As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was at a writer’s conference this past weekend and picked up a lot of great information (as usual). It’s interesting because I’ve gone to this particular conference for a few years now and each year certain parts of the conference become less useful to me, but I always walk away with at least one or two comments or contacts that make it worthwhile.
Each year I also become more and more convinced that any time you put more than about twenty-five writers in one room you’re bound to find a few that are…odd. Good writing does not always equal good social skills. Twice after a conference session someone cornered me and I felt myself desperately looking for the exits. But I’ve also made great new writer friends each year, too, so you get the bad with the good.
One of the panels I sat in on was an agent/editor panel. Those are always valuable in one way or another, but the tidbit I took away from this one went in the “why an agent is valuable list.” The more I read about the industry and pay attention to authors and their careers, the more convinced I am that for trade publishing (i.e., not self-publishing), an agent is essential.
The latest reason I have for believing this: An agent can be your buffer.
Everyone has dreams of what it will be like to publish a book. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think most of us dream of selling our first book and receiving a twenty-page editorial letter listing everything that needs to be done to make the novel stronger, including removing that sub-plot that involves one of our favorite characters.
I think the typical author dreams of writing such a stunning piece of literature that the editor will read it, tell the author how they cried at the ending, loved it so much they’ve asked for a print run ten times the normal size, and that they have no edits because the book is so perfect as it stands they wouldn’t dare disturb a single comma.
So, what does happen when you an author gets that twenty-page letter that feels like an insult to their writing ability?
An unagented author might just call the editor directly and tell them “absolutely not, these changes are ridiculous” and proceed to tell the editor that they don’t know what they’re doing. Or maybe they make the editor walk through every single change and justify it to them, taking up far more of the editors time than they should.
That book will probably get published, but will the next one? With that editor? Not likely. Who wants to work with someone who won’t take direction and insults their professional abilities?
An agented author can call their agent and say, “absolutely not, these changes are ridiculous.” The agent can then look at the changes and work with the author to see if there really are some that are ridiculous. (One does hear horror stories of someone with a little too literal interpretation of grammar rules that destroys an author’s voice.)
The agent can then do two things. First, talk the author off the ledge and convince the author to make most of the changes. Second, talk to the editor on behalf of the author and frame the author’s issues in a way that isn’t insulting to the editor and that emphasizes the business-side of the equation. So, instead of “But Joe is the author’s favorite character”, the agent might instead say, “Joe is essential to the story because he provides a more nuanced view of LGBT characters. Remove Joe and you only have one trans character who is portrayed as a villain. You did say you wanted to publish stories with more diversity in them, didn’t you?”
The agent helps protect the author’s reputation.
(Now, this does not mean you should call and abuse your agent on the phone. They, too, get to choose who to work with and do that often enough they may not want to deal with you anymore. Work your way through three or four agents and you will have a very hard time finding your next one. Another reason to find a good agent right away.)
Agents can do the same thing with contracts. And cover art. And marketing. And your author bio. And who knows what else.
Look. We’re artists. We’re passionate about what we do. If you don’t have passion you don’t stick with a project long enough to write an 80,000-word novel and revise it until it’s good enough to sell to a top publisher. Of course you have a vision for your work.
But publishing is a business, and when you sign with a publisher you’ve entered into a business agreement with them. This isn’t their first rodeo. They may actually know more about this than you do.
They’re not seeing your baby–that precious work that you labored over for years that expresses exactly who you are. They’re seeing a product that needs to be sold. Which is good. Because they can look at that child you think is perfect in every way and say, “Your child is desperately in need of braces and some acne cream. If you want them to be Homecoming Queen (King), you need to fix that.” You can still love your child and decide not do anything to change their perfection, but they may not make it to the “top”.
If you want a pure, pristine, untouched version of your novel available, self-pub it. It will be 100% you.
If you want to make money off of your novel (and even in self-pub this is true almost always), you’re going to have to have someone else edit the book and you’re actually going to have to change the book based upon their comments.
So, the agent is there to hear those “your baby is ugly” comments and translate them into something more positive and palatable. “Great news! They say your baby has a great shot at Homecoming Queen!” “Really?” “Absolutely. You just need to make a few minor tweaks and you’re there….”