How to work with a literary agent on edits

by | Jun 17, 2019 | Literary Agents | 4 comments

How to work with a literary agent on edits

When an agent offers to work with you on a revision without offering representation, it’s still a good sign! They’re interested. But it may also create some thorny situations for you. Here’s a rundown on how to work with a literary agent on edits.

Why could this be a thorny situation?

  • Your manuscript may already be out with other agents and you may be unsure whether to put things on hold while you revise or whether to see if other agents like the project as-is.
  • An agent may ask you to spend all that time revising your proposal or manuscript with no guarantee it’s going to result in them taking you on as a client.

What are you to do? 

It’s helpful to break these situations into categories to wrap your head around what happens in each scenario. This will enable you to decide whether and how to work with a literary agent on edits.

Scenario 1: An agent suggests some general feedback, followed by an invitation to resubmit after a revision.

The good news: It’s not a no!!

In this scenario, unless specified otherwise the agent will probably assume that you’re going to continue querying or talking to other agents, but if you decide to revise, they’ll take another look.

When I was an agent I would sometimes do this when there were easily fixable problems, such as writerly tics that distracted me from the narrative or a particular character that wasn’t working. If these were fixed, I’d be happy to take another, deeper look.

When you’re receiving general feedback and an agent isn’t sending a big long editorial letter, usually they won’t offer representation at this stage and it’s more of an invitation to keep communication lines open.

Scenario 2: An agent wants to work with you on a deep edit without offering representation

In this case, the agent wants to provide copious, extensive notes in the hopes that with a revision (or two or three or four) the manuscript will be in a place where they’ll be able to submit the project to editors. 

If an agent offers this, they are likely assuming that you are going to give them first crack at representing the revised project if they’re going to invest this time. If you were to take the manuscript you improved with one agent and let another agent represent it, the revising agent would likely be casting spells and using your book jacket as a dart board on publication day. 

So before you go down this path, have a clear conversation with the agent to make sure everyone’s expectations are clear.

But, you might be thinking, if they’re so interested and invested why don’t they just offer me representation?

Some agents want to see how the relationship works during the revision process and they want to make sure that they are totally enthusiastic about the revised manuscript/proposal before they formally commit to the author.

On the plus side for the author, there is no official commitment in place, other than an informal agreement on exclusivity while you’re working together on the edits. If, after completing the revision, in good faith you don’t feel that the relationship is working or you aren’t happy about the direction of the manuscript, you can walk away.  (After having a conversation, that is. Don’t just take the revision and ghost.)

It takes some faith and trust on both sides to proceed in this manner, but I took on several clients this way and felt like it ended up being very fair for both sides.

Ultimately, as the author, you have to decide whether the edits are resonating with you, whether you want to make the changes, and whether you are feeling good about working with the agent. If you are: great! Keep moving forward! If you’re not: trust your gut! (Here’s how to work with an editorial letter).

But uh, before you start editing your project, what do you do about all those other agents you’ve been querying in the meantime?

How to keep other agents apprised of a revision

There aren’t many cut and dry situations here, and navigating these edits may require some judgment calls on your part.

Let’s start with the clear-cut scenarios:

  • An agent offers you representation before you embark on an edit: Here’s how to handle an offer of representation. Make sure you understand and are comfortable with the edits they want you to make, and give the other agents considering your work some reasonable notice.
  • An agent asks that you work together exclusively on an edit: You need to be able to grant the literary agent an exclusive. If other agents have your manuscript, give them a heads-up that an agent has requested that you work together exclusively on an edit, and request that they get back to you within 7-14 days on whether they’d like to offer representation. Either you’ll receive an offer of representation within that time period or you won’t, in which case you’ll be free to proceed with the edit. No need to follow-up with agents who just have your query, but if any of them reach out to you in the meantime just let them know that you’re currently working with an agent exclusively on an edit but you’ll be back in touch if that changes.

Often though, it won’t be this clear cut. An agent will just provide some feedback and invite you to resubmit, and you’ll have to decide whether to make the edits and then, once you’ve made the edits, whether you want to send the new manuscript/proposal to any other agents who are currently considering your old manuscript.

Tread very, very carefully here. It’s such a tricky situation. On the one hand, you want the agents to be considering the best manuscript/proposal possible, and the edits the previous agent provided might well have improved the project. On the other hand, agents can get royally annoyed to spend hours reading a manuscript only to get pinged by the author midway through with a new version, essentially forcing them to start over.

Should I send an agent my revised manuscript?

Here is the main factor to weigh when you’re trying to decide whether to contact an agent to swap in a new version of your manuscript: How substantive are the changes? 

If the changes are major and fundamentally alter the project, I would take the risk and swap in the new version, apologizing to the agent profusely for the inconvenience. If the changes are more cosmetic, even if they improve the project on the whole, I would probably sit tight.

(Also, this goes for any changes to your project, including revisions you undertook yourself. Don’t swap in a new manuscript unless you absolutely have to.)

Be honest with yourself about this.

I know it’s tricky to suss out the line between substantive and cosmetic, but I would err on the side of not bothering the other agents. They might have a totally different reaction to your work than the first agent, and chances are the essence of your project is still coming through. 

This is a murky area of the publishing process, but I hope I’ve helped clear it up. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments!

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Art: Esther y Mordecai escriben las cartas a los judíos by Aert de Gelder

4 Comments

  1. JOHN T. SHEA

    “If you were to take the manuscript you improved with one agent and let another agent represent it, the revising agent would likely be casting spells and using your book jacket as a dart board on publication day.”
    Whereupon I would just stick more pins in my agent doll! MWAHAHAHA!
    Oh wait, did I just type that out loud?

    But seriously, Nathan, many thanks for this advice, and for the pic which again makes me wonder why people in the olden times wore such elaborate head-gear indoors!

    Reply
  2. Terin Miller

    Great advice, Mr. Former Agent Man. Always happy to see such posts from you.

    And not just because I find myself in this situation of revising something based on advice from an agent’s reader, who seemed to get what I am doing and had great revision suggestions, and who an agent listens to.

    Best,
    Terin Miller

    Reply
  3. Kristen

    I recently left my agent because she rep’d picture books only and I am marketing my YA. When I signed with her I thought I would have a lot more PBs in me, but I now feel drawn to writing YA mostly. I have had several requests for fulls but I assume it will take 6 months to hear anything back and meanwhile, my PB, which has done one round of 5 editors, is currently not being submitted. I also have another one under consideration at Viking but have not heard back yet. Should I also query this PB to the agents who have a full or wait until I hear if they reject the YA and let the PBs gather dust for now? Thank you so much for this article and for your support!!

    Reply
    • Nathan Bransford

      I would focus on one project at a time so as not to muddy the waters. If you think your future is in YA I’d focus on that and you can bring up the PB with an agent if they’re interested in repping you for YA and figure out what to do with it.

      Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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