Beyond the Smoke
Terry Burns

Terry Burns hs been with Hartline Literary for over ten years, five years as an agent, and has a substantial list of clients, a growing list of credits, and a reputation for presenting to conferences all over the country. He is consistently listed near the top on the Publisher's Marketplace list of agents helping debut authors to publish. Terry comes from a writing background, has over 40 books of his own in print, most recently adapting a Christian movie script to print for the movie “Footprints,” a Young Adult entitled Beyond the Smoke which won the Will Rogers Medallion and a book on the skills needed to get published entitled A Writer’s Survival Guide to Publication that was developed out of the month long course he held for ACFW. A bookstore of his available works as well as a periodic blog can be found at As an agent Terry says "I'm looking for a good book, well written in a unique voice, aimed at a market that looks promising, and where I feel I have the contacts appropriate to be able to sell the book in that market. I’m pretty open as to genre but I don’t do picture books, sci fi or fantasy. He’s a member of the Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR).

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Heard It Through Hartline

Why Not?

“My project is good enough to publish, so why does no agent want to represent it or no editor want to publish it?” the frustrated author asked the panel. Good question.

Several things are involved, and the first is competition. I’ve said before that we agents receive hundreds of submissions a month, and a large number of them are good enough to be published. That means good is just not good enough, it takes exceptional. If your manuscript is really good but it is sitting there beside one or more that are simply better, that editor or agent is going to go with better. It’s just how things work.

It is not about judging you or judging your work, it is simply the editor or agent picking the best offering. That brings taste into the discussion. Things I really like might not be to someone else’s taste. I have editors whom I really like and who like me, but I have never sold them anything. Our tastes are too dissimilar. I have other editors I sell to all the time because we have very similar tastes. This is the second factor an author is up against when submitting: is your work something that will appeal to the particular taste of the editor or agent? Not a question of whether your work is good or bad, but whether it fits within their tastes.

The next factor is “does is fit the slot?” A particular editor is probably trying to fill a catalog slot. He or she is looking for something specific, and an author’s work may or may not fit the criteria at that particular time. Again, does it mean the manuscript is being judged up or down? No, it just isn’t what the editor is looking for at that time, so out comes the dreaded “This is not a fit for us” letter. You can multiply that by multiple editors for the agent. It’s our job as agents to try to know what editors are looking for so we asking the same question, “This is good, but does it fit what some of the editors are looking for?”

The kind of manuscript it is can affect whether it fits the slot. Projects that neatly fit in some genre, style, or category are easier for an editor or agent to deal with. They are easier to sell, but such books also tend to be a bit average and are seldom a blockbuster or a best seller. The manuscript that stretches the envelope is the one that becomes a best seller, but they are also much harder to place, as a rule. Some editor has to take a chance on it. And the agent has to know that editor.

Not just any editor is in a position to gamble. A banker who makes several bad loans will find himself out of work. Editors who have too many titles that do not perform are in the same situation. If an editor has just hit one out of the park and is languishing in the limelight of bringing a best seller to the market, she is in a position to take a chance on something else. Others are probably looking for proven titles that they feel comfortable that their reader base will be interested in buying. Agents are looking for what these editors are interested in publishing, and we try to know what that is.

So you see it isn’t black and white, it isn’t a simple this is good or this is not good, it’s subjective. All of these factors, plus many more, come into play. The largest factor, however, is for the author to write an exceptional book that flows beautifully from cover to cover so it can compete well against the other titles. When those comparisons are made, we need to put ourselves in the position of being the top title.


Survival Guide