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  • When Should You Change Your Book for an Agent or Editor?
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When Should You Change Your Book for an Agent or Editor?
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2014
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2014

Every so often (fairly frequently, actually) I get an email from an author telling me that an agent or editor really loves their work, but . . .

From here any number of scenarios ensues. The agent has suggested that a multiple point-of-view novel be changed to single point of view; that a memoir be fictionalized so that it can have more tension or drama; that an author consider cutting an entire storyline or principal character; that the author co-write the book with someone more famous. These are just a few real-life examples; I’ve heard countless stories like this.

Aspiring authors find themselves in a predicament. They want to be represented by this agent. (And yes, this does tend to happen more often with agents, simply because editors are in the position of buying while agents are in the position of selling, which often means that they’re trying to—excuse me, but it’s true—dumb books down or make them more commercial so they can sell them to the big houses.) The authors then give their power over to the agent because they feel that the agent has more authority, more understanding of the industry, and also holds the keys to the kingdom. And while it’s true that agents have access, it’s also true that agents are human businesspeople who are looking to sell to the highest bidder. Many agents have true integrity, and suggest any number of plausible changes to a book with the best of intentions. But not many of them think through the impact their feedback has on authors. In my years at Seal Press I can recall at least a dozen books I ended up acquiring after a conversation with an author in which I suggested a change in direction to their manuscript that ended up being what they had originally desired, before their agent suggested a course correction.

Why does this happen as frequently as it does? The dumbing-down factor is part of it. Agents are trying to appeal to as broad a spectrum as possible; they’re not tailoring a book for a specific press. And suggested changes don’t come from a place of malice, obviously. Agents are simply looking to certain formulas that they know to work. And so the unsuspecting author who thinks their baby is fully cooked and perfect may have to contend with the suggestion that no, in fact, it needs plastic surgery, and an ankle brace, and a new hairstyle, and headgear, and physical therapy. Are you going to subject your baby to all of these suggested enhancements to make it “better”? Well, this is where it’s up to you.

The most important thing to pay attention to when you get feedback on your manuscript is whether the suggestions for changes resonate. If they do, you may well improve your manuscript by taking an agent or editor’s advice. If they don’t, and you change your manuscript anyway, you are compromising your own integrity and the integrity of your work. Bottom line. The problem here is that some authors don’t know. They’re not grounded enough in their own confidence about their work to know any better. These are the authors who are most likely to sacrifice without knowing they’re doing it. They change everything and anything without questioning it, and once all is said and done, they’re not sure which manuscript was better—the original or the revised version. Sometimes they’re so lost in the weeds that they can’t even remember what version is the current one. This is so common it’s not even worth opining on, other than to say that authors need to get centered. The only way to succeed in this industry is to know when to yield and when to stand firm. Refusing to be edited, or being so attached, or being so arrogant as to think that your manuscript is perfect, will get you nowhere; but the opposite is true too. Being so yielding, or so unattached that you’re willing to compromise your vision, sometimes not even realizing you’re doing so, can only end badly.

So here’s what to consider when an agent gives you feedback that requires substantial changes to your manuscript:

1. Does it resonate? If you have that “Oh my god, this woman is brilliant” moment—awesome. You may well be getting free editorial advice that will indeed improve your manuscript by leaps and bounds. If you’re excited, then that’s a good sign. If you feel dread, or like the agent is asking you to cut off a limb, you need to seriously consider the ramifications of what is being asked of you.

2. Is the agent committing to representing you if you make the changes? If so, you may decide it’s worth it for the sake of representation. If not, don’t do it.

3. Does the feedback feel heartfelt? At the end of the day, this may not matter THAT much, but what I’m getting at is a sense of connection. Do you think the agent read your entire manuscript? Is she giving measured feedback based on a comprehensive understanding of your manuscript? Or is she just shooting from the hip?

4. Is it more important to you to have the chance to publish on a traditional press than it is to keep your manuscript intact as it’s written? This is dependent on so many things that I hesitate to open this can of worms, and yet I must. I’ve seen agents and editors—again, often with good intentions—ruin perfectly good books. Sometimes authors who choose to self-publish end up being much happier with their experience than authors who traditionally publish simply because they end up being able to write the book they wanted and intended to write, without interference.

