You’ve written your manuscript. You’ve edited hard. You are now on your fourth, seventh, nineteenth draft. You still absolutely believe in your basic concept and you are certain that you have a vocation for writing / authoring.
But here’s the thing: you know your work isn’t yet good enough.
Maybe you know that just because you’ve got that feelings in my bones. (And believe me: I’ve been there too.)
Or maybe you’ve tried actually sending your work out to literary agents and had nothing but pre-printed rejection emails. (Or, worse, but very common – you haven’t even heard back.)
So what next? It feels like a Catch-22. You want expert editing to help you over the last remaining hurdles, but the people who look like they ought to be helping you – those literary agents – aren’t even replying to your emails.
So now what? And do these darn agents edit manuscripts, yes or no?
Well, if you want the short answer, then it’s:
Yes, they do edit manuscripts, but also No, no, they really don’t.
If that explanation doesn’t seem totally helpful, then I’ll see if I can make it a little clearer.
When it comes to your dealings with literary agents, it’s essential to remember that these guys do not charge you anything upfront. Not a dollar, not a dime. I’ve had an agent for twenty years and I have never paid even one single penny for his or (with my first agent) her services – or not directly anyway.
Because the way that agents get their money is by earning commissions on sales to publishers.
So if you take the first book in my Fiona Griffiths series, my agent has made sales – and earned commission – on sales to publishers in Britain, America, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and further afield. He’s also been involved in the sale of TV rights. He’s also done a terrific audio deal for me. There may be other deals down the road too. Each time one of these deals happens, I get a wodge of money arriving in my bank account, from which the agent has deducted his little (and well-earned) sliver.
The consequence of this “no fee / commission only” payment structure is that agents only get paid for their time if they make a sale – and then only if that sale is for enough money to pay them back for all that they’ve done. That’s should be easy-ish if the sale is to a Big 5 publisher and brings some overseas book deals in its wake. If the only sale is to a mid-sized or micro domestic publisher, then the agent is probably (privately) disappointed.
The tottering slushpile
If the commission-only way of doing business seems challenging, that challenge is compounded by the sheer volume of submissions that literary agents receive.
That total varies from agent to agent, but about 2,000 submissions per agent per year would be typical. Of that an agent may find only 2-3 manuscripts that seem destined for the kind of advances that will generate enough revenue for an agent.
Predictably enough, agents will reject the vast majority of manuscripts that come their way. It’s not just that they don’t have the time to deal with those manuscripts and those clients, it’s that there’s no money in them. Most manuscripts that agents receive are just unsaleable.
So when DO agents edit?
Agents will get involved in editorial advice when they come across a manuscript that:
Has an excellent, saleable idea. (Check here for more.)
Is in the top 1%, or maybe the top 0.5% of all submissions
Is not ready to be sent to publishers as it stands.
In effect, when an agent offers to get involved editorially, they are thinking, roughly:
“Look, if I sent this manuscript out as it is, I might get offers, but I don’t think they’d be very strong ones . . . and actually, I might just get fistful of rejections. And I certainly don’t want that.
“Then again, I can’t helpfeeling that this manuscript could do really well, if I put in the 2-3 dozen hours needed to get this manuscript into shape. Yes, the writer themselves will be doing the actual work here – my job will be one of guidance only; I’m not going to be making hands-on changes to the manuscript myself.
“But with my input, and if the writer works hard and makes the changes I recommend? Then yes, I think this could be a really profitable (and fun, and artistically rewarding) project. I’m going to reach out to this author. Yay!“
As a writer, that’s good to hear on a number of levels. You don’t want a real estate guy who just dumps your house on the market without telling you to mow your overgrown lawn and fix that sagging guttering. You want the real estate person who forces you to fix the house up for sale, in order that you get the very best price.
So the fact that agents are willing to be engaged, active and intelligent in how they sell your book is great to hear.
But from your perspective, as writer, there are two crucial qualifications to take away.
Crucial Thing the First Your manuscript has to be really, really good already. You can’t just use agents as a free pass to solving the difficulties that you and your manuscript face.
If you send an agent a mediocre manuscript, you stand no chance at all of engaging them qua editor. In fact, because the competition is so intense, you won’t get an agent involved even if your book is really quite good.
The sad fact is that “really quite good” isn’t even close to the standard agents are looking for.
Crucial Thing the Second Some agents are really strong editorially, and love doing it. Others just aren’t that strong and don’t pretend to be.
After all, an agent’s core job as is as saleswoman (or, less often in this industry, salesman.) My first agent – who was great – told me directly when I engaged her that she just wasn’t that great at editing books, but she was a powerhouse when it came to selling them.
These days, I’d say that all agents have had to become more hands on when it comes to polishing manuscripts prior to sale, but there’s still a reason why editors edit, and agents sell.
In effect, using an agent as an editor is a bit like using a carpenter as a bricklayer. Sure, carpenters are skilled and multi-talented. They’ll probably do a pretty good job of building that wall, but . . .
Now you probably think that, because we make money from editing, and because we’ve had a huge number of success stories, I’m going to tell you to rush over to us for editorial help.
Well, no. I’m not.
You can’t use editorial input as a shortcut. Successful writers always put the hard yards in themselves.
Some writers think something like this: “Hey, I’ve completed my manuscript. I’ve done a couple of quick read-throughs for typos and that kind of thing. I’ve emailed my manuscript out to a few dozen literary agents, but no one offered to take me on and they won’t help me edit my book, even though I asked really nicely. So, OK, maybe I need to pay someone to get this book into shape.”
If you think like that, then you won’t make the grade as a writer and, to be honest with you, you aren’t the sort of client that we especially love dealing with. I mean, sure, we’ll work with anyone, and we’ll do our level professional best for you. But our favourite clients? They are always, always the super-committed ones.
Remember: Writing is rewriting.
Self-editing is the art of sifting through your manuscript and checking it for everything.
Surplus words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. Faulty, vague or unconvincing characterisation. Weak dialogue. Weak plotting. Problems with pace or viewpoint.
Basically, you need to think like an author and work these things out for yourself, as far as you are possibly able.
You will benefit in three ways. First, your manuscript will get better (probably a lot better). Secondly, your own skills as an author will grow. Thirdly, your pride and confidence will – quite rightly – grow and blossom.
So, OK, you do all that and then you may still need editorial help.
And that’s fine. Maybe you’ll just know for yourself that your manuscript needs work. Or maybe you’ll try your luck with literary agents and not get the response you wanted. Or maybe you’ve been scratching away at a dissatisfaction with your work, and have found yourself going round in circles.
If you fit into any of those categories, then, yes, you do need third party editorial help and, yes, we at Jericho Writers would absolutely love to give it.
We are here to deliver outstanding editorial services to committed writers, and we would be deeply honoured to work with you.
Oh yes, and if you’re serious about your writing, then we’d also love it if you cared to join our online Club. This is a club for writers, and we’ve gone to a huge amount of trouble to make it as rich and rewarding as we possibly can. You can find out more here, and we hope to see you there soon.
In the meantime, happy writing, happy editing and (when you’re good and ready to send your work out) happy agent-hunting too!
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)