Agents, who are the first potential champions of a new manuscript, do their fair share of editing. They also know when a book is ready to be seen by the people who, if all goes well, will buy it. Barbara Poelle at the Irene Goodman Agency, whose clients include Michelle Gable (A Paris Apartment) and Renee Ahdieh (The Wrath and the Dawn), talked to us about how she knows a gem when she finds one, the way the editing process can transform a manuscript and why the most important thing an author should be doing is reading.
The editing process can seem a bit mysterious. What are some of the biggest misconceptions about what an editor actually does?
That an editor only edits. An editor has to have an understanding of everything from market conditions and trends in cover art to metadata and beyond. They aren't just dealing commas like Blackjack cards.
How important do you think editing is during the writing process, and then during the ensuing publishing process?
Immeasurably. Everything I have ever signed I think to myself, "Well this is shelf ready." Then I am shown what true expertise means, as everything I have ever sold has gone through at least one revision with its editor.
Speaking of revisions, what are some of the most significant impacts a good editor can have on a book… and its author?
Like Venus and Serena playing doubles together, good editors and authors recognize and respond to each other's nuances in both critique and technique to really make a book shine.
A lot of people say that editors at the big houses don't do as much editing as they once did. Is that true? If so, does that mean you, as an agent, expect to do more editing?
I do however much or little is needed to make a manuscript A material... and then every editor makes it an A+.
Another thing that's often said about today's publishing industry is that agents want to see really polished manuscripts--things that don't need a lot of work. Are you willing to take on a project if it shows promise, but needs a lot of work before it's ready to be submitted to editors?
That all depends on the raw material. I love turning a maybe into a yes when the seeds of brilliance are clearly sewn throughout. I have spent eight minutes on revisions, and I have spent eight months on revisions. If I see it in the tapestry, I will work to pull the right threads to make it clear.
You've obviously seen a lot of books evolve through the publishing process. What have been some of the biggest changes you've seen a book go through, thanks to the editing process?
I have seen a trilogy that lagged, then became a duology that cooked. I have seen a book go from a small trade paperback acquisition to a lead title hardcover with a full force media launch. And I have seen a terrifyingly unrecognizable plot become a wonderful and satisfying conclusion to a beloved series.
Because writing a book takes so much time, a lot of writers feel like once they've written their last page, they're done. Do you have any advice on how to determine if, and when, your book is ready to be read by potential agents?
ou know what you should be doing: reading reading reading. If you truly feel like your work can stand side by side with what's out there, let 'er rip.
As an agent, are there certain recurring issues, deal breakers if you will, that you see in a lot of the manuscripts you reject? If so, what are they?
I don't sign anything that uses sexual assault to create conflict in a character's journey.
Thank you, Barbara.
If you have any questions for Barbara, let us know in the comments.