Are you excited to impart a picture book moral? Read on! I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books because I recently taught a Writer’s Digest webinar craft intensive all about them. Now that I’m digging into the critiques for the webinar, I wanted to reinforce a point that I made about preaching in picture books, or about didactic stories.
The Problem With an Overt Picture Book Moral
The kinds of picture books that make most agents and editors squirm are the ones that come to the page with a certain agenda. The writer wants to teach the reader something about life. Now, don’t get me wrong…the best picture books all contain big, universal ideas. They all aim to leave the reader with an emotional experience or a realization.
The difference between masterful picture books and those written by writers who maybe haven’t honed their craft quite yet, though, is that the masterful picture books get their point across without preaching overtly.
An Example of Preaching and Moralizing
For example, if you want to write a picture book about a stubborn girl named Tally who learns that sometimes compromise is good, too (because what parent wouldn’t like to teach their kids this lesson?), you would never write:
And then Tally learned that she could let her sisters choose the movie once in a while, and it would still be a lot more fun!
You may have a lesson in mind, but it has to be uncovered by the reader in the context of a) a character’s experience, and b) a larger story. If you find yourself coming out and saying the lesson, you are hitting it too much on the nose and it’s very likely that your story is skewing didactic.
Basically, you’re working too hard and being too obvious. The best picture book lessons are subtle, and they inspire the reader to come to their own conclusions without hitting them over the head.
How to Tell If Your Picture Book Is Didactic
Here’s a simple litmus test that I’ve been asking writers to apply to their picture books:
If you remove the lesson at the end, does the story stand alone?
For example, if Tally’s entire picture book is about how she won’t compromise and she won’t compromise and finally, is surprised when her first compromise works out well, then the plot serves the lesson. It doesn’t stand alone. If we took out the moral of the story, we would take away the plot because each event has been in direct service to the obvious ending.
How to Impart a Picture Book Moral Without Preaching
The best picture books are good stories (a very basic definition of “story”: a memorable character faces and overcomes conflict, is changed by the experience), first and foremost. The big picture idea and the overall lesson of the book is then delicately layered over and under the plot.
But if we take the lesson away and your plot crumbles, you’ve been leaning too heavily on only using your book to prove a point. Find your character. Find your conflict. Go back to the drawing board and stop attacking your moral so directly.
(There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Teaching picture books that discuss sharing are a hit with some institutional publishers, and people need them for teaching aides, etc. Also, you are free to teach if you are writing non-fiction, obviously. Here I’m just talking about story-driven picture books for the trade market.)
This post is for my picture book author illustrator friends out there, and the question comes from Siski:
I’d like to know more about agents and how they go about representing picture book illustration clients who also write. 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 picture book illustration develop their projects, work up a submission plan, and connect our clients with potential editors.
The Picture Book Author Illustrator and Literary Agent Relationship
The nature of the editorial work is a bit different. 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 would 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 a picture book illustration client. 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.
Not Everyone Can Be An Illustrator
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. People aspiring to picture book illustration 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.
How Picture Book Author Illustrator Projects Are Submitted to Publishers
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.
Selling a Book Is All About Timing
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 picture book 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).
Build Your Picture Book Author Illustrator Online Portfolio
As for getting people exposed to your work: 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.
It can be difficult to break into the picture book author illustrator market, or it can be very easy. The takeaway is that agents and editors do prefer author illustrator projects by a wide margin. If you don’t have a dummy already, get to work!
I absolutely love working with author illustrators, and am happy to provide art notes. Hire me as your picture book editor.
Today’s question about hiring an editor and mentioning using freelance editors from Zoe is a quick one:
If a writer decides to have an MS professionally edited by a reputable editor known in the biz (I dunno, think freelance editors like Alan Rinzler or a Lisa Rector perhaps), should the writer ever mention it in the query? How do I go about hiring an editor?
It’s totally up to you whether you choose to mention hiring an editor in your query letter. There are a few thoughts that spring to mind for me when I read in a query that a manuscript has been worked on by freelance editors. (Note: I have worked as a freelance editor for the past five years, but this answer is largely colored by my five years as a literary agent.)
Agent Reactions to Freelance Editors
On the good end of the spectrum, I think: Oh, great! This writer is used to working with someone else in an editorial capacity and has probably had to revise this manuscript quite a bit. They may be more savvy that some others in my slush about the whole process. I’m about to read a polished piece of fiction.
On the not so good, these are the thoughts that can also come up: Freelance editors always improve a manuscript, but how much did this one improve and, more importantly, at what level did it start? Did the writer hire an editor to put some professional polish on the project, or because it had gotten rejected all over the place and they needed serious help? Does this writer belong to a critique group or do they rely solely on freelance editors?
