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Editors

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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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A reader wrote in over the weekend to ask:

I wrote a nonfiction article for a kids’ magazine. I sent it recently, haven’t heard back yet. Because I’m completely fascinated with the subject I wrote about, I sat down and wrote a different story on the same subject that ideally would be a nonfiction children’s picture book. I’ve sent it to just one agent a few days ago. No here’s my dilemma: I know all the “first-time rights” and “all-rights” lingo, but I’m wondering that, 1. does it apply because the mag article is different than the picture book story, and 2) in the 1-in-billion chance that the agent wants to pursue my book, do I need to jump up and shout- wait!- a magazine might publish a different-but-same-topic article I wrote. I feel like this could be potentially sticky…and I’m just wondering if there’s any justifications for my worries.

An interesting question! Here’s my response:

Rights to a book are pretty heavily connected to the text of a book. A lot of authors publish NF articles in their subject area before writing a full-length book about it (and lots of people pitching NF book proposals are told “This is more of an article” because there’s not enough meat in their topic/angle to support a full book).

In children’s, you could wander into a bit of a gray area because I’m imagining that both texts will be shorter and will cover a lot of the same information–i.e.: both overview biographies or both simple explanations of a scientific principle, etc. This is where you will want to pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

If your article vs. book angles are very different, like one is an overview and one covers a much more specific area of the subject, you have nothing to worry about. But if the topics are close and lightning happens to strike twice in the form of a magazine acceptance AND a book publishing opportunity, there is nothing wrong with strategically delaying the article until you can share your concerns with an agent or editor. As opposed to the book manuscript and publishing plan with your acquiring editor, the article will be a lot easier to edit in a way that still meets the magazine’s purposes.

A larger point deserves to be made here: If you have a magazine editor, agent, or book editor on the hook and they like your work or area or expertise (in the NF world especially), there is nothing wrong with communicating openly, asking thoughtful questions, or attempting to get that person to work with you if something like this should come up. Your magazine editor might be perfectly willing to publish a slightly different article or time the article differently (delay it while negotiation is in process, run it closer to your book’s publication date to build momentum, etc.) in case you happen to get a book contract.

The good thing about this potential scenario, of course, is that being published in various venues on a subject will help you leverage yourself as an expert on a certain topic. As you build your career, you’ll actually want to seek out these types of situations and get your name out there. I know some of these questions are stressful, but try and think of this as a potential positive, because it very easily could be!

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At every conference we attend, with every interview we do, and for every bio we fill out, there’s one question that always makes its way into the mix: “What are you looking for?”

It came up on a panel this weekend at the excellent San Francisco Writers Conference, as usual. It’s what writers are very curious about, naturally. Because, if they know what agents and editors want, they can supply…right?

Well, I hate this question. And I said so. And the smartass answer–”I know it when I see it”–isn’t helpful. My actual answers on the panel were “Good stuff done well” and “Literary spark and commercial appeal.”

I’m not trying to be coy here. But I think that fellow agent Taylor Martindale‘s answer to a different question illustrates my point perfectly. When talking about books we were excited about, she said she recently sold a YA novel about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she has become Amelia Earhart. Taylor had just sold the book and, to be honest, it sounds really interesting.

It’s a rare agent or editor who knows exactly, in very specific detail, what they’re looking for. Sure, some editors will say, for example, “I am looking for Dexter for teens.” They tell everyone they know. This actually happened in 2010 with one editor, and they got their wish. Their very specific request inspired author Barry Lyga to write the forthcoming I HUNT KILLERS, which comes out in April and, if you don’t mind me saying, is mind-blowingly great.

It’s much more common to get a vague answer like my panel responses. I bet Taylor Martindale never went on a panel at a conference and said “I’m looking for a YA about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I never went on a panel and said “I’m looking for a picture book about a bird who befriends a snowball” (WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, which was written up in last week’s New York Times), or “I really want to read about a boy who stumbles into a parallel universe to try and reclaim the love of his life” (THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth) or “I really want a story about a Polynesian volcano goddess with a bad tempter” (WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight).

