Pub Rants

What’s Frustrating For Agents

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STATUS: Gearing up for my last week chock full of appointments. Can I say I think I might be lunched out?

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LANDSLIDE by Stevie Nicks

Last night I had dinner with an agent friend. I have to say we dished the dirt on the editors we love and the editors we’d rather not deal with.

I’m sure EVERYONE would love me to list that on my blog but some things are better left unsaid. And just to reassure editors out there who read this blog, it would have to be pretty egregious to get on our “no send” list so don’t sweat it if you are like 95% of the editors out there who are great, sane, normal, and a solid editor who tries his or her best.

But here is an interesting tidbit from our discussion. We were talking about client projects that come in and despite our plea for revisions or a solid edit, the client declines and would prefer to submit as is. And in our hearts, we know it won’t sell.

We submit anyway, and it doesn’t sell. Our only hope is that the editors point out our same thoughts and feelings in their response letters.

If that doesn’t happen, well, we can always try and beg for another revision so as to take it back out again (which by the way, both of us would be willing to do as we can convince the editors to give it another look if it’s a strong/major revision).

37 Responses

  1. karen wester newton said:

    You’ve got me wondering if you mean existing clients with new projects that you can see right away need work, or do you mean new clients? Because I would think new clients would be set straight pertty quickly. Ergo, it must be someone who has already tasted success and now thinks they no longer need to adapt. Or maybe they just fell in love with their own work.

  2. Tricia Sanders said:

    Wow, can’t believe some people are like that. My take is if you (the agent) are willing to give it another go, if I make some changes/edits, why wouldn’t I. Some people just need to check their ego at the door.

    Kristin, if I’m ever lucky enough for you to ask me to make changes, I’ll have my butt in the chair in a nanosecond. I promise.

  3. rhienelleth said:

    What a fabulous entry to remind all of us writers out there that ‘getting an agent’ isn’t just about getting representation to submit our work to editors for us. It’s also about working with a partner who happens to be a professional in the industry, who can offer advice to help get our work to the point where it will BE published and sell.

    Sometimes it’s easy to take critique personally, but if I had an agent who was telling me “revise this in this way, and your book will be better/will have a better chance of selling” you can bet I would listen.

  4. Michelle Sagara said:

    What about those cases in which you know in your heart it won’t sell… and it does sell? Or does that never happen?

    (I probably shouldn’t ask this here, because your wider point is, imo, of more overall value — but I admit to being deeply curious.)

  5. bookfraud said:

    “our only hope is that the editors point out our same thoughts and feelings in their response letters.”


    “we can always try and beg for another revision so as to take it back out again…”

    double aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!

    sorry, but that just hit the most sensitive of nerves in this sensitive artist. the first few rejections of my novel came back with the same “thoughts and feelings,” as did the next, and i asked — no, begged my agent to let me rewrite before sending it out again, but he insisted it wasn’t necessary. and finally, after i convinced him to let me rewrite the novel, he refused to try old agents who thought the book had a lot of promise.

    i’m banging my head against the wall right now, not an easy thing to do as one types.

  6. Anonymous said:

    It’s interesting to me after just finishing up editing my own work, how some of your new clients decline to make changes.

    While I respect the decision of every individual author in making managerial decisions concerning the integrity of his/her own work, I have to say, after investing six months writing a novel and two months editing it … Come on, if you REALLY want to get it published – maybe this is just my personal opinion, but you have to be willing to make hard cuts and go the extra mile as far as quality is concerned.

    If that means taking an extra week or so to revise it to make it more dynamic, in the long run, won’t it be worth it? I’d do it in a heartbeat.

    It’s wonderful that you guys are willing to work with clients that way. Not a lot of agents are.

    -Rachel Glass

  7. Anonymous said:

    “Come on, if you REALLY want to get it published… you have to be willing to make hard cuts and go the extra mile as far as quality is concerned.”