I know that lots of writers work with freelance editors. There are pros and cons to this, as well as to mentioning it in your query. (You can read some more freelance editor thoughts from me here.)
Hiring an Editor, But Make Sure It’s the Right Editor
If you’ve managed to work with big name freelance editors, my ears might perk up, of course. The bigger the name of your editor, the more selective they can afford to be. They tend to vet their projects and pick the most promising writers to work with. But this is not always the case. So while a freelance editor’s name may trigger good associations for me, or lift my hopes, it’s not going to be the deciding factor in whether I want to represent you or not.
It always comes down to the work. And, in the back of my mind, I always want to know that you have arrived at your work in large part because of your own writing craft. So if you have used or continue to use a freelance editor, I will want to know about it at some point, whether it’s in the query or later, as we’re discussing representation. I’ll want to make sure that you actually have the chops to create a great, skillful manuscript on your own, as well.
If you’re thinking about hiring an editor, let me make my case for my editing services. Learn more about my services now that I’m on the other side of the desk and helping writers toward their goals every day.
If you’re like many people writing pictures books, you might wonder how to find an illustrator for your children’s book project. Does it behoove you to work as an author and illustrator team before submission, or can you submit your text only? I’ll discuss all of these issues here.
This post was inspired by reader, Robert. He has already found an illustrator, and is wondering whether this helps his book project’s chances. He 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. First, let’s talk about the picture book publishing process. Then we’ll talk about working with an illustrator before submission. Finally, I’ll reveal how to find an illustrator for your children’s book.
How to Write and Publish a Picture Book: The Process
Here’s how the picture book pipeline usually works for authors:
Get representation for a text or an offer from a publisher.
Sell text to publisher.
Have publisher match your text to an illustrator.
See illustrations, have varying levels on input.
Here’s how it usually works for illustrators:
Get representation for your illustrations or get interest from a publisher.
Wait until a publishers has the right project for you.
Sign a contract to work on the project and turn in sketches and finishes.
How to Find an Illustrator for Your Children’s Book
When you decide to hire an illustrator for your children’s book, you are, in effect, acting as publisher. That means you will have to find them, give them the specs for your project, and do art direction and offer feedback. Then you will present the entire project as an author and illustrator team.
But how to find an illustrator for your children’s book? There are many venues. The SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) has thousands of members who are illustrators. They post their portfolios on the SCBWI website, and then you can reach out to them individually. Picture book illustrators also keep individual websites and portfolios, so you can start Googling around to find artists. Ask for referrals at your local art school, if ther is one. Other places to find illustrators are art showcase sites like Deviant Art, or you can post a job on 99Designs, which I’ve personally used for some logo design and loved.
Working with a hired illustrator could be its own blog post, but these resources should at least get you started.
Approaching Publishers With an Author and Illustrator Picture Book Project
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.) First, the collaboration should be stated outright in the picture book query letter.
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).
The Risk of Hiring a Picture Book Illustrator
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.”
How Literary Agents Work With Author and Illustrator Projects
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.
How Literary Agents Represent Picture Books
When I submit, I prefer to submit just text, just art, or an author and 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.
Keep in Mind When Publishing Picture Books…
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.
Hire me as your picture book editor. I can provide art notes, too, if you’re thinking of submitting an illustrated project.
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:
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!
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.
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.
Here’s a question I got from Katie recently about freelance editing services and using a book editor:
I was just wondering if you recommend getting freelance editing services and 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 to a book editor 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?
Using Freelance Editing Services
There are a lot of reasons to use freelance editing services and a lot of points in one’s writing journey when a freelance book 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 book 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. Especially since I work as a freelance book editor, and have for the last five years, since leaving the literary agenting world. 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. However, I would not point all writers to freelance editors.
Considerations for Hiring a Book Editor
First, here are the types of writers who might benefit from the services of a freelance book 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 to strap rocket boosters on their learning curve
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…
The Caveat About an Independent Book Editor
Here is why I say I don’t want to send all writers to freelance editing services. 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 services are 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, agents can’t really tell if a book has been freelance edited. When I was a literary agent, I didn’t spent time trying to guess … authors tell literary agents 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 book 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.
Freelance Editing Services Are a Personal Decision
Those are just a few thoughts on this very complex subject. 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.
If you’ve read this advice and are ready to hire a book editor for manuscript critique, let me throw my hat in the ring for consideration. I’d love to work with you.
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.
It has happened many times that I get a great story, full of believable characters, with good voice, and one that’s well-written. Sometimes I jump all over it and offer representation. Other times, though, I hesitate. These end up being the most difficult decisions for me. Why do I hesitate? Because this is the thought in my head: I really like this, but can I sell it?
In other words: Is there a larger market for this? What do I think? Will publishing houses agree with me and buy this?