In fact, when we meet with editors, they very rarely get super specific about what they’re looking for. We’ve all been shocked and delighted about what has grabbed us in the past. So I, personally, never say never and leave the possibilities wide open. Most of my colleagues in agenting and publishing do the same. When I meet with editors, it’s less about what they say they want and more about learning the flavor of their imprint and hearing them talk about books that have excited them. Are they focusing on the characters? The plot? The writing? Do they like to laugh? Cry? Fall in love? Basically, I’m trying to get a more general picture of their sensibilities, then match projects to them on that level. Of course, if they have specific requests, I keep those in mind, too, just in case I ever have a perfect match.

You are the writer. It is your job to come up not only with a really well-written story, but with an idea that’s going to resonate in the marketplace and grab attention. That’s becoming more and more important, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this a lot later. (Not being vague…it just has a lot to do with the Big News I keep talking about.)

A lot of writers say in their queries: “I am happy to write whatever you need.” No. With the exception of work-for-hire projects that houses commission writers for, it’s on your shoulders to provide the idea and execute it with aplomb. That’s what will sell. And if it’s awesome, many different agents and editors will be a fit for it, because we’re all looking for, basically “Good stuff done well.”

So I hope you can understand why “I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t a copout answer.

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This post is for all the author/illustrators out there, and the question comes from Siski:

I’d like to know more about agents and how they go about repping author/illustrators. I read an awful lot about query letters for authors but how does an author/illustrator query?

As we do with our authors, agents help author/illustrators develop their projects, work up a submission plan, and connect our clients with potential editors. The nature of the editorial work is a bit different, though. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not an artist. (Despite a very promising banana still life at age three that remains framed in my mother’s…closet. Ouch.) But my mom is actually a rather well-known fine art painter. I’ve spent my entire life around art and almost every fall, I go on tour with her and hang out in even more galleries. I may not know how to pull what’s in my mind and get it down on paper visually, but I do know what I like (and what’s good) when I see it.

With author/illustrators, I comment on issues of composition, image choice, character, expression, color, etc., but the art mastery has to be there before I sign an author/illustrator or illustrator. All of my illustrators came to books from being artists first, writers second. It is much easier to hone the picture book writing side of a creator’s craft (though it’s still very difficult to write a timeless, smash hit picture book) than it is to teach them art. That’s why I don’t recommend writers take up art and try to become illustrators. Unless you are gifted visually, it will be very difficult to compete with all the illustrators on shelves today or in BFA or MFA programs. Aspiring illustrators should spend a few hours in the picture book section of a bookstore and see what the professionals are doing. Even the most deceptively simple styles have a lot of artistry going on behind the scenes. Adding writing to an illustrator’s toolbox is a lot easier (and more feasible) than adding illustration to a writer’s.

So for me to take on an illustrator, I need to be wild about their illustration style and talent. They also need to have at least one really fun or commercial story idea that we can work with. If the writing isn’t stellar (yet), I know I can work with them just like I would my author clients in order to get things into shape.

Submissions work similarly with author/illustrators, except I’m often sending out a full sketch dummy, anywhere from two to five mock finishes (full color renderings of sketches), and the manuscript text. I will either send this in the form of a physical, mail submission, if the art works better when you can spread it out in front of you and really dive in, or as a digital PDF file.

The other part of how I work with an author/illustrator is trying to rustle up illustration work. This is very tough going for most agents, and most illustrators, because a lot of illustrator-project pairing is a matter of luck and timing. Not all editors are equally patient or talented when it comes to stretching their imaginations for either a text or an art sample. This isn’t a slam on editors…far from it. Matching text to art is quite a skill, and that’s why some children’s editors don’t even have a lot of picture books on their list, because working with art isn’t something they love to do.

