A few weeks ago, I gave this piece of advice on Chuck Sambuchino’s blog over at Writer's Digest:
You may have to compromise to gain commercial success. As an artist working in a commercially driven industry, you could face an uncomfortable choice. Your agent and publisher will usually look at your labour of love with an eye on what is right for the market, not what is right for your vision. Publishing is an industry, and industries want to make money (although kudos and credibility in the form of prizes or critical acclaim from the intelligentsia form a lesser part of the equation). It is up to you whether you refuse to compromise your vision, and thus run the risk of your career facing a potentially fatal setback, or accede to their requests. Just make sure you can live with the consequences of your decision.
Given word count restraints, I didn’t have space to go as deeply into this as I would have liked, but a conversation with a friend the other day reminded me I had more to say. My friend, a budding writer, sent her manuscript off to an agent about two months ago. The agent got back to her expressing an interest in working with her. A big ‘Yay!’ is in order, right? Well, yes and no.
My writer friend, let’s call her Sam to avoid the need for me to write ‘my friend’ repeatedly (and thus sound like I’m waving my one pal around to show I’m not horrendously unpopular), was actually dispirited by the response from the agent.
Apart from the positive news, the agent also gave a long list of things that ‘needed’ changed in the manuscript. Again, I told my friend this was a good sign: no agent is going to waste time doing this unless they feel the writer has potential. Sam acknowledged this, but said she found herself facing exactly the dilemma I wrote about. The agent essentially wanted her to change her book so it would become more of a conventional crime thriller, and Sam wasn’t sure if she was comfortable with her original intentions being subverted in such a way. So, Sam wanted to know if she should make the changes to get her foot in the door, or stand her ground and run the risk of losing this agent.
Here is what I told her:
If you write in order to be published, then it makes absolute sense to implement whatever changes are requested. However, if your writing is your art and you feel very strongly about your vision, don’t make any changes that compromise what you want, but be aware this second approach can mortally wound your chances of ‘making it’.
Of course, there are many shades of grey in between these two stances. A writer may elect to compromise initially with the intention of establishing themselves and then changing direction later. This is possible, but there is also a good chance that this writer will find it far harder to change direction than they thought once their writer ‘brand’ has been created.
Also, when an agent or publisher asks for changes, there is often wiggle room and a middle ground where all parties are happy can be found. So search for that ground. However, for a lot of writers, there is usually a line that shouldn’t be crossed and the problems come when you are asked to cross that line.
New writers often lack confidence, and so when somebody from the inside opens that door a crack and gives you a tantalizing peek inside, the initial impulse can be to bend over backwards to get that agent. An agent may well suggest revisions that they honestly think will make for a better book. It is also possible that if an agent suggests changes, it is because they want to increase the commercial viability of that work so they can sell it to a publisher. Bear in mind that an agent is often second guessing what a publisher wants, and that a publisher is second guessing what the public wants.
In either scenario, an agent can just be plain wrong.
So, this is a key point to remember. Look at every suggested change with one simple question in mind: Does this make my book better? If not, you may be getting led down a path to a novel that, while fitting genre conventions a little better, is going to be average.
The problem with making all of the suggested changes, even those you don’t’ agree with, is that it will immediately put you in a situation where you are uncomfortable with your agent. The relationship is immediately defined by you doing something you didn’t want to, thus creating the possibility of long-term resentment and also setting a precedent where the agent gets the final call on the book.
All new authors feel powerless, but they are not. You have to remember that, ultimately, an agent is going to be working for you. Their income derives from your work. Without authors, agents wouldn’t make a penny, and the same goes for publishers. If you are good enough to attract the attention of the first agent you approach, then there is every chance you can attract the attention of others. So, you don’t have to sign up with the first one that bats their eyelashes at you and you don’t have to drastically rework your manuscript if it feels wrong.
Ultimately, you can be commercially successful but an artistic failure, or vice versa. You can be successful both commercially or artistically (but hopefully not a failure in both). Choose whether book sales or integrity of vision is most important to you, and create your own definition of success based on that criterion. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to sign up with an agent and whether to rewrite your work according to their wishes. The right agent (for you) can help take your work to another level and be a relentless advocate for your career. The wrong agent (again, for you) can make you lose focus and hamper your career. It is your future, so choose wisely.