Personable, Passionate, and Polite: Editors on Agents

A book has a long way to travel from the writer’s mind to the reader’s eye.  The writer writes.  The agent sells.  The editor edits.  The publicist publicizes.  Many months, even years pass by. 

These days the roles and jobs for all concerned are much less delineated.  Writers can – and should – learn from all the folks involved in the production of their books.

Below I’ve asked one member of the team – the editor – to comment on another member of the team – the agent – in order to help the writer make informed decisions.  The editors I spoke with represent a wide range of publishing houses, from New York to London, from San Francisco to Lexington, KY, from small press to big.


What sort of agent do you find to be the most effective?


Gabrielle Harbowy is a freelance editor, and editor-in-charge at Dragon Moon Press.

Gabrielle Harbowy: Agents who have done their research on publishing houses, and who send submissions that are within the scope of the publisher. Agents who promote their clients realistically. Too much hype only builds unreasonable expectations, and it actually works against the author if the manuscript can’t deliver. I would rather have an agent tell me what style an author’s manuscript is in, so that I know what to expect when I open it, than tell me that the author is “the next” Tolkien or Rowling or Asimov, or what amazing sales the film based on this manuscript will have if it ever gets optioned. If you prepare me for the top, there’s no way for a manuscript to exceed expectations. Tell me what it is, not what you want it to be!

Lou Anders is the editorial director of Pyr, a science fiction and fantasy imprint of Prometheus Books.

Lou Anders: I find agents who specialize in the genre to be far more effective than those who don’t. Generally, an agent who works exclusively in SF/F and is familiar with my line and my tastes has a much better chance of offering me something I’m going to respond positively to than one who doesn’t. I see a lot of manuscripts from mainstream/general fiction agents who “don’t know anything about science fiction” but took one manuscript on as a test and looked us up online. Generally, these manuscripts are about what you would expect. This isn’t to say that SF/F has become insolated & exclusive with its own tropes (though you could argue that), but that the agents feel that because it’s SF, they aren’t equipped to judge it. When in truth, it is the same qualities in genre fiction that make any fiction worthwhile–great characters engaged in struggles that readers can care about and invest in. If a work doesn’t have that, it doesn’t have anything.

Philip Athans has been a full-time staff editor at TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast since 1995. 

Philip Athans: In my experience agents tend to fall into one of two categories: agents that see themselves as salesmen, and agents that want to be lawyers.

The former are always easier to work with, and tend to have clients with longer careers. If an agent is acting as a sincere advocate for his client, really believes in the work and the person, and wants to help that author get a reading, editors will always be more responsive, and to be quite frank the authors will get better deals.

Agents who “come in for the kill,” begin from an argumentative or defensive stance, and make negotiations unnecessarily contentious, make the author less attractive, even when the author is someone you really want to work with. If an author feels he’s in need of a lawyer, and that does sometimes happen, he should hire a lawyer.

Paula Guran is the editor of Juno Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books.

Paula Guran: Well, I’m an agent, too, but not a very good one, so I can’t hold myself up as an example.

Seriously, for what I am doing right now, I really appreciate agents who know the genre I’m working in. There are too many agents who’ve not got a clue about the differences between “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” or even “science fiction”, “techno-thrillers”, etc. There also seems to be some who don’t understand “young adult” and “teen” books are not published by “adult” imprints.

So, an agent savvy enough to understand what to try to sell me is more effective than one who doesn’t.

James Lowder has worked as an editor for both large publishers and tiny independents, on projects that include New York Times bestselling shared world novels and small, critically acclaimed creator-owned titles.

James Lowder: Agents are most effective when they know more about a work than its projected sales or its author’s general market share. A book’s commercial potential is important, but the content should matter, too.

An agent who can suggest strategies for coping with a client’s shortcomings, the traits that may cause problems during the book’s creation, can also be invaluable to an editor.

Susan J. Morris is the Forgotten Realms® line editor at Wizards of the Coast.

Susan J. Morris: Personable agents who are genuinely passionate about their authors, who research our publishing company’s needs, and who facilitate a collaborative relationship with us and their authors.

Simon Spanton is the editorial director at Orion/Gollancz Books in the United Kingdom. 

Simon Spanton : The sort who’s willing to work in partnership with the publisher. Publishing is team work.

Deb Taber is the senior book editor of the Apex Book Company, an independent specialty press.

Deb Taber: As a small press, we only rarely get agented manuscripts. The agents who are most effective are those who keep their authors on the timetable we’ve set, respond quickly to emails, and are polite and professional at all times.

Jacob Weisman is the founding editor and publisher of Tachyon Publications, an independent specialty press.

Jacob Weisman: Well organized, responsive, reasonable about striking a deal that mutually benefits the publisher and the author.

Chris Schluep is a Senior Editor at Ballantine/Villard/Del Rey.

Chris Schluep: Hands on agents, just like hands on editors, are the best in my opinion. That means agents who follow the progress of the book from start to finish, the ones who will chime in with ideas and, at times, be a pain in the ass for editors. Keeps us on our toes and helps the book, too. I grudgingly admit this.

For someone looking for an agent, my advice is to research agents who represent books you’ve loved and/or authors that you feel write in a similar vein. They’ll know which editors to get the book to, and they’ll probably give the best feedback.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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