Some will see an artist’s sample postcard and, if it features a dog, think of their text that also needs a great dog character. A match is made! Some editors will leave a text sitting unmatched until the last possible moment, then see a great postcard that crosses their desk and…again, art alchemy! Others will fall in love with an artist, keep their postcards on hand or a link to their online portfolio in their favorites, and hunt tirelessly for the right text.

Most illustrators and editors swear that it’s all about when an art sample crosses their eyes. The right sample at the right time will get hired. Others think it’s about consistency…if they see an artist a certain number of times, they will start to think about them for jobs.

My job is to work with my artists to create the perfect sample image, portfolio, and postcards and then get them out there. For some clients, my colleagues and I do postcard mailings. I also do digital art mailings, the ABLA Artists of the Month email blasts that go out every month and feature two artists the agency’s client lists. Editors love having both hard copy postcards and links to online portfolios, so we try to do everything we can to get illustration jobs as well as sell the client as an author/illustrator (get them a book deal where they do both and there’s no other name on the cover).

As far as query letters for author/illustrators go — and remember, we only accept online submissions — I prefer having a query, a link to your online portfolio mentioned in your query letter, then the text of the picture book copied and pasted in the body of an email.

Yes, you do need an online portfolio, absolutely. It can be simple and you can pay someone to do it, but make sure you can update it easily with new images. I’d say you need about ten to twenty really strong examples of your characters, some micro scenes that focus really closely on one or two things, some macro that get a wide scope of action in one picture, some setting, some animals…really show off your range.

If you have a physical dummy blocked out, mention that in your query. If I like what I see electronically, I’ll give you the mailing address to send it my way.

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Hey all, Robert recently wrote in to ask the following:

Is it ever possible for an author and illustrator to collaborate and then submit to agents/publishers? I know it’s not the norm and I know having my best friend illustrate my books makes me look amateur. Here’s the thing: we are true collaborators from the beginning of the project to the end. He helps me invent the characters and even comes up with plot elements and I dictate to him exactly how a picture should look at times. I know publishers have their own in-house illustrators and that it is unconventional to say the least. But I couldn’t ever publish without him. Do you have any advice as to how we should proceed?

I get this question a lot at conferences.

Here’s how the picture book pipeline usually works for authors:

  1. Get representation for a text or an offer from a publisher.
  2. Sell text to publisher.
  3. Have publisher match your text to an illustrator.
  4. See illustrations, have varying levels on input.
  5. Publish.

Here’s how it usually works for illustrators:

  1. Get representation for your illustrations or get interest from a publisher.
  2. Wait until a publishers has the right project for you.
  3. Sign a contract to work on the project and turn in sketches and finishes.
  4. Do revisions.
  5. Publish.

Now, Robert wants to know what happens if a publisher is approached with a project that has both text and illustrations already in place, but from two people. (If a project with both text and illustrations came from one person, that person would be called an author/illustrator, and, in my opinion, art and text from a single creator would be a more compelling sale if both the art and text were really strong. Most of my picture book sales have been for author/illustrators.)

Note one inaccuracy about Robert’s question: major publishing houses (and even small ones) hire out illustrators, they do not have in-house artists. Most have in-house designers and art directors, but designers do not do illustration work. They work on putting together a book’s cover and packaging (unless it’s a picture book, in which case the illustrator usually provides the cover image).

I say you run one big risk with this situation, whether you’re approaching an agent or a publisher: what if one component is better than the other? And since you have a close relationship with your co-creator and love the project as is, you may have trouble seeing that.

If you give somebody a package of text and art, that person will assume that this is how you want the book produced. They’ll see how you’ve executed the project and will have a bit more trouble imagining it any other way. So if you give an agent or an editor a complete picture book dummy with both text and art, and one or the other isn’t working, the agent or editor will think, “Gosh, I really wish the text (or art) was stronger, but I guess this is how the creators envision it, so I think I’ll reject.”

Of course, both text and art could be perfect, could work harmoniously together, etc., in which case the agent could offer representation to either or both of you and the publisher would issue each of you a publishing contract. And, of course, the project may not work as a whole, but a wonderful agent or editor with lots of vision could see each component part and imagine how it might work independently.

