By Rachel Burkot
After being an editor for almost six years, I transitioned to the agent side (the dark side? the light side? I’ll avoid going there…). I thought it may be interesting to hear the differences (and similarities!), from my experience at least. Granted, I was an editor a lot longer than I’ve been an agent so far, but I’m rapidly learning more and more, and it’s interesting to reflect on the nuances of each job—along with the degrees of overlap.
- Editing work is more technical, in the sense that editors do line edits and handle all aspects of book production. Agents act as gatekeepers for those entering the publishing world, and as talent scouts. It’s a different stage of the process—agents see the books first, and have the burden of finding the talent and then shopping that talent around, whereas editors are more like the producers once the talent comes to them.
- Agents act as “polishers,” helping an author make their submission as strong as possible before submitting it to publishers. Editors also clean up the manuscripts and make them shine even brighter for a reading audience, but they’re focused on all the grammar components and every technical bit of readability, while agents will focus mainly on the bigger picture—characters, plot, conflict—at least when they’re first choosing authors to represent. That being said, there are plenty of “editorial” agents who will look at every word of a manuscript with an eagle eye for details. And there are some editors who prefer not to do as in-depth of an edit, but will use a lighter touch instead.
- Agents are the author’s advocate, or perhaps even the author’s coach, in a sense. Editors are focused on the author’s career, the direction and strategy of her writing, etc., but an agent is the author’s champion for getting higher advances, signing with the best publisher/editor, and getting the overall best deal for the author.
- Many people picture editors immersed in getting the stories out into the world (they envision an editor hunkered down reading in an office all day!) and agents as business-people or salespeople, negotiating and haggling and shopping books to publishers for better prices—but in truth, both editors and agents act as salespeople. And both spend a large portion of their job reading. Agents read a ton of queries to find new talent, while editors read tons of books from their author base, and they’ll often read the same book three times or more. And just as agents sell manuscripts to houses, editors must sell the books they’d like to acquire internally, to an acquisitions board.
So as you can see, there is a lot of overlap in the daily work of agents and editors. At the end of the day, editors and agents both work in the publishing industry because they love books, and both careers involve being on the front lines of getting outstanding authors’ voices into the hands of hungry readers everywhere. Both editors and agents spend large chunks of their jobs reading, corresponding with authors, making authors’ stories stronger, and selling the stories they are passionate about to give them wider reach.
I’m sure I’ll be learning more differences and similarities in time, but for now I’m going to continue doing what I’ve been doing since I first joined the publishing world—reading and rooting for the best writers out there!
Rachel is a literary agent at Holloway Literary. Learn more about her here.