Why should I trust my literary agent/publisher?

Are you one of those writers that make statements like…

  • I don’t write to be published.
  • No publisher/agent is going to tell me how to write my novel.  It’s MY story.
  • That agent asked me to change a part of my novel to represent me, and I told him/her where to stick it.

Since published authors seem to have clubs of their own, I swim mostly around unpublished writers like me:  hungry to learn about my art and the business of writing.  In those circles, I often cross paths with writers who make such statements.  I often grimace and say nothing – not an easy thing for me to do, and my critique team can vouch for that.  That is why I decided to blog on this subject, no longer willing to squint my eyes and purse my lips.  Here is my take on why a new writer should dismount from his/her high horse and accept that, chances are, your potential literary agent or publishing is right.   If you disagree – bring it on.  Bite me.

First of all, no one believes a writer that says he/she doesn’t write to be published.  Seriously.  Is that a defensive wall to save face in case you are never published?  Unless you are writing a memoir to get emotional stuff out of your chest purely for the purpose of healing, you are writing to be published.  It is what we do, we write what we like, but we surely want others to read it as well, which means we want to be published.  So please don’t make that kind of statement when you meet other writers.  It is not becoming (swatting at the air).

On a similar note, if you are lucky enough to have a good agent or publishing house tell you they will work with you if you change, delete or add whatever to your novel, jump to the occasion!  We are all enamored of our work.  Our passion is the fuel that propels us to write in the first place.   Use that fire when you write your novel, but remember… no amount of writer’s fervor is going to sell it.  Be open to adapt your novel to fit the targeted market, to make changes as needed.  Of course you will need to select an agent with amazing track record, one that has sold the work of other artists.  Then, let the agent or the publishing house do what they do best:  sell/publish your book.  Are you so bewitched by your own work that you would sacrifice the possibility of being published just so that you stick to your guns?   Really (heavy sigh).

I suppose there is a time in a writer’s career when it’s ok to be picky, but I’m sure that is not when we are trying to sell our first novels.

Do you disagree?

3 comments for “Why should I trust my literary agent/publisher?

  1. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    March 24, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    Most of my publishing experience is in scientific journals. The general procedure there is that we get feedback from 2-3 peers along with a note from the editor on the decision. A paper can get outright rejected (rare if one has selected the journal properly), an acceptance (I’ve known highly respected scientists who are at the head of their field who have never received one of those nor heard of anyone who has gotten one), and the most common “Revise and resubmit”. For R&Rs, we have to write out a letter addressing each reviewer’s feedback point-by-point. Feedback from the reviewers generally falls into one of a few categories:

    1. Flaws that I can’t believe I let slip into the final draft which must be changed immediately.
    2. Things that I need to explain better in the paper. Sometimes reviewers are outside of my immediate field of study and don’t have background knowledge that I just assume everyone has, so that needs to be fixed so that the paper is accessible to a wider audience. I make those changes. I didn’t mean to exclude those readers.
    3. Things where I agree with the reviewers that a change would strengthen the paper, and am willing to make the changes.
    4. Things that I had to cut out of the paper originally in order to meet the page limits of the journal that the reviewer wants back in, which I am quite willing to accommodate, especially if we get more leniency on the page limits for resubmits.
    5. Things the reviewers want me to change that I really don’t think are necessary but am willing to do because in the long run, it is better to get the paper published than to quibble over minutia. I mean, really? You want me to add a comma there? I don’t think it belongs there and neither does my grammar book, but whatever. I’m sure the copy editor will fix it in the end.
    6. Things that the reviewer wants changed that I think are utterly wrong. I’ve had reviewers want me to make formatting changes to the paper that were in direct conflict with the submission requirements for the journal, for example. If it really matters, I can argue the point when I write my response letter, I just have to make sure I back myself with evidence that supports my argument, and of course make it clear that I respect the opinions of the reviewer and the editor even if I may disagree.
    7. Things that the reviewer wants that are absolutely impossible for me to accomplish. After the research is complete, the data collected, the stats analyzed and the paper written, there are some practical limits to how much I can change it. If the editor agrees that I need this impossible thing in order to be publishable in their paper, its time to apply somewhere else.