But I find, more often than not, that the situation Robert describes involves two people who may not be well-matched in terms of talent. And that’s the risk. If you’re dead set on publishing this project with your collaborator, that’s fine. But you could be cutting yourself off from the possibility of either selling the art or text separately — if you happened to be flexible. If you don’t happen to be flexible, it could mean not selling at all.

When I submit, I prefer to submit just text, just art, or an author/illustrator package by an author/illustrator client who has a great grasp of how their two mediums (art and text) play together. I would be reluctant, for the above reasons, to consider an author and illustrator team if the combination wasn’t perfect. I’d also be reluctant — again, unless I had a great match in mind — to pair a text with, say, one of my illustrators, and present both to the publisher.

The publisher has the final say in terms of which illustrator and which writer will compose a picture book. That decision has to do with the publisher’s own relationships, with the prestige of either creator, with how the publisher’s sales and marketing people react to either component, etc. In a market where picture books are not doing well and most titles are not getting picked up for distribution by the major chains, publishers often find themselves pairing a debut author with a name illustrator or vice versa to make the project viable. If you’re insisting on a debut text paired with a debut illustrator…you may not have the most compelling case.

My biggest bit of advice is: be flexible. If an agent or editor wants either text or illustrations from you, consider it. How willing you are to entertain other illustrators (or authors) for this project really could mean the difference between published and not.

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Before I dive into this topic, let me just state the obvious: I am a newer agent, therefore, my outlook on the issue is a bit biased. However, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to sway you unfairly. There is a lot to be said for being the client of an established agent, but there’s also a lot to be said for being the client of a newer agent. This isn’t going to be me playing the realtor who tries slapping creative adjectives on something undesirable. (In my soon-to-be-former home of San Francisco, realtors repeatedly call an area that, technically, is the Tenderloin, one of the city’s skeeziest neighborhoods, “Lower Nob Hill.”)

So, what’s the difference between a newer agent and a more established agent? Time and experience. As Ben Folds says, “time takes time,” so the only way a newer agent becomes a more established agent is through living and working in publishing every day. All agencies have rank. At my agency, we have Andrea, who is the President, then we have a Senior Agent. After that, we have five Agents and two Associate Agents (including myself). The “title” of each agent depends on the amount of time they’ve been with the agency and the number of books they’ve sold. That’s really all you need to know about rankings. (All the other concerns are internal and mean more to the agents themselves than to writers.)

Let’s talk about established agents first. These are the Presidents or Senior Agents, and sometimes the Agents, at an agency. They’ve been around for (usually, again, this is general) about three/five years or more and have amassed an impressive sales record. They have strong relationships with editors and their projects often get more careful consideration when they land in an editor’s inbox. They’ve proven themselves as people who have great projects. People editors want to work with again and tell their colleagues about.

So, the pros are clear:

  • Great reputation
  • Strong relationships and lots of trust
  • Impressive sales and client lists
  • Clout, clout, clout

But there are also cons that are sometimes associated with a more established agent:

  • Very selective, so it’s sometimes hard for a debut author to be considered.
  • Most established agents don’t get a lot of their clients from submissions — they weigh referrals much more heavily.
  • The longer an agent works, the busier they are. They have bigger client lists and they’ve done more books. For every book you sell, there is work attached to it (contracts, paperback reissue, royalty statements twice a year, marketing, foreign and subrights sales, etc.). The more books an agent has sold, the more work they have to devote to their existing sales and clients, and the less time they sometimes have.
  • Agenting is all about taking risks on writers and the possible return on that time and energy investment. More established agents might select writers who are very advanced already, and not take as many risks on debuts who have something special but need a lot of work.

So it’s a trade-off. An established agent has wonderful pros but they keep their clout by working hard and staying very busy. Smaller writers or debuts sometimes feel like they disappear on a bigger agent’s list. When you’re considering a more established agent, ask yourself what is more important to you: their clout when dealing with editors or feeling like a big fish in their small pond? You’ll always get the former with an established agent, but you may not get the latter.

