Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Revisions Before Representation

I recently received a question and long explanation from a reader. Rather than reprint the entire question, I’m going to try to summarize as best I can. Ultimately this writer was told by an agent’s assistant that they (she and Agent) really liked Writer’s novel, but felt it would need some work. The assistant went into detail to explain to Writer that they (Assistant and Agent) wanted to send over their notes on the novel and asked if Writer would be willing to work with them. When asked, Assistant clarified that they were not offering representation, at least at this time.

Because I know it will come up, the agent is reputable and works for a very-well-established agency. The question is whether this is common practice, and in general the writer would like me to make the entire thing less confusing.

This sort of situation does happen all the time and, in fact, BookEnds agents regularly give revision suggestions and work with an author without offering representation. It’s a tricky situation for everyone and I think, without knowing who this agent is, I can explain what’s going on.

The agent read your work and really, really liked it. She sees great potential. The problem is, it’s not a book she could sell . . . yet. There are too many problems that would need to be fixed first and, since you’re an (I assume) unproven/unpublished author, she has no proof that you can actually make the changes successfully, or at least in the way she thinks they need to be made. Rather than simply mailing off a revision letter she hopes to get her foot in the door by making a call. This establishes a relationship and hopefully establishes some sense of loyalty from you to this agent. Ultimately she doesn’t want to send you her suggestions if you don’t seem interested in her and have you take them to another agent for a sale, something every agent has had happen to him or her.

I think one of the reasons this feels so confusing to writers is that in the agent submission process you often feel that you are the only one trying to woo and charm an agent,so when an agent calls you and works to woo and charm you, you get confused. Makes sense.

Here’s the deal from the agent’s side. Sending out a revision letter to an author I am not offering representation to is tricky business. I realize each time I do this that I’m taking a risk that Writer will take my suggestions and turn around and offer the book to another agent. Hey, it happens all the time. Earlier this year in fact, I saw a deal on Publishers Marketplace that I’m pretty sure I had a hand in. Last summer the author had sent me the manuscript, I had spoken with her and written a lengthy, multipage revision letter. In the end, when the changes were made, she clearly chose not to send the book to me. Of course, on the other hand, I’ve sent letters a number of times to writers who later became clients, and those who resubmitted and still got rejected. There are no guarantees in this business from either side of the desk.

When giving revisions, the agent always hopes that you will take into consideration the fact that your book is stronger because of that agent and hopefully you’ll see that a working relationship is already in place and clearly working for you. By not offering representation we are not giving false hope. After all, if you couldn’t do the revisions as the agent had hoped, she would probably simply end up firing you, and that would really be unfair.

I think the honorable thing to do is resubmit to the agent if you have taken her revisions and used them to make a stronger book, and while I’d like to say I think you should give that agent an exclusive (in the case where I might be that agent), you all know how I feel about exclusives. When you do get multiple offers of representation because one agent helped make your book stronger, you need to consider that relationship and what she’s already done for you. In the end, however, I’ve preached time and time again that choosing an agent is about making sure the fit feels right for you, and that’s what needs to be foremost in your mind when the ultimate decision is made.

Either way, it sounds like you’re well on your way, so congratulations!



Kimber Li said...

Thanks! I've saved this one to file.

Jessica Brockmole said...

What a great post! I always find it eye-opening to see what's going on from the agent's point of view. Makes perfect sense!

Anonymous said...

What about when an editor or editorial assistant at a house does multiple revisions with an author without an offer? Are they more likely to buy your book? Why are they commiting all this time to a project they haven't bought yet?
And how indebted should the author be to that editor who obviously spent a lot of time working with that author?

Anonymous said...

I almost wept when I read you sent a multipage revision letter to someone who wasn't even your client.

My own agent is too busy to give me comments on my new novel (going on four, five months now) and I AM her client.

Where are these agents that are so receptive and communicative of their clients? Everyone agented writer I know is in the same boat as me... mostly I feel I don't have an agent at all. I wonder if I couldn't have done a better job of it myaelf.

Anonymous said...

