Ask the Agent: Banking on Potential
Today I want to address a question that came in a couple of weeks ago from Sheri Boeyink:
How does an agent assess potential? Let’s say an agent reads some work from an unpublished author and loves the story; however, the writing is a little rough around the edges. I’ve heard that some agents sometimes work with authors (suggesting rewrites, etc.) because they see the potential. Is that accurate?
Oh, you wanted more? Okay, let’s start with the hard truth. Most agents have their hands full already, with authors whose writing is not rough around the edges. We’re busy enough, without adding “writing teacher” to the list of jobs we have to tackle in a day. Helping to polish proposals, selling projects to publishers, negotiating contracts, and handling the million-and-one issues that come up each day is already a full time job.
Also, we have so many writers submitting to us, we can be choosy. Why would you take on an author who’s not ready, when there are several more lined up behind her who are ready?
Having said all that, yes, there may be times when an agent finds herself so drawn to a project that she’s willing to put in the extra work to help the author get the writing up a few notches to where it needs to be. It’s all part of that subjectivity. It has to do with the particular agent’s interests and strengths. For me, it’s not so much of a stretch since I’ve spent years as a fiction editor. Plus, I’m still a newer agent and I’ve been building my client list with newbies I believe have long-term potential. So I have a couple of clients on my roster who I’m working with as they polish and perfect their novels.
Of course, each agent has their own answer to this question. Some agents have client lists packed with bestselling authors, so there’s not much mileage in representing someone who’s not ready.
What I want you to remember is this: Don’t count on an agent to smooth out your rough edges. Remember you’ve got a lot of competition—writers whose edges aren’t rough. Assume those rough edges will be cause for an agent to say “no” even if it’s a disappointed or begrudging “no” because they really like aspects of your work. Make it the best it can be, before you submit.
Sounds obvious, but I receive an amazing number of “first drafts” in my inbox. It continues to amaze me how many people think they can get to the “Olympics of writing” on a fluke, basically by sitting on the couch and watching Michael Phelps swim, then heading out to the pool and expecting to win a medal in the 400 freestyle. Don’t make that mistake!
However, if an agent agrees to represent you but says they’d like to work with you to smooth out your manuscript before submission, I recommend you jump on that. You’re being offered a valuable service from someone who probably knows what they’re doing.
Now that’s enough, I’ve got to get back to the drama in the Olympic pool. Did you see that relay??!!
Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.