Working With a Literary Agent: What to Expect

There’s something I’d like to clear up about working with a literary agent: their job is to sell your already-polished work to a publisher. Their job isn’t to help you develop a half-baked idea or to provide free editorial services.

Granted, when I was an agent, I loved the editorial process of working with a manuscript. It said that right in my bio on the agency website. That’s why I started my own editorial agency — so I could focus on the work I enjoy the most.

working with a literary agent, literary agent notes, when to hire a freelance editor
Working with a literary agent means that your manuscript is ALREADY sparkling at the time of submission.

But when agents say, “I love to do editorial work with clients!” it opens up an ugly Pandora’s box. When certain unprofessional writers see an agent’s passion for editorial work, they think it’s okay to query with statements like:

I know this needs a lot of work but I’m fed up with it. I need professional help because, if I ever have to look at this manuscript again, so help me God…

I never done written nothin’ befor so I need sumone to healp mak this teh best book evar…

Together we can develop this into a bestseller bigger than Twilight and Harry Potter combined…

My idea is so great, and if you could only write it for me…

Working with a Literary Agent: What it Entails

An agent makes money by doing one thing: selling books. Not by developing projects (though that’s a huge part of the work they do every day…for clients), not by taking on the role of a freelance editor, not by ghostwriting, not by playing critique partner for free. That’s not an agent’s job, and is essentially wasting time on something that, most likely, will never amount to anything.

When I was an agent and I said that I loved doing editorial work with my clients, that didn’t mean that I had the ability or desire to rehabilitate every querier’s Ugly Ducking Manuscript into The Next Bella Swan. It didn’t mean I wanted to fix your hot mess. It meant that I was hands on and loved to give guidance to the clients I signed.

The Most Important Thing to Remember

The clients I took on already had manuscripts that were 95% ready for editors to see them. That meant I took the best of the best and made sure it was irresistible to publishers. If I saw promise and potential and, ahem, professionalism and craft, I worked with a writer until the ends of the Earth. If a writer begged for me to fix their thing for free, I shook my head and chuckled. Impatience, as you can see from the comments in It’s Easy to Get Published, is one of the biggest mental hurdles writers have.

The point is, if you can’t bear to look at your manuscript one more time, hire a freelance editor. If you’ve never written anything before in your life and you want to know whether you’re doing it right, keep writing because you’re probably not. If you want free guidance from another reader, join a critique group. If you want someone to develop a project with you, try to get a co-writer who will agree to work for free and take a risk on you.

However, if, and only if, you want someone to take your nearly-editor-ready, sparkling, beautiful manuscript and sell it, then working with a literary agent makes sense, because that is what an agent does.

The Diamond in the Rough

I know a lot of people will think “But what if something really is a diamond in the rough and working with a literary agent is what it needs to be the next Harry Potter?” I’m sure this has happened. But you know what? When I was an agent, I tried doing that with a few writers. I really saw promise…or convinced myself I did. There were glimmers of hope. I spent hours giving extensive literary agent notes.

But the problem with people who have promising yet unpracticed writing is that the writer doesn’t have as many revision skills as people who have been writing and honing their craft for a while. Every single one of the “diamond in the rough” projects I tried to rehab fell apart in the revision phase and I pretty thoroughly learned my lesson. If some writer were to come to me and say “Here, please fix my urchin of a manuscript and, oh yeah, I’ve invented a machine that’ll give you 24 more hours in every day”…then I might’ve given it a second thought, but not before. 🙂

I’m no longer a literary agent, but I love providing editorial services to writers of all skill levels who need help polishing their work.

22 Replies to “Working With a Literary Agent: What to Expect”

  1. Okay, this cracked me up, “…that does not mean that I will rehabilitate every querier’s Ugly Ducking Manuscript into The Next Bella Swan.”

    I seriously laughed. Great post. Thanks.

  2. Wow. Thanks for being so honest. I think I am one of those newbie writers that has a gem that needs to be polished. I realize I’m a young writer though, so I’ve told myself to come back to it when I’m more experienced. Thanks again for the post.

  3. Kim and Emily — Of course revisions do help. That’s ALL I harp on elsewhere in this blog. 🙂 But the point to bring an agent aboard — which is what I’m talking about here — is after all those revisions have been done and redone with other resources, like readers and critique partners. Here, I’m only saying that it’s very rare for me to find a diamond and revise it personally, before the author has done any revision or major overhauling on their own.

  4. I think it’s a little rude for writers to expect someone to labor to fix their book if it’s not close to ready…that’s part of our apprenticeship. An artist would not expect an art director to fix her painting.

