As some of you may know, if you follow my Twitter account at all – I have been in a reading slump. I’m not going to dig into that here, because I am actually halfway through a blog post about that! But, one of the things that has been occupying my restless mind while I struggle with reading full books has been getting to Inbox Zero in my agenting job – and a big part of that is getting through my query backlog.
When I am processing unsolicited queries that come to me from authors, I have a pretty set process, and I’ve tweeted a bit about that process before (see the embed below). Once I request a full manuscript from an author, I usually send them two questions, to get a (very preliminary) sense of whether or not we’re on the same page in terms of fit. These questions are: 1, what are your goals, both as an author, and for this individual project? And 2, what are you looking for in an agent?
I would say that about 80% of the time, the responses that I get to these questions are well thought-through, give me a taste of how much research the author has done before querying, and offer me a sense of what they want is aligned with what I, personally, can offer as an agent – because we are all super different! Now and then – and honestly, more often than I would have guessed before becoming an agent – people’s responses to these questions indicate that they don’t necessarily understand what a literary agent does. To be clear: that’s okay! There’s a lot of education involved in my job, and I not only have an FAQ document ready to go, but I am also really used to answering a lot of questions about my role. That said, I can’t always take on all the questions that I get – or that would be my role.
In my most recent batch of queries, there was one response to my questions that came up a few times. It was usually a variation on: I am looking for someone to help me develop my vision for my book, it would be great to work with someone to finesse the trouble spots, and it would be great to have someone committed to working with me on editing this story. On some level, this answer makes sense. I am an editorial agent – and, in fact, most of the agents I know are! However, in my role as an agent, I am not a developmental editor, and I am not an acquisitions editor, and sometimes, authors don’t know what the difference is between these three jobs.
What is the difference between an editorial agent, a developmental editor, and an acquisitions editor?
I can only speak for myself, and my own process as an agent. To be clear, every agent and every agency is a little bit different, just like every author is a little bit different, and editors are different from one another, too! I hope that this post will be a good starting point for authors looking to develop their books, and ready them for querying, and then for submission – but I can’t cover every aspect of every agent’s process here, so please be aware that there is lots of variation within the industry!
Where to begin? You are an author. You have recently completed the first draft of a manuscript that you hope to query. Your goal is to find an agent to represent you, and then have the manuscript be acquired, edited, and published. You have just typed those golden words: THE END. What happens now? The simple answer is: editing. Let’s start with an article from Reedsy: 6 Types of Editing: Which One Do You Need Right Now? This piece from Reedsy, a professional editorial company, outlines six types of editorial work that most projects go through at various stages in their development. They are: editorial assessment, developmental edits, structural edits, line/copy editing, proofreading/formatting, and fact checking. If you end up working with an editorial literary agent with your book to publish in traditional publishing, you will go through the editorial process about three times in the life of your book!
The First Round of Revisions: Developmental Editing
The first time you go through this process happens when you have finished your first draft. Now, it’s time to edit. This round of edits can happen in a lot of different ways, and can sometimes involve the support of a developmental editor, but it has to happen BEFORE you take the book out to query agents with it! Depending on your budget and your personal process, the first time you revise your manuscript, you may do it largely on your own, you may share it with beta readers or critique partners or a writing group or a class, or you might hire a professional editor to work with you on the project.
Editors can work as part of a company, they may offer their services as part of a book coaching program, or they might be freelancers. Many freelance editors also work for publishing houses or as agents themselves, separate from their editorial role. I have offered these services in the past on a freelance basis, and will likely do so again in the future! These editors, hired by an author to support them in revising their manuscripts, are what I commonly refer to as developmental editors. Their only job is to help you improve your book in a way that will forward your goals – whether that’s creative achievement, publication, or something else. It is generally speaking a fee for service model, and these prices will likely reflect the standards set by the Editorial Freelancers’ Association or your local equivalent, unless you have a special agreement with a particular editor, or they offer a sliding-scale option.
It is not required in any way to work with a developmental editor before you query your book. The important thing to note here is that the role of a developmental editor and the role of an editorial agent are NOT THE SAME.
Okay. Now you’ve drafted your manuscript, you have gone through your first round of revisions (maybe second, maybe third, it depends on your process!) with your supports, which may or may not include a developmental editor. Once your book is as perfect as it can possibly be, then you are ready to query.
The Second Round of Revisions: Preparing for Submission
Most often, when I sign an author onto my client list these days, their book is already in a place where developmental edits (this first major round of revisions) are complete. I wish I could work as a developmental editor with all of my clients and querying authors – but I just don’t have the capacity to do that. Some of my clients worked with developmental editors before they signed with me, and some of them prefer to continue to work with them even after they have an agent, because those relationships can be so beneficial to an author and their work.
