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 already published.
A) 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).
B) 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).
C) 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? 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 the 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.