Let’s switch gears to the newer agents. They’ve started as an intern or an assistant at an agency and worked their way up. They may have been agenting for a year or two or three. They’re building their relationships with editors and they don’t have as many sales under their belts. In a business that’s all about reputation and relationship, they’re still working on a lot of those factors.

This is often tempered, though, by the reputation of the newer agent’s agency. An agent who is hired by a very well-regarded agency has some clout already — great agencies keep their reputations by choosing great employees. And a newer agent’s senior colleagues are usually great resources, giving advice, reviewing submission lists, suggesting editors and otherwise speeding up the time/experience process. But the newer agent is still an unknown until they get more business. And their tastes and market knowledge are still evolving, so editors take that into consideration when they see a submission from most newer agents.

Here, then, are the cons of a newer agent:

  • Less personal clout — though they might have agency clout and mentors within the agency
  • Fewer big name clients and impressive sales
  • Evolving taste and market knowledge
  • Personal relationships with editors are still developing

But there are pros, too. And, again, I speak as a newer agent, so take this with a grain of salt. The pros:

  • Newer agents are hungry for sales and to build their careers. (Most agencies pay commission only, so making those sales, building those relationships and getting off the ground are very high-stakes matters for newer agents.)
  • Newer agents have more time to devote to existing clients and might be more willing to take on writers/projects that need a lot of work — they are sometimes more open to the risk of developing a writer.
  • Most newer agents have something to prove and are the ambassadors of their agencies, going to all the conferences, making the rounds with editors, getting their name out there. They’re on the up and up and have unknown potential — the newer agent who plucks you from the slush might grow into that senior agent one day, and you could be one of their loyal, long-term clients as they gain prestige.

Much like we’re taking a risk on you when we offer representation and start developing you as a writer, with a newer agent, you’re taking a risk on someone who is at the beginning of their career, too. If it works out, you could be in a great, prestigious relationship.

Take these things and what you want as a writer into consideration when you’re choosing. With newer agents, DO make sure that they have some sales under their belts and that they’re with a reputable agency. In this industry, it doesn’t really take much to hang out a shingle and call yourself a literary agent. If a newer agent is backed by a reputable agency, that’s a huge vote of confidence (as I’ve experienced firsthand, as a newer agent with a prestigious agency). If you’re getting ready to query, I’d suggest picking a list that has both newer and established agents and seeing where you get more responses.

ETA: As Bryan points out in the comments below…newer agents won’t take just anything. Newer agents have to build reputations and go out with great projects, so it isn’t necessarily easier to get past the threshold of a newer agent. And established agents will work with stellar debuts, too! Bottom line, as it is in any other post on my blog: write a great book!

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An issue came up in the comments about my recent catch-22 post. Christine asked about “closed” house editors (those who do not accept unsolicited or unagented submissions) who go to conferences and request materials or open up submissions to conference attendees only.

Editors do not rely solely on agents to bring them fantastic material. They are always on the hunt. Just like agents, they love the possibilities of the search, the thrill of discovering something brand new and phenomenal. I know plenty of editors who read blogs and websites, scout literary magazines and otherwise keep their antennae up. This includes going to conferences and picking up potentially talented writers. When agents and editors are at conferences, our role is very much the same: hone in on the cream of the crop and get their submissions. There’s even a similarity to how editors and agents treat submissions from conference attendees. Sometimes we reject outright, sometimes we reject the particular project but leave the door open to receive future work, and sometimes we take that writer on and develop them.

The key difference, though, is that agents are, inherently, more free to gamble. We have more time and resources (and incentive…a lot of agents work on commission, while editors get a salary…both go above and beyond the call of duty all the time, but agents do have an extra hunger) to develop raw talent into something saleable. Editors have bandwidth for this as well but they have all sorts of other things to do, projects already on their list to edit and lots of internal office duties that most writers don’t even lend a thought to. So they will sometimes pass on something that needs work (or pass it along to an agent friend), whereas an agent might dig in and really shape it into a great book.

