Monday, August 07, 2006

Editors and Agents: A Necessary Evil?

Hope everyone had a fabu weekend! We had a wonderful getaway - thanks to all for the fun wishes - but of course, I'm already exhausted again after chasing around the maniac son for the afternoon... It's not helping matters that my husband and I took a hike yesterday that the hotel claimed was 4.5 miles, but, in fact, must have been more like 7, and we both woke up today with ass muscles tighter than Guantanamo Bay security. We're hobbling around like we're 117, and every time one of us shuffles into the room, we completely lose it. I mean, we're in really good shape (or so we thought!)...who are the people who survive this supposed leisurely hike completely intact???

The good news is that I reread my stalled WIP (while soaking in the tub last night in an effort to thwart the oncoming ass soreness), and I actually really like it. I'm letting it gestate for a few days, then will gear back up with my 1k word a day goal. I'll let you know when I start writing again, in case other folks want to join me in setting their own writing goals.

Ok, on with the questions:

a) What advice do you have for unpublished novelists regarding editors and agents? b) Which should an author pursue first? c) Is it necessary to have an agent? Do editors work with authors without agents? Is it better to have an agent?

a) The most basic advice that I have is that you should have one. Simple as that. Without an agent, you're not only flying blind in many situations, you're also limiting your options. But more on that later.

b) Get an agent first. Editors are too busy to read through the slush, and frankly, finding that diamond in the slush isn't part of their job. Well, at least not at the major publishing houses. Very few of them take unsolicited manuscripts and with good reason: agents act as a filter. Here's why: when an agent has a ms that's ready to send out, she'll call up the list of targeted editors and explain the project (at least she will if she's good at her job). This is the beginning of the wooing process. The agent crafts a pitch, she musters up gobs of enthusiasm, and she sells, sells, sells. The editor right there and then tells the agent whether or not it sounds like a good fit, and if it is
a good fit, the editor is frothing at the mouth by the time your ms hits her desk. Sort of like if you were in the market for a new car, and car salesmen rang you up whenever something crossed their lot that might work for you.

Beyond this, the editor also knows and trusts the agent (or at least she trusts the reputable ones), who should have a good idea of what the editor is looking for (that's why they all "do lunch,") and where her tastes tend to run. So, in essence, why would the editor even bother with the slush pile when she already has such a fine system working on her behalf?

There is also the assumption - whether this is fair or not - that the cream rises to the top. Namely, that the best mss will get snapped up by agents, and thus if you're submitting without one, yours ain't the cream. (Hey, I'm not saying I agree, I'm just telling you the perception. And the truth of the matter is, that there are gajillions of terrible mss out there which definitely DON'T deserve to be repped. For all of the good ones that slip through the cracks, there are many more which truly blow.)

That said, there are exceptions to what I said above. Many small presses accept submissions, as do certain lines at Harlequin and Red Dress. (I'm working from my knowledge of commercial fiction - feel free to chime in with other places that accept them without agent representation.) I know plenty of published authors who are thrilled with the treatment and attention they've received at smaller presses (though most of these authors were indeed repped by agents). The major houses: Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, St. Martin's, Warner, Simon and Schuster, etc, however, really won't glance in your direction without an agent. (Unless, I dunno, Tom Clancy referred you personally, and if you know Tom Clancy, you should really have him refer you to his agent. Lucky dog, you.)

And of course, there's always the self-publishing route, which I know a few readers of this blog have done. Nothing wrong with it, but I think that most self-published authors take this route after fruitlessly hunting for an agent, and many of them will tell you it's a lot of work. They're an army of one, whereas authors with houses behind them have an army of many. But self-publishing is definitely an option, and there really have been some great self-published novels. Check out POD-dy Mouth for proof.

c) I've pretty much answered these questions, but one other note about the benefit to having an agent. A good agent does more than just sell your book. She negotiates your contract; she's your ally if things go awry with your editor - whether you hate your cover art or your editor is fired or you totally disagree with the revision notes. Whatever, she should be there to back you up. She also champions not just your book, but your career. Mine called me a few months ago with an glimmer of an idea for a novel that she thought I might be able to spin into something more. In an ideal situation, it's a true partnership, and just like in a healthy, thriving marriage, that's something that can't be underestimated. Or necessarily replaced.


xxxx said...

You're PREGNANT and went on a HIKE?

Holy crap, what's my excuse? :)

Anonymous said...

Reading in between the lines, I believe Allison enjoyed the exercise but chasing after her son proved to be the real kicker. (WINK)

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Sadly, still sore today. Argh!!

Swish-it's funny, but when I'm pregnant, exercise actually really makes me feel better. Breaks up the water retention and all of that. It wasn't as if we were scaling Mt. Everest either: just a long walk that was sometimes uphill. But I'm dying!

Larr- Ha! I blame a lot of things on my son (and husband!), but this one, sadly, I cannot. :) I blame the hotel.

thatgirl said...

Allison, you've convinced me on the necessity of an agent. So let me ask a totally newbie question -- forgive me if you've addressed it. How does the $$ relationship work out? They get paid if your book sells? Or what?