Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Agent as Editor

Hope everyone had a nice weekend. It was a typical weekend in San Francisco -- one day the wind blew so hard my toupee went flying into the bay and the next day I kept telling everyone it was really hot, but actually it was only 75 degrees and just felt hot because someone had moved San Francisco into the Arctic Circle the past few weeks and I'd kind of gotten used to it. (No, I don't actually have a toupee -- I told you, it blew into the bay.)

Oh, dear. Can you tell it's Monday?

Anyway, I had a great question from faithful reader OBF over the weekend (and I'm paraphrasing here) -- how much do agents edit? If the agent suggests changes, are they suggestions or holy commandments? What if the author disagrees? And what happens when the author actually has an editor? Does the agent still edit?

This one is difficult to answer because every agent is different. Some agents are very hands-off, some agents are very involved -- and it even varies from client to client, depending on the needs of the client and whatever arrangement the author and agent are comfortable with. But usually an agent will mostly work with a client on work they are preparing to sell, and once the agent has an editor the agent will usually take a back seat on the editing front. But of course I have to add the caveat "usually" because there are always exceptions, and every arrangement is different.

Now, as for me, on the editing spectrum I'm somewhere in the middle. I feel that it adds value to a work to make sure it is in the absolute best shape possible before it goes out to editors, and I do my best to help the author make this happen. However, at the end of the day the author is the author, they are the ones who have to be comfortable with their own work and whose instincts have resulted in success. I feel that it's my job to help an author achieve their own vision rather than impose my vision, and my edits are meant to help refine and shape the author's intention rather than trying to remake the book into something the author isn't comfortable with.

I also will very occasionally offer suggestions to prospective clients in the hopes that they will be able to revise the work to the point that I would feel comfortable offering representation and submitting the work to editors. However, if my vision ever differs too much from a prospective client's and they decline to make changes I suggested, it might just mean that I'm not the right agent for them, and I will suggest that they go their own way to find someone whose vision matches theirs. I am always disappointed in these instances because I think that when you have an enthusiastic agent who knows the marketplace it's worth giving the changes a shot to see if they work. But ultimately I'm sympathetic to the fact that the author is the author and they have to shape the work themselves and be comfortable with the end result.

So, uh, there you have it.


Formatting said...

Thank you for that post, Nathan.

I have an off-topic question. When formatting, does the publishing world really prefer size 12 Courier New? It just seems kind of unusual, since most things seem to be Times New Roman nowadays. Thank you!

original bran fan said...

Thanks, Nathan. You're the bomb. I'm hoping that when the book sells, the editor will take over the editing. Once the book is sold, it would be counter-productive, I think, to let the agent continue to have a voice in that area.

Nathan Bransford said...


Everyone has a different opinion about Courier vs. Times New Roman -- I prefer Times New Roman because it's easier (to me) to read and the page numbering will more closely resemble the page numbers of the finished book. But either one is ok.

Church Lady said...

Ditto formatting...I've always wondered about the amount of editing done by an agent versus an editor. Thanks for posting this one!


Heidi the Hick said...

toupee? Come to Canada- we'll get you a nice touque!

Redzilla said...

It scares me a little to contemplate having to choose between making changes I don't like and jeopardizing my contract with an agent. Ha! Guess I'll have to get an agent before I lose any sleep over that question, though.

Anonymous said...

I posted a comment a few posts ago that I'm not sure you saw because it was farther down the page when I posted...

Let's say I'm a 13 year old who has written a 300-page young adult novel that I believe is as good as any you can find in the genre. Do you think it is better to hide my age from agents until they've taken me under their wing, or to tell the agent up front?
Would you say: "Oh, he's a 13-year-old. How well could he write? I'll just tell him to wait a few years."
Or would you give the person a chance and read the sample material like it was from an adult?
I'm not saying that you personally would be cold-hearted and dismiss a 13-year-old's work, but I am just pondering whether to reveal my age or not. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, I would definitely mention if you are under 18. An agent will still read your work based on whether they can sell it, but it's something they would need to know because it presents different challenges/opportunities.

Anonymous said...

"I also will very occasionally offer suggestions to prospective clients in the hopes that they will be able to revise the work to the point that I would feel comfortable offering representation and submitting the work to editors."

If this happens, how good a sign should the author take it to be?

Nathan Bransford said...


It all depends on the rewrites, but if I'm taking a lot of time on something it means I'm interested.

2readornot said...

Good points. From an author's end, I had an agent offer revision suggestions (very enthusiastically, I might add); I agreed with them and did my best to change everything she'd mentioned, even though I had to pretty much rewrite my book. But like I said, I thought her suggestions were spot on. I sent it back -- and got a rejection. Which begs the question, how often do agents offer rep after revisions? I've known only one author who had this happen, and many others (like myself) who do the revisions and still get a no...why do you suppose that is?

Anonymous said...

