Defining Roles: Agents & Editors

by Alice Speilburg

At the pre-publication stage, as you’re drafting queries and sending off sample pages, an editor at a publishing house and a literary agent seem to serve the same purpose: to legitimize your claim as a professional author, and to set you on the path to publication.

That’s usually where the similarity ends. An editor interested in your novel can make you a publication offer, complete with an advance, a contract, and a timeline in which your novel will publish. He will be your champion inside the publishing house, coordinating between editorial and other departments to make sure that everyone is working in line with the vision for the book.

But what if that vision, after a few adjustments, no longer matches your own? What if you aren’t sure about a clause in the contract, or you don’t know what the editorial process should entail? Your editor loves your work and wants to support you, but it’s not his job to hold your hand through the process. At the end of the day, he answers to the publishing house.

An agent interested in your work can make you an offer of representation, with a long term commitment to serve your career and your work. There’s no guarantee that signing with an agent will lead to a publishing contract, but the agent believes that it will. She will be your guide through the process, and when an editor offers a contract, she will make sure that the terms are industry standard. She is there to answer your questions about the publisher’s actions, and she fights for your vision if the publisher veers off course. If your dream publisher rejects your book, she turns to other places, finds new opportunities for you and your work. She holds your hand, whatever comes. She answers to you, the author.

For the agent, the stakes in your book’s performance are higher. She puts in a certain amount of work — editorial revisions, market research, phone calls, pitch letters — and her compensation depends on how well the book sells. With the agent’s commission tied directly to a percentage of the author’s royalties (usually 15%), her financial interest is intertwined with yours.

For the editor, your book likely plays a role in his annual objectives, where he might have to hit certain targets in revenue or number of acquisitions. Your book’s success will help advance his career, but he doesn’t have a direct financial stake in its sales.

No matter how much your editor loves your novel, he might take a job elsewhere, leaving your work orphaned. The agent, your representative, stays with you. You might surf from imprint to imprint, and like your primary care physician, your agent knows your history. She knows your publishing preferences and understands your trepidation about certain circumstances. She supports you when the bottom falls out of carefully laid plans.

I have seen my clients through terrible cover designs, multiple editor departures, imprint mergers and acquisitions, inaccurate royalty statements, and false copyright claims. When something unexpected happens — and in publishing, it usually does — your agent has probably seen it before. She’ll know what to do.

So if you secure an editor with a publishing contract on your own, congratulations! Now it’s probably time to seek out an agent to complete your publishing team.


Alice Speilburg is the founding agent of Speilburg Literary and has worked in book publishing for more than a decade. She represents commercial fiction and narrative nonfiction.

Her first editing gig was on the news desk of her college daily, and she is still drawn to compelling nonfiction stories, especially those written by journalists, that deepen our understanding of culture and society. In fiction, she is a lifelong fan of historical adventures and fantasy based on myths and legends. She loves a complete immersion read that takes her to another world through the eyes of original characters.

Prior to launching Speilburg Literary, Alice worked at John Wiley & Sons, and Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. Throughout her career, she has worked with bestselling and award-winning authors, literary and professional societies, and branded content. Alice is a member of several writing societies, including SFWA, and spends her weekends hiking with her husband and two sons. For more information, please visit the agency website: or connect with her on Twitter @AliceSpeilburg.