    The other hard part of being a writer, besides the craft, is learning how publishing works from the outside in. It’s an odd business that way. We have to understand an industry BEFORE we’re accepted into it. This process is confusing and overwhelming in the early stages. I attended quite a few conferences before I got a sense of how each house and imprint differs. It makes sense now, and even seems obvious, but I remember feeling overwhelmed at first.

    Most writers are not sure when the manuscript ready. That takes time and perspective…and I still might be wrong! A draft that I thought was acceptable three years ago would embarrass me today.

  5. Martha — HA! You wish. 🙂 Alas, I will be out of town.

    Kate — You say some great stuff here, and I’m sure I will touch on a lot of it as this blog grows. But I applaud you for taking initiative, educating yourself, recognizing what’s appropriate and what’s not when it comes to approaching agents and editors, and for understanding the necessity of time and perspective. Bravo!

  6. Very insightful post.
    I think the people who truly make it are the people who never tire of editing and perfecting their manuscript. I actually take this to the extreme. I get so caught up in polishing what I have, that often I forget to move forward. He he.

  7. An agent who edits is one of the most important traits I look for when querying. Sure, I’ve edited my manuscript so many times I can recite entire paragraphs from memorization, but two minds are almost always better than one, especially when one of those minds works in the industry. I attended an author talk by Michelle Zink who mentioned how she signed with an agent who told her that her manuscript was ready to go and needed no editing. Needless to say, the manuscript was never published. The next time around, she went with the agent who loved her manuscript, but insisted on edits. Guess what? She found a publisher within days. Excellent post.

  8. I just found this blog and I am shocked. I thought I was already following all the awesome industry blogs. Apparently not.

    I was going to start my third draft but I think I’ll meander through your old posts. It isn’t procrastination if I’m learning…

  9. I think the more I write and the more I learn, the more I realise how much I still have to learn. And editing is such a different process to writing and takes an entirely different skill set. I find putting a manuscript away for as long as is practicable is such a good habit to get into. I can write something and polish it and think I’m done, but it’s not until I get a bit of distance that I find all those bits that aren’t sitting well with me and need tweaking…or slashing, as the case may be. Being willing to put in the sweat and tears (yes, there are inevitably tears) in the editing process is part of the game. If I want to be taken seriously then I have to embrace pure hard work. I think a healthy dose of stubbornness is a good quality to have at the editing stage 🙂

  10. Jade — Thanks for the kind words! And yes, I’m all for constructive procrastination…

    Karen — Here’s how I think about revision. First, every time you walk away from the manuscript, your brain dives underground into your subconscious and keeps working on the story, even when you’re not aware of it. You’ll always have new and challenging ideas when you put something away for a while. Also, you will inevitably improve your skills with time, so once you put some time between yourself and an old project, you won’t just come to it with fresh eyes, you’ll come to it with better-trained eyes!

  11. What a great, informative post. I agree wholeheartedly. And am seriously shocked people actually approach with such ideas! My motto has always been the three P’s and a Can’t: Patience, Persistence, Positive Attitude, and You Can’t Rely on Someone Else to Do What You Envision (meaning take the critiques and suggestions you get [from beta readers/workshops/crit partners] use what works for your story, and the throw the rest out).

    I was inspired by this idea one night while trying to get my relentless 8 month old to sleep. I actually blogged about it: Parenting: How It’s Made Me a Better Writer. But it’s true! If a writer wants to be taken seriously, they have to treat their writing like a job, and treat it seriously. Which includes revisions. Being a perfectionist, I never tire of revisions, though that’s a flaw in and of itself because I never seem to stop. But in this day and age, with our society, it’s like everyone has this wiring in their brain to yearn for an “overnight success”. And things just don’t happen overnight. *Especially* not in the publishing business!

    Kate was right on in what she said. If a writer takes themselves and their work seriously, they should get to know the business before jumping headfirst into querying agents. Because, it IS overwhelming, and there IS a plethora of info out there to have sink into your brain.

  12. Loved this post.

    Personally, I would *want* an editorial agent, because even though I do believe that my manuscript–after three critiques, beta reads by published authors, and my own revision regime–would still benefit from a reading by an industry professional.

    Besides which, there’s a difference between the way an agent revises and the way other authors critique. My experience with this is limited, but in the past, I’ve worked with two agents on criitquing a manuscript through workshops and SCBWI conferences. Both of them brought a different attitude–one more focused on saleability and the current market–than my work with other authors did.

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