Agents as Ed­i­tors

UN­DER­STAND­ING THE NEW AU­THOR-AGENT RE­LA­TION­SHIP

Poets and Writers - - Features - By michael bourne

Un­der­stand­ing the new au­thor-agent re­la­tion­ship.

IN THE sum­mer of 2011, Anthony Marra sent what he hoped would be the fi­nal draft of his de­but novel, A Con­stel­la­tion of Vi­tal Phe­nom­ena (Hog­a­rth, 2013), to his agent, Janet Sil­ver. Marra, who met Sil­ver a year ear­lier when he was study­ing at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, had worked through a full re­vi­sion of the book with her al­ready, start­ing over from page one and rewrit­ing every word af­ter he re­ceived her cri­tique. This new draft, he fig­ured, would be the charm.

But as she had with his ear­lier draft, Sil­ver, a re­spected ed­i­tor who had re­cently switched to working as a lit­er­ary agent, high­lighted lin­ger­ing prob­lems with the story. As Marra be­gan the la­bo­ri­ous process of re­typ­ing the en­tire novel all over again, he re­calls, “I just got re­ally bored with my own work.” In ear­lier drafts of the novel, set in the war-torn for­mer Rus­sian repub­lic of Chech­nya, Marra had nar­rated each chap­ter from the per­spec­tive of a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter, but now he ex­per­i­mented with em­ploy­ing an om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor who could see not only be­yond each char­ac­ter’s point of view, but into the past and the fu­ture.

“This time through, I sort of peeled off in the first chap­ter and spun out the his­tory of this com­pletely in­ci­den­tal mi­nor char­ac­ter,” Marra says. “I re­mem­ber re­al­iz­ing the book could be much more ca­pa­cious than I had thought it could be, that it could be a book in which every char­ac­ter, no mat­ter how mi­nor, got their sen­tence or two in the spot­light.”

While the in­spi­ra­tion for this rov­ing nar­ra­tive eye, which is one of the crit­i­cally ac­claimed novel’s most dis­tinc­tive fea­tures, was wholly Marra’s, he cred­its Sil­ver’s close read­ings of his ear­lier drafts for push­ing him to do his best work. “What re­ally struck me is

just how bril­liant a reader she is,” he says. “She would of­ten lo­cate the two is­sues with a par­tic­u­lar chap­ter and say, ‘I don’t know how you’re go­ing to solve this, but these are prob­lems.’”

To a cer­tain de­gree, Marra sim­ply got lucky in his choice of lit­er­ary agent. Be­fore she joined Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, now known as Ae­vi­tas Cre­ative Man­age­ment, in 2009, Sil­ver had edited lit­er­ary heavy­weights Philip Roth and Tim O’Brien and dis­cov­ered a young writer named Jhumpa Lahiri dur­ing her long ca­reer as an ed­i­tor and pub­lisher at Houghton Mif­flin (be­fore the merger with Har­court). Still, Sil­ver’s mul­ti­ple reread­ings of Marra’s first book il­lus­trates the ac­tive role lit­er­ary agents now of­ten take in shap­ing and edit­ing their clients’ manuscript­s be­fore they are sub­mit­ted to pub­lish­ing houses.

In the im­me­di­ate wake of the Great Re­ces­sion and the mar­ket dis­rup­tion caused by the rise of e-books and the strug­gles of retail book­stores, the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try hem­or­rhaged jobs. In the two years af­ter the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the book in­dus­try lost nearly ten thou­sand jobs, slip­ping from 82,100 in Oc­to­ber 2008 to 72,200 in Oc­to­ber 2010, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the U.S. Bu­reau of La­bor Statis­tics. Since then, the in­dus­try has lost nearly eleven thou­sand more jobs, fall­ing to 61,300 in March 2017, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est avail­able fig­ures. That rep­re­sents a 25 per­cent drop in less than eight years. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, net rev­enues for the U.S. pub­lish­ing in­dus­try ac­tu­ally rose slightly, from $26.5 bil­lion in 2008 to $27.8 bil­lion in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent fig­ures avail­able from Sta­tis­tica, a statis­tics com­pany.

Not all the pub­lish­ing pro­fes­sion­als who lost their jobs in the past decade were ed­i­tors, but many were, and a fair num­ber of them ei­ther started working di­rectly with writ­ers as free­lance ed­i­tors or be­came lit­er­ary agents. At the same time, the de­mands on ed­i­tors still working in pub­lish­ing have grown, in­creas­ing the in­cen­tive for pub­lish­ers to pay a pre­mium for books that need less ed­i­to­rial work.