5. Does the agent have a strong sales track record? Yes, you got it. Do your research. Is this agent selling boatloads of books, or barely any? It’s shocking to me how often I hear back from an author about such and such an agent and the only thing they know about that person is that they agent books. Agenting does not require a specific skill set or degree; anyone can do it. So you want to make sure that this agent who’s asking you to make changes is actually selling a lot of books to publishers and knows what he or she is doing. And you want to LIKE them. Liking leads to trust, and trust is the foundation of this long relationship that you will hopefully have with this person, if #2 turns out to be a yes and they like your concept enough that they want to represent you after your changes have been made.

So what’s the skinny? It’s just not easy. The journey of writing and selling your book is a long one where sacrifices are often made. Just make sure that they’re not too much, and that you won’t regret your choices later. Resist the temptation to be dazzled by someone saying yes, your book is worthwhile. I know it’s a practically impossible request, but it’s important. Plant your two feet on the ground and ask good questions. Remember that an agent who wants to represent you is courting you. Allow yourself to be courted; don’t throw yourself at the first prospect that comes along and agree to make changes you don’t really want to make.

And please—share your stories with us. Has this happened to you? What did you do, and what was the outcome?

Image courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.

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  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Awesome, Cardyn! Good for you!

    And thank you, Catherine. I'll be wishing you well on this journey. Big learning curve, but I can only imagine this will help you to become a better writer, and that's something that's yours for a lifetime!

  • Thanks Brooke and Cate,

    I have been told by a friend, "The only way to get over fear is to go through it. The only way to go through fear is afraid. But on the other side is freedom so just keep moving." That advice applies here.

    Brooke, you said that if I resonate with the advice< I should follow it. I will. Even though it feels as though I am slapping my own face, I will make the changes slowly, carefully and deliberately.(to make sure they are consistent with my original vision)

     I remember that in your book, Brooke, you said to set up a Google calendar with goals stating how many pages you are committed to writing by a certain date. I think I will do that for my  revision since my biggest stumbling block, after I remove crippling self doubt, is lack of motivation. I am goal oriented and have little patience for my own procrastination so breaking my Mount Everest of revision into one hour tasks three days a week might allow me to summit, finish the revision and win the Pulitzer. Yes! All I need is a calendar -- and a huge load of courage coupled with the words of fellow climbers. I just have to make it a priority.

    And I will, thanks. Your words matter.


  • Cardyn Brooks Promoting

    Thanks so much, Brooke! Your posts always encourage me as much as they educate me. The e-edition of Dodging Eros, Through Past, Present and Pleasure is currently scheduled to launch 10/29 with details about my Cover Reveal Contest to go-live next week (which explains the lag time with my reply:-). 

  • Great post Brooke

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Mardith, this is hard, and I'm sorry. Thanks for sharing your experience. It's really helpful to other writers to see this kind of story so they can guard themselves and move forward in a way that is self-honoring.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Wow, Cardyn. What a story! When is your book coming out? Congratulations! I really love how your journey showcases what so many of the writers I work with go through. Recently one of my clients came to me and shared that a friend had said to her about this process, "It's shitty till it isn't." So true.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Catherine, what you say here is important:

    "I like a lot of what my editor has suggested but it is demoralizing to see my writing so improved by not me."

    It's good and hard to acknowledge this, and it can be demoralizing, but it can also be a growth opportunity. You can only get better! And good editors have edited hundreds upon hundreds of books and their job is to make your language shine. So just take in the good part of it rather than beating yourself up for not having written that kind of sentence to begin with. Take your edits as you would an MFA degree, and know that you'll have that with you when you write your next book. Sounds like you found a great editor!

  • Mardith Louisell

    Such an excellent post, Brooke. Years ago, I was one of the too yielding ones (and my mature age didn't mean I had the maturity in common sense). I had a middle-rung agent who wanted changes to my memoir, so I made them. It took me a year. I didn't have any promise of publication, unfortunately. I sent the manuscript back and she told me, after several months, of course, that she "didn't like the people in the book." Which were the same people as had been there before. That wasn't what I'd changed. So I withdrew from using her. I gave it to a trusted teacher and writer with a publication record, and he went through it and nearly every suggestion he made was at a point where I had changed it for the agent. I made his changes and then shelved the manuscript. I decided I didn't want to be immersed in the sadness of the memoir's subject anymore and wanted something lighter. Now I think that the agent didn't read it, at least that first time, and that her assistant was the reader and the assistant was young. My clue should have been when the suggestions for changes came from the assistant. (Not that there weren't/ aren't issues with manuscript but they weren't those that either of them  focused on.)