For Anon 8:20 --

I did an extensive rewrite for an editor (that had bought my first book). The editor kept my book for an ungodly amount of time only to pass on it. The thing that burned me was she didn't mention why she passed. She only gave very pat answers one would glean from form rejections -- "didn't connect with the material, didn't love it", etc...

She didn't make one single comment on any of the huge character arc changes, added text, or plot point upheavals I'd done at her whim.

To this day I've no idea if her suggestions have made the book stronger or more obscure. It's truly a different book. It hasn't sold yet.

Take this with a grain of salt, but so far in this business I've noticed there's not a heck of a lot of loyalty going on. And if there is it's usually on the writer's part. The writer wants to feel like they're building a working relationship, like their work will have a safe harbor to abide. But sometimes the editor is looking for the next hot thing.

Be loyal to yourself first.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, as usual, this post is so timely for me. Thanks a lot for addressing this issue. Instead of a revision letter, an agent invited me into his office to discuss revisions, but soon after I had other interest in the book, and it was a very tricky situation as to what to do. After two months, he finally passed on the project, saying he liked the story and writing, but didn't know how to market it. So now I'm free to show it to others who have said they want to see it. I'm grateful to the first agent and told him so. I wish I'd seen this post a few months ago, but now I know that I did the right thing, and I know I have a much better version. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

That was a very informative post!

An excellent agent from a very reputable agency showed great interest in my manuscript, using phrases like I loved it! This is a great book! etc. She gave me some suggestions and then told me she would consider it for representation IF I made the changes she suggested. (They were very loose suggestions; I had to email her back for clarification more than once, until finally she got irritated.)I spent months making her suggested changes, and then gave her the first look at the rewritten novel, which she promptly rejected. That was very rough....

Honestly, I would rather an agent spell out exactly her intention -- as in, I'm giving you these suggestions, and I'm hoping you'll consider resending your manuscript back to me when you're done making them so I can review it for possible representation at that point -- instead of tip toeing around the subject.

Anonymous said...

"she would probably simply end up firing you"

I believe Jessica meant to say: "She would probably simply end a professional relationship."

The writer is her client, not her employee.

I know that may sound petty, but it's important to remember from whom success ultimately flows.

Rita Gerlach said...

Recently I had an agent send back my ms with notes in the margins. Her notations were words of encouragement where she pointed out things she really liked. She made a few suggestions for tightening up the prose. She rejected my project, but the help she gave me was so helpful and I thanked her for taking the time out from her busy life to do such a thing.

Several months before that, an agent sent me her 'editing guidelines' and told me to change every word that I used for a color to simply the color. Instead of 'golden' she wanted me to use 'yellow'. She made edits to the first two chapters that were horrible, changed my voice and writing style so much that it was not recognizable. I knew then she was not the agent for me.

I guess there are two sides to every coin.

Anonymous said...

I have two manuscripts in question. #1 is with two editors. And #2 was incomplete, when I started working with an agent several months ago.

Originally the agent read #1. She loved my writing, but declined to rep #1 for a couple reasons. Instead, we talked, she read a few WIPs, and we decided I’d finish one. We talked about representation. I finished the draft, and I sent it to her.

In the meantime, I got a revision request on book #1 from an editor. I revised #1 while waiting for the comments from the Agent on #2. Agent gave me a detailed 14 pg. ed. letter for book #2. We talked about book #1 again. Agent offered to read #1 when I was finished. I said great. She said she'd hurry. We talked again about representation.

I sent the revisions on to the editor after not hearing from the agent in almost a month. I let the Agent know I sent them on. Was that wrong? She seemed fine, and said she’d get back to me soon.

I'm on my 2nd month of working on revisions to book #2 for the jr. agent. I'm grateful for her input, and I'm working diligently, but I can't help but wonder why I haven't heard her thoughts on book #1.

Christine Fletcher said...

A couple of people have brought up a good point--if an agent suggests changes, the writer is responsible for deciding whether those changes are in the best interest of their work.

