How Much Editing Can An Agent Do?
Before I became an agent, I’d been editing and writing books for years, so I naturally approached agenting from an editorial perspective. Meaning: I look for excellence in the craft of writing, and I also use my editorial skills to help polish a proposal or a manuscript before we send it out to publishers. Because I was confident of my ability to do this, I started off more likely to take on books that were “not quite there” and try to edit them into perfection.
However, this quickly became overwhelming. I realized I was giving away thousands of dollars worth of editorial expertise, with no guarantee of ever recouping it. I can’t charge clients for editing. (Ethically, agents can only profit from their clients by selling the rights to their books, not from any other services.)
I finally realized that there’s a limit to how much editing an agent can and should do. I can’t get out there and sell books if I’m spending most of my time editing (for free). Bottom line, it’s the author’s job to come to the agent with a publishable book. As much as I want to help everybody get there, I simply can’t do it, and I had to acknowledge that since I’m no longer an editor by trade, it’s just not my job.
I think I’m finding the balance, and it looks something like this:
For most clients, I’ll make some suggestions for improvement in a manuscript or proposal, but nothing so deep as a full macro edit (sometimes called developmental or substantive edit), for which editors charge upwards of $3000. I’ll also go through and generally polish—fix formatting, do some line editing and typo corrections. That’s normal.
For a select few clients (maybe 2 or 3 a year), I’ll spend more time, even providing a full macro edit. These are writers in whom I see tremendous potential, yet I know that their manuscript won’t sell in its current state. For those few, I’m willing to take the risk, spend extra time on the editing process, and see if we can get their manuscript to a publishable level, because I see them as someone I’d like to partner with for the long haul. I’m banking on my experience, my instinct and my editing skills. It may or may not pay off. But since it takes so much time, I must severely limit how much I do this, and choose these clients carefully.
For the most part, if I see projects I really like but still feel they need too much work before being publishable, I won’t offer representation. Instead, I’ll try to give some brief direction for revisions, and suggest the writer work with a professional editor or book doctor, or at least a critique partner, to improve the book and then resubmit.
This has been an interesting learning curve for me… a predictable one, I guess, considering I was a full-time editor before. It’s hard for me to say no to writers in whom I see potential, but sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do!
Do you have expectations of an agent about editing? Have you even thought about it?
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, Colorado