Here’s what I said to Christine in the comments:

Yes, editors who attend conferences will sometimes tell attendees to send them submissions (usually a query or ten pages, sometimes for a limited time window like 3 months). Sometimes editors will also requests manuscripts based on a meeting or consultation with a writer. So yes, there are ways to get into closed houses by meeting editors at conferences.

However, as an agent (and as an agent, obviously, I would argue the merits of agents), it is my job to help writers get their manuscripts to an “editor ready” level. Sometimes these conference connections result in a direct offer from an editor. More often than not, though, they don’t. I’d much rather have a writer come to me and say “I met with So and So at a conference and want to get my manuscript in shape before s/he sees it,” than, “I met So and So at a conference and they passed on this already.” An unagented writer has less idea of what “editor ready” means, is all.

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For a lot of unagented writers, meeting an editor at a conference seems like the Golden Ticket. If you do have this opportunity, though, I strongly urge you to query some agents as well. If you keep getting form rejections or no response, or if any of your requests come back with the same general feedback…do go back to the manuscript and give it some more elbow grease.

Agents have one goal: selling a book to an editor. So if agents keep rejecting your book, it’s a really good sign that an editor will probably reject it as well. Your chance with an editor (as with an agent) is sometimes a one-time opportunity, so you really do want to make sure your work is in fantastic shape. An agent, obviously, would be a great asset in determining whether or not you’re going to compete with everything else that editor has in his or her inbox. At least think about trying for an agent, even if you do have an invitation to submit from a conference or another opportunity.

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Here’s a question I got from Katie recently:

I was just wondering if you recommend getting one’s manuscript professionally edited? Do you think this would help the revision process or have an effect our our growth as a writer? What are the advantages/disadvantages and can agents usually tell if a manuscript has already been edited professionally before? Are there any editor services that you recommend? If an editor does scouting for certain agents do you think this could help the writer get one foot in the door?

There are a lot of reasons to use a freelance editor and a lot of points in one’s writing journey when a freelance editor could come in and help the writer to the next level. Some writers hire freelance editors at the beginning of their learning experience and give them a very early novel. Other writers hire a freelance editor after several drawer novels and for the final draft of something they really think, after stumbling around for a while in the dark, might be The One. Some writers don’t hire freelance editors at all.

My thoughts on the subject are a little… complicated. First of all, I have to say that there are a lot of wonderful writers and publishing professionals who either make a career in or supplement their income with freelance editing. Their talents are many and their insights are deep. I have a lot of great respect for them and for what they do. However, I would not point all writers to freelance editors. Let me try to articulate without offending anyone.

First, here are the types of writers who might benefit from the services of a freelance editor:

  • Writers who can handle constructive criticism (working with a freelance editor, as Katie guesses, IS a great learning experience)
  • Writers who haven’t managed to find a good critique solution despite trying
  • Writers who don’t work well in a classroom or workshop environment
  • Writers who are starting out and want a kick start
  • Writers who are so stuck that their loved ones fear for their sanity
  • Writers who are so close to a good, publishable manuscript, and know it, and want a more complex and professional opinion on the whole thing before querying or submitting

Then there are the types of writers who might not benefit from a freelance editor:

  • Writers who cannot handle critique or constructive criticism
  • Writers who have never been in a critique or workshop situation before
  • Writers who just want to give their manuscript to someone in the hopes that it’ll get fixed for them
  • Writers who don’t intend to learn during the process
  • Writers who want someone to decide, once and for all, if their book is saleable or not… Not everyone will have the same opinion of this and, unless your editor has had significant experience in publishing, do not ask them to make this call
  • Writers who don’t vet their freelance editors… Not all freelance editors are created equal… Ask for references, talk to them to see if you’re a fit, and don’t go with the first one you see…