  • Cardyn Brooks Promoting

    Thanks for another dose of wise counsel based on your expertise with all things publishing, Brooke. In the past two years, both a big-time agent, then the editor of an indie press asked me to make significant changes. 

    The agent was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about my writing, but the offer of representation was contingent upon dismantling the thematic mashup and reshaping the story to fit the predictable expectations of a conventional fiction formula, which felt like a betrayal to my writing intention. The agent was kind enough to invite me to submit future work for consideration. The disappointment crushed me, but the agent's generous feedback made me realize that querying with a tighter, more concise intro and synopsis about my manuscript would foster intrigue rather than confusion about what it is. 

    Months later my refined query led to interest from an editor who liked my manuscript, but wanted to expand the 3-part novel and break it up into a trilogy. The suggestions were valid and I added a few thousand more words, but ultimately believed that the emotional momentum and structural integrity of the characters and story threads required it to remain as one novel. (For me, stories padded simply for word count seem like insults to readers.) Again, the editor invited me to submit future work for consideration. This disappointment left me with a much-improved manuscript that was the most refined version of my original concept. 

    On August 12, 2014 I decided to take a break from submitting my work to anyone because the years of rejection were grinding the writing facet of my spirit into dust. The simple act of consciously deciding to regroup made me feel immediate relief physically and emotionally. When I checked e-mails on August 13, 2014, "Your manuscript has been chosen for publication" was in the subject line of the first e-mail. The editor-in-chief liked it for the main reason it had been rejected by others : It's an unconventional fiction genres fusion. If the agent and the editor hadn't requested changes that forced me to examine my motives and my manuscript from different angles, it's likely that it wouldn't have appealed to the editor who accepted it. Publisher's edits have just been completed, cover art in-progress, then my upbeat erotic literary novel as a social commentary romp with elements of spoof and theater of the absurd about the risks and rewards of loving and being loved, especially for women, launches. 

    Hoping every SheWriter finds her perfect publishing match;-). 

    The earlier constructive critiques and requests for changes challenged me to decide "when to yield and when to stand firm" as Brooke has stated.  

  • Brooke,

    You just said what I've been stewing over for the last few months. You described the dilemma between being open to professional criticism as apposed to  being arrogant, as well as being confident enough to discern the difference between dumbing down your work and revising your work to make it smooth, fast paced and  authentic.

    I am in the process of implementing my editor's changes to my novel. Every syllable that I change requires gut wrenching deliberation. It's the opposite of the love fest I experienced writing the first few drafts. I was brimming with hope and passion and in love with my characters. God, it was great! I remember coming home from teaching, putting the kettle on and going off to write. I became so engaged I forgot about the kettle until the smoke alarm went off. I melted the bottom of the kettle. That hasn't happened with this revision.

    Now I'm becoming phobic of my laptop and imagine the cursor is laughing at me.Ha ha, ha ha. 

     I like a lot of what my editor has suggested but it is demoralizing to see my writing so improved by not me. It makes me feel like a no talent hack. And then it becomes imperative that I do the laundry, read my email and respond to other people's blogs about how editors can be helpful or hurtful.

    It's all a process. Even psyching myself up to read her suggestions is part of the process. So I'm giving myself time to become more objective about my work. But it makes me worry. Is this the beginning of the slippery slope of never ever writing again? Are these the first days, weeks and months of abandoning my writing altogether? How do I combat this? How do I get myself to move forward on the revision. Does anyone have a cattle prod? 

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Rachel, ha ha. Great footnote. I love Jonathan Lyons. Good choice there!!!

  • Jill Jepson

    Good suggestions on a very challenging topic. 

  • When i was querying agents, I had the good fortune to find myself in the position of receiving more than one offer of representation. I did weigh a number of factors when it came to choosing with whom to sign, but the final tiebreaker came down to the feedback they gave about how they thought i should approach revisions.

    The agent that i signed with (Jonathan Lyons of Curtis Brown, Ltd.) had such eye-opening and helpful suggestions--things that as soon as he said them, i thought, "Well, duh, that would make (plot thread) so much richer and more meaningful," and the like--that I knew he really "got" the book, loved the book, and saw how it could be made even better.

