Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to Start on the Wrong Foot - Part 2

Last week I blogged about the woman who wasted her time and mine with a query that told me absolutely nothing about her book. I paraphrased her letter which started out by telling me what publisher she wanted to buy her book and how she would not entertain ANY suggested revisions, other than the correction of the most superficial errors. Well, at least one of you took issue with the way she obviously envisioned the agent/author relationship.

Letters like hers raise the question: why have an agent? Have agents become just a necessary evil -- the only means to an end, that being to publish with a large trade house?

Certainly over the years I've been in the business, there has been a shift with fewer and fewer NY houses accepting over the transom submissions. Everyone's simply too busy with the demands of the day to day to get around to reading much unsolicited stuff. So more and more publishers are restricting their submissions to only those that come through agents. Some publishers still accept direct submissions, and in the genres I represent (romance and mystery) editors often attend conferences where they agree to accept materials straight from authors. But often, even then, if they are interested in acquiring something, they urge that author to get an agent to negotiate the offer.

So, if agents are the only path to get to the publishing house you desire, does that simply make us the necessary evil that you should otherwise simply tolerate and order about?

If you do, you're certainly going to miss out, in my view. You want an agent not just because that's the only way to submit to a publisher, but you want an agent to be your editor, your advisor, and your guide through the process. Frankly, that's why you should be paying the commission. Agents spend a great deal of their time talking and working with editors. They know what houses and what editors are looking for at any given time. They know the style of book or type of story that particularly tickles the fancy of a given editor and they know which editors are inclined to work with authors to provide the support they need, including help with structure and editing issues. That kind of agent can get your manuscript not just to any person at a publishing house but to someone who really is likely to love your project and work hard both in-house and out to market and promote your book to ensure it gets the best attention possible. Such support (or lack thereof) can easily make or break any book in today's crowded marketplace.

As for editing, some agents do more than others. But all of us, even those without an editorial background, know what is likely to work and what will not. They can identify holes in your story or inconsistencies in your characters; or other similar things that often arise from spending so much time immersed in a draft that objectivity is lost. Ignoring an agent's advice about strengthening the characters or heightening the suspense or conflict is a sure way to sabotage your publishing efforts. Editors also appreciate getting a clean manuscript (and authors often get "points" taken off for a house having to do a lot of copy-edits.). That's something else with which an agent can help.

But frankly and most importantly, I don't want an author who tells me what to do. That's not a good way to initiate a relationship, in my opinion. But the same token, I also don't want an author who does everything I suggest, without giving it independent consideration and seeing how it fits their situation and their goals. The agent/author relationship has to be a partnership to work well. To me that means establishing open channels of communication, sharing information, and working together (not at cross-purposes) for a common goal -- the publishing success of the author.

Any author whose query letter suggests a different approach (like the query that inspired this rant) is an author I'm not interested in working with no matter how wonderful her book. And, I suspect most editors who would confront such an unbending author would agree.


Maureen said...

Very interesting and informative.

I'm curious to know whether you would let an author know that it was their attitude that turned you off, or if you would just say the submission was "not for you" or something like that.

Thank you!

Elaine said...

Maureen, I generally just say the submission's not for me in these kinds of situations. Rather than confront someone directly and personally (because, of course, they are entitled to their own attitudes and opinions) I felt this blog might be a better educational tool.

Joanne said...

What I've found with writing is that as much as it is often considered a solitary craft, it really isn't. The teamwork finetuning a piece of writing is really indispensible.