Friday, May 2, 2008

Do I or don't I?

I have been absent from the blog due to an eye-watering amount of reading - which I'm still trying to get through - but this question came in so I felt duty bound to answer it ...

Q: While I was finishing Version Two of My Tome, I was fortunate enough to attend a pitching panel where a senior editor at a prominent publisher said she would read it when it was finished. Fortunately she acknowledged that it might take me a while to get back to her. It did. I engaged a professional editor to do a structural report and consequently wrote Version Three. The editor reread My Tome and declared it ready. Okay, so it's now one the desk of an editor at a prominent publisher. They've had it for about two and a half months. I am waiting patiently. Yeah okay, not so patiently, though I don't even want to imagine what their workload looks like. So my question is this: should I be looking for an agent? No offence, but I considered that if a publisher said 'Yes!' that they would have a standard contract and therefore there wouldn't be much for an agent to do. Reading your blog, however, alerted me to the fact that perhaps this is not the case and give the time frames involved in these endeavours that perhaps I should begin my agent search sooner rather than later.

First things first: you did the right thing in finding an editor for your manuscript, as it increased your chances of a publisher paying attention - you'd be surprised how many authors do not take such a step and it usually means they don't ever get published.

Now to the agent thing. There are a few little issues here ...
1. In my experience the contracts offered to agented authors are substantially different to those offered to unagented authors at most (not all) publishing companies. You could ask an intellectual property lawyer to look over your contract if you're concerned, although that may end up costing more than an agent's commission. You may also feel that you're really happy to manage the business side of writing as well as the creative - some authors love doing it. Those who don't usually have agents.

2. If your novel is fantastic, maybe more than one publisher would be interested in it. Just because this particular publisher is keen, are they necessarily the right publisher for your book? The right publisher is not always the first publisher who says, 'I love it!' or the publisher who offers you the most money. If you've written historical romance, say, and the editor you've been dealing with personally loves it enough to persuade everyone else at the Acquisitions meeting to publish it but the company has never done historical romance before - they specialise in thrillers and crime novels - are they really going to do the right thing by you? What happens if the editor leaves and your champion is gone? (This does happen and can have a huge effect on some authors.) There may be another publisher who is better for you.

3. For me, at least, taking on a new client means managing their career, not just one book. If you're a first-time novelist, it's crucial to get things right - or as right as possible - for that first book or your career can be over before it begins. (If you don't intend to write more than one book, though, you can ignore this bit ...) You may be able to get advice from someone you trust and that person can play the same sort of role I do for my authors - which is, truthfully, more about giving advice on career/writing/life than negotiating contracts - so you wouldn't need an agent. It is important, though, to have someone to talk to about the business of writing and things that come up in the creative process, regardless of whether that person is an agent or not.

Fundamentally, it can't hurt you to submit to agents at this stage - and in your cover letter you should mention that your manuscript is being seriously considered at a publishing company (name the company). If an agent wants to take you on then you can still say 'no' if you ultimately decide you don't need one. The one thing I will stress is that you need to put aside the excitement of thinking you may get published and look down the long road of your potential writing career. Think about what you need to do to have a career - what will be required to keep you happily productive for years to come. If handling the business side of things seems like it would be too much work and would distract you from your writing, you need an agent. If not, you don't.


lisa said...

The ASA have some great books that can help you negotiate a contract as well (rather than hiring a lawyer).

JJ Cooper said...

Gonna have to diagree with the need to finding an editor before submitting. I take this to mean seeking one of those manuscript editing services. Money flows to the writer. If you can't edit your manuscript to the required standard for submission, you are not ready to send it out. I can't see how publishers (or agents) would see an assessment as a bonus. If the publisher (or agent) takes them on then they;ll have to spend more time on them at later stages during the re-writes. IMHO this is a flawed system in Australia. The writer should learn their trade and be able to bring their MS to a standard themselves that will be accepted. Money flows to the writer.


Unknown said...

I have used both a manuscript appraiser and a professional editor. I strongly recommend a professional editor. In my experience, a manuscript appraiser looks at the manuscript and assesses it in its current form. The one I used offered mostly general comments with a couple of very specific ‘you’ve mixed metaphors on page 35’ type comments. The editor, however, was a vastly different prospect.

Let me also add for the uninitiated that there are different types of editing. A structural edit looks at the plot, the pace of the story, the character development. A copy edit assumes all this is acceptable and focuses on grammar and punctuation. Having tried a writing coach, short courses and a manuscript appraisal service and still being mildly dissatisfied with my work, I looked for a freelance editor who’d actually worked in a large publishing house. As a test of our working relationship, I engaged her first to edit a couple of my short stories. I was happy with the result and we moved forward to the larger work.

What I got was a five-page report that detailed all the main characters, how they fitted into the plot and how I might rework them to make the novel better. This is a valuable process because as a writer I can get caught up in my own work. I know what I want to say, but the proof of whether I’ve said that comes from the reader; far better that that reader be a qualified freelance editor rather than one at a publishing house, because, as I hear so often, you only get one shot.

The other difference was that after I received the report, we had a phone conversation to discuss her comments and my thoughts. From this I had a very clear vision of how much better my novel could be – and how I could get it to that level. Once I’d made the changes I thought were appropriate I sent it back for further comment.

Yes, this did cost money – more than a manuscript appraiser. The result however, was that I was able to send my novel of knowing that it really was the best I could make it. I actually think I know my craft quite well. The challenge I’ve found in the past is finding courses or groups that have and are willing to spend time and knowledge taking my writing to the next level. Most courses seem to give general rules, which as an avid reader, I know are broken time and again by best-selling writers. Anyway, in trying different avenues I’d ended up feeling tied in knots no longer able to discern what was publishable and unpublishable writing and also confused as to what direction I should take my novel to make it publishable. That’s why finding the right editor for me and my writing was so crucial to the success of this process.

At the end of the day, it’s every writer’s individual choice. We all have different paths. This is the path that worked for me and the one I’m excited about using for my second novel.