    I don’t disagree with Kristin’s primary point AT ALL. But just to play devil’s advocate — I’ve sold three novels. But I’m not ANY closer to giving up my day job. As I continue to write, it’s becoming less important to me to “publish” and more important to do the best work I can for each story — and frankly, sometimes that means ignoring my agent’s suggestions, which I do NOT always agree with (when other readers back me up).

    One agent’s opinion is still (only) one opinion, and if I’ve learned anything in the last five years, it’s how subjective this business is. I don’t believe that one opinion is necessarily going to improve the quality — it certainly might, but sometimes a change is just a change, not an improvement. [If editors agreed with that opinion, of course, I’d take a second and third look at those comments.] But publishing is not the end all/be all. Sometimes I care more about telling the story I need to tell — the way I feel is best — than I do about whether it gets published. As long as the writer is okay with that and understands the tradeoff, it’s their work, and that’s their choice. If they feel like they HAVE to make suggested changes… it’s called work for hire. That’s what my day job is for.

  8. Anonymous said:

    I’m surprised by this. Provided the revisions/edits aren’t requested to cut out fundamental parts of the story, why not do them? It makes no sense.

  9. Just_Me said:

    Because eventually an author is so sick of editing something, so frustrated that they can’t organize the English language correctly, so disgusted with their own school that what they really want to do is erase their hard drive and start flipping burgers for a living.

    Sometimes one more edit is to much. Life get’s in the way and you have to choose between the work that pays your bills and getting an edit done by Friday morning. Sometimes reality steps in.

    However, if there isn’t a deadline looming and the author has a chance to step back, review, maybe get advice from some friends, than I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t edit. Cut, chop, and write a different story (change the setting from 2010 to 1610 and make it a fantasy rather thana techno-thriller)- that I can understand balking at. But basic edits? No. Editing is doubleplusungood (thank you George Orwell) but editing is necassary if you want to publish.

  10. Cursing in Heels said:

    Unless you were advising me to edit something that would completely contradict a character or compromise the plot, I’d pretty much make any edits you suggested. I think this goes back the importance of finding an agent that you click with and that you can trust. If you find an agent that believes in your work, you can trust that they aren’t going to pillage it for profit.

    I also think this is a good example of the difference between what’s good and what sells. (Not that Kristin doesn’t recognize both simultaneously, mind you…from her client list she clearly does). But as an agent, she knows what the editors are looking for and what might turn them off.

  11. Laurie said:

    Like others, I’m a bit puzzled how someone could get their manuscript to this point, and then refuse to do further edits when they’re on the threshold of a sale. A case of artist’s ego overriding professional sense?

  12. Lorra said:

    Kristin, you have just defined the word crazy.

    No one can go this alone. You need other eyes, other minds on your work. I believe most of us would kill for input from a knowledgable professional. I certainly would.

    In the tough world of publishing, why would anyone shoot themselves in the foot like this? Can they be that naive?

    PS Tell Miss Snark Hey.

  13. Tracy said:

    An agent told Tony Hillerman to “get rid of all that Indian stuff”. Should he have done it?

    Laurie, would you call this “artist’s ego overriding professional sense”? Lorra, would you call this “naive”?

    Not every writer who ignores an agent’s suggestions is a Tony Hillerman, of course. I don’t doubt that there are some almost-publishable writers who aren’t objective enough about their own faults to take much-needed advice. But some of the commenters here seem to me to be saying that if an editor or an agent makes a suggestion, then a mere author needs to act on it, and if they don’t, there’s something wrong with them.

    And I just can’t agree. Many great authors have written about how, early in their careers, they were told to get rid of the very qualities that eventually made their books famous so they’d be more like what’s already on the market.

    I place a lot of weight on editorial suggestions, but it’s not as though they’re handed down on stone tablets from Mount Sinai. If a plot point is unclear, if readers dislike characters who are supposed to be likable, if character motivations are murky … these are all critiques that tell you you’re not getting your story across to readers, and you need to make changes. But if an editor or an agent said “get rid of the Indians and tell stories about white people”, I wouldn’t rewrite. I’d look for a different editor or agent who appreciated the kinds of stories I was telling.

