Should agents edit? Or just sell books and get out of the way?

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Should agents edit? Or just sell books and get out of the way?

Editing_Red_PenI have heard talk before of writers who not only prefer that their agents not weigh in on a manuscript, but actively discourage it. The agent’s job, these people feel, is to sell the book, to exploit the various rights associated with that book as thoroughly as possible. And weighing in on the story? Monkeying around with the structure? Fine-tuning the language? That is the job of the editor and the editor alone. Or so these writers feel. (I also heard that this was discussed briefly at the recent SCBWI national conference in Los Angeles, where Lin Oliver asked something to the effect of, “What if the writer doesn’t want to wait the months required to revise for you?”)

I can understand their position. And not just because I came up through the editorial side of things. As an editor, the last thing I wanted was to have the agent meddling in my relationship with the author’s manuscript. Of course—and this is key—that was only after I had purchased the book. And that is really when the agent needs to step aside and let the author and editor do their work together.

But before that, that’s when the agent can help the author shape and refine her manuscript. It may take a little longer to bring that manuscript to market, but I’d argue that the work done up front will pay off handsomely: The manuscript will feel more complete and well-realized; an editor can slot it onto an earlier publication list if it is “almost there”; and because it is developed so much, it should fetch a higher price from interested editors.

Or that’s how I feel about it, at any rate. How about you? I know you all discuss just how much an agent should shape a manuscript. Does that tinkering drive you up the wall? Or do you feel that is part of the service he or she provides?

  1. We all know that revisions can be a battlefield for authors and editors, or a bonding experience. If agents get involved in a manuscript at the same level, the result could be a closer, more confident partnership—or authorial resentment at the wrong time. I suspect the latter situation will be much rarer, but authors and agents will have to deal with the same tensions that authors and editors have experienced for years.

    Questions that will arise: Does Agent get into manuscript before or after contract with Author? If Author declines to make a revision Agent recommends, will that affect Agent’s enthusiasm in selling the project? If Author revises according to Agent’s advice but Editor turns out to prefer Author’s original idea, will that weaken Author’s faith in Agent’s judgment?

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  2. I don’t think we have a choice right now, as authors or agents (or editors). As competition for narrowing acquisition budgets increases, the manuscript we submit to an editor has to be as good as it can be without that editor’s input.

    Not that I’m complaining. My book is 1000% better than it was when my agent first read it, thanks in huge part to the questions and concerns he raised during subsequent revision. An editor can always say, “This is great, but I wish it had 20 POVs,” and I’ll still have that version on my hard drive. 🙂 But I hope it doesn’t happen because what I have now is better!

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  3. Writers/agents/editors in the end all want the same thing (especially if we temporarily leave out considerations of filthy lucre): the best possible book. And even the best, most talented, most meticulous writers cannot but benefit from intelligent, honest, useful editorial feedback. Even more so when (as with an agent) the feedback comes from an ally, a partner who is hopefully equally passionate about the eventual result. Who would not welcome such a relationship?

    It also strikes me that agents straddle the line between art and business and all business and no art must make Jack a dull, mopey agent.

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  4. I agree, which is why I’m looking for agents who are willing to be hands-on and editorial.

    I’ve gotten to be a pretty good editor, but I do realize that I am very close to my own work and probably won’t catch all the things that someone else might, or see some of the changes that could be made for the betterment of the story.

    An agent who is willing to go that extra step, who wants to work with me to make my story the absolute best it could be, is someone I would definitely want to work with.

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  5. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. I think that an agent and author should work together to create the best manuscript possible. An agent should edit to the degree that they feel comfortable and the author should look at the input as a way to better the book. At the same time, I think that the ultimate decision should fall to the author to accept or reject those editorial suggestions. Only a fool would reject any editorial advice from their agent out of hand, but they should feel comfortable enough to look at the suggestions and reject any that they don’t feel comfortable with.