I do, however, provide editorial feedback to my clients before I take their book on submission. Here, I can only speak to my personal practice, but when I am offering my editorial assessment, what my clients can normally expect from me is that I am suggesting minor developmental and structural edits, and then the majority of my work in the text is copy editing, proofreading, and ensuring that the author does due diligence in their fact checking and representation. I send them an editorial report, as well as tracked changes and comments in the body of their manuscript. Then, the author does the second round of revisions revisions. I am a very hands-on, editorial agent, and I provide editorial feedback on every project that I work on. I have two goals when giving editorial feedback: one, I want the writing and the narrative to be as strong as possible, and two, I want the book to be as commercially viable as possible. When I get the book back after the second big round of revisions, it’s just to do a quick read to make sure it’s ready to go out to acquisitions editors.
When I’m giving feedback, I do it from the perspective of a set of outside eyes – I definitely don’t expect authors to agree with everything that I think or suggest. Ultimately, it’s their work, and they need to stand behind it! I will always give more feedback rather than less, to try and give as many options and as much space for growth as possible. I consider myself to provide very thorough editorial feedback, but I would never expect an author to change their work in ways that don’t feel authentic. I’m always available to discuss rationale behind suggested changes, in case there are ways I haven’t considered that might achieve the same goals differently.
I want to pause here to make two important notes. First, it is totally normal for receiving editorial feedback to be an intense, emotional process for an author. I was recently listening to a podcast episode featuring actor Bradley Whitford, who said that when he first hears feedback on his acting, he goes through three silent beats in his head: Fuck you. I suck. Okay, what? (Read the full interview here.) In my experience with working with authors, this is a pretty normal reaction to having someone critique your artistic output! I also like this blog post that delves into that experience in a bit of a tongue and cheek way.
When I send out editorial feedback to an author it is often accompanied by a note that says that it is probably best for them to read the feedback, take a couple of days to process, and then check back in once they have had some time to sit with it (and their emotions). In a perfect world, that would be the acceptance stage, but more often than not, it is the bargaining stage. Realistically, my hope is always that authors have the supports in place to manage this experience – but sometimes, that’s not the case, and I do my best to help my clients navigate that part of the process as best I can.
My second important note: any services that an agent provides to their clients, including providing editorial feedback of any kind, is completely included in the commission that they receive for selling the book to a publisher. That is to say: it is not normal for an agent, even an editorial agent, to charge their clients or querying authors for developmental editorial services. That is a huge red flag, and if an agent is asking for a fee for this work, it is not considered ethical practice within the publishing industry. Like I said before, some agents offer editorial services as freelancers in addition to their agenting jobs, but those two roles should be completely separate, and they should never be using their query inbox to advertise these services or to get clients for their freelance work. If you approach someone as a developmental editor, you should not consider that business relationship a query. If you approach an agent with a query, you should never be asked to pay any fees for their editorial insight. The roles of developmental editor and editorial agent are completely separate roles and business arrangements.
The Third Round of Revisions: Preparing for Publication
The next step in this process is that your agent will take your book on submission to editors. Brand new editors! More editors! These folks are acquisitions editors. They work at publishing imprints to purchase books on behalf of the publisher, and in many cases, to work with the authors on their manuscripts once they have been acquired to prepare them for publishing. Once your book is acquired by an editor, the editorial process starts all over again, for the third time, with someone new! It can and will involve publicity folks, marketing folks, sometimes more freelance editors, editorial assistants – and it can be a bit intimidating. Your agent should be there to support you as you go through that part of the journey, too. A big part of my job as an agent is freeing my clients and their editors up as much as possible so that the relationship between them can be purely creative!
Summary: What Do Agents DO?
To summarize, I want to offer a quick list from my own FAQ document of what editorial agents do. If you want to know what developmental editors do, check out the Reedsy homepage. They explain it perfectly. If you want some more insight into what editors at publishing imprints do – including acquisitions editors – check out this blog post from MacGregor and Luedeke.
- offer editorial feedback for improving your book
- endeavour to sell your book to a reputable publishing house
- keep up to date with editors’ interests as well as their contact information
- negotiate the terms of your contracts with publishers
- communicate with you within a reasonable period of time
- keep you as informed as you want to be about progress on your projects together
- give you realistic expectations
- be as interested as you are in getting a good deal for your book–the better you do, the better they will do
- work on commission
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