In response to yesterday’s post on Literary Agents and Exclusives, an anonymous commenter raised an interesting point of discussion that I promised to elaborate on in the future. And the future is now. (soundtrack: dum dum dummmmmmm)
But back to yesterday — Anon had been working with an agent for 9 months on a revision, and was frustrated at the length of time it had been taking and was contemplating jumping ship. My response was that 9 months is a blink of an eye in this business, and to make sure Anon appreciated that they had an agent’s attention!
I think some people were surprised to hear that agents even embark on revisions with people who aren’t their clients. And yes, we do. Typically it’s your younger agents (such as yours truly) who will take the time to do this because we are the ones who are able, willing, and have the motivation to try and turn diamonds in the rough into polished gems. More established agents are able to pick and choose their clients a bit more and don’t have as much incentive to take on projects with uncertain prospects of success — and there’s nothing more uncertain than a revision.
There are a couple of different levels of pre-submission revisions:
1) I vaguely suggest what I think is wrong on a book level (such as “I had problems with the pacing”), followed by an invitation to resubmit after a substantial revision.
In this scenario I assume the author is going to continue querying, but if they come up empty and take another serious look at the manuscript and spend a lot of time revising, I’ll take another look. Usually this means I see something of value in the manuscript but it’s a ways off and needs to be revisited.
2) I provide a more specific suggestion, followed by an invitation to resubmit if the problem(s) is/are fixed.
Often there will be a glaring but relatively easily fixable problem, such as writerly tics that distract me from the narrative or a particular character that isn’t working, and I’ll ask the writer to make the change and resubmit so I can consider the whole thing again. Usually I’ll specifically say I’d like to reconsider once that change is made. In this scenario I assume the author is going to make the change and resubmit to me, but is welcome to continue querying in the meantime.
3) The deep edit.
In this case I’m providing copious, extensive notes in the hopes that with a revision (or two or three or four) the manuscript will be in a place where I’ll be able to take the author on as a client and submit to editors. In this scenario, whether you’ve explicitly discussed exclusivity or not, if the agent is investing this much time in your project they are assuming that you are going to give them first crack at representing the revised project. If you were to take the manuscript you improved with one agent and let another agent represent it, the revising agent would be colossally pissed and will be casting spells and sticking needles in your book on the day of publication. This is why I typically spell out exclusivity beforehand; just so we’re both clear on what it means.
Those are the basic unagented revision scenarios. So when does representation enter the picture?
Well, that varies from agent to agent, and there are two basic scenarios (more bullet points!). Both have some advantages and disadvantages for author and agent.
1) Agent signs up author to an author/agency agreement before embarking upon revision.
Some agents want to wrap up a possibly-hot project and will take on the client before they embark upon revisions. The author is happy (they have an agent!) and the agent knows the author won’t ditch them for another agent once the manuscript is completed without having to formally cancel a legal document. However, the downside with this scenario is that revisions are murky, tricky, stressful processes. Who knows where the revision will lead and if both author and agent will be ready for it to be sent out when the revision is complete? Who knows if the agent and author will work well together?
Which is why I tend to prefer…
2) Agent signs up author after the revision is completed and both author and agent are happy with the relationship and the manuscript.
Other agents want to see how things go. They want to see how the relationship works, they want to make sure that they are totally enthusiastic about the revised manuscript before they formally commit to the author. And, on the plus side for the author, there is no formal commitment in place. If, after completing the revision, in good faith the author doesn’t feel that the author/agent relationship is working or isn’t happy about the direction of the manuscript (i.e. not just taking the revision and bolting), they too can walk away. A revision is a really great way to learn about a relationship, and both agent and author learn a great deal about each other’s style in the process. It takes some faith and trust on both sides to proceed in this manner, but I have taken on several clients this way and feel like it’s very fair for both sides.
Word of warning.
When presented with a choice between Scenario 1 (signed up immediately) and Scenario 2 (wait and see), authors will almost invariably choose Scenario 1. And in fact, I’ve personally seen this happen. But I would really really caution people about taking the bird in the hand — I’ve had several situations crop up where a writer took the bird in the hand even though they agreed with my vision for a rewrite, and they later came back to me after their new agent had submitted to lots of houses unsuccessfully, regretting that they didn’t take the time to revise. Don’t get so caught up in the rush to representation that you lose contact with your gut instincts! (That will be a future post — this one is long enough).
So hopefully this epic peels back the layer a bit on the process of revisions. Yes, they happen! They don’t always work, but when they do, a young, enthusiastic agent and a hardworking, enthusiastic author can take a manuscript to the next level.
NOTE: see also Jessica Faust’s post on this topic.