    I think it’s a hard topic because authors are so protective of their work. The feeling is that authors don’t tell agents who to submit their book to so the agents should stay out of the book. But again, that’s far too simplistic. It’s a give and take relationship that works best when everyone is open-minded. I’ve been really blessed in that respect.

    At the end of the day I think authors should really listen and pay attention to the advice (editorial and otherwise) of their agent, and that the agent should trust the author should the author decide not to take the advice. It’s all about trust.

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  6. As a writer seeking representation for the first time I can tell you I want an agent that will help make my manuscript perfect before submitting it to publishers. I want an agent that is hands on and knowledgeable from the editing side of the fence because in turn I believe they’re the ones that will help raise my work to a level few writers can achieve on their own. Do I think my work is ready for publication? Yep. But I think the right agent can really make it perfection. But that’s just my opinion and I know others would disagree, that’s the beauty of having so much information on agents these days.

    Great topic!

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  7. This is a great topic and one I think about a lot. All of our clients have come to know that we (Michael, Danielle, and I) like to have a hand in shaping manuscripts.

    I’ll tackle my own specific revision strategies in a later post, but to answer J.L.’s question about at what point I like to work on a revision (before or after a contract), the answer is that it depends. Sometimes, if a manuscript feels like it needs a lot of work, I’ll do revisions exclusively with an author before offering representation. That way we’re able to feel each other out and see if we work well together. Sometimes, the majority of the work comes after signing, especially if it’s a project that’s garnered a lot of interest from other agents, but I always am honest and upfront about how much work I think it’ll require. If what I propose doesn’t sit right with an author, I hope she will sign with another agent.

    And when we get to work on a revision, my goal is to try and get a manuscript to a publishable level. When it sells, I, like Michael, prefer to step back and let the author and editor work together.

    Am I always going to be 100% right when it comes to revision? Of course not. But my hope is to develop a relationship with an author whereby my suggestions and their reactions, whether they are for or against what I propose, make a stronger book in the end.

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  8. As an unagented and unpublished author, I am looking for an agent who will be hands-on in getting my manuscript as perfect as possible. I suppose everyone has their own preferences, but I can’t imagine turning down a polished, professional opinion of my work.

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  9. I think that a fresh set of eyes is never a bad thing. Making the story shine as much as it possibly can before sending it out makes a lot of sense.

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  10. It is ironic that you would post this today! I’ve been doing a web search on this very topic this morning.

    I’ll answer your questions first. I believe it is important for an agent to help in editing and revisions. They work with publishers all the time and know what they want to see. An experienced writer might not need hands on help, but I don’t see how it could hurt.

    An agent has asked to see revisions of my manuscript. Although said agent did not ask for exclusivity, he/she was specific about what they wanted to see. (Without offer of representation.) I am thrilled someone has taken interest. After multiple revisions of my manuscript, I decided when and if I found the right agent, I would accept any advice offered. Many agent blogs have horror stories about working with egocentric authors who will not listen to them. In no way, shape, or form, do I want to be one of ‘those’ writers.

    I have a few questions for you, if you have time to answer them. How many revisions would you consider doing on a manuscript before offering representation? Also, are revisions a test to see if the writer in question is capable of performing the tasks you set before them? How long does it usually take you to respond after reviewing revisions?

    Side note: I’m so very glad you opened this agency and blog. It has already become one of my favorites! You guys rock!

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  11. I was surprised to see Michael Grant tweet that he’d never accept revisions from an agent. Maybe he doesn’t have the right one. (Heh.)

    I LOVE it when my agent has revision suggestions. That he used to be one of my favorite editors on the planet was the reason I wanted to work with him, so I really feel as though I’m getting an incredible deal.

    I do work with a critique group, but sometimes we tend to focus on the nitty-gritty, rather than the 30,000-foot perspective that agents bring. The truth is, an agent can tell you if you’ve been polishing a gem or a turd more easily than a critique partner can.