Here is why I say I don’t want to send all writers to freelance editors. And here is why, even if you get your book professionally edited, it might not be a magic bullet for the thing selling. There are no guarantees, not even if you hire the country’s best, most expensive book doctor. The danger is this: Revision is the most important skill, after writing, that a writer has in their toolbox. Until you learn to revise successfully, I say you’re not ready to be published. An editor will edit you and give you suggestions for revision, but then it’s up to you to turn out the finished manuscript. If you like getting edited and lean on an editor for every manuscript… which is a very real thing that happens… you might not be learning the critical skills you need to see your own work with an editorial eye. And those skills are essential. You’ll be getting great advice, but you’ll be short-changing yourself. Revision will be your blind spot and, these days, it simply can’t be.

Another issue here, which I hinted at above, is expectation. Freelance editing is expensive. And good freelance editing SHOULD BE expensive. This isn’t something to cut corners on, if you go this route. With expense comes the expectation that you’ll really get something out of it (in this case, a publishable manuscript). But do remember that the final burden is on you. You can get notes until you’re blue in the face, from teachers, critique partners, freelance editors, but it’s up to you and you alone what you do with them.

That’s why, to answer another of Katie’s questions, I can’t really tell if a book has been freelance edited. I don’t spent time trying to guess… authors tell me if they want to. It’s really what the writer does with the notes that ends up in my inbox, and if the writer can’t revise, or they take their revision in an unsuccessful direction, or they just didn’t have that strong of a manuscript to begin with, it’s an unpleasant surprise to hear that they’ve been edited already. There really is only so much even the best freelance editor can do with a bad manuscript… they’re not God. It makes me wonder what kind of mess the writer had before the editor stepped in. On the other hand, if I see a clean, tight, and polished manuscript that has been freelance edited, I might be more wary of the writer’s revision skills, since I don’t know how much is them and how much is the editor they hired. It’s not a deal breaker, but I do want to see if they can revise with me, just to get a feel for how they do on their own.

As for working with editors who scout for literary agencies — a common practice — sure, that’s a way to get in the door. If your editor is good (see above) and well-connected, it could lead to a recommendation to an agent… but there are less expensive ways to get an agent’s attention (namely, writing an awesome book and querying or going to a conference) than hoping for an elusive recommendation.

Those are just a few thoughts on this very complex subject. At this time, I can’t recommend any freelance editors. Not because I don’t know any great ones, but because I don’t want to have anyone feel left out of a list if I were to compile one, since several Andrea Brown clients work as editors. Plus, I don’t want to be responsible for a recommendation if a reader uses an editor and, per above, the experience doesn’t meet their expectations (whether the editor or a set of unrealistic expectations is to blame).

Like I said before, I think freelance editors are some of the hardest working and more under-appreciated people in publishing. They see a lot of messes. They labor quietly behind some great successes. They think and critique and inspire. But they’re not for every writer. The decision to hire one, when, and for which manuscript, in your writing career is a very personal one.

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Here’s a question I received a while back from Michele:

What is a writer to do when and agent really enjoys their work but passes? Obviously a form rejection tells you you’re way off the mark. If you are rejected because of an issue with the writing you can look at fixing it. But a rejection because the agent doesn’t connect with the story leaves a lack of direction. Do we leave our work as is and search for other agents? Do we assume the MS isn’t marketable and scrap it? Do we consider submitting other another Ms to that agent in the hope it will be a better fit? And, if we did submit to that agent again (and got accepted) would he/she pitch the stories the he/she already passed on? If the agent works for a house we really respect, do we query a different agent there with a future MS because they might be more passionate about our work?

Rejection isn’t just disappointing and hurtful, it’s frustrating, too. The writer is left with very little direction, as Michele so astutely points out. If the writer goes back to the agent with a question or a request for more detailed critique, the agent will usually decline to elaborate or not answer the email. We simply don’t have the time and energy to give personalized advice to everyone who wants it. So what’s next?

I’ll address Michele’s thoughts in order, starting with the first two. After an agent fails to connect with the manuscript, do you submit to other agents or do you scrap the MS and call it unmarketable?

