The Author-Agent Relationship

On July 23, Publisher’s Marketplace reported that agent Julie Barer of Barer Literary sold Nick Dybek's debut novel, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, after an auction during which five publishers made offers, to editor Sarah Bowlin at Riverhead Books. Most writers, when they read news like this, assume such deals result from a combination of talent and luck. Often overlooked is the hard work put in by both author and agent, after they join forces, to make the manuscript submission-ready. We asked Dybek how the author-agent relationship worked in his case, and here’s what he had to say.

“By the time I began working with Julie Barer, I’d been scrubbing and polishing a novel for almost four years, and I felt the manuscript was almost as good as it would ever be. Julie’s warm and enthusiastic response to the book served to reinforce this delusion, at least at first. Consequently, when her revision letter and mark-up arrived a month later, suggesting what felt like a mountain of substantive changes and cuts, I have to admit my day was ruined. It wasn’t that I was unused to or resistant to criticism; years of writing workshops had given me calluses. But, for the first time, I didn’t have the option of ignoring those suggestions I instinctively, if inexplicably, resisted. ‘Give an editor an excuse to turn a project down,’ Julie often said, ‘and he will.’ Though she never demanded that I take her advice, she was seldom impressed by my flailing explanations as to why I wanted that paragraph or this scene or that chapter to stay the same.

"It took me four months to write a draft responding to Julie’s initial comments. And then, over a period of about nine months, with Julie’s patient help, I wrote another draft and another and another. This was some of the most difficult work I’ve ever done, at least partially because of how conflicted I felt about the process. Part of me was impatient, frustrated at having to address problems in the manuscript I wasn’t sure were problems, unsure that I could even bear to read a scene, a paragraph, a sentence again. But another part of me was purely and immensely grateful that a pro like Julie was taking my work so seriously, spending her weekends reading my manuscript for the second, third, fourth, and fifth times. Though many of the revisions I made were painful in the moment, I haven’t regretted a single one. And I realize now that Julie was holding my work to a standard that I should have held it to all along.”