Poets and Writers
Agents as Editors
UNDERSTANDING THE NEW AUTHOR-AGENT RELATIONSHIP
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
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.