Inside Traditional Publishing: Agents and Editors, Working Together

One of my favorite panel discussions at the Backspace Writers Conferences I organized and ran for 9 years in New York City was one in which I invited an agent I knew and respected to bring in an editor they'd worked with for a discussion about the process of selling and bringing out a book. Variously called "Agents and Editors, Working Together," or "The Business of Selling the Book," these discussions were far more interesting than their titles made them sound. I loved how these panel discussions pulled back the curtain on an aspect of the publishing business that authors generally don't get to see: the relationship between agents and editors.

The conversations were always casual, engaging and honest. It was easy to see that the agent and editor respected each other and enjoyed working together--even though they acknowledged their job often put them on opposite sides of the fence.

For instance, in one discussion, the editor lamented how hard it was to know if the agent pitching a manuscript was telling the truth.

Agents lie to editors? I remember thinking. Apparently, some do. Editors know it, and it makes their jobs that much harder. As an example, the editor said an agent might tell her that they have "interest" in a manuscript. Normally this would mean that another editor wants to acquire the book, and if this editor wants to as well, she'd better jump.

But the editor said that sometimes "interest" could mean as little as the agent and editor had waved to each other in the hallway. The editor was exaggerating for effect, but the truth beneath her comment was clear.

"I will never, ever lie to an editor," the agent broke in. "I'm a salesperson, so naturally I'm going to portray the book in the best possible light. But I will never say anything that's factually untrue."

"I know that," the editor replied. "And I trust you. Personal relationships are super important to figuring out what's actually going on."

In the same panel discussion, the agent told the audience that if he thinks a book will generate interest from multiple publishers, he likes to send the book to editors on a Thursday. Why Thursday? So the editors can read the manuscript that night, get their colleagues on board the next day so they in turn can read the book over the weekend, and the following week the agent can hopefully set up an auction.

"We hate when agents do that!" the editor exclaimed. Dropping everything she had planned for the evening and reading is the last thing she wants to do at the end of a busy week. But because she respects the agent, she trusts that when he says the manuscript is hot, it really is, and he's not lying in order to get his project read quickly. So she reads the manuscript right away.

At another of my Backspace conferences, when I met the editor the agent brought in for this panel discussion and mentioned the name of my agent, she said, "You have a good agent. He's tough."

I found out later that my agent and this editor are friends. Yet their friendship doesn't preclude my agent being a tough negotiator when the situation calls for it. More important, this editor respects my agent because he is.

Agents and editors, working together.


Backspace Writers Conference Takeaway:

"Agents' and editors' first responsibility is to their clients. When considering new talent, they will read a manuscript only until they can stop, and then they do. It's the author's job to make sure they don't give the agent or editor a reason to stop reading. "

From the panel discussion "Selling the Book: The Agent-Editor Relationship" with Scott Hoffman (Folio Literary Management) and Rachel Griffiths (Scholastic) at the 2011 Backspace Writers Conference. This panel along with the full Backspace Writers Conference video archives are available to Backspace members and conference registrants.