Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Do Agents Edit? And Is It Really Their Job?

Literary agents have two main functions. They separate the best writing from the rest, so that editors can spend more time editing and producing the best books they can; and they get their clients the best deal possible—which doesn't always mean going for the biggest advance.

Is it also part of an agent's job to provide writers with editorial advice? I would say yes. In order to get the best deal for their clients they have to know that the book is as good as it can be before it goes out, and doing this requires some degree of editing. It might not be substantial (although sometimes it is): it could consist of a couple of general comments or it could be a far more rigorous and penetrating process.

Some agents say that they don't edit their clients’ work and while this might well be true, it doesn't mean that they offer no editorial advice at all. They do it every time they reject a submission and comment “I didn’t love this enough”, or "this is not right for me". Such comments constitute valuable editorial advice. Even more valuable is the blank rejection which implies that the writing is just not good enough, which every writer would be wise to pay close attention to no matter how hurtful they find it.


green_knight said...

Even more valuable is the blank rejection which implies that the writing is just not good enoughI disagree. All that says is that what you have is not a book the particular agent you sent it to is saleable in the current market. It could be a book that's difficult to place, it could be a book that's too similar to something the agent has just signed, it could be a book over 100K, OR it could be 'not good enough.'

Chances are that it's the latter, but even then, a form rejection does not tell you what you should do to improve it, or even whether. (Polishing a book that's not right for the market is a nice exercise, but if nobody is interested in the premise, all it will earn you is a better class of rejection.)

I'm not saying that agents should provide feedback, and considering how many writers argue back, that really doesn't sound like a productive pasttime, but _helpful_ to the writer it isn't.

Jane Smith said...

GK, I didn't write that the blank rejection means that the book definitely isn't good enough: I wrote that it implies it isn't good enough, and at the risk of offending people, I do wish that more writers would consider that possibility.

Most of the agents and editors I've known (and submitted to) over the years will give feedback if the work shows promise. Most will try to help if the work is nearly, but not quite, there. But if the writing is miles away from being good enough (how ever you define that), then they just don't have the time to give all the information that's needed, as we've discussed here before.

And yes, you're right to point out that there are various ways in which a book can be inappropriate for one particular agent or editor: but isn't that part of what being "good enough" implies? If a writer submits a cook book to a fiction publisher then they're likely to get a blank rejection: which means, surely, that the writer should take that as a hint that there might be a big problem with the submission?

green_knight said...

Most of the agents and editors I've known (and submitted to) over the years will give feedback if the work shows promise.That hasn't been my experience, and it hasn't been the experience of many people I've spoken to - there are just *too many* submissions for agents to go through to do that. And almost everybody I know who isn't yet in the 'definitely good enough' category has gotten everything from form rejections to glowing praise - it's a subjective business, and neither (!) necessarily gives an objective assessment of the work.

I think the reasons a book is rejected are important, because the writer needs to be able to decide whether they a) need to work on their writing skills across the board (it never hurts, but the perfectionists among us need to stop agonising over annoying readers with x at some point, when x *is not the reason that the book won't sell*), they b) need to change the book in order to make it commercial, or c) they need to keep believing in the book and find someone who loves it as much as they do.

There's probably an 80/20 split between the first and the last category - far too many people believe their book is great when it merely isn't good enough - but it's worth for writers to consider whether they've written the right book for the market; and whether they can write to the market, want to write to the market, or need to find a different market. (As long as the market wants 100K books with a strong romantic subplot I'm unlikely to sell anything at all.)

A multi-published, award-winning author friend is currently in the situation where her extremely well-written books are 'not commercial' and her high-powered agent has trouble placing them. This is not an isolated incident, but it makes it clear that not all books that are rejected - and even rejected outright as 'this won't sell' are books in need of improvement, or writers who are not there yet; and while the majority of manuscripts are rejected because they are not good enough, being a good writer is no guarantee that you have a book that will be commercial.

Administrator said...

I have to say i would love an agent who also helped me edit my work - but only once i had signed with them, ie chatted and made sure that they really 'got' my work.

An agent once read my full and gave me a couple of pages of feedback on how she thought it should be rewritten - if i did she would read it again.

I was green back then and excitedly rewrote my humorous book, giving it a more serious edge as they suggested, without really asking myself if this was what my work was all about. The rewrite was still rejected and by then i had lost all my self-belief in that book, i'd chopped and changed it so much to please someone else.

So i imagine an agent who edits can be a wonderful thing, but just be careful if you are making changes before being signed. Such feedback is very generous and can be very helpful, but it is from someone who doesn't know much about you or your writing.

green_knight said...

Samantha, I think there comes a time when you need to pick the hills to die on. It's *always* sensible to get feedback from experienced and skilled writers/editors, but sometimes you need to look at somebody else's vision of a book and say 'this is not what I want to write.' If you're good at lighthearted books, don't try to be serious, if you're good at complex narratives, don't try to be light and fluffy - they're all skills you might acquire eventually, but in your own time and on the right project.

You owe it to the people who give you advice to consider it calmly and professionally; but you do not owe them to turn yourself and your book into something you aren't. That might mean walking away from a sale... and only one person can decide whether that's worth the price. (I draw the line at 100K books. The stories I want to tell don't fit into the short form. I couldn't cut 20K from Pride and Prejudice, either.)

Administrator said...

I agree, green-knight - but what i'm saying is, this is something you often only learn in time, as you gain confidence with your own writing style and voice.

All feedback is invaluable, but yes, it needs to be very carefully considered, especially if it is somone not familiar with your writing as a whole.

Anonymous said...

Your summary of the agent's role in the editing process sounds right to me - even if I haven't yet experienced it! I hope you might also post on 'Do editors edit'. Increasingly novels seem to appear with very little editing either in terms of the overall narrative or the line editing. This isn't just my observation. I have heard similar comments from others not tainted (like me?) by the sour grapes of the unpublished writer! Also keeping an eye on your 'Trios' for enlightenment on what really happens between acceptance and publication.

David Dittell said...


In the film world, this is much, much clearer. Your manager or agent will give you a lot of feedback that will help your work get picked up and your pitches actually sell. They'll tell you not only what's working/not working from a story perspective, but also from a market perspective, and while none of the advice is binding, it is certainly all helpful.

catdownunder said...

Is "We are not taking on any new authors" - or a similar phrase - just another way of an agent endeavouring to reject someone "nicely" as well? More importantly, is it kind to the would-be author?