QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What’s the Difference Between a Freelance Editor and a Literary Agent?

Guest blogger Kate Epstein
Today's guest post is by Kate Epstein, who is both a literary agent and a freelance editor. Here she helps you understand how the two are different, when you should seek out each one, and why it's still true that you will directly pay a legitimate freelance editor, but never a legitimate literary agent. 

 A key similarity between freelance editors and literary agents is that both typically edit manuscripts. Years ago literary agents did less editing, and the need for a freelance editor was less urgent, because acquiring editors at book publishers had time to edit. A few acquiring editors still do, but for at least 15 years there’s been an axiom that “editors don’t edit.” It’s come to rest with others to do that.

Enter freelance editors and literary agents. Someone like me, who’d rather edit than do almost anything else, is a good fit for either function. Yet every writer should know the differences between a freelance editor and a literary agent, and when to seek out each.

1. One you pay directly…one you should never pay directly. Reputable agents don’t send you a bill. They don’t have to. If you have a reputable agent, she’ll do what she thinks makes sense to get you a publisher and take her money as a commission out of whatever the publisher pays you. The more you earn, the more she earns. She may well edit your manuscript (if you write fiction, she’s almost certain to) to try and increase your chances, but she doesn’t bill you for editing time (or reading time, for that matter). But an editor will charge you for her time and effort in improving your manuscript, and that may mean she has more time to improve your work.

Most other distinctions between editors and literary agents stem from this basic distinction as to how each gets paid.

2. Freelance editors may not bring other expertise to the table. While many editors have a background in other positions in book publishing, a freelance editor’s job is to know how to improve your manuscript, nothing more. A literary agent must also have expertise in what sells, relationships with acquiring editors, and the expertise to negotiate your contract. She needs all those to make her business work. A freelance editor needn’t bring all this to the table. This specialization can be a strength--she concentrates her energy on improving manuscripts. But it also means that her opinion as to whether your project will sell to a publisher (or to consumers) may not be much use to you. Not only do freelance editors not need expertise in this area; they may tell you what they think you want to hear. Literary agents hurt people’s feelings all the time and they’re less likely to shrink from that.

3. An editor may take you on when an agent will not. Editors can take on projects without regard for their commercial potential. They can take on projects that have commercial potential, but that don’t make sense for an agent because they’ll take too much time. If your manuscript isn’t ready for a literary agent, an editor may be able to help you to get it ready.

4. An editor really does work for you. A literary agent works…with you. I don’t believe that this distinction should make a huge difference, because in any case the relationship between you and another professional should be based on mutual respect, especially when it comes to something you care about as much as your writing--respect for one another’s feelings and opinions, but also respect for one another’s time and resources. But the tenor of the relationship with a literary agent and with a freelance editor really does sound quite different.

One upshot of all of this is that you should never plan to turn your freelance editor into a literary agent. Some people actively agent and edit--including me. Personally, I don’t take on projects as a literary agent in any category that I will edit. Turning your freelance editor into your literary agent is a little like turning your therapist into your boyfriend (if less illegal). While an ethical person can be someone’s therapist or freelance editor and someone else’s boyfriend or literary agent, an ethical person doesn’t try to be both to anyone, as the transformation from one to the other can involve exploitation.

Yet, just as a therapist might make you better at having a boyfriend, a freelance editor might make you more ready to have a literary agent, and a publisher, and a wide readership. You can learn a lot about writing from a freelance editor, because she has the time to teach. And that’s a good thing.

Kate Epstein offers editing services at EpsteinWords, www.epsteinwords.com. She also offers literary agent services to crafts authors at www.epsteinliterary.com.


MOV said...

great post-- very informative. I like the distinctions you made about literary agents vs editors.

will be back to read more!


Karen Duvall said...

I've never heard of agents being like editors. Most agents don't edit their clients' work. Some do, but it's rare. They're too busy being agents to be editors. I'm lucky to have had my agent since 2008 and she happens to be a very good story editor, but editing is not her job. Her job as my agent is to keep her eye on the market, network with editors, negotiate contracts, and help build her clients' careers. I think that's an important distinction between the two.