One of the most common questions we receive at NY Book Editors is whether our editors will refer the authors they work with to literary agents. This question isn’t particular to NYBE of course; nearly all freelance editors are asked this at one point or another. And nearly always, the answer is “no.”
First of all, let’s be clear that in this context, “recommendation” or “reference” can be one of two things: either the editor will personally reach out to an agent on the author’s behalf, or the editor will give the author permission use their name when contacting an agent on their own.
For an editor to provide a recommendation of this sort is extremely rare (only 9% of NYBE authors have received a referral from their editor), and whether they will do this is entirely discretionary. It’s not something that an author should expect, and it’s probably better to assume that it won’t happen.
The Editor’s Point of View
This may seem harsh, but there are very good reasons why this is the case. First and foremost, you need to understand that references factor into an editor’s reputation among their peers. Anytime an editor publicly advocates for an author or a project, that material will be seen as a reflection of that editor’s taste and judgment in material. And as an editor (or an agent, for that matter) your taste level and ability to assess an author’s potential is a major form of professional currency within the industry.
As such, editors tend to use their recommendations very sparingly. They know how much material agents have to weed through to find the real gems, so they want their recommendations to have the power to make an agent sit up and pay attention. That can only happen if the agent knows that the editor is very, very picky. If an editor were to bombard their colleagues with good-but-not-outstanding manuscripts, it would dilute the editor’s “brand” and agents would very likely stop taking that editor’s recommendation seriously.
That would be bad for everyone. It would be bad for the editor, because it would weaken their standing among their peers. And if an editor isn’t seen as highly discerning, their recommendation is useless to the authors on whom they are bestowing it. As such, editors will only consider recommending a manuscript if they feel it is truly exceptional.
So, though a freelance editor may find both you and your manuscript very promising, promise in itself usually isn’t enough to form the basis for a reference.
A Comparison of Your Work
Here’s something else to consider: not all projects, and not all authors, are on equal footing by the end of the editing process. First of all, while one-on-one work with an editor is the fastest way to improve your manuscript, if an author has several years worth of writing experience under their belt already (because they were a journalist, or a playwright, etc.) their work will naturally come out somewhat ahead of those who are just starting to learn their craft.
Additionally, some writers work harder, and as such benefit from the editing process, more than others. The editing process requires commitment from the author as well as the editor. The authors who emerge with the strongest manuscripts will likely be the ones who fully absorb the editor’s feedback — who learn from it and incorporate it into their work in thoughtful ways, often over the course of several drafts.
The Real Guarantee
All of our editors are experienced industry professionals, so they know what agents and publishers are looking for. And they will teach you to work on your manuscript along those lines, because a good editor’s focus will always be to help you make your book as strong as possible, and greatly increase your potential for success.