I began working with my agent in exactly the way that Jessica described in her post. The agent made specific editorial suggestions that took me in directions I hadn't previously considered. But it was clear that she respected my voice and what the novel was about. By the time the rewrite was done, it felt like we already had a good working relationship underway. By going through the revision/rewrite process with her, I knew she'd be a great agent for me.

Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Excellent post, and something that needs to be addressed rather than ignored. Thanks for your honest and open explanation.
As for editors who are encouraging and urge rewrites, I can go one better: An editor asked me to hire an independent editor to work with me on the manuscripts for two novels, implying to me (and telling the independent editor in an email, one I've seen) that he was ready to offer a three-book contract. After a lot of work and a lot of money, the editor passed on both manuscripts.

Anonymous said...

This exact thing happened to me. Very reputable agent and very reputable house, very quick responses. I stopped querying, rewrote 60% of the book according to the things we'd discussed, and sent it back to her. She didn't love it, sent me back another big revision letter (bigger than the first!), and said I could ask anything about any part of it.

I took a few days, read through it a few times, then sent her back a letter saying I was willing to rework a lot of it, but I needed some things cleared up. That was three months ago, and no response since, then. A month ago I sent a quick nudge, no response.

I really like her as an agent, and she seems to be a great person, but I'm stuck thinking, "?????"

When do you decide, "She's just not that into me" and start querying again?


Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I'm a bit skeptical that an agent would spend so much time on a piece that they don't already want to rep. Or that an author would spend so much time revise a manuscript to suit the tastes of an agent that they didn't want to rep them.
But there's stranger things in heaven and on earth...apparently.

Travis Erwin said...

Very informational post. Good to see things from the other end of the process.

Anonymous said...

This post came at just the right time for me. My book's currently out with two agents, one's got the full typescript, the other has the opening chapters. Last week agent #1 emailed me to say she loved the book, couldn't offer representation as yet but wanted to meet to discuss revisions. Two days later, agent #2 emailed, saying she loved the opening and wants to read the rest as soon as possible. I've been agonising over what to do all weekend - hold off agent #2 until I've met #1; hold off agent #1 until #2's read the book; hide in a corner and whimper...

Kate Douglas said...

For Anonymous 8:20--I once did revisions on a manuscript for almost a year of "back and forth" with an editor of a well-known NY pub. The book was ultimately rejected with a form rejection letter, so I can honestly say revisions are not necessarily indicative of a sale. However, being asked to do revisions for an agent is another thing altogether. It's an excellent chance to feel out a relationship before signing, to know if the suggestions the agent makes are right for you and your voice. I recently did my first set of revisions with Jessica and thoroughly enjoyed the process. She pointed out weaknesses in my manuscript, and with her suggestions, I was able to fix them without changing my style. Revisions should always be a period of growth and, in some ways, enlightenment. A chance to take a good piece of work and make it better. If an agent asks you to make changes you're not comfortable with, it's a good chance you won't work well with them as your representative.

Kimber Li said...

I'd never stop querying other agents and editors during something like this, since the process crawls at a glacier's place and there are no absolutes.

I also would save the original version of my novel and only make revisions to a copy. That way, I could see if the revised copy works for me as well as the editor and/or agent in question without losing the original for comparison or continued use.

Anonymous said...

A top-notch agent requested some revisions to the plot with "an eye toward representation." I thought her suggestions were great and revised the ms. And two weeks after I sent her the new ms, she offered representation.

But the same day I sent her that ms, I also sent out another batch of query letters.

So, to "Resigned" at 11:08 who's wondering if it's time to query other agents: it's time!!! If you receive an offer from another agent, you could contact this agent to let her know. But don't waste one more minute waiting for this person to get back to you.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

This is essentially how my deal went down with the small press. I submitted my full. Some time later, the editor called me to say she really liked it, but had some suggestions. And an offer to resubmit.

I did the work, resubmitted and received an acceptance.

I was told by an author friend to shop it around, but, foolish or not, I felt a connection with the editor and signed the deal.

Aimlesswriter said...

