A while back I was approached by a writer who was looking for editorial help with a novel he’d written. I took the project and we went through several drafts until it was good. And it was good, kids. This writer was young and unsigned, but he knew what he was doing; I just helped him grow his craft.
During this process, he asked me an interesting question: When I pitch my project, should I say it’s been through a developmental edit?
I have seen two schools of thought on this issue. One school says you’re expected to do everything you can to make the book the best it can be, and publishers will appreciate your investment in your work. The other school (and this comes from a friend of mine who works at a respected literary agency) says “we want to know what the author can do, not what her professional editor can do.”
See the conundrum here?
It’s a very competitive climate for authors right now. There’s always been many more manuscripts on offer than available openings in a publisher’s list, but that ratio is even more strained at the moment. (As former publisher Michael Hyatt says: “The supply of hopeful authors is infinite while the supply of publishing resources is finite. Publishers can only publish a fraction of the proposals they receive.”) Between prevailing economic conditions and changes in the industry that have unsettled all the players in it, traditional publishers have scaled back on what they’re willing to risk and how many times a year they’re willing to risk it.
This competitive climate means you need to create the best possible product to have any shot at all at traditional publishing. So should you hire your own editor? When should you hire your own editor?
There’s no question that many unsigned authors are engaging professional editors to help them polish their manuscripts so they can land an agent. And I’ve worked on more than one manuscript that ultimately was picked up by an agent. One of those authors told me,
Everything I have read said to submit your very best work to agents/publishers. In my case, I had gotten as far as my experience would take me when I sent my manuscript to you. I needed a professional eye to tell me “yes, this can work” or “why don’t you try again with a different project?” I looked at the editorial process with you as a kind of writing course. I would have the benefit of an experienced professional telling me exactly where to strengthen the work or, as mentioned above, to stop wasting time on that project. (Emphasis mine.)
It’s also no secret that agents work with their clients to improve the product before they shop it—many agents are former editors—either with hands-on editorial work or by suggesting the author seek editorial help on his or her own. I’ve also been hired in scenarios like this. Furthermore I have frequently been hired to critique manuscripts publishers are considering signing; I’ve also been hired to critique manuscripts for authors before they turn them in to their publishers.
Do you see where I’m headed with this line of thinking? As an editor, I’ve been involved with manuscripts at every conceivable stage of the process between an author’s desktop and a publisher’s press.
But the question was about disclosure. Should you tell a prospective agent? Personally, I believe that honesty is unquestionably always the best policy. Still, the author I mentioned above worried that the agent would wonder how much … editing … had actually been done. In other words, the agent might think the manuscript was completely ghostwritten, rather than assuming it was good work that simply got better after a few editorial suggestions.
Writers who’ve worked with me know I require the author to do his or her own rewrites. Oh, I can write. And I’ll make suggestions (“Maybe Little Johnny says it like this: —”). But I just feel like it’s up to you to write your own book.
Bottom line? Everyone from the author to the agent to the publisher is interested in one thing: selling books. The way to do that is to make sure they’re good books. That generally results from the concentrated efforts of author and editor. Who cares when it happens! Should you tell? I say yes.
UPDATE: This post has spurred lots of interesting commentary on Facebook and Twitter—and there are some interesting comments with alternate viewpoints below. Be sure to check them out!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”