Agents and Editors: An Inside Look at the Working Relationship
Once considered a cottage industry, publishing has become big business, with the requisite consolidations, mergers, and preponderance of large corporations in power. This isn't exactly new news. But, still, many in the industry continue to look back nostalgically to a time when editors like Max Perkins nurtured the careers of his authors--F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, among others--over many dedicated years. In today's publishing environment, editors are a harried lot forced to share their attention to the page with their attention to the bottom line.
Editors aren't the only ones whose jobs have changed; agents' roles have shifted as well, as has, inevitably, the agent-editor relationship. We tend to hear a lot about authors working with editors and agents, but what of the way that editors and agents work together in publishing? How have changes in the industry affected this relationship? And what does each group have to say about the other?
Editors these days don't have the luxury of actually working with authors, says Deborah Schneider , who co-founded Gelfan Schneider Literary Agency, Inc. in New York City, 24 years ago. Instead, Schneider says, they're pressured to deliver best sellers, and they devote their energy to finding them. "When I started out, there was a thriving legitimate mid-list that all publishers had. You could nurture a writer and watch an audience build for an author until that author reached critical mass and made the bestseller list. There was time to actually edit."
With more books being published every year and supposedly fewer readers, the pressure on editors is heavy. They spend much of their 9-to-5 lives dealing with the art directors, the marketing team and sales reps, and publicists. Much of their editing takes place at home during nights and weekends.
As a result, some quickly succumb to job burnout. "There are many young editors now, and some of them are wonderful, energetic, and interested in new projects," says Southern California-based agent Julie Castiglia . "But some are less communicative and don't seem happy. They are overworked and underpaid. Many of them disappear before you remember their names."
Along with an increased workload, another change to the job of an editor is the way that books are acquired. Traditionally established editors were empowered to choose titles based on their vision and taste. Now it's only the lucky few who make these decisions autonomously. More often than not, decisions are made with the input of sales and marketing professionals whose role, presumably, is to predict a book's sales potential. John Ware , who left his editorial position at Curtis Brown, Ltd. in 1978 to start his New York City agency, says, "There's more group decision than there used to be. I find it a little stifling of editorial independence, which obviously has its effect on agents and writers. When I was a kid editor at Doubleday, I was certainly honored to take on books where the senior editor would say, 'I don't know this turf, but I trust you.' It's not that this isn't happening anymore; it's just that there's less of it."
Bay Area agent Kimberly Cameron agrees. "I wish editors had the means to buy more books at their own choosing. Lots of books are turned down these days because of 'decision by committee,' rather than the taste of an experienced editor. That's very different from the good old days when an editor had carte blanche, based on his track record. Of course that still happens for a few."
Even when editors do have buying power, the competitiveness of the marketplace can result in their taking fewer risks. "Editors are more concerned with the challenges faced in getting attention for the books we do publish," says Brenda Copeland , senior editor at Simon & Schuster/Atria. "That affects our decisions. Some agents charge that publishers are less courageous than before, less willing to take risks, but the fact is, we take a risk on every title we publish. I wish they'd bear that in mind."
While Copeland's point underscores the marketplace challenges with which editors must contend, still, many agents wish there was more support for the books editors do risk publishing.
"I wish editors weren't quite so quick to withdraw support from authors whose first books sell modestly," says Random House editor-turned-agent Betsy Amster , based in Los Angeles. "A lot of really fine books sell modestly, and it takes time to build an audience. Of course, this isn't the editor's decision alone--with the growing popularity of Neilsen BookScan, which tells publishers exactly how many books have sold out of stores, all of publishing is becoming more cautious."
With the added business responsibilities that editors have taken on, some argue that the actual editing--once the primary focus of an editor's job--has fallen to agents. "Many agents help authors get their work to a point where an editor can make a quick decision," says Pam Dorman , vice president executive editor for Viking. "I speak as someone whose husband is an agent and readying authors' manuscripts to go to market. He's not alone. For that I've very grateful."
"Heavy editing is a thing of the past," says agent Castiglia , "so proposals and complete novels have to be in the best shape before they are sent out to the publishing houses. It's become incumbent upon the agent to make sure that the project is in excellent condition before an editor lays eyes on the work."
"There are exceptions, but for the most part, editors are so busy presenting books to sales reps, it's fallen to agents to do the first and second serious edit before we send the proposal or manuscript out to publishers," says agent Schneider
While this seems to be an observation that comes up again and again, not everyone sees it happening. "Agents I trust and like say they do more editorial work because the author is not getting that from the house," says Becky Saletan , editor in chief at Harcourt. "But I'm at an editor-centric house so I don't see that much."
Even if it's not for editing, editors rely on agents to contribute more to the process than they once did. "When I started in the business in the mid-'80s, editors played a larger role in shaping manuscripts and working with authors to take a good idea that was perhaps not quite shaped for the marketplace, and make it into a saleable book," says Jane von Mehren , editor in chief of Penguin Books. "Today, agents play a much larger role in this regard. Editors and agents work more closely together throughout the publishing process--sales, marketing, publicity, and positioning are issues that an agent is more likely to be involved in today than two decades ago." Indeed, some editors depend on agents to be the middlemen--to send them projects that they will want to acquire, to help come up with titles and subtitles, and for editorial opinions.
"In this competitive environment, there's the sense that it takes a hell of a lot more to get a book out there," says Saletan . "There's much greater savvy. The agents I love dealing with are straight shooters and know how it work. And when I've been through more than a couple of drafts with an author, it's helpful for the author's agent to read it with fresh eyes and see what I can no longer see."
