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Laura Bontje

Preparing for Traditional Publishing: Tips from Agents and Editors

Two smiling people with thought bubbles above them stand on either side of a giant question mark. The short-haired person holds a laptop, and the long-haired person holds a dramatically oversized magnifying glass.
Two smiling people with thought bubbles above them stand on either side of a giant question mark. The short-haired person holds a laptop, and the long-haired person holds a dramatically oversized magnifying glass.
Copyright: nattyblissful

When a client comes to me for editing, one of my first questions is how they hope to publish. Why? Because an author who is self-publishing will use freelancers for each stage of the editing process, whereas an author who secures a traditional publishing contract will receive additional editing through their publisher.  

The journey to a book deal usually begins with the author querying (i.e., submitting their work to) a literary agent. The agent pitches the book to publishers, negotiates book deals and acts as the author’s advocate. (There are also some publishers that accept submissions directly from authors.)

So how can freelance editors better support clients preparing for traditional publishing? To answer that question, I reached out to some agents and editors from across Canada and the U.S.:

  • Fazeela Jiwa (she/they) is an acquisitions and development editor at Fernwood Publishing, an independent publisher with a commitment to social justice and critical thinking.
  • James McGowan (he/him) is a literary agent at BookEnds Literary Agency.
  • Emmy Nordstrom Higdon (they/them) is a literary agent at Westwood Creative Artists.
  • Leah Pierre (she/her) is a senior literary agent at Ladderbird Literary Agency.

Working with freelancers

When do you think it benefits an author to work with a freelance editor* prior to querying?

Fazeela Jiwa: If you have an idea and you can’t figure out how to structure it as a book-length piece of writing, then you could work with a developmental editor. If you already have a clear narrative arc, then you could engage a copy editor to ensure accuracy.

James McGowan: I believe that authors can find the support they’re looking for in a strong critique partner or group. However, if it’s financially feasible, it can be beneficial to work with a freelance editor if there’s a particular area that their critique group has been unable to help them with.

Emmy Nordstrom Higdon: It can benefit all writers to work with editors at various stages. Contrary to the individualistic, capitalist framework that so often influences the culture of the publishing industry in North America, writing is strengthened when it is collaborative.

Leah Pierre: I think it benefits an author to work with a freelance editor when they’re not sure what is needed to take their manuscript to the next level.

* Note: For authors whose identities and communities remain underrepresented in literature, the cost of freelance editing can introduce another point of inequity in the traditional publishing process. Agents and acquisitions editors do not expect that authors have hired their own editors prior to querying.

Are there times that you feel working with a freelance editor is less helpful to an author?

Jiwa: At Fernwood Publishing, we do a lot of developmental editing in house, so working with a freelance editor won’t necessarily be helpful beforehand. However, we respect and love the freelancers we use throughout the process of publishing our books!

McGowan: If an author cannot financially afford to hire a freelance editor, I don’t think it’s necessary.

Nordstrom Higdon: The things that come to mind are cost and fit. It can be better to have no editor than one who is the wrong fit. For example, BIPOC authors are often put in situations where they have to work with white collaborators who don’t understand the cultural nuances of their work.

Pierre: I think it’s less helpful when the author is still trying to figure out what they want to say in their story — or if they’ve already incorporated beta reader feedback that they feel accomplishes what they were looking to do.

Editing for publication

When you acquire a novel, how much developmental and line editing do you expect to do?

Jiwa: We will talk about line breaks, narrative arc, word usage, etc.; we will also talk about the political messaging and purpose of the book. For me, it’s important that when I acquire writers from communities whose voices are underheard, I also support them through potential structural barriers to writing.

McGowan: I am a very editorial agent and will work with my clients on anything I feel needs addressing, from big picture things like plotting and pacing to smaller things like dialogue or line edits.

Nordstrom Higdon: I do at least one developmental pass on every submission to make sure the quality is representative not only of the author, but also of me, my client list and the agency I work for.

Pierre: I do at least two rounds of developmental editing. If I see a sentence that’s off, I’ll point it out — but line editing is beyond the scope of an agent and may indicate that the story needs more editing or isn’t a perfect fit. 

With traditional publishing, a book will be copy edited before its release, but some manuscripts start out tidier than others. How much do mechanical errors factor into your decision to offer representation?

Jiwa: If the story and writing are strong, then mechanical errors don’t really factor into offering publication at all.

McGowan: I don’t factor these in too heavily unless they’re overwhelmingly present. If they’re consistent, I might wonder if the author spent time revising and whether this will be a problem we continue to have.

Nordstrom Higdon: I weigh the work it needs against how important I think it is that the manuscript makes it into the world. I consciously give more leeway to stories and authors that are traditionally underrepresented in publishing.

Pierre: If the story and writing are strong, I tend to not mind mechanical errors within reason. I’d still like for the manuscript to be as tight as possible when we’re sending it to editors. 

Which topic or stage of editing do you see most often as an opportunity for improvement?

Jiwa: Definitely developmental editing. There can always be more tightening of structure, more transitions to massage. But I am a total nerd for structure!

McGowan: I’d probably suggest pacing. It’s one of those things that can be worked on, and it isn’t subjective (like voice). And pacing is crucial to the reading experience.

Nordstrom Higdon: I find so many manuscripts could be vastly improved through restructuring so that we get inciting incidents early and exposition after the reader is already invested in the story.

Pierre: I think the developmental edit presents the biggest opportunity for improvement, but a line edit also offers an opportunity to improve the sentence structure, writing style and craft. 

Understanding the author’s world

If a freelance editor has a client who is struggling to find comparable (“comp”) titles for their query letter, would you rather see no comps, loosely relevant comps, or comps to a different medium (film, TV, etc.)?   

Jiwa: You don’t need to know every book ever published on your topic, but being thorough about your inspiration in style, form or content does help us figure out the context of your book.

McGowan: I don’t believe comps are always necessary. If the author doesn’t have strong comps, they can definitely leave them out. I also am open to comps to film and TV. I’ve even seen comps to songs.

Nordstrom Higdon: Comps to a different medium — and identify the rationale. If you’re not telling me why they’re relevant to the project you’re pitching, then they aren’t very useful to me!

Pierre: I’d rather see a query letter with loosely relevant comps or comps to a different medium than no comps at all.

What is one resource that you would recommend to freelance editors who want to learn more about what their clients will face when pursuing traditional publishing?

Jiwa: I’m a big fan of the programming on these topics at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). They’re so innovative, detailed and relevant!

McGowan: This might seem strange for an editor, but I think perusing QueryTracker can be really helpful. You’ll see how authors are responding to agents, the responses they receive and response times in real time.

Nordstrom Higdon: I have been involved with the Festival of Literary Diversity for many years now, and I think that our author panels delve into the challenges faced by marginalized authors in interesting and complex ways. 

Pierre: Follow the publishing discourse(s) on Twitter as best as possible if you’re up for it. I’d also recommend Publishers Weekly and agency or editor newsletters — agent Kate McKean and editor Sara Schonfeld have good ones!

If you’re a literary agent or an editor who works with authors pursuing traditional publishing, what advice would you add?

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Previous post from Laura Bontje: Freelancing While Parenting Young Kids

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