Q: It seems as though publishers and agents are looking for very polished manuscripts as well as finished ones at that. How polished does a manuscript have to be for submittal, or do they still have editors that work with the writer? Thank you.
A:I love this question. I love it when writers ask, "How good is good enough?" (That's not exactly your question, but that's how editors and agents perceive it.) That doesn't mean the question is silly or dumb. Quite the contrary, it's an excellent question.
First, I hope you read widely in the genre in which you want to publish, because it helps to have an internal sense of how your manuscript stacks up against the competition. Are your characters as strong and well-developed as the ones you love to read about? Does your plot have the same pace and structure as the ones that hold your interest? Does your manuscript read as well as any other published novel?
If you're unable to answer these questions, then ask yourself: Is your manuscript as good as you can possibly make it on your own? Have you revised it so much that you're completely sick of it--that you couldn't look at it another minute even if someone paid you? Then maybe it's polished enough to submit to an editor or agent. (And yes, you must have a finished work to submit if you're a first-time or unknown novelist.)
Many established authors say that the ability to objectively read and revise your own work is a rare skill, but even if you are skilled at self-editing, all writers have blind spots. That's why you should have an unfailingly honest friend (or smart critique group) who can give you useful, actionable feedback. Try to avoid giving your work to family members for an opinion. If they love you, they will not tell you the truth about your work. Unfortunately, friends can also be suspect in their judgment (they may not want to hurt your feelings), so gather several outside opinions.
Keep in mind you shouldn't follow every piece of advice you receive. But if two out of three people say that your plot moves too slowly, or that your ending didn't satisfy, then consider fixing the problem.
As a final step, look for a grad student in English to copyedit or proofread your work as an extra precaution, especially if you know that grammar and punctuation is your weakness.
Why go to all this trouble? Because agents will pitch work by unknown, first-time novelists only if it's top quality and professionally executed. It would be a waste of their time and a blow to their reputation if they submitted second-rate work to an editor. Always remember: It's not the agent's job to edit and revise your work; it's her job to sell it and run a profitable business. She doesn't have time to critique or revise your first draft. She needs a final draft that's ready to go. (There are some exceptions; new agents or "hungry" agents may be willing to work on a manuscript with someone they think has promise--but keep in mind they have to see the talent there to begin with before making an investment of time.)
(Also: For those readers who don't know, to get a novel published by a major publishing house these days, you have to go through an agent. If you have the choice or opportunity to approach an editor directly, it's the editor's call whether she wants to invest any time in a manuscript that's not quite there yet.)
Now we come to the slightly stinging part of your question: Don't editors edit any more? Yes, they do. Maybe not as much as they did in the good old days of Maxwell Perkins, but a wealth of editing still gets done. That said, plenty of books don't get the editing attention they require or deserve, for many reasons. But one thing's for sure: It's a hell of a lot easier to sell a near-perfect product than a flawed product. It's easier to sell it to the agent; it's easier to sell it to the editor; it's easier to sell it to the sales and marketing staff; it's easier to sell it to the bookstore buyer.
In my mind, when I think of the important, meaningful work that editors do, I'm thinking of how editors work with authors who they personally believe in when there's an established author-editor relationship. Authors who are working on their second or fourth or tenth contracted book probably have an editor they know (and love) who helps them develop their work at various stages--who points out the weaknesses and acts as the invisible hand that makes their work truly great.
But as a new, unproven, first-time author, who's going to spend that time on you? Maybe your agent, if you're lucky, or maybe your first editor, especially if they recruited you or paid a high price for you-- but to get your foot in the door to start with, that manuscript better be damn near perfect.