    I did also have one agent give me such tone-deaf feedback [1], that i knew we would not be a good fit. I think when you get that kind of response, your gut tells you what to do. If i had been in a position to where the only offer i had was from the tone-deaf agent, i would have kept seeking other representation or self-pubbed rather than sign with someone who had such a differing view of what my book should be. I'm firmly in the camp of "be true to your art."

    [1] Yeah, i like footnotes. Anyway, the tone-deaf agent suggested i rewrite my novel, which features three female protagonists, to have more visible straight male characters in more significant roles. Because, you know, literature doesn't have enough straight male protagonists, i guess.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    You are very right, RYCJ. The money is another sticky part of the equation. Very good point.

  • RYCJ Revising

    I was once asked to "consider" changing my title, because leaving the title as was would narrow down my audience. To be clear, I was not offended or confused by this suggestion, or my choice, at all. Because I had researched (I want to insert ad nauseam) the publishing industry, is why I appreciated their position, and this post as well.

    There are a couple of catches;

    1. Deciding to work with an agent/publisher I told myself straight out that once I signed on that line, my work was theirs. They bought it, and had a right to do with it whatever they desired. Obviously they want to make money, which to do so the work must be by their terms marketable or sellable. I got that. But here comes my 'on the other hand.'

    2. I already knew from my "ad nauseam" research that publishers didn't care a whole lot for authors like me. Authors who know what they want and aren't willing to comprise their work; not because I am arrogant, but because I value very highly authentic art/authentic writing where its integrity has not been compromised.

    For this reason I realized very early on it was in no one's best interest for me to sell my work that way. It wouldn't be fair to the publisher; it wouldn't be fair to me; and it wouldn't be fair to the niche audience looking to read me. I could go on and on here, but to reel this in... it is not easy to not only know what you want, and know why it is important, but to take that position and stay firm, especially if there are dollars waving in your face.

  • Pamela Olson

    Ironically, I suspect that if the publishing world curated more for quality than for focus-grouped "salability"... they'd actually end up selling more books. You're so right -- they don't give readers enough credit.

    Some guy in advertising once said, "The customer isn't some idiot -- the customer is your mother, your sister, your wife." So is the reader! And a lot of people are reading crap because that's all that seems to be on offer sometimes. A lot of them are hungry for something that entertains AND challenges them. I know I am.

  • Pamela Olson

    Several agents and editors told me my book Fast Times in Palestine -- a coming-of-age political travel memoir -- was problematic because it didn't fit neatly into any one category. That was actually the point of writing the book: creating something that wasn't just another Middle East travelogue, wasn't solely focused on my journey, and wasn't a political jeremiad -- I wanted to combine the best of all three to entertain AND educate people about a much-talked-about but little-known part of the world called Palestine in a rich and three-dimensional way, from the bird's-eye view to life on the ground to the effects it all had on one human heart.

    One editor even told me I needed to make it more angry, more controversial -- when the whole point of it was to show the humanity of everyone, and not to be another divisive, partisan book that demonizes one side or the other.

    I stuck to my original idea and finally found a publisher willing to let me publish it mostly as-is (I just had to cut the word count down somewhat). I haven't blown the doors off any bestseller lists or anything, but I've sold several thousand copies in total, did about 100 book tour events around the US and Canada, and get many emails from people who say the book changed the way they see the region, or even that they plan on traveling there since reading my book. It's wonderful to know the book that's out there resembles my original vision, and seems to resonate with the people who find it. (My website has more info for anyone interested: http://pamolson.org )

    It's sad that it may well have sold more copies if I had taken a strong, controversial political stand or if my tone was more angry or snarky (or, for that matter, if I was the daughter or cohort of someone famous).

    But, to paraphrase the Bhagavad Gita: "It is better to write your own book imperfectly than to write a perfect imitation of someone else’s book."

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Susan, I also think it's awesome that you took your book back. And I appreciate your wise words of wisdom here. It's important to birth the book you want to birth, and it's so easy to get swayed by "authority." You will never regret publishing a book you feel in your heart you were supposed to write. Just can't happen.

  • Loraine Van Tuyl

    Good for you, Susan. I just listened to a webinar with Tara Mohr whose book Playing Big
    came out today and she is already starting her book talk telling everyone what she means with being hooked and unhooked to feedback and criticism because her editor made her change it. It sounded too "radical" to totally own our reactions to feedback and have feedback say more about the giver and where they are coming from than ourselves. Wow, how sad and backward to be censored like this for our most enlightened gifts and messages to the world. Bittersweet indeed.

