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Monday, August 20, 2007


Agent involvement

Bran Fan asks:

Since the threads are open for questions, may I ask one? I was wondering how much an agent gets involved in line edits before trying to sell a novel, and after the sale, when the editor starts doing that job, does the agent back off?

... Hm. I guess it depends on the novel. An agent won't take on a novel unless they're pretty sure they can sell it, so editing it prior to sale is likely to be fairly minimal. If it's a borderline case, they'll make suggestions for rewrites without committing to take the author on as a client. I've known situations where agents will discuss rewrites with an author they're considering representing, but don't sign them up unless they think the rewrites have done the trick. (Note to novices: DO NOT ask an agent to do this. If they're willing, they'll volunteer, but if they don't volunteer, that means they don't want to do it, and will just consider it pestering if you ask for it. It's a big etiquette breach, and looks very amateurish.) But an agent who decides to represent a book will have to consider it to be at least close to saleable condition.

Which isn't to say that they don't suggest brush-ups, and often length reductions. What can also happen is that, if the manuscript has been doing the rounds for a bit and hasn't sold, the agent may then suggest getting some more rewrites; Bareback had a bunch of rejections, and my agent sent it to the agency's editorial consultant. (Most agencies don't have one, but the agent might do that job, or refer it to a trusted book doctor.) She suggested some cuts, and the book sold.

So an agent will work with an author to improve a book. But once a book has sold, in my experience the agent does hand over editing to the editor. The thing about an agent is that their primary job is selling: they present, promote, negotiate and monitor the interests of a work, and editorial skills, which are slightly different, are probably something that they also have, but an editor is an editing specialist, to whom they're happy to pass over the fine-tuning work. Once the book has sold, the agent's job of brushing it up is finished, and their next job is to try to sell it in other countries as well. A publisher might conceivably ask an agent's opinion over a major rewrite by way of taking soundings, but basically, once the book is with an editor, the agent can relax over editing it.

Anyone else got experience of this?

Thanks, Kit! This is helpful. My agent is very hands-on. Later, I'm hoping my agent will be more hands-off in the editing department.
My agent took on my book after asking me to make some minor adjustments to the first chapter. (Literally cutting out one small paragraph.) Besides that I didn't have to do anything before the book went on submission.

After it had been on submission a while, it became clear that, whilst it was being favourably received, parts of the book still needed tightening up. So I went through it again and made some more changes - again nothing major, and the book went back on submission a couple of weeks ago.
It occurs to me that a conceivable complication would be where an editor wanted the author to make a change the author wasn't comfortable with: the agent might get called in to referee/appealed to by the author. As, mercifully, I've never been in that situation - or at least, I've never been in a situation where I wasn't able to say, 'I don't want to do what you suggest, how about I do this instead?' and get a sympathetic response (editors aren't slave-drivers, on the whole) - I'm speculating a bit here.

It is, of course, conceivable that in such a situation, the author could be wrong. People aren't objective judges of their own work. In such a case, the editor might take the agent on one side and say quietly, 'Look, your author is very attached to her Mary Sue/deus ex machina/heavy-handed point-making/interminable infodumps/irrelevant research, but it'll get the books bad reviews and bad sales; can you help me convince her that it's really in her interests to make some changes?' And if the author really is jeopardising their reputation with poor judgement, the agent, whose job it is to keep that reputation shiny, will be doing their job to back the editor up, hopefully without upsetting the author too much in the process.

On the other hand, the publisher might be wrong, in which case, the agent will presumably weigh in on the author's side, as saying 'My client is upset' without shouting at anybody is a solid agenting skill.

But in any case, all those would involve scenarios where somebody actually asked the agent to get involved again, which doesn't usually happen.
I'm really hoping agent will back off once it goes to editorial. She thinks she's a great line-editor. She isn't. She's a great salesman, and for that I adore her. I just wish she'd stick to her own area of expertise.
My book went back and forth between me and my agent three times before she took me on. She noted things from the spelling of individual words to continuity errors hundreds of pages apart. All the time this was going on I didn't know if she would actually take me on at the end of it.

Undoubtedly she helped me to improve the book hugely, but also important was what she didn't say as much as what she did. Passing comments like "Well, you could do something about this scene, but it's no big deal" gave me a pathalogical obsession to improve everything I could possibly think of.

At one stage I did try to ask her if she'd represent me if I made the changes she was suggesting, but she made it clear (very subtly too), that that's not a question one should ask a lady literary agent (!)

What I like most about the whole publishing business is, when you're an unknown, how you get over one almost-insurmountable barrier, there's another even higher one waiting for you - great stuff! *twitch twitch*

naomi and anonymous: really, really huge massive good luck with your efforts. Let us know when something good happens so we can all have a virtual glass of champange!
Indeed: good luck all round. :-)
My agent signed me and then sent a list of changes. The list was extensive, but not major. That is, there were numerous items, but no show stoppers that would require major reorganization of chapters or the complete rethinking of characters.
Thanks Chris and Kit!
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