    I hope to get to a point someday where I can revise to perfection independently, mostly because I am keenly aware of the value of my agent’s time. This is a business, not an interpretive dance session. Anyway, I’ve already learned a ton in the process. It’s sort of like getting a free MFA. And revision is much easier when you have concrete suggestions from someone who knows the business.

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  12. Like all writers, I’m sure, the idea of anyone “tinkering” with my manuscript makes me anxious. I like to think that I’ve been professional enough that it’s already been tinkered to durn near perfection. But on the realistic side, I know I’m too close to it to catch everything. If an agent is going to sell your book to an editor, it should be in as good a shape as he or she can make it, so editing makes sense at that point. The agent may even have a specific market in mind and is editing to make it fit that venue. I’ve heard on the writing boards that editors are limited now in the amount of editing they have time for, so agent editing seems to be becoming the norm.

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  13. For me, the excellence of the final product is more important than how it got there. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t get too far if I didn’t seek collaboration and feedback when it comes to fine tuning any project that I am working on. And if it comes from a talented agent who is invested in the success of the project, I’d be pretty thrilled with that!

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  14. I agree with your post. I would love for an agent to help make the manuscript the best it can be before looking for an editor. I think each member of the team plays a valuable role, and we all want the same thing — great work that our readers will love. Working together to make that happen as a team, with each member contributing according to their role, is the best game plan, I think.

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  15. While I don’t like the notion of handing complete control of my works over to an agent, I sincerely hope to one day be paired with someone whose suggestions I’ll _want_ to take.

    To me, part of selling a book is making sure it’s the best book it can be. In that sense, offering guidance on revisions is no less an agent’s job than offering advice on contract nuiansces. It’ll still be my book just like it’ll stil be my name on the contract, but if I don’t respect my agent’s expertice I’d have worries about our relationship.

    Overall, the important thing is that the author and agent be in accord on the issue.

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  16. I definitely feel like an agent needs to be sure the manuscript is at a saleable point before sending it out — and usually this requires revision. I know someone whose agent sent out his/her manuscript as a complete mess. They kept receiving comments from editors about some of the problems, and he/she made the decision on their own to revise (the agent said nothing). When I saw the ms, I couldn’t believe how many things could easily have been fixed (many of those issues were raised by the editors). I know agents want to make their clients feel that it’s their story and their book, but I suppose, as with everything, a good balance needs to be found!

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  17. That does bring up the question: what degree of roughness in a submission are you willing to accept? How much shaping do you *expect* to do on a manuscript?

    I would be thrilled to have an agent’s input. I’m actually wary of over-editing on my own, without professional advice: afraid of polishing the life out of the manuscript.

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  18. While I don’t think there is a “right” or a “wrong” answer to this question. I will say this much: I absolutely would not have a book contract were it not for my agent’s extensive editorial feedback. You should want an agent who wants to see your manuscript become as good a book as it possibly can be, as opposed to just some person who can make a sale for you.

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  19. Here’s another point that I don’t see in previous comments:

    Even if the author doesn’t agree with an agent’s suggested revision per se, it may highlight something that isn’t working the way the author wants. By opening up a dialogue, the agent can help the author improve the writing/story without changing the intent.

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  20. Holy cow, but there are a lot of comments! I sent off my wee post, climbed aboard a plane, read a manuscript, then got off to change planes in Dallas to find lots of really thoughtful feedback.

    Martha, I wonder if Michael Grant would feel the same way if, say, I were his agent. I mean, he and I have history together, and he trusts me, but still: a good question.

    I think as most have said, there is no right and wrong answer. It’s more whether you feel the agent is sharpening, focusing your manuscript. And whether you trust that input. And whether it aligns with your own inner vision of how your manuscript works best.

    Tons o’ great comments. Am enjoying this!

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  21. I read on an agent’s blog recently that she was too busy to offer editing to her clients these days.

    I think that means most of her clients have publishers and she knows she can just send the work to the editor directly. I wonder what it means to her unpublished/uncontracted clients.

    I want an agent to edit me. That’s why it’s so important to get the right agent, though.