  14. Dana King said:

    I am fortunate enough to have an agent willing to make comments and work to improve what I’ve written. I think both points of view expressed above have merit, in their places.

    Any author who doesn’t at least to his agent’s comments is nuts. A good agent didn’t get to be a good agent by knocking down stories that would sell as is.

    On the other hand, the author should have a vision for the work, especially if it is to be part of a series. This is where negotiation comes in. If my agent convinces me the changes will improve the book, I’ll take a look. If her suggestions go against somethign Ifeel strongly about, we may have to haggle until we can both agree on something. If I don’t have enough regard for my agent’s perspective and expertise to do that, I should get another agent.

  15. Renee Collins said:

    If I was one of your clients, you would never have to deal with such behavior from me.
    *batting eyelashes*

    In seriousness, I agree with what others have said. To think that your work is perfection on the page, and needs no improvements is ridiculous. To refuse advice from a industry specialist is madness.

  16. Anonymous said:

    I love it that you are doing the hard yards in NY schmoozing with people you don’t necessarily like, so that people like me can work away in isolation (mostly) and not have to do it ourselves. Thank you.

    Now on the other matter. I am a bit ambivalent about this. I can understand that some books would be easier to sell if they were altered in a certain way, but there can be times when a book is compromised by doing this.

    I recently read a book that is enjoying quite a bit of success. It is a bit of a bleak read, but a good one nonetheless. I was shocked when the last chapter turned it into a ‘happy ever after’ when right up to then this would have seemed impossible. It looked distinctly like intervention to make it more palatable to someone with some power to me.

    Now obviously this is just my supposition, and if I am right, that intervention could have come from anywhere. But it definitely diminished the work, and made it feel fraudulent.

  17. Linnea said:

    Revising is part of the process. It makes little sense to want to engage the representation of a professional and then not take their advice.

  18. Tawna Fenske said:

    I totally understand that some authors’ refusal to make changes stems from ego, laziness, or general refusal to mar their work of art. That’s silly.

    But just to play devil’s advocate to those who seem inclined to believe that an author should leap to her keyboard and make any changes an editor or agent suggests, that’s not always the case. Two years ago, the editorial staff was trying to determine the best release date for my debut novel. My editor emailed me to ask if perhaps I could add in a few Christmasy details so we could slate the book for a December release.

    “Um, well, the book takes place at a ski resort in Argentina at the beginning of winter. That’s in June. You know, that whole ‘other side of the equator’ thing? So are you asking me to relocate the setting to Montana and cut out all the cultural references and South American politics, or are you suggesting a time-travel element wherein Christmas suddenly takes place in July?”

    My answer was no, either way.


  19. Anonymous said:

    “We were talking about client projects that come in and despite our plea for revisions or a solid edit, the client declines and would prefer to submit as is. And in our hearts, we know it won’t sell.”

    I’m actually surprised you’d even bother to deal with a client like this. I know most editors won’t, and that’s because there are plenty of writers who are willing to make the changes.

  20. Anonymous said:

    Hmmm… your blog leaves me with a question that might be interesting to see as a blogpost. When you talk to a potential client, do you talk to them about revisions? Do you tell them that you wouldn’t necessarily submit something that you don’t think is ready? I’m not saying I’d do “anything” an agent says, but I think that if you have an agent representing you, one who is successful with a proven track record, isn’t it in your best interest as a writer to really *listen* to the agent if they think it won’t sell because of x, y, and z? It seems like common sense to me, but maybe not…. curious.

    You’re pointing out one of the many challenges and layers to agenting and relationships in general, I believe.

    Thank you again for your posts..

  21. Writer Babs said:

    I guess to me it’s kind of like those fantastic reality TV shows where people want to give you things (i.e. “What Not To Wear), but you’re too stubborn to let them do nice things. All I know is my mother taught me that when someone with more experiance in something than you do wants to help you, you jump at the chance.

