibilities, and a need to cleanse her palate before diving back in to your work. (Also: she’s human.) Working with an editorial agent can be good preparation for this!

Truth #3: Submission

Before I sign a client, I’m always upfront about how my submission process works. We only get one chance to make a great first impression with your manuscript, and I don’t want us to waste our bullets with something that’s not ready. Nothing’s ever perfect, and even something we’ve worked really hard on together may not go on to sell, but if I know there’s still more work to be done, I’m not hitting “send” yet. My number one concern is launching your career successfully, and sometimes that means a little more tweaking. Do agents and authors sometimes disagree over what qualifies as “ready”? Sometimes, yes, though rarely. Do I know plenty of agents who have said “We’ve revised this fiftyleven times and even though I think it needs more work, I’m getting the vibe that this author will fire me if I don’t send it, so I’m going to send it to five people”? Yes. And you don’t want this, because it doesn’t tend to end with a sale. When you sign with an editorial agent, decide if you want this kind of feedback, and be ready to have the “what happens if we disagree?” conversation. In short, having an agent who wants to work with you editorially may mean that it’ll take a while before you go on submission. It definitely means that communication is key.

Personally, I love being an editorial agent. I adore working closely with my brilliant clients and helping to shape their work. Do we always agree at every stage of the revision process? Of course not. But at the end of the day, I know that if I make a suggestion, they trust me enough to evaluate it carefully and will try to understand where I’m coming from, even if it’s not part of their original vision. And I’ll never ask them to make a change with which they don’t agree, because that wouldn’t ring true and would hurt the manuscript. So while revising can be challenging, we always end up on the same page, and I hope we’re both happier with the result. I know I am. In this crowded market, working with an editorial agent can give you an extra competitive edge. Plus, the editorial journey strengthens our agent-author relationship, sharpens our skills, and – in the end – makes the book even better!


  1. Absolutely agree! I am so happy with my editorial agent. Her insights have helped not only polish my manuscript but have also helped me grow as a writer. Great post!

  2. nice breakdown of the process. kind of the right amount encouraging and challenging.

  3. Hi Molly!

    I love this post. I just launched a lit blog that focuses on the behind the scenes of the reading/writing, and I'd love to republish this post there. It's exactly the kind of posts I hope to feature on the site. Please take a look at the mission statement: http://inklings.kinja.com/ok-so-what-the-hell-is-inklings-1441115645 and email me if you're interested! inklings.kinja@gmail.com.

    Thanks for writing this,


    1. Sorry for all the weird typos, I promise I'm not illiterate. Ha. What I really meant to say is below:

      I love this post. I just launched a lit blog that focuses on the behind the scenes of readers and writers, and I'd love to republish this post. It's exactly the type of post I hope to feature on the site. Please take a look at the mission statement: http://inklings.kinja.com/ok-so-what-the-hell-is-inklings-1441115645 and email me if you're interested!


      Thanks for writing this,


  4. Very strong post. I love it. It makes perfect sense considering the market and the level of patience one must have to produce an amazing piece of work that rises above the rest. It never happens over night, and only through sweat and sacrifice is something gained. And from my perspective, one achieves a far greater product when you conquer a single vision with several passionate minds striving for the same creative goal.
    Awesome post, Molly. I can't wait to begin the query process.

  5. This post, Molly, reveals a lot. I, for one, wish you'd written it 5 months ago! It would have saved me a lot of heartache.

  6. What is an editorial? This is an article that showcases a periodical’s opinion on a certain issue. A lot of editorials are designed to draw public’s attention to this issue and sometimes even take action. It is meant to make readers think critically and analyze the subject of the discussion. Click here to get some decent tips and hints on editorial writing.