  • Susan Troccolo

    This is an extremely useful article--thank you for it. I had an experience that aligns with your piece. In 1994, I had an agent who was working with a fine small press who took time to review my work, which was a series of creative non-fiction stories about aging with panache. They decided they would publish the book. However, the marketing department (probably two or three folks-:)) determined that I was a "humor writer." Somehow the weaving of warp and weft--humor with bittersweetness wasn't easy for them. They wanted a specific way in which to describe and market me. No matter that I explained that this is the essence of life (and certainly of aging)...a little of this, a lot of that, the funny bits with the sadness that life brings--this particular marketing department saw their job as black and white. Now perhaps I didn't do a good enough job explaining that all the best writers have this blend, but after a year of trying to retrofit all my work into "Funny stories", I threw in the towel. I was so stressed out and discouraged. It  wasn't worth it to me. I hired a top editor, a book designer and self-published the book I was meant to write. It was small scale at first, but I did readings at independent bookstores and sold enough of the book to do three printings. Most importantly, I was happy. No, I didn't take the world by storm. But I had my book, not someone else's idea of my book. I would council anyone in the same situation to follow your heart. If you are not happy with the marketing department at the beginning--when everything is rosy--it doesn't bode well.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for the vote of confidence and support, Loraine!! And for sharing your experience. All too common!

    Vicky—yes. It was right. You're luck you can say that. I know so many authors who sacrificed and published a book that they didn't feel in their heart was the book they wanted to write and it ended up being a pretty sad thing for them.

    Barb—thanks for bringing in this perspective. So right to do that first five hour test with editors to make sure you feel it's a good fit!

  • Loraine Van Tuyl

    This is the most refreshing and candid common-sense advice I've come across in years!! I had an editor tell me that spiritual memoirs don't sell anymore, and to change my book to a self-help book. At least two wanted me to start off darker and more broken - the misery loves company appeal - sticking to my guns and having journal material to back up my frame of mind allowed me to dive deeply into the old soul phenomena and that it is humanly possible yes it is to remain grounded in the midst of trauma, overbearing pressure, and when no one else "gets" it - through the help of my cross cultural and ancestral roots keeping things in perspective and my own unique purpose. This reminds me also of the dilemma that "gifted" kids experience in school - since they are ahead of their peers they don't need further stimulation and learning like the rest of the kids and even get "punished" by asking questions (that are perceived as showing off) to advance their learning and the curriculum. I'm targeting these kinds of "outliers" and outcasts with my memoir that I hope will resonate with non-outlying others as well and this is exactly why I'm getting on board with She Writes Press when the time comes - hands down!

  • Vicky Pinpin-Feinstein

    I had an experience about this not with an agent but directly with a publisher.  They wanted me to change the book so that it was no longer the memoir that I wrote but another book completely that will appeal to YA readers.  They wanted me to cut down several chapters of it so that it could hardly be recognized as the book I wrote. I read the comments they wrote me several times, thought about it very hard and knew in my heart, it was not the right thing to do.  So I wrote them back and countered that I am willing to write them a different book altogether but one that will be directed to the type of market they want.  They did not want to invest on time and money for it, they simply wanted to chop down what I had, without a proper justification or reasons for it, so I told them I was no longer interested.  To this day, I could feel it in my gut that my decision was right.  It really does feel good that I never regretted my decision. I self-published the book and though I have not made the gigantic sales we all dream of, the reviews I have gotten have made it all worth it. 

  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    No experience with agents regarding the issue of changes, but working with a developmental editor, I was surprised to find that the "resonation" litmus test worked very well for me.  I asked her to read the first 20 pages to see if I thought her style and sensibilities were a good fit for me, and after I hired her to do the remainder of the manuscript, I found that 80% of suggested changes resonated.  Of the remaining 20%, about half were changes I knew I didn't want to make, and the rest I floated by my writing group and other beta readers for advice. While none of the changes were major, I felt I really had a better book at the end of the process.(As a frequent editor of other people's work, this was also quite an opportunity to examine my attitude in the service of improving my own writing !)

  • Karoline Barrett

    Predators and Editors is a great site for those of you looking for agents/publishers. Also, I combined my agent list from Query Tracker,  http://www.querytracker.net/index.php