How Does A Literary Agent Work?

How does a literary agent work? I wrote a post a while back about what to expect when you’re working with a literary agent. Personally, I love to get editorially involved in client manuscripts. I think I’m part of the majority on this and that majority doesn’t just include new agents. Most agents, whether fresh on the scene or established, are finding themselves doing more editorial work these days.

How does a literary agent work
How does a literary agent work? Most likely, they’re pulling double duty — editing manuscripts as well as submitting them to publishers.

What Do Editors Do?

Why this shift towards editorial agents? The publishing industry is in flux right now. Houses have been restructuring, having layoffs, piling more work on their remaining staff. Book 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.

How Does A Literary Agent Work?

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 they 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.

Agents in the Children’s Market

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.

How Does A Literary Agent Work: Do Your Homework

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.

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.

37 Replies to “How Does A Literary Agent Work?”

  1. Excellent advice, Mary. Although my novel is nowhere near ready to send out, I’m constantly researching and keeping a list of potential agents to query. I want to work with someone who is as passionate about children’s literature as I am.

  2. Great post, Mary. As a newspaper and magazine and general niche editor, I’m finding much of what you said to be true in my world as well. As a newspaper editor, I find that I have less time to spend with my reporters than I did five years ago because my responsibilities have increased exponentially. In the end, we are all doing the best we can do. Your comment about the stability in the children’s book market causing some agents to expand what they represent is interesting. I’ve experience this first-hand. I also understand that time is money and for an agent, that means only taking on those manuscripts they feel they can sell with the least amount of work. If you have a choice between spending a day editing something or a week, which will you choose? An agent will probably choose the project that gives them the biggest payoff with the least amount of work. Unless the agent is drawn to a project for some reason and even though he or she knows it will be a lot of work, they are willing to take it on. This goes beyond just thinking a project might sell. It’s that feeling inside that you want the work to be shared. You feel the work must be shared.
    I want to salute all agents and editors who are passionate about their work, so passionate that they spend nights and weekends doing it. Again, I’m with you on this. That’s the “it” I look for when hiring people. Something that’s there. Something intangible. Something I can’t quite put my hand on but know with all my heart that this is more than a job to a person, it is a love. A love that will fuel them when the hours are long and the pay is low. Good luck to you and the other agents and editors who must figure out this new landscape. I hope you all have a great year.

  3. Things sure are changing, aren’t they? Buffy, I enjoyed your comment as well!

  4. Nice insight.

    I think many writers continue to view their potential agents as a representative only and don’t realize they have taken on the role of editor as well.

    It is a reminder to all of us that our submitted work has to be more polished now than it ever was before.

  5. I love what you said about agents jumping into bed with children…. err… um, wait…. oh – kid’s lit!


    My friend is repped by a hugely successfuly genre fiction agent who, seems to me, has recently decided to go into YA. (I might be wrong about this, but my friend is a minority inside a list of romance, etc.) While his book is exceptional, some of the editorial notes he received seemed very much skewed away from kidlit thinking and definitely towards a more adult audience.

  6. Bryan — !!! This is a respectable blog, sir! None of that skulduggery allowed!

    But yes, your OTHER point is well-made. An agent’s area of expertise will shape how they see and how they edit and give you advice on your manuscript.

  7. Kirk Kraft says:

    Thanks for the great topic, Mary. Much of what you say confirms what I have been hearing about the necessity of an agent as editors continue to be squeezed by other demands. You make an excellent point of finding the right agent that actually has read many kids books and truly knows that market.

  8. Excellent post.

    I attended a SCBWI conference in LV last weekend, and Jen Rofe gave us some great insight, too. (I was one of the many aspiring authors in attendance, madly scribbling notes.)

  9. As Buffy says, what you say of book publishing is also true in the magazine world. Editors are also spending more time schmoozing advertisers too and working on marketing, where before they just concentrated on the editorial. I guess everyone is having to multi-task to stay on top.

    I enjoyed reading last night’s #scribechat transcript. It must have been confusing fielding all those questions at once!

  10. What editors don’t edit? You mean Michelangelo had to finish off David himself? You’re killing my ill-conceived notions right and left, Mary. Killing, I tell you.

  11. This is so true — my query list only includes those who are passionate about juvenile books. Side note: I just read the Twitter Chat from last night and found it very informative. Just reading it was a baby step for me into the world of Twitter. Happy Friday!

  12. Great post. It’s also why I, as a writer, work even harder to hone my craft and correct all the errors I possibly can before submitting my ms to agents.

    It’s a tough business. Competition is fierce, and the bar is set high. Excellence (as close as a writer can get to excellence) is a prerequisite.

    There are many books out there for writers to turn to for information on self-editing ones manuscript. Be the writer who does as much as possible to polish the writing before passing the ms off to an agent, and not the writer expecting agents and others to fix what you could’ve fixed on your own.

    You’ll be Queen of the Slush if you do, head and shoulders above the rest. Isn’t that the point?

    (Great post. Big fan of your blog. : )


  13. So….question: Because the industry has changed and editors and agents are working harder than ever, has the bar been raised for writers as well?

    My gut says yes, but I’m not an insider.

  14. jmartinlibrary — Obviously. Fewer writers are getting published, so writers have to be really good at what they do to get a second glance.

  15. Great advice! And having a critique group or partner who you can really trust is a wonderful tool in helping you polish your manuscxript and sort out agents to query.