When we submit a client’s manuscript to editors, we often get detailed feedback. If we made our client do a revision after every rejection, the client would feel jerked around, it would take forever, and there’d be no guarantee that the editor who offered some thoughts would go on to buy the project. It’s exactly the same here. I personally submit to smaller rounds of editors to see if we get some of the same feedback over and over. If we do, I can guide the client on a revision before submitting to other editors (or editors who wanted to see a revision). I suggest you do the same. Send to a group of agents and see if they all say the same thing. If they do, maybe think about revising. If they all hate it, try another group or, yes, it might be time to consider how saleable your work is. But do bounce it off several people before making revisions or the drastic decision to give up on that manuscript. There are so many tastes and opinions out there that letting one person’s rejection decide these questions isn’t the smartest thing to do.

As for querying that agent again (or another agent or editor at the same agency or house) with a different manuscript… I say you can try, but only after some time goes by and you really hone your craft. We really do get annoyed hearing from writers we’ve just rejected, if we rejected them because of basic writing issues. We’re going to think their new writing has the same issues, because so little time has passed since we saw those issues in a previous piece. Michele astutely wonders, also, if getting representation after a previous rejection means we’ll have to represent the previous project, too.

This is a sticky situation. I firmly believe that all writers are on a path toward improvement. So I never swear off a writer just because they’re not “there” in their craft, their ideas or their execution just yet. You never know. Everyone starts somewhere and then they go on to grow and learn and really impress people. That’s why I’m always going to at least look at a project from a writer who I’ve read and rejected before. If I do end up offering representation to them after time has passed and after they send along a different project, we’ll talk about their previous project. In most cases, writers who improve a lot tend to hate their previous work because they can see all the flaws in it. I can’t stand to look at most of the things I’ve ever written because I know so much better now. If the client wants to pursue it, we’ll look at it together and see if it’s viable. If it’s not, I am under no obligation to represent a client’s past work and drawer novels because I put my name and reputation on the line with everything I send out to editors, too.

If you still want to work with the same agency or house but want to try another editor or agent there, do make sure that you’ve done significant revision. And wait until you’ve heard from all the other agents and editors who you have submissions out with. One of them might have feedback for you. If you’re really set on working with a particular company and they’ve already rejected you once or twice, really do put everything you’ve got into that next submission, since you may not have that many more chances. And, as always, patience is your #1 asset at this point.

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Okay, I doubt that little old me will be the main draw for you with these wonderful opportunities, but I’m surely a bonus. What opportunities, you ask? First, I want to tell you about the weeklong Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop that’s happening June 14th to the 18th, 2010, in Sandy, Utah.

This is an intensive workshop with writers, teachers, illustrators, editors, and agent (me!), for people who want to write kidlit (you!). Instead of a big conference where presenters can only speak for 45 minutes to a huge room of people, this will be an incredibly intimate, concentrated and unique workshop-based experience. Small classes, in-depth instruction, an entire week spent on the craft of kidlit. Faculty in attendance will be Carol Lynch Williams, Sara Zarr, Kevin Hawkes, Sydney Salter, Ally Condie and many more. I’m so excited for this opportunity. Registration is now open, so check out the workshop website.

If you’ve got no time for a Utah getaway but still want this kind of close personal attention from agents, editors and other writers, do check out the Big Sur Writing Workshop, which is hosted by the Andrea Brown Agency. We have one coming up March 12th through the 14th in beautiful Monterey, CA. Myself and some other ABLit agents will be attending, as will several editors and guest authors. December’s workshop was fantastic, and I can’t wait to do critique, meet writers and run workshop groups all over again. Check out the workshop website by clicking here.

These types of conferences are such an important resource for writers and everyone should experience such a process at least once. Huge conferences like the SCBWI nationals are essential, too, but this is a great opportunity to showcase your work, get personal feedback and learn and grow in a very intimate environment. Speaking of conferences, I’ll be at the San Francisco Writers Conference on Valentine’s Day weekend. See you there!

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