    A couple of years ago, an agent told me she loved my voice, but my novel was not right for the publishers she worked with. She asked if I could give her something like Bestselling-author’s books.

    “I don’t think so. I’ve just never had a burning desire to write contemporary books about the hardships of prep school. Sorry.”

    I really want a makeover by a professional…maybe some highlights in my hair and a new eyeshadow color. Maybe I’ll even need a new nose. But I don’t want drastic surgery so I look like Julia Roberts instead of Sally Apokedak. (Actually, I’d love to look like Julia Roberts, but that’s not the point.)

    Two years ago at SCBWI LA an agent told about having a new author do three revisions in eight months. At the end of the eight months the author was a bit cranky and wanting to have that manuscript sent out. The agent finally thought the book was ready, so she sent it out. It sold at auction for a quarter million dollar advance. (I’m guessing the author was Jay Asher, but she didn’t say.)

    Most books don’t have the fresh premise that can pull down that kind of advance. But still, why send a book out unedited if you have an agent willing to edit?

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  22. I don’t think there’s a “should.” I think that the relationship is going to be different for everyone, because each author and agent and author/agent relationship is unique. I think that if I somehow had two agents offering me a contract, big chances are that one would offer/want to do editing more than the other. I wouldn’t make a choice between them based on that, though…it’s more important to me that the agent loves the book and loves it for the reasons that I wrote it. ie: She sees the book the way I do and is totally behind me on my vision for why I wrote it.

    If the agent that feels that want feels it needs editing, great! If not, that’s fine, too.

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  23. One more thought, starting at the other end and working backwards.

    The stories we hear of books that are offered an agent contract and then sold at auction (or preempt) weeks later…those mean that the author’s writing and story-telling skills are top-notch. They’re already at the point where other authors’ books are AFTER agent revisions and editing.

    Sooo…it’s not a question of whether or not I LIKE an agent editing. It’s a question of whether my manuscript NEEDS agent editing.

    Of course I’d love the pat on the back that would come from a quick sale with little editing. BUT…if my writing’s not at that level, then I definitely want an agent that knows that and is willing to help me bring it to that level! Otherwise they’re doing me no favors.

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  24. I’m going to take all the help I’m offered from professionals, first of all. But if the agent wants changes that are just huge, I think they should at least let the client know up front before signing contracts. And it would be nice to know how “mandatory” those changes are before starting the submissions process, too. As long as the agent communicates one way or the other, I’d be happy!

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  25. While I might desire to have my manuscript sold as is, it sounds prudent, particularly in this economy, to make the manuscript as sale-able as possible. And, the fact is that many agents have experience as editors, and/or are truly qualified to work in this capacity, knowing good writing and the market. My final answer is, if I could have an agent help make my work better, I would appreciate it. There stands to be some incredible writing that might come from the combined work, not to mention the growth of a strong foundation in the agent/writer relationship.

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  26. Personally, I want my story to be at its best when I submit it to a publisher, and absolutely appreciate the fact that my agent has gone through my manuscript and made recommendations and edits. Her advice has been invaluable, but it has always been just that… advice, with nothing set in stone. A poke or prod. A great question to get me thinking about what I can add to give depth to my story. She has always let the final decision be mine, and as a result my story is far better because of her help.

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  27. Not only would I want an agent to help me fine-tune my manuscript, I *expect* it.

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  28. I think this question can only be answered after you’ve had that initial phone call from an agent offering representation and you’ve figured out what’s expected. I’m lucky enough to be repped by Chris Richman and during our initial phone conversation he was upfront that he wanted to do a revision with me and discussed what that revision would entail. He had fabulous ideas that not only improved the tension and conflict but strengthened my entire MS overall. Everytime I turn a revision into Chris I eagerly await his feedback, because I know through experience it’s only going to improve my work.

    My book is about a seveenteen-year-old girl who harbors the spirit of a samurai warrior. Now, say I had an agent who wanted me to change my samurai girl into a shape shifting barn owl and my ninjas into vampires, I might take issue with that 🙂

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  29. Wow, what a great discussion!