  16. Mary, I just read the WSJ article on the Death of the Slush Pile. I’m quaking in my boots. For real. Getting a second glance seems to be getting harder by the hour. Yikes!

  17. jmartinlibrary — Why wouldn’t you want them to be blown away from the FIRST glance? If you’re hoping some kind soul will give you a second chance with your writing, it probably isn’t ready to submit anywhere yet.

  18. I read more and more articles about the ever-mounting height of the slush pile, and while it is a bit daunting, sure, I’m more motivated than anything else. If you can write, you can write. Let the rest play itself out.

  19. Thank you so much for addressing this. Someone I know had this exact same thing happen where the agent didn’t know the YA market and was unable to sell her ms. It was great to have an agent, but frustrating to have one who didn’t understand YA.

  20. Your colleague, Caryn Wiseman, attended the Muse Online Conference last October. I’d hoped to have a short pitch session with her but others were given the slots.

    Since my WIP is a MG work, I thought she’d be a better fit with it than the person I did speak with (a publisher). I’ve read too many comments from agents and editors to not want to approach a publisher directly without representation.

    Why did I talk to that publisher at the conference? Practice and to see how I’d react. I was surprised I was as nervous as I was. And this was not a face-to-face session but via a chat room. Funny.

    I hope the agent who decides to work with me would offer editing services. Do you edit a submission with a particular editor/publishing house in mind?

  21. Kathy — Not usually. When I go out on submission, I aim for an imprint at every big house unless the project is really, really specific. Most good books will have a potential home across several houses and I want to find the best editor. It’s short-sighted and dangerous to edit toward a particular house’s or editor’s taste because… that gives you an all or nothing shot. I edit to make the story, characters, voice, plot and overall project stronger, so that it might attract the best possible editor or, better yet, several people who are interested.

  22. So interesting. The same driving force that I see inspiring more and more people to want to write is the same one that is making it harder and harder to get the attention of publishing houses. And that driving force you ask? The vast majority of folks still lucky enough to have a stable job in this economy are being saddled with more and more work that has nothing to do with the creative parts of the job that lead them into their industry in the first place! We all want to feed that part of our soul that wants to create and there are fewer and fewer meaningful opportunities to do so in our work lives. Hopefully a publishing industry in flux will find new avenues to feed its own creative soul as well as the many creative souls out there with quality expression to share.

  23. Terri — Interesting thoughts. Do be careful. (I am intentionally veering away from your post, because it reminded me of something.) A lot of people we, as agents, hear from, have just lost their jobs and think they’ll do something easy* and break into publishing because now they’ve got all this time on their hands! Well, writing is a craft that takes years to learn and publication is a goal that a) doesn’t come for everyone, b) takes years to attain in most cases, c) pays very little in most cases. So I know that a lot of people are feeling stressed and driven toward their creative urges, but I do want to stress that writing is not a good fall-back job, as some people who approach us seem to think.

    * If only they knew.

  24. Point well taken, Mary, and thank you for making it. I personally write because I can no longer imagine my life without writing in it. While I would love for what I write to have the broader audience that publishing would provide, I will continue to write whether or not my name every finds itself on a publishing contract. As much as I would love to let go of my day job, that is not the goal nor should it be. It just struck me as I read the post about the current realities in publishing houses that perhaps I wasn’t the only one grieving for a time when creative expression happened all day long. But for now, I am grateful to have 4-6am every morning to feed my need for creative expression – content in my unpublishedness. 🙂

  25. A thoughtful discussion here. When I started writing my middle grade novel a couple of years ago, I was amazed at how many of my fellow teachers thought I was going to quit teaching and write for a living. They didn’t understand what a long shot it was and that even if I got published, the chances were I’d still need to teach to put food on the table. Besides, being around students all day is what inspires me to write about them in the first place.

  26. I’ve heard at a couple of conferences that many agents are providing editorial help that used to be done only by editors. Thanks to the Internet, it’s easier to find ones that have background in children’s literature.

  27. Terri — And I think that’s the attitude that leads a lot of people to greater success and fulfillment, whether through publishing or through their own expression, than the breakneck race for publication. Bravo.

    Janet — Another healthy perspective here! It’s very important to be around your inspiration and to know the realities of the business, as you do.

    Both of these posts are thoughtful, nuanced and intelligent ways of looking at writing (the art and the business of it)!

  28. I think it’s amazing that, in these times, children’s books are holding strong. It’s a true testament to the market. I hunger to see my manuscript, which is polished and ready to go, land in the hands of a great editor, and a great agent.

    Great post! A fantastic look into the industry’s current affairs!

  29. I think it’s awesome that agents are willing to add editing to their busy schedules because of their love of good literature (and editors having less time for it). Do you enjoy that aspect of your work and did you ever want to be an editor?

  30. I had heard that agents were doing a lot more editing than they used to do. It is interesting to learn from a reputable source that this is true. Though it makes your job harder, I think it is good because it helps weed out agents who are in the industry but who really know nothing about writing. Thanks for sharing.

  31. Eileen Feldsott says:

    As someone getting ready to begin querying, it’s exciting to see so many more agents repping middle grade and YA than even a couple of years ago. But ultimately I want someone who knows the children’s publishing industry inside and out to help make my work the best it can be and to put it in the right hands.

  32. Traci Grigg says:

    Thank you for all your great insight.

  33. Um, yes, have seen this, too…

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