“I don’t want to say that ed­i­tors don’t edit any­more be­cause that’s not true,” notes Amy Berkower, who has worked

at Writ­ers House, a lit­er­ary agency in New York City, for forty years and is now its chair­per­son. Still, Berkower says, “I think ed­i­tors are more in­clined to buy manuscript­s to­day, and pay more for them, if they’re in bet­ter shape and don’t need as much work.”

Berkower, who is also a mem­ber of the board of di­rec­tors of Po­ets & Writ­ers, the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that pub­lishes this mag­a­zine, sees edit­ing manuscript­s as such an in­te­gral part of her agency’s mis­sion that in 2012 she hired an in-house ed­i­tor, Genevieve Gagne-Hawes, to work with Writ­ers House clients. Gagne Hawes, known in pub­lish­ing cir­cles for hav­ing plucked Stephe­nie Meyer’s block­buster vam­pire novel Twi­light (Lit­tle, Brown, 2005) out of the slush pile in her first month as Berkower’s as­sis­tant in 2003, now reads Berkower’s sub­mis­sions and works with Writ­ers House clients whom the agents think will most ben­e­fit from re­vis­ing their manuscript­s be­fore sub­mit­ting them to pub­lish­ing houses.

When agents take an ac­tive role in edit­ing their clients’ work, it presents both an op­por­tu­nity and a po­ten­tial bind for writ­ers, es­pe­cially first-time au­thors look­ing to sell a de­but novel or mem­oir. On the one hand, writ­ers are more likely to re­ceive use­ful

“As in many, many things in pub­lish­ing, it’s all about a re­la­tion­ship,

and you need to feel con­nected and com­fort­able, es­pe­cially since this per­son’s go­ing to be working for you.”

feedback on their manuscript­s from agents, more than a few of whom once worked “on the other side of the desk” as ed­i­tors. On the other hand, be­cause writ­ers are re­spond­ing to this feedback be­fore re­ceiv­ing an of­fer from a pub­lisher, they risk spend­ing months re­vis­ing a book to the taste of a par­tic­u­lar agent who then can’t sell it.

Of course, the agent faces pre­cisely the same risk, which is why writ­ers should never look to lit­er­ary agents as dis­pensers of free ed­i­to­rial ad­vice. Lit­er­ary agents work on com­mis­sion, typ­i­cally tak­ing 15 per­cent of a writer’s earn­ings from domestic sales and 20 per­cent of earn­ings from in­ter­na­tional sales. This means that every minute that an agent spends read­ing or cri­tiquing a book that doesn’t sell is a minute that agent is working for free.

For this rea­son, agents must de­velop an eye for spot­ting lit­er­ary di­a­monds in the rough and gaug­ing whether its

au­thor has the ca­pac­ity to turn it into a sub­mis­sion-ready novel or mem­oir. “It’s just in­stinct,” says Sil­ver when asked how she makes these judg­ment calls. “Maybe it’s in­formed in­stinct, but you see some­thing in the work and it re­ally stands out. Maybe be­cause I’ve seen so many manuscript­s from de­but writ­ers over the years, the tal­ent just leaps out.”

When she sees po­ten­tial in a writer’s work, Sil­ver says, she al­ways sets aside time to speak to the writer per­son­ally to judge whether the writer’s lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­ity is a good match for her own and whether the writer is pre­pared to do the work re­quired to get the book ready for sub­mis­sion. “It does take a sense of get­ting their vi­sion,” she says. “Just as I would al­ways have a writer speak to an ed­i­tor be­fore an of­fer [of pub­li­ca­tion] is made, I would al­ways speak to a po­ten­tial client about what I see in the work and to see if they’re ex­cited about do­ing more work.”

Writ­ers, too, should ex­pect to have an open and in­for­ma­tive con­ver­sa­tion with any agent in­ter­ested in rep­re­sent­ing their work, es­pe­cially if the agent is sug­gest­ing re­vi­sions. “You should never, ever be afraid to ask ques­tions,” Sil­ver says. “Don’t leap. Ask as many ques­tions as you feel you should. As in many, many things in pub­lish­ing, it’s all about a re­la­tion­ship, and you need to feel con­nected and com­fort­able, es­pe­cially since this per­son’s go­ing to be working for you.”