    I’m right with Michael and Chris on this. I believe an agent should act as an editorial guide for their author, offering comments and revision suggestions before a manuscript goes out on submission.

    Once the project goes to contract, it’s my turn to step back into more of a gatekeeping role, leaving additional revisions to the editor and author.

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  30. Perhaps this begets a sub-question; maybe the issue’s not *if* revision advice is welcome by the author, but *when*. I see Chris mentioned beginning some revisions prior to signing helps to make clear how the pair would work together, and I can absolutely see the merit of that but at the same time, the author is taking a leap of faith and making some potentially serious changes without even knowing if he’s going to sign her. So, hrmm… I guess back up the original manuscript, then.

    That said, I would never just blow off an agent’s advice, contracted yet or not. I had four agents cite “voice” during my first round of sendoffs, and that was enough for me to say “Okay, common theme recognized. Time to change something.”

    I’d love to be able to trust an agent to the point I’d follow him to the ends of the earth if he was confident the book would be better for it.

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  31. I’m not opposed to meddling agents because I’m protective of my work. I’m opposed to meddling agents because I think I know more than 90% about how to write and how to sell.

    In other words, I’m not an artiste, I’m arrogant.

    Stearns knows this story, but before I sent GONE to HarperCollins (and eventually to Michael) I ran it by an experienced kidlit agent who happened to represent someone close to me, another writer, who shall remain nameless unless you bother to Google “Michael Grant is married to.”

    This agent advised me to age the characters up to 18, cut the length by 50%, reduce the violence and the darkness and basically gut the book like a trout. Naturally I ignored this advice and hosed Harper for a 6 book deal that they’re still regretting.

    So far I or we have had 1) the agent who said she’d get us a better advance for our first romance novel and didn’t. 2) The agent who couldn’t figure out why they weren’t putting our names on the covers of series books we were ghosting. 3) The agent who decided she could represent both us and the packager we were working for. 4) The agent I had for 2 weeks and he then forgot my name and why he had signed me. 5) The agent who sat on a manuscript for six months and kept promising me revision notes. 6) The agent who didn’t bother to mention that there was a two book offer on the table.

    Now I (and the aforementioned wife) are both represented by a publishing lawyer.

    HOWEVER (and yes, it’s a big however, as you can see,) my wife and I are unusual cases. First because we have access to almost anyone in publishing. Second, we’re control freaks. Third, we may have just had a run of bad luck on agents. And Fourth, we are actually good at reading the market and most writers aren’t.

    It’s no shame if you’re not good at reading the market. You may be the next F. Scott but just not have a sense of the market. Perhaps you’ve been filling your head with literary theory and vocabulary words rather than haunting the B&N muttering, “End cap action there . . . facings . . . less prominent display than her last book . . . they dropped the embossing . . . where’s such and such I can’t even find it, hah . . . playing down picture books . . . overcommitted to YA . . .” and so on.

    The point being that I may not need an agent but most writers do. If I did — and the day mat come — it would be Stearns. Period.

    And if it’s Stearns telling you to rewrite something, rewrite it. I threw out a very complicated final 200 pages of HUNGER and rewrote them because he suggested it and because he was right.

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  32. I totally agree. One would hope that a writer would listen to the advice of their agent. The goal is to get the book published, if you don’t listen to your agent and fine tune your writing, the chances of someone buying the work goes down. I’d like an agent who edits, it’s one of the reason to have an agent. A person needs someone in the business who knows what they’re doing to help launch and maintain their career. Also, I’ve noticed a lot of writers have wonderful imaginations and story telling skills, but their grammar is sometimes so-so. Help is always appreciated.

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  33. […] This post by Upstart Crow Literary argues that there is a time when the agent shouldn’t be involved in editing — and that’s after the book has been sold and the editor from the publishing house takes over. At that point, the agent must step aside, which makes absolute sense. […]

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