Inside the Agent/Editor Relationship
by Erin Brown
All authors need agents. Period. There, I said it. I
won’t take it back, and you can’t make me. I’m sure there are a few
of you reading this who think they’ll do just fine without one of
those 15% grabbers, so I’ve put together a short quiz. If you answer
“yes” to even one of these questions, you’re absolutely right: you
do not need an agent. So stop reading because your book is certainly
You attend book signings and parties at least once a
week, during which you mingle with high-powered editors over canapés
and champagne (and yes, the editors have to be willing to speak to
you for more than two minutes).
You fly to New York at least four times a month to
treat editors to $200 meals in order to learn their likes and
dislikes (oh, and for some reason, these editors actually take your
call and agree to lunch).
You are well-versed regarding the ins and outs of
foreign rights, audio rights, serial rights, advances, royalties,
auctions, preempts, subsidiary rights, and how to interpret
mind-boggling legalese. You’re also adept at negotiating for days,
possibly weeks, until you get the best deal for your novel (a first
time author would never just take what’s offered to them in
the overwhelming excitement of finally getting published, right?
As you can surmise, in addition to protecting your
interests, an agent worth his or her salt has established close
relationships with editors at various publishing houses. The
relationships are established over months (or years) of lunches,
dinners, pitching projects, and even slurping ice cream during long,
hot summer days. Now you’re probably thinking that this whole
agent/editor thing sounds more like dating, and in a way it is.
Agents and editors get to know each other very well—their likes,
dislikes, how they behave in tense situations, how they communicate,
and whether they simply like each other. Editors actively court
agents, although I’ve always thought it should be other way around
(maybe I’m just bitter because no one ever picked up the check for
my $40 caviar appetizer), in the hopes that the agent will
think of them first when the next Da Vinci Code or Harry
Potter or Bridget Jones comes along.
Over these two martini lunches (any more than that
and neither party even remembers they’re in publishing by the end of
meal), agents tell editors about their favorite
projects and authors, while editors do the same. Of course, we have
to throw in a little gossip—the author at last night’s signing who danced
on the dais with a lampshade on his head; the assistant publicist
who joined him in the macarena—and everyday chit-chat. The goal is
to establish close and mutually admiring relationships so that an
agent can use their “insider access” to move their client’s novel to
the top of the editor’s huge submission pile, get a response within
a week instead of three months, and negotiate better deals. Most
importantly, the agent knows which editor will respond to which
project. After weeks, months, and years of courting, the agent will
know that while one editor wouldn’t touch a YA fantasy novel with an
electric cattle prod, another one would give up their first-born to
get their hands on it (trust me, I’ve seen it happen. Don’t worry
though—little baby Henry is very happy in his new home).
The editor relies on their best friend the agent to
give him or her a first shot at promising projects that fall within
the editor’s literary tastes, to be an effective middleman between
the editor and author, and to simply be a reliable and pleasant
person to work with. Of course, there are high-powered agents who
are the complete opposite of pleasant, but they are effective. From
an editor’s point of view, I’ve always found that working with a
kind, rational, up-and-coming agent was highly preferable to dealing
with an icon in the business who screams, yells, and bullies to get
his or her way. These powerful and successful nut-jobs are out
there, although I believe that they are a dying breed (this might
just be wishful thinking).
The bottom line is that agents and editors spend a
significant amount of time courting each other, building
relationships and yes, lingering over fantastic lunches (another
reason why it’s better to be an agent in New York instead of Boise—the restaurants are much better**). Lasting
friendships are born, trust is established, and relationships are
cultivated over years.
So even if you answered A, B, and C in the
affirmative (and I don’t believe you for one second!), leave the
schmoozing, back patting, and mutual admiration society to the
editors and agents. You definitely won’t get to spend your days
sipping cocktails and noshing on sushi at De Niro’s restaurant, but
you’ll be able to concentrate on more important things—like writing.
Which, in the end, is what it’s really all about.
**Residents of Boise, please send letters of
complaint to the website editor
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for
over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own
freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her
Web site at www.erinedits.com.