  22. Anonymous said:

    Another advocate for the Evil One: I’ve had an editor get all enthused about a project (no agent on this one), and then suggest that instead of a romance, wouldn’t it be ever so much better as a mystery, and if the central problem could be the murder of the wife instead of her accidental death, and yadda yadda yadda?

    I write romance, not mystery. Telling me you’re excited about a project and then asking it to morph into something she already knew I don’t write, strikes me as disingenuous.

    Maybe if I’d had an agent, she’d have said, “Take this back to the drawing board–the editor is right.” Maybe not. In any case, I didn’t want to start from square one on a book I’d already finished, and I declined to do so.

    I later sold the book to another house that was pleased with it just as it was.

  23. Anonymous said:

    To clarify what I said earlier as it may have been misconstrued, I believe it’s up to the integrity of the author and what sacrifices they are or are not willing to make.

    I agree with linnea that you should expect revision suggestions at the very least, I think it’s important to be flexible while maintaining the mission of your novel.

    -Rachel Glass

  24. Tracy said:

    it’s kind of like those fantastic reality TV shows here people want to give you things

    And this, I think, is where we differ. To me, it’s a business relationship. If a writer and an agent have substantial, irreconcilable differences about a project, then that may be a sign that they should not be working together.

    but you’re too stubborn to let them do nice things

    As I see it, writers do no “let” editors and agents “do nice things” for them. Writers, editors, and agents have professional relationships that are mutually profitable. Editors and agents may give good-faith advice about making a book more profitable – but, as others have said, it isn’t guaranteed to be correct.

    I just got the check for a short story I’d sold to an editor who’d asked for some changes – he wanted certain parts of the story to flow differently. I didn’t see anything wrong with the story as written (I wouldn’t have submitted it if I hadn’t been happy with it), but the changes he wanted didn’t damage the story I wanted to tell, so I rewrote those sections the way he preferred them.

    If, on the other hand, he’d asked me to cut the central scientific puzzle and turn the whole thing into a shootout, I would have withdrawn it and submitted it elsewhere. I’m not so excited about seeing my name in print that I’m willing to have it on something that embarrasses me.

  25. Allison Brennan said:

    Revisions are an important part of the writing process. But I think there’s a big difference between what Kristin has suggested is important to make a sale (i.e. submitting the strongest manuscript possible) and stripping the life out of a story.

    As a writer, we need to learn to discern what advice makes the story stronger and what advice takes away from our individual and unique voice. This isn’t easy. I made some minor revisions in my first book for my agent before she sent it out. I had a subplot that she felt didn’t work and detracted from the main story. I looked at the subplot critically and realized that she was right. Now, I loved that subplot when I wrote it, and I loved it even as I cut it and smoothed out the rest of the book. But it DID make the book stronger in the end and didn’t change my story goal or voice one iota.

    But I had been given advice prior to selling that I intentionally ignored–both from agents and others–when it changed my voice or the overall story. It’s hard to give up an agent on the hook, which is why you have to be both self-critical and self-confident in your writing, which is a hard balance.

  26. Glenda Larke said:

    I will never understand writers who behave like that. I may have 7 books published, but if my agent or my editor suggests I change something, I sit up and take notice. I will always get rid of what bothers them – although I may not follow quite what they suggest to replace it.

    I reckon it’s the agent’s – or more often the editor’s – job to see what’s wrong, and the author’s to fix it.

  27. Anonymous said:

    I’m stunned when you say you’d try to BEG an author for another revision.


    My agent doesn’t have to beg me for anything. I’m more than willing to do what it takes to get the ms in tip-top shape. BUT her comments are usually right. In other words she isn’t asking me to hack out plot points and make the main characte a boy instead of a girl, etc…

    So are you tossing stuff at your clients that they never agreed to to begin with (before you signed them)?

  28. Anonymous said:

    For commentors that would do backflips if their agent asked —

    You get rid of what “bothers” your agent/editor because you agree with their suggestions.

    Not everyone has been as fortunate as to have an agent/editor whose suggestions were correct.

    While I adore my agent, but I’m WELL aware that other writers have had their books ravenged by bad editor/agent advice that has ripped the soul out of their books.