When a writer and an agent click and they work to­gether to hone a manuscript be­fore send­ing it out, it can ben­e­fit all par­ties, says Anna Pi­to­niak, an ed­i­tor at Ran­dom House who is her­self a de­but au­thor, hav­ing pub­lished her first novel, The Fu­tures, with Lee Boudreaux Books in Jan­uary.

While edit­ing manuscript­s re­mains the most im­por­tant el­e­ment of her job, Pi­to­niak says, the more pol­ished a manuscript is be­fore it reaches her desk, the bet­ter shot it has of be­ing ac­quired. “If a book comes in and it needs a lot of work and you’re not sure how the fin­ished prod­uct will turn out, then that can ob­vi­ously af­fect your de­ci­sion on whether to buy it and how much you want to buy it for,” she says. “But if the book ar­rives in re­ally good shape, and per­haps is in such good shape be­cause the agent has al­ready done quite a bit of work on it, then you don’t have that red

flag in your mind of, ‘How is this go­ing to turn out? Is this go­ing to end up in the state we want it to wind up in?’”

This is the cal­cu­lus driv­ing agents to in­vest time and en­ergy into help­ing their clients re­work their manuscript­s be­fore ed­i­tors see them. “I think the books that we’re able to edit of­ten sell for a lot more money than they would have if they hadn’t been edited,” says Gagne-Hawes, the in-house ed­i­tor at Writ­ers House. “In some cases, it’s a book that has tremen­dous po­ten­tial but might not have sold in the form it came in. Through the process of edit­ing, it be­comes a sal­able book and, more than that, a book that can sell for a lot of money.”

Working with an au­thor to re­vise a book for sub­mis­sion can take any­where from a few weeks to a year or more, de­pend­ing on how many re­vi­sions are needed, Gagne-Hawes says. In one case, Michelle Sacks’s de­but novel, You Were Made for This, Gagne-Hawes says she worked with Sacks through twelve com­plete re­vi­sions be­fore it was ac­quired by Rea­gan Arthur, which plans to pub­lish it next year.

The hard work paid off in that case, but the risk for both writ­ers and agents is that even af­ter mul­ti­ple rounds of re­vi­sion, the writer still may not come up with a sal­able book. Gagne-Hawes, who gained an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the writer’s side of the edit­ing process when she took six years away from pub­lish­ing to pur­sue a PhD in lit­er­a­ture, says she al­ways makes clear to writ­ers whose work she thinks needs sig­nif­i­cant re­vi­sion that they are wel­come to try to mar­ket the book as is. “My main ex­pe­ri­ence has been that peo­ple are re­ally grate­ful for this be­cause it’s very hard to find di­rec­tive ed­i­to­rial ad­vice in the sub­mis­sion process,” she says. “I’m sur­prised some­times by how much edit­ing peo­ple want agents to do.”

The de­tailed at­ten­tion to mul­ti­ple drafts that Gagne-Hawes pro­vides clients at Writ­ers House and the quasi­men­tor­ship role Janet Sil­ver played in Anthony Marra’s early ca­reer re­main ex­cep­tions to the rule. More com­mon is the more holis­tic re­sponse that au­thor and ed­i­tor Anna Pi­to­niak re­ceived from her agent, Allison Hunter of Jan­klow & Nes­bit As­so­ciates.

“The notes Allison gave me, and I imag­ine this is true of a lot of agents, were very much big-pic­ture notes, look­ing at the manuscript from an el­e­va­tion of thirty-five thou­sand feet, say­ing, for in­stance, this char­ac­ter isn’t com­ing through enough, and this thread drops off part­way through the manuscript,” re­calls Pi­to­niak.

To Pi­to­niak, who had the ben­e­fit of an in­sider’s knowl­edge of pub­lish­ing houses, this made per­fect sense, even though she knew her novel would need

more work af­ter it was ac­quired by an ed­i­tor. “I re­mem­ber talk­ing with Allison about this,” Pi­to­niak says. “She wanted me to ad­dress cer­tain things in the manuscript, but she knew that who­ever bought the book would have their own unique vi­sion of what should hap­pen next, and she didn’t want to get us too far down a rab­bit hole of one kind of evo­lu­tion of the book that might just run counter to what some­one else would think of it.”