Nathan, thanks for the quick reply. I have heard similar things to what 2readernot just said, and I'm curious to hear your take on it.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a very good question. I will never guarantee that I'm going to be able to take something on after a rewrite, and honestly there have been times when I suggested extensive revisions, the author made them, but after the rewrites I still didn't feel the book was at a place where I could offer representation. I'm sure this is incredibly frustrating for the author, and I really sympathize with that, but I have to be fully behind the work to be the right agent for it, and sometimes despite my best efforts and the author's best efforts we just can't get there.

But at the same time, I've never read a rewrite that made the book worse -- so even if I'm not ultimately able to offer representation, I at least feel confident that I've left the book in a better place. Maybe I'm just not the person to take it to the level beyond that, or maybe we're just not the right match, but I do still think the experience is beneficial for the author (maybe I'm biased) even if it doesn't result in representation.

The good news is that there are times when the rewrites DO leave the place where I can offer representation (and several of my clients have come this way), and I'm always hopeful that this is the scenario that transpires.

The reason the revision-and-rejection scenario is still more common is just a reflection of how difficult the marketplace is and how selective agents have to be.

Other Lisa said...

Re: agents as editors - the agent has to sell the thing and presumably knows the markets way better than I do - they have a perspective that most writers lack. That has been a particularly hard lesson for me as a creative person - the "marketplace" part of the marketplace of ideas.

I had a response from an agent once (based on three chapters and a synopsis) that if I cut out half of the story elements, including the main plot driver, that she would look at a rewrite. But at that point we were talking about a different book entirely from the one that I wrote.

I passed on that (though her response did give me an idea for another book, so there you go).

When somebody is on the same page (as it were) as I and has great ideas and is excited about the work - then I'm excited too, and I will jump through all kinds of flaming hoops to give it my best shot. Writing a novel is such a long slog - it's amazing what enthusiasm and encouragement from the right person can do for one's creativity and ego. In my experience, it's rare, and I deeply appreciate it.

And, yeah, in the "trying to be Zen" category, no matter what, I've got a better book.

A Paperback Writer said...

Nice new profile photo there, Nathan. The orange hoodie looks so very Californian....

original bran fan said...

I swear, Nathan, every new picture you post makes you look younger. What's your secret? I wish I could do that!

Keli said...

Thank you for a very informative post.
Do you request edits with particular publishers/editors in mind or just to polish the work?

Nathan Bransford said...


No, I really don't think too specifically about editors or houses at that stage because you really never who is going to respond to something. But if I'm going to work on edits I definitely have a sense that the work has some potential -- it may take a lot of work to get there and may in fact never get there, but I have some sense that in the absolute best case revising scenario I would be able to sell the work.

Astairesteps said...


Thanks for the blog. I'm pretty sure you've answered my questions at some point, but I can't locate them and I need clarification.

So if you don't mind...

1. Is it okay to send the same query to multiple agents (different agencies) at the same time?

2. If so, do I need to state in my query letter that I'm doing this?


Nathan Bransford said...


1) I wouldn't send the exact same query to multiple agents because that means you're not personalizing the letters. However, if the middle part of the query where you talk about your work is the same, that's ok.

2) You don't need to tell the agent that you're querying widely because that's what they assume you're doing.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

I've had an excellent experience with my "editing agent." Our visions for my novel match and I found he has great sense for identifying potential weaknesses. Though it has taken a bit longer than I expected to submit to editors, it's very comforting to know they'll see the strongest manuscript possible when the time comes.

I think it's really important to talk about revisions before committing. If your vision of the book differs greatly from the agent's, and you can't reconcile the two, it will only cause problems.

I never had an agent give me revision notes without an offer, so I don't know what I would have done in that case. Probably incorporated some changes and continued to query others.

Steve Prosapio said...

There is hope out there!!!

I'm an unagented, unpublished author with a great story. I recently had my MS read by an agressive up-and-coming agent who not only gave me detailed suggestions (7 pages of bullet points that corresponded to page numbers), but met with me for over an hour to "brainstorm" on how to bring the novel to the next level.

I know that is extremely uncommon, but for the writers out there who are struggling with rejection, it's key to remember to keep querying in order to find "that" agent who will help you.

Keep writing!

Astairesteps said...


Thanks so much!

2readornot said...

Thanks, Nathan. It's good to get confirmation of what I was thinking...yeah, it's frustrating for us when this happens (revisions with no offer at all) -- it does make the book better, I think. But I also think that if an agent doesn't LOVE the book from the beginning, perhaps enough to offer even knowing that work needs to be done, then chances are good that he/she won't offer at all, no matter how many revisions are done. There are always the exceptions, of course...but the next time I get a revision suggestion from an agent, I'll remind myself that if I do it, it's for the betterment of the story, rather than for rep (chances are).

Marti said...

Cute new picture! (I just want to pinch your cheeks - unless you hate that, in which case I will never speak of it again - LOL)
Thank you again for an informative post. I have often wondered how much input an agent would offer or desire.

Karen said...

Hi Nathan,
If an author has novels currently self published on the market how do they transition them to pitch to editors for major distribution?

And nice blog, by the way...thanks for the query tips, I am prepping to pitch some screenplays and I think your tips will help.

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