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Why a Book Editor Becomes a Literary Agent

“My motivation comes from wanting to work with writers on editorial.”

By Olivia Snaije

LONDON: British editor Rebecca Carter is known in the publishing world for her indefatigable work bringing international literature in English and in translation to readers. Over the past 15 years she spent at Random House UK’s imprints Chatto & Windus and more recently Harvill Secker, Carter has edited Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow, Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française, Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes, and Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers.

Rebecca Carter

But just last month the news hit the industry that Carter was leaving Random House in mid-February to become an agent for none other than Janklow & Nesbit‘s London office.

In retrospect one might have seen it coming a year ago when Carter laid it all out in an essay in Words without Borders on the transforming role of the literary editor in a changing and digital world:

The “demise of the editor” has been a frequent lament in Britain and America over the past twenty years as the economic imperatives of large-scale publishing necessitate the prioritization of marketing over the costly, time-consuming process of working on texts to make them as good as they can be. The massive increase in the number of literary agents has been, in part, a response to the failure of publishers to give authors enough editorial time, itself in part a catalyst in the breakdown of close author-editor relationships.

Carter had asked herself at the beginning of her career, is a publishing house “…a machine for production, distribution and sales, or is it a nurturer of talent?”

Because the answer became the impossible both, Carter has chosen the path of nurturing talent.

“I want to follow an author’s career. I want to be that stable person in an author’s life,” said Carter in a telephone interview.

Becoming an agent “will involve a certain amount of forgetting. It will be different in many ways and at the same time it won’t be. My motivation comes from wanting to work with writers on editorial. To be involved in the flow of ideas and working on the text.”

In her time as an editor Carter has seen “the rise of marketing and the rise of the agent. The growth of agents has been huge. Inevitably it has impacted on role of editor. When I was younger these things kind of shocked me. I thought, how come I work so hard on books, for example on Chinese author Xinran [Hue] and then an agent sells the rights…As time has gone by I’ve realized it’s unavoidable. The editor’s role has become a lot about selling your book within the company. I’m almost the agent for a book within the company. Some agents do a lot of editing or editors do a big job publicizing an author so the roles are very fluid.”

Carter is an editor in the traditional sense of the word, and it is telling that she is becoming an agent in order to do her métier.

“I’ve always been interested in chipping away at a text and finding the sculpture within. To bring in authors who come with a book in an embryonic form and to be able to help them is very exciting…As publishing companies become more risk adverse, as an agent I can do that legwork, you can experiment rather than having to be so sure.”

Will Carter continue to promote authors in translation when she is an agent?

“Because I’ve published lots of books in translation people associate me with that but it’s only ever been half of what I’ve done. I think I’ll work primarily with English-language writers. Because it’s going to be about working on all aspects of a writer’s career, not to be able to read the original is going to be tricky, although I’m not adverse to it. I suspect there will be few…”

Given the stable of readers and translators that Carter has cultivated around her, authors will inevitably be sent her way and she may feel tempted to take them on, as exhausting and rigorous as seeing through literature in translation can be.

“I’m very sad about leaving him behind,” said Carter, referring to her author Ma Jian and his new novel that she recently acquired for Harvill Secker. “He had everything for me — poetry and politics all together.”

Carter also just acquired world English rights to Taiwanese author Mingyi Wu’s novel The Man with the Compound Eyes (working title) for which she sold American rights to Pantheon in November.

Carter has gained immense satisfaction in the influence she has had in introducing foreign authors to the public: “Publishing a few Chinese authors changed the view British readers had of Chinese literature.”

The books she is working on during her last few weeks at Harvill Secker are “a good representation of the types of authors I’d like to work with as an agent.”

All three are British writers although two have a decidedly international bent. They are:

Emran Mian’s book The Banker’s Daughter, Saira Shah’s “very personal” first novel, and Clare Clark’s novel set in 19th century London. Carter, who also edits non-fiction, has been working on British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith’s book on about Kris Maharaj, a British citizen controversially convicted of murder in Florida and given the death sentence.

Carter said she will “have to get good at making great deals for authors. Advances are going down — the mid-list doesn’t really exist anymore, there’s not much middle ground.”

There is a lot of anxiety within publishing companies to hold onto the old model, “but there are other ways of publishing opening up,” said Carter, citing the example of Words Without Borders using Kickstarter as a way of acquiring funding.

“People say to me [about changing] ‘oh you’re so bold, or, are you mad’, maybe it’s a crazy time but I don’t see it like that, rather more of an exciting time.”

DISCUSS: Who is More Responsible for a Book’s Text, Agent or Editor?

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  1. Darryl Sterk
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    The name of the Taiwanese author of The Man With the Compound Eyes is Mingyi Wu not Yi Wu.

  2. Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    With so many wonderful editors leaving their houses (either by design or because they were fired), wouldn’t it be awesome if several could get together and form their own publishing company(ies)? The biggest problem with self-pubbing continues to be lack of editing or excision of work that is not-ready-for-prime-time and largely clogs the system, especially of the giant Amazon. It would be excellent to have something in between traditional publication and free-for-all self-publication for talented authors who need the guidance of a great editor. Straight to e-book would be fine, but make them multi-platform, please! I would look for books there. I won’t slog thru tens of thousands of Amazon-only self-pubbed books, looking for the one that stands out.

  3. Edward Nawotka
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    @Ellen, I think you’ll find a lot of former big six editors are available for freelance work, but editors rarely if ever are given any acknowledgement of their work on the books. Maybe it should come as financial compensation instead?

    Ann Patty wrote a wonderful essay for us asking whether or not editors should be paid royalties: http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/04/the-future-for-book-editors-royalties/

    Ed Nawotka, EIC, Publishing Perspectives

  4. Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I realize a lot of former big six editors are freelancing now, and enjoying the work. My suggestion was more to forming collectives that would largely serve as small publishing houses. Of course they would receive royalties for their work, perhaps on the same level as we big six authors are hoping to receive for our e-book formats in the future. I would love to see publishing open to more authors, but have lost patience with those who think their work is ready when it’s not. Personally, I would rather spend $20 on one great book than on 20 miserable books that I won’t bother to finish.

  5. Posted February 7, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    It’s a sad commentary on publishing that a first rate editor has to leave a major publishing house in order to be able to do editing as she feels it ought to be done. She’ll certainly make a great agent with her emphasis on nurturing a career and “finding the sculpture within” for each text.

  6. Charlotte Cohen
    Posted February 13, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Self-publishing certainly can benefit a budding author, but there is also a serious pitfall. Lack of editing is a drawback. I’ve recently bought three self-published books. Each one had serious need of editing. If this happens too often, it could well discouraged readers from choosing self-published books.

  7. John Day
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Dear staff….I am a retired ex-serviceman, 68 years young, recently recovering from cancer operation, everything 100% clear now……Any way…..Can you suggest to whom and where I send hard-copy/CD of a collection of young childrens stories/prose?
    Initially I was going to send them to Austin & Macauley, London…..however, have viewed people’s comment referring to them as Vanity Publishers.
    I have been attempting to break into this closed-shop literary world for twenty years but its always been down to financial problems. I exist on a pension only.
    Any reasonable suggestion please? Thank you, Sir/Madam/Miss/Ms

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