Editors and Agents

A couple of posts back, Jill Elaine Hughes left an interesting comment:

It might be interesting, Victoria, to get some respected editors to do a post on how they prioritize agented submissions based on the quality/reputation of the agent. I know that if you’re repped by Donald Maass or Ethan Ellenberg, you can get read right away; mid-tier agents get placed in the middle of the pile, and scammer agents like BB get relegated to the slush pile. Or so I’ve heard. I’d love to hear more about how editors deal with these marginal agents.

As I understand it, Jill is correct. Top-tier agents get top priority. Midrange agents, and agents the editors don’t know but who seem professional (i.e., a literate cover letter, an appropriate and not obviously substandard submission, no unnecessary furbelows or folderols like author photos or a marketing plan for a novel), get mid-level priority. The obviously incompetent agents, or the agents the editors have run across before and know from experience to be incompetent, get a glance at most. At worst, they go straight to the form rejection pile.

Editors definitely remember bad agents. A few years back, Ann and I did an article on the getting of agents for Writer’s Digest. As a sidebar, we asked a number of editors and editors’ assistants at major publishers some questions about how they deal with agents–including whether there were agents whom they ignored or who got bottom priority because the agents habitually submitted inappropriate or illiterate or totally unprofessional material (for a rundown on unprofessional submission techniques, see my What Real Agents Don’t Do post). Not only did every single person we talked to say yes, they named names. A few of the agencies we hadn’t heard of, but most were on our watchlist–and several are on our “20 Worst” list.

The few editors whose houses accepted unagented manuscripts also told us that unagented writers get more consideration than known bad agents–that is, very, very little consideration compared to that given to established writers or writers repped by top agents (remind me to do a post on why you shouldn’t submit unagented to a major publisher, even where the guidelines say you can)–but at least not an automatic trip to the reject pile.

Yet more evidence–as if there weren’t already enough–that a successful agent is the only kind worth having, and that it’s just a waste of time, not to mention money, to hook up with a disreputable or amateur agent.

Any editors who’d like to weigh in on this issue, post a comment here or email us (beware@sfwa.org) and we’ll be glad to reprint it.


  1. John Goodman, in reference to Victoria S. and Dave K. writes; “Either they are independently wealthy or earn significant income from book sales or as paid bloggers by the competitors of agents and publishing companies that they criticize.”

    Since this quote relates to information posted by Victoria and Dave regarding specific, questionable publishers or agents, then one must assume Mr. Goodman word; “competitor” must too relate to competive publishers or agents that too run their operations with similar models; since true agents and commercial publishers do not require money from the writer; and, exist by sales of manuscripts to publishers, or book sales to other than the writer.

  2. I came across your blog during research on scam artists posing as legitimate literary agents. I found your blog to be one of the best informative blogs for aspiring writers.

    Johnny Israel
    City Room Press

  3. (remind me to do a post on why you shouldn’t submit unagented to a major publisher, even where the guidelines say you can)

    Is this just that your chances are so much better (your work would be seen by more editors, well-agented submissions are higher on the list o’ things-to-read, etc.)? The flip side to that, of course, is that if you can’t get an agent, sometimes you have to take your chances with the slush piles…. In other words, I’m curious whether it’s that “you shouldn’t submit unagented,” or if it’s that “you should, if at all possible, submit agented” (there’s a big difference there).

    Or is there some other secret drawback that will surprise us? E.g. “Oh no, this person submitted slush, even though we say to do so — quick, blackball him!” 😉

    Thanks for all you two do!

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APRIL 29, 2006

The 20 Worst Come Home

MAY 3, 2006

The Sun Sets on Desert Rose?