And this is a very difficult thing to say for sure. TWILIGHT was rejected by a dozen or so agents because, I bet, most people didn’t see a market for teen vampire romance. They were wrong. Very wrong. In order to keep up on trends, I talk to editors and read publisher catalogs, follow publisher and librarian blogs, read industry publications, go to trade shows, the whole shebang. I also stop into every book vendor I see (from the neighborhood indie to big box stores to the airport) to browse and see what books are on the shelves there (what books that store is selling and keeping in stock because that store sees demand for those books). I see what queries I’m getting in and listen to rumors about the next big thing. Even with all this research, I don’t know everything that will succeed in the marketplace. Some books that I’m sure will sell, don’t. Other books that I’m iffy on, go to auction.
The most I have is an educated guess, a passion for the project and a gut feeling. It’s persuasive but not guaranteed. That’s what makes passing on a good manuscript a very difficult decision. Even if I love it, there’s still a voice in the back of my head: “Can I sell this project? Is there a market for it?” When my gut and my market knowledge tells me “no,” I tend to waffle and put the rejection off anyway. Because it is — technically — a good book, and I don’t want to let a talented writer go. But it’s that last detail of selling it to a publisher and eventually getting it into the hands of readers (you know, my job) that prevents me from taking on every single good book that comes into my inbox.
The great thing is, there are many agents with many different sensibilities. There are the types of (sad) agents who passed on TWILIGHT because they didn’t think they could sell it. Then there’s the one who took it on and is very much enjoying that decision. When I see a good book but decide that I can’t personally see a way to pitch it or imagine which editors will love it and buy it, there’s another agent out there who probably can.
It really does come down to that with the most difficult rejections I make. At those higher levels, the deciding factor is the fit and the passion. The projects I end up taking on are those that I’m 100% passionate about and think I can sell to publishers. A writer deserves nothing less from their representation. If I reject a great project, it’s usually because I’m not feeling confident and creative about the selling part. Someone else, though, might feel completely differently.
Now, that’s not to say that I’m hot to reject the next TWILIGHT. If anyone has that kicking around, please do send. 🙂
Why? The publishing industry is in flux right now. Houses have been restructuring, having layoffs, piling more work on their remaining staff. Editors, associate editors and editorial assistants are finding themselves faced with a lot more to do, including all sorts of in-house duties that most writers can’t even imagine. Editors are finding less time to do the actual, you know, editing that probably attracted them to publishing in the first place. In fact, most editors routinely report that part of the editing they do for their authors — let’s not even get into the reading they do for manuscripts that come in on submissions — takes place at night and over the weekends.
Editors are the ultimate gatekeepers in publishing. Agents are the first line of defense, in this analogy at least, against the slew of submissions that would inundate all major houses if they accepted anything unsolicited. Now that the gatekeepers are finding themselves with less time to edit, it has become that much more important that agents send out projects that are polished, compelling, carefully revised. That means agents have to do more work with a client before going out on submission, and the barrier to entry has gotten higher.
Gone are the days when editors feel like they’ve got the time and resources to take on a severely flawed book and uncover the masterpiece hiding somewhere deep inside it, like Michelangelo liberating David from the marble. That’s now mostly an agent’s job, I think, and that’s only if they want to invest the time.
This doesn’t mean editors don’t edit once the acquire. Editors still work just as hard — and oftentimes much harder — now than they ever did. They give brilliant insight, amazing notes, gentle suggestions and really help an author learn and grow. An editor-author relationship really can be a wonderful thing. But the beautiful disasters aren’t going to catch an editor’s eye or convince their acquisitions committees as much anymore. Since their jobs have changed, the job of the agent has, too.
In children’s books, there’s an additional obstacle that’s developed this past year or two. Children’s is a market that has, so far, refused to go as deep into the toilet as many other book markets. In fact, it has done rather well throughout the recession. So a lot of agents who never would’ve thought to represent children’s books are now picking up clients and going on submission when they perhaps don’t know the market as well as agents who are experienced in the children’s book world. These newcomers haven’t read a lot of children’s books themselves, they don’t know what makes a good one, they might not be able to give the best editorial advice for the market.
This is an additional problem for editors, who are getting submissions of lesser quality from a first line of defense that has some newbies in it. This isn’t an issue at my agency — we’ve been exclusively representing children’s books for almost 30 years — but I’ve heard about this problem from editor friends and saw it with my own eyes when I worked at Chronicle.
Not only should you be querying with a manuscript polished enough to make an editor’s acquisition argument easier down the line, you should also query agents who are experienced in children’s books. A lot of people are trying to get into the game. If you want editorial guidance and the benefit of real experience, make sure your list of potential agents is full of real children’s book pros, not just people who hear the siren song of a strong (as strong as it can be in this economy) market.