Should agents edit? Or just sell books and get out of the way?
August 14, 2009

I 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?