I think if an agent was nice enough to give me several pages of suggestions on how to make my book better I'd owe it to her to give her first shot at the finished product. Not to do so would be bad karma. However, I can guess that the finished product might have made the rounds and either the author jumped at the first offer or maybe the agent she did go with just schmoozed her more. After all, we're publishing virgins and easily swayed.

jbstanley said...

Jessica's suggested revisions on my first unpublished manuscript are one of the reasons I ended up as her client. I recognized how astute they were and, being that it was my first book, seized on the chance to make my work more saleable. As I was working, two other agents expressed their interest in offering me representation, but as Jessica had already begun championing my work by trying to improve it, I knew I wanted to sign with her. If an agent takes the time to offer you revisions, be grateful and apply their suggestions - especially if this is your first book. Sometimes it's not the writing style or the content, but the marketability that needs tweaking. I'd consider it a great sign that someone wanted your work to improve in order to one day offer representation. Good for you, author!

Julie Weathers said...

Wow. I really didn't think agents did this anymore.

Yes, I would make changes if at all possible. I'm pretty flexible, but some things I stick on. Insert hot sex scene here, here and here, for instance.

If an agent or editor took the time to work with me, they definitely have first shot. And a tin of pralined pecans.

Thanks, Jessica, this was helpful.

Gabrielle said...

A pleasant predicament to be in, for sure.

Thanks for the good advice, Jessica. I will keep this in mind, once the agents start calling in by the dozen, of course. :D

Elyssa Papa said...

Jessica, this was a fantastic post. I recently had this happen to me on a query letter and the agent went to my website to check out my first chapter. She gave me input to my query and first chapter and told me she would love to see stuff in the future from me, and that she would be interested in seeing a revision of this current novel.

I have definite plans on querying this agent for the next project, but I don't know if I can revise the first chapter any more than it already has been through my and then my CPs and back again.

Jessica, do you have any advice about that? If an agent expresses enough interest in your query and reads a chapter on a website, what advice would you give?

Anonymous said...

You have no idea how timely this post is. I guess I always thought the agent process would be either yes or no...not, well here's some suggestions for how I could see expanding/improving this book. And then wonder what will happen when the agent contacts you again.

Does this mean s/he is interested a whole lot? Just a bit? Am I super close to having representation? Or is this just a goodwill gesture?

Thanks a ton for this post!

ChristaCarol Jones said...

Some very informative information. It IS good to know what's going on in the other brain involved.

Just beginning the process of getting ready to query myself, it is very easy to get discouraged when you see a lot of negativity among other writer's trying to do the same thing. Now I can just hope that through the rejections I get, one of them will be an agent willing to spend time on my work and helping me. I'd have a hard time as well giving my work to someone else after that, unless the agent still rejected me after resubmission. Then, of course, I'd pitch to a new agent(s).

Thanks for the new perspective!

Colette McCormick said...

I'd love to just get an agent interested.

Ross Browne said...

This situation is something I've encountered quite a few times in my firm’s author advocacy efforts. To my thinking, constructive editorial feedback from an agent should certainly earn them the opportunity to consider the resulting draft. In the happy event the feedback and revision leads to an offer of representation or better yet competing offers, the final decision should be made with what's in the best interest of the book. A lesser-known agent who really loves the book and took time out of a busy schedule to try and help the author with it may indeed be a better choice than a super-agent whose level of commitment or interest doesn’t run as deep.

Ossian said...

This is what I would suggest to the author: Don't change anything, look for another agent. They didn't like it enough so they're patronising you and thinking they know better - cheerio. You'll never have any self-respect again otherwise - in front of them, that is: you will always be playing the junior role. You employ an agent, not vice-versa. If you want to change your work, you should know that yourself. If you don't know that you need to change it, your case is hopeless anyway, so try interior design instead.

I couldn't care less what any agent thinks and I don't want an agent. I'll write what I like and sell it if I feel like it and if somebody doesn't like it, they can get lost. If nobody buys it, so what, this is life, this is not a game. Get a life. Be a mensch, not a mouse. Tell them to shove it. Etc, ad lib.