Not all agents work this way, especially those who have been in the business for a long time. "A lot of older agents still think they can get by on their reputations--or the reputations of their authors--alone," says a New York editor who wishes to remain anonymous. "It's the younger agents who are evolving along with the marketplace. They are putting in more time honing the writing, and being rewarded by bigger, quicker sales. I may have a skewed perspective, because I'm young myself, but that's what I perceive is going on in the industry right now, from the manuscripts and proposals I see, from the agents I know who talk about their sales, and what I read in Publisher's Weekly ."
On the other hand, tradition still rules in some cases, says Tom Mayer , an assistant editor at W.W. Norton. "It's clear that old-school operators still get much of their negotiating, selling, and acquiring done on a personal, almost incestuous level. Everyone knows that few proposals sent cold will catch an editor's attention. You have to call in that extra favor or industry capital to push your project through. The big agents and editors simply know how to get their books done; all it takes is a few connections and a dash of ruthless optimism to get a book out. Getting people to buy is another matter entirely."
Some agents see the smaller houses are being more innovative when it comes to getting readers to buy books , especially literary fiction. While the advances given to authors tend not to be as high as larger publishers, the added attention an author will likely receive can be a welcomed trade-off.
"Sometimes smaller houses are called upon to be more creative," says Bay Area literary agent Amy Rennert, "and with the smaller houses, you can often get a better sense of what they'll be doing publicity-wise so you can bring in an outside publicist early, if need be."
The stresses of the current marketplace have made editors and agents work more closely in some cases. But still both professions have their share of complaints about the other. Agents wish editors had more common courtesy: returning a phone call in a reasonable time and following through on what they say they'll do, for example.
Agents like Ware would like to see editors explain in writing why they are passing on a particular project, so that agents can show the correspondence to their clients. "Not just leaving a phone message saying that it's not for you. I want to know why and I want my client to know why. Obviously, I choose to work with courteous editors. If editors are just plain discourteous, I don't care how smart they are, I won't work with them. Courtesy is an interesting subject: A friend calls it the oil of human relations. It's my only peeve with editorial colleagues. I have no business complaints. This has to do with good manners, period."
And editors wish agents would be more reasonable about their expectations and requests. "I read and edit manuscripts on the weekend; in fact, I'll often ask agents to rush a particular manuscript to me for the weekend," says Copeland . "Nevertheless, I do get annoyed when an agent calls me on a Friday before a long weekend and says, 'I've got something for you to read over the holiday.' Oh, really?"
"The badgering can get irritating, ," says Ben Schafer , senior editor at Da Capo Press. "But someone has to do it and I understand why they do. Agents who get angry or act insulted when you pass on a project (or even if you put up a small, yet realistic, offer) make me dread getting submissions from them. It's just business, after all. But again, all is forgiven when a good book or proposal comes in. It's always a thrill."
It's clear that editors appreciate agents' advocacy for authors, but, points out Copeland, they appreciate it even more when it's realistic. "Sorry, but it's unlikely that we're going to tour the first-time author with a 10,000 print run," Copeland says. "It must be in the best interest of the book."
The best agents, according to editors, know what particular editors want. And they're strong communicators. "The agents I work with most often and successfully know the sorts of books I buy and they think of me," says Dorman . "It makes the needle in the haystack less critical. You have a better chance of getting a good match that way. And a smart agent is not only able to be a good advocate for the client but translate the house's needs to the author."
"It is really useful to have someone else who is on the author's team, with whom you can discuss strategies and ideas for a book," says von Mehren. "Agents are also more knowledgeable these about the business as a whole so that you can talk to them about the business issues that are impacting a book or an author--and they can translate that for the author. Most agents are very smart readers who love books and authors and publishing as much as I do--they are comrades in arms, so to speak."
This idea, that editors and agents are fighting a battle together, is shared by both parties. Amster says, "I appreciate editors who are passionate and who translate their passion into action--who mount campaigns to get blurbs for my clients, who send out galleys to so-called 'big mouth' lists (in other words, prominent people who will talk about a particular book), who advocate for my clients with the art director or the publicity department. This is the kind of editor I love 'conspiring' with. We both want what's best for the book, and we spur each other on."
Castiglia says she loves the editors who communicate with her, whether it's to respond positively or negatively. "Agents I talk to all complain about the lack of response when calling or e-mailing editors. Editors endear themselves to me when they respond, even if to say, 'Haven't read it yet.' I appreciate knowing the status of a project."
It's still a business about relationships, cite editors and agents, over and over again. The electronic age has cut into this a bit, making it seem less important to schedule face time with one another. "A lot of the younger agents don't do the ground work of getting to know people," says Barth , who has also been an editor at Hyperion and Putnam. "The formality has gone to the wayside. If it's an agent I know, and they ask if they can e-mail me, that's fine. But if an agent feels they can e-mail me a proposal or manuscript, why would I open it? If I printed out all the manuscripts or proposals e-mailed to me, we would not only have viruses but a lot of broken printers."
One of the biggest problems with the industry is that so many editors are leaving to become agents. Ware says that about a third of the agents working today were once editors.
"It happens more than ever," says Schneider . "Job pressures, consolidation, people getting laid off. I think the climate within publishing houses is more ruthless than it ever has been. There's a whole generation of editors who are no longer editors, even though they have National Book Award authors and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, but books that haven't made a lot of money for the house. Yet, you can find author advocates at every house and every imprint, large and small. They're there. And our relationship is still as vital as ever. These relationships we've nurtured over time are ones we turn to over and over again. We're all in the same boat, working to the same end--even if the job descriptions have changed a little bit. The reason people get into this business in the first place is they want to work with writers."
Copyright © 2004 by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
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