What Do Literary Agents Do?

What do literary agents do? I wrote a post a while back about what to expect when you’re working with a literary agent. Personally, I love to 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.

what does a literary agent do, editorial agents
What do literary agents do? 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. 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.

What Do Literary Agents Do?

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.

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.

Happy Holidays!

As most of publishing slumbers, I’m going on a quick holiday blogcation and will refrain from posting until Monday, December 28th. In the meantime, read over old posts, share your thoughts in the comments or, you know, step away from the computer and go spend time with loved ones. This blog won’t be able to hoist a glass of champagne or eggnog and warble through the canon of Christmas carols like only your tipsy extended family can!

Revision-o-Rama will return for a few posts at the end of the month (And the end of the year! Can you believe it?) with some exercises and “action items” for you all as you continue with your writing and revising into 2010.

And since I believe in gratitude and looking around every once in a while to say, “Wow, my life is awesome!”… I want to thank all of you readers and comment-leavers and writers for making Kidlit’s first year such a success and a great experience, both for me and for the other writers who visit. May this holiday season and the new year bring you all love, happiness, writing mojo, and, of course, closer to the end of a Million Bad Words!

Busted!

My phone rang the other day and on the other end of it was none other than Chris Baty, founder and head honcho of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo (and local writer.) Of course, I burst out laughing immediately, imagining the massive trouble I was about to get in for my snarky NaNoWriMo post about a month ago. However, Mr. Baty was nothing short of delightful. He didn’t want a personal apology, he wanted to confirm whether or not agents really do see an increase in queries every December (we do). Imagine that… he had never heard of this particular phenomenon!

We talked about why NaNoWriMo is awesome for writers, but we also happened to discuss why revision is oh-so-important, among many other writer/agent/publishing issues. Long story short, I’m going to do a guest blog post over on the NaNo blog in a few days about the importance of revision. I’ll post a link when it’s up and ready to go. What a perfect extra way to get myself, you all and, now, the greater NaNo community of writers even more pumped about Revision-o-Rama!

Using Your Pen Name in a Query

This is a very quick note for those of you inclined to use a pen name. It will not apply to all of you.

When I was a literary agent, I received a lot of queries. And a lot of those queries were from mysterious writerly types who had chosen mysterious writerly names for themselves. Names like “J.D. Smith” or “P.U. Smellweather.” (Okay, maybe not “P.U. Smellweather.”)

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Is your real name George? Then you’d better tell the agent you’re querying so they know who the heck to respond to. Save the pen name for your published work.

When Should I Use a Pen Name?

When you’re P.C. Cast or J.K. Rowling, or you have a book cover to put your mysterious writerly name on, then you can use a pseudonym. But in a query, if writers used just their mysterious writerly name and nothing else, I didn’t know who to respond to. And I felt stupid writing “Dear P” in an email.

You know the agent’s name; you should share yours, too.

The most important part of querying is making sure you have a strong project to submit. Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll guide you towards creating something you’ll be proud to attach your (pen) name to.