Wisdom from the Writing Desk: Agent Life vs. Editor Life

By Erik Hane

When I first joined up with Red Sofa earlier this year, my expectation was that the core of the job wouldn’t differ too drastically from my previous one as an in-house acquisitions editor. And to be sure, a lot is the same: it’s still a ton of reading, evaluating manuscripts, working with authors, and figuring out the best ways to publish a book. But it’s different reading, and different evaluation, now that I’m an agent here, and these differences have forced me to stretch the ways I professionally think about books and writers.

When you’re an editor at a publishing house, you have a List, capital L, because the List lies at the center of everything you do. It’s the concept always in mind when you’re thinking about acquiring a book: how does this book fit with the other books we’ve published, and are planning to publish? Is this book “ready” enough that it can be scheduled for publication when we need it to be? Is it too similar to another book of ours, or is it too far afield? To be clear, Lists are great. They’re what build the publishing brands we all love, and when they’re carefully curated they ensure the best chance for success for every author who’s a part of them.

I’m finding that this concept is far less present as an agent. Sure, you’ll see agents promoting personal tastes and categories they’re trying to cultivate, but the truth is that if they like a book, they can bring an author on and work on the book with this person, with far less consideration for scheduling and in-house publishing financials. This, I have to say, is incredibly liberating. As an editor, I remember having to pass on quite a few books I really liked, simply because they didn’t “fit” or were too early in their conception for me to have time to devote the necessary energy to them. Now though, I can sign the author whom I think has a brilliant idea but needs to start the proposal from scratch. I can bring on the novel that just isn’t quite there yet, but I can tell it’s going to be with some real work. If a book isn’t right for a certain publishing house, that’s fine, because I can just take it to a different editor, at a different house.

This is the key difference between agents and editors, to me. An editor is looking for books that are “ready,” or close to it, brought to him or her by a person whose job it is to understand that editor’s taste and present options accordingly. The agent’s job is to go out into the wide writing world and find those options. It’s a frontier, really. There are far less constraints, and while this means that most of the manuscripts I look at now are far less polished than the ones brought to me when I was an editor, it also means that I can spend real time with an author at an early stage, doing the developmental work that an in-house editor might not have time for.

So, it’s a trade: instead of the structure and resources of a publishing house, I get the creative liberty to find the book I want, any book, and help shape it from something primordial and rough into a project an editor somewhere will be thrilled to see. It’s a trade that so far I’ve been very happy to make.




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