Agents vs. Editors

I’ve had a few writers recently come to me with questions similar to this one (summarized):

Help! I am querying agents and publishers simultaneously and I’ve noticed something strange. All of the agents seem to say complimentary things about the writing but reject my idea. Some have even said that they wouldn’t know how to sell it and that there’s no market for it. One went as far as to say, “Give up already, nobody is going to buy this.” Meanwhile, the editors I’ve reached out to rave about the writing and say that it’s a really good idea. Does this happen often? Who’s right?

I’m going to try and address this intelligently without insulting too many people. Agents and editors are different and represent different steps in the publishing process. Agents can often be accused of taking more mainstream projects with an eye toward the market and current trends. That comes from the way that agents make money: They want to attract as many buyers to your project as possible so that you, your project, the agent, and the agency get the most favorable outcome, which usually tends to happen to “bigger” or “commercial” projects that inspire a bidding war. Then they want to use this momentum to sell even more rights, like foreign and film. They take a percentage of the sale (sometimes with a salary, sometimes working only on commission) so they have to do a lot of big sales in order to profit.

Editors, on the other hand, often seem more sympathetic to more marginal projects without paying as much attention to market trends. They know that their publishers service many audiences, including schools and libraries, and that there are many different slots that a potential book can fill. They are willing to look at things that aren’t as immediately marketable and see their potential. They also don’t have to hustle for their money. Sure, they are under pressure from their bosses to acquire profitable projects. But they have more job security they can take more time and be more charitable with feedback for things that come across their desks. (This is not to say that editors don’t work hard. They work incredibly hard! But they, in general, are also more secure financially because they work for large companies that pay a salary.)

Before you think that I’m calling agents mercenary art-killers and editors starry-eyed idealists, though, here’s another layer of complexity: In the real world, it is very difficult for either party to get what it wants. Blockbuster commercial projects that will go on to sell in the six- or seven-figures come around once in a blue moon. Everybody wants one, everybody fights for it when it appears, but only one agent gets it. The rest of the time, agents have to see the potential in more challenging concepts. And as fun as it is to hold a huge auction, it’s just as fun fun to sell a “quiet” book to the perfect editor who immediately “gets it.” Finding this fit is a lot more work for often less (monetary) reward, but it feels amazing, too.

And while an editor may love the idea of doing a book for a very limited audience or with a totally out-there subject matter, they have to answer to their bosses, their pub boards, their finance guys, their marketing departments, etc. etc. etc., and they sometimes get brought back down to earth by a “no” that comes from above. So while the editors in the sample question all seem to be much more amenable toward marginalized concepts, I didn’t hear that any of them were offering to buy the manuscripts in question, either. Liking something and saying nice things about it is very different from putting cold, hard money on the line. We all go into children’s publishing to help get amazing books into the hands of worthy young readers, but these aspirations often butt right up against the fact that publishing is a Business-with-a-capital-B. And sometimes a book with a challenging subject matter, or one without “high-concept” commercial potential will take more work to see in print.

Agents do have to focus on more commercial concepts sometimes to stay afloat. And editors have to jump through a whole lot of hoops and “sell” a book to their team before they can make an offer. For books where the potential to profit isn’t obvious, that means it will take time to place them witheither and agent or an editor. I don’t think it’s right for anyone to say “Just give up, this is a fool’s errand!” But I also don’t want to say that every book will get published, because some ideas are jut too far out there to invest in in a competitive market.

Part of trying to get published, however, is understanding the process. Here I hope I can offer some insight into why agents and editors sometimes seem at odds when it comes to their decisions. It’s never quite as black-and-white as it appears. A caveat: This post is NOT about drawing a line in the sand and saying “this type of book is commercial and this isn’t.” Part of the gamble of publishing is to look and imagine and take chances. I will never tell a writer that this idea categorically won’t work and that idea is a guaranteed bestseller. It doesn’t work like that. There are no certainties. My core message has always been that writers who focus on the craft and learn about the publishing business are setting themselves up for greater success. This post is instead about addressing a disparity between agent and editor responses that several writers have noticed, and trying to explain the possible reasons.

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    I never realized feedback can be so different based on who’s giving it, but it makes so much sense now.

    I wonder if editors in smaller presses are more likely to take a chance on less commercial projects than editors in big imprints. I’d think so, but the smaller publishers have to be just as business-savvy as the big publishers.

    Thank you:)

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