    That’s why I asked in an above comment, are Kristin’s comments to her authors coming out of left field, like all the sudden, change this and this….

    … And why would an agent send something out if she knew it wouldn’t sell…

  29. Anonymous said:

    This is why an author needs to be sure that the agent is a good fit with them personally. It’s necessary to have a good relationship so you can take criticism and work with it. The better you and your agent work together, the more likely you’ll make a profit 🙂

  30. Anonymous said:

    Here’s the part that stood out to me: “And in our hearts, we know it won’t sell. We submit anyway, and it doesn’t sell.” Whether the authors need to revise or not, this sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy on your part. If you don’t believe in the work, maybe (subconsciously, of course) you don’t try as hard to sell it, or your lack of enthusiasm comes through. You don’t want it to sell as-is; you want the editors to justify your opinions.

  31. Anonymous said:

    Another devil’s advocate here: most of us seem to agree that it’s okay to decline a complete/major edit that changes the novel in some significant way we’re not happy with (sex changes, setting changes etc), but sometimes it’s okay to decline the smaller, seemingly insignificant edits, too. In fact, when the time came to edit my debut novel, I agreed to the vast majority of changes, but I refused to change two small details, because they were important to me. Luckily I had a great relationship with my editor. We discussed the matter and compromised. I kept my details, but relocated them.

  32. Anonymous said:

    I’m wondering if despite saying in her heart of hearts she didn’t think it would sell, Kristin hoped that she was wrong and the writer was right. She strikes me as a humble person who truly wants to help her authors succeed. I’m guessing she would have been happy for the writer had the ms sold.

    C’mon – we’ve all met people in writers’ groups who believe every word they write is perfect and get their backs up when constructive criticism is offered.

    Yes, we all have our vision, our dream. Still, we need to remain open to comprimise if we want to bring that dream to fruition.

  33. Anonymous said:

    Not all agents are heavily involved with editing. This is something that should be discussed before the relationship begins. The role of the agent is to sell the book, and many agents do just that, only take on work that is what they feel 100% ready to submit. Going forward, they do the same with each submission.

    Others, like Kristin, are much more involved in the editing process. This is a good thing if both parties are up for it.

    Personally, I’d prefer to make changes when asked by an editor, not my agent. Unless, as Alison mentioned, something glaringly sticks out and if changed will make the book stronger….if that is presented by the agent, and I agree, then I’d be an idiot not to do it.

    But, I wouldn’t want to get into a routine of first revising for my agent, and then again for editors, on each submission. That’s just not the kind of agent I want, one who is a hands on editor.

    I think so much of this is personal preference on how people want to work, and as long as that is clear from the get go, it’s fine.

  34. Misque Writer said:

    I’m curious to know whether mss like this can have a second chance with an editor. I know that if a new author sends in a manuscript to an agent, and the agent passes, sometimes you can send in the same novel again if there have been revisions. Is the same true of agents submitting to editors? I imagine in either case it might be a more uphill battle the second time. As Kristin mentioned in a previous post, it’s not as “fresh.”

  35. Loelia said:

    Misque Writer: At least in the UK, you pretty much get one chance per imprint. I’ve even heard of agents being reluctant to submit to certain publishers for fear of damaging the writer’s chances on the second (and presumably more marketable) novel.

    Miss Expatria: “Seriously? Clients decline editors?”

    I know one who did. The publisher was very keen – not just potentially keen, they specifically said they’d love to publish the novel if such and such changes were made. My friend took a long, hard look at the such and such changes and decided she couldn’t make them without compromising her vision. It was a tough decision, but her second novel did get published so it was all well and good in the end…

    She writes lit fic, though, so maybe the case is different.

  36. Lady Heidi, Duchess of Kneale said:

    Hmm… Every time an editor asks for changes, I try to understand the reason behind it.

    Only twice have I ever differed with an editor over a change, and when I stetted something, I explained why I stetted it, and each time the editor accepted my explanation and let the stet ride.