    I realize in the world of fiction writing, we get a lot less feedback from editors if we get it at all. I imagine that I would go through a similar process of evaluating the feedback I get and sticking it into one of the above categories. The advice I got when responding to reviewers was to pick my battles wisely: If I argue my way is right for everything, no one’s going to want to work with me. If I make a lot of the requested changes then give a rational argument for why I don’t want to make a couple of the suggested changes, the editor may well back me. If the changes are so fundamental that I feel like it is impossible for me to do (short of making up data and violating my scientific integrity), then there really is no option than to politely tell them to stuff it.

    I think the decision of whether or not to make the change the editor suggests should always depend on the creative work and nature of the suggestion by the editor.

    If someone told me I needed to add a romantic subplot in a novel, and its something that seems reasonable for that novel, it may not be a big deal to me. I may already see romantic elements between certain characters that I just chose not to make obvious when I was writing, so the suggestion may bend my original artistic vision, but it doesn’t break it.

    Then again, if someone told me I needed to add a JarJar Binks type character for comic relief in my science fiction? Yeah, I get that they are looking at marketability and toy sales, but its still a bad idea if I’m writing in a series that people take seriously. There’s plenty of proof out there of professionals making big mistakes that compromise artistry for the sake of making it more marketable.

    • Nieves
      May 31, 2014 at 6:57 pm

      Hi H. R. Ryder – I agree with your insight. Yes, there can be many instances where it would not make sense to change our writing, and your experience with scientific journals is most helpful. I do stick to my guns with my original thoughts, but I do want to stress that my point of view applies when a writer is working with an agent or a publishing house. I feel very strong about placing our trust – and offer our willingness to make changes – when our literary agents request it, even if it is a bit hard to take. I think I have the hardest time with new authors that are not flexible to understand the difference between creating their masterpiece and selling it. Thank you for your amazing details!

  2. nieves
    March 18, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Hi Ian, thank you for your comment. It is good to hear all sides. It is very difficult for a writer – mostly those of us not yet published – to separate the creative process of writing our book, and the business aspect of selling it. I see it as two different phases that can coexist, but that require compromising. As I write my novel, and before I have an agent or any type of contract, my work is my own. No compromises there. Our novels are our children, and we should have complete control to use that passion, that fire, those creative juices that each writer has, when we craft them. Once we are done, I need to be willing to let that child go into the world. To be a published author I will need to see my work as a product. We are not ‘selling out’ when we change our novels based on the feedback of solid literary agents or publishing houses. I suspect a great deal of published authors had to do that to break into the market. Sometimes writers are not even willing to take feedback from a critique group (not the case with our current, outspoken and feisty critique group). Seriously. Adapting our novels to the market is a good thing, and who better to guide us than a solid agent or a publishing house. Once I expect someone to pay me for my work, it becomes a product, and I don’t see what the holdup with sticking to our guns is about. If we were inventors of widgets, and we kept building widgets that no one wants, would it be beneficial insisting that our product should keep the original design or should we be willing to change it to meet a market need? A payment from a publishing house is a sale. I think you should be happy that the changes requested were not about the quality of your work. That, and the fact that a good agent was willing to represent you, speaks well about your novel. Since you mention the changes were substantial, I wonder if your novel was outside the genre he/she was currently selling or if the changes related with a major component like plot, etc. I would recommend asking a great deal of questions before sending that ‘thanks, but no thanks note’ to an agent – after all, agents and publishers seem too busy to send feedback, so when you get it, use it as much as possible. I would love to have as much info from an agent as possible to understand the type of changes he/she is really asking me to make; what may be the reason for those specific changes; will the agent be willing to brainstorm with me; is there a compromise we could reach, etc. I would ask myself if I can, not if I’m willing to implement those changes. I would like to stress the importance of researching agents before contacting them, so we can trust their feedback. There is great information available about how to find not only a good agent, but also how to match an agent to your genre or style. I do hope you get published soon…

Leave a Reply