This is an im­por­tant point. Just as real-es­tate agents of­ten warn clients not to waste time and money on elab­o­rate ren­o­va­tions that the buy­ers of the home may well rip out once they move in, writ­ers can risk spend­ing cru­cial time on re­vi­sions only to have the book’s ed­i­tor sug­gest a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Then, too, there are many very suc­cess­ful agents whose gifts lie less in their abil­ity to edit a manuscript to per­fec­tion than in per­suad­ing ed­i­tors to pay top dol­lar for their writ­ers’ work. This is not a tal­ent to be un­der­es­ti­mated.

Even with all the re­cent changes in pub­lish­ing, ed­i­tors still do a tremen­dous amount of de­vel­op­men­tal edit­ing, and so long as a book is in good enough shape to find a pub­lisher, some­times it can be wiser for a writer to let an ed­i­tor han­dle the bulk of the edit­ing af­ter ac­qui­si­tion, at which point the writer is be­ing paid for her work.

But whether they’re pro­vid­ing de­tailed feedback, of­fer­ing gut re­ac­tions to a new draft or story idea, or sim­ply cheer­ing their au­thors on from the side­lines, lit­er­ary agents play a cru­cial role in help­ing writ­ers bring their books to a pub­lish­able level.

Nov­el­ist Mira Ja­cob signed with Michelle Tessler of the Tessler Lit­er­ary Agency a decade be­fore she fin­ished her de­but novel, The Sleep­walker’s Guide to Danc­ing (Ran­dom House, 2014). “For ten years, she would write me twice a year to say, ‘Where is it? What’s hap­pen­ing with it? I think it’s go­ing to be great. Please get it done,’” Ja­cob re­calls.

But when Ja­cob fi­nally sent in the com­pleted manuscript in 2012, Tessler stunned her by telling her that it didn’t

work. “I was re­ally sur­prised be­cause she’d been such a cham­pion of the book the whole way,” says Ja­cob. “She said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. It just dies in the mid­dle.’”

Crushed, Ja­cob at­tacked the manuscript anew, avoid­ing dras­tic cuts Tessler had pro­posed by break­ing up an ex­tended back­story chap­ter and in­ter­spers­ing smaller chunks of back­story with the novel’s present ac­tion to cre­ate a more seamless nar­ra­tive. Once she had re­struc­tured the book, Ja­cob pitched the re­vised story to Tessler. “I had it all laid out on a wall,” Ja­cob says. “I said to her, ‘This will hap­pen, then this will hap­pen, then it goes to there,’ and so on. By the end, it was very sweet, she was cry­ing and she said, ‘This will work. You got it. You nailed it.’”

Ja­cob, who is now fin­ish­ing her sec­ond book, a graphic mem­oir ti­tled Good Talk, forth­com­ing from Ran­dom House in 2018, con­tin­ues to turn to Tessler for what she calls “an hon­est read,” though Ja­cob ad­mits she doesn’t al­ways like what she hears. “We have a whole funny re­la­tion­ship about this now be­cause when­ever she gives me ad­vice, I hate her for two days,” Ja­cob says. “I re­ally can’t stand her and I don’t want to talk to her, and then the third day, some­thing breaks—it’s like a fever—and I call her and I say, ‘Okay.’ It’s like we’re an old mar­ried cou­ple at this point.”

“For ten years, she would write me twice a year to say, ‘Where is it?

What’s hap­pen­ing with it? I think it’s go­ing to be great. Please get it

done.’”

Like Ja­cob, Anthony Marra still runs ideas and drafts of new work by Janet Sil­ver, though he hopes he has pro­gressed enough as a writer to not re­quire the in­ten­sive ed­i­to­rial as­sis­tance he re­ceived from her in the early years. “Go­ing back to look at the first cou­ple drafts of Con­stel­la­tion, I’ve been struck by just how ter­ri­ble they were and just how much stamina and how much benev­o­lence of spirit Janet must have had to slog through them,” he says. “I feel like hope­fully my abil­ity to craft a sen­tence has im­proved some­what from those days.”

Though he was ac­cepted into the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop and later won a cov­eted Steg­ner Fel­low­ship at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, Marra queried more than sixty agents be­fore he signed with Sil­ver. Eight years and two books later, he is very glad he did. “I just feel like I have in every pos­si­ble way struck gold with Janet,” he says.

Anthony Marra Janet Sil­ver

Anna Pi­to­niak

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes

Mira Ja­cob Michelle Tessler

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