what agents want

What Agents Want: An Extremely Important Relationship

The mammoth Convention Center Ballroom is packed. The panels about the business of writing are standing room only. Some attendees are hunched over notebooks scribbling, most are sipping coffees and scrolling phones. The dos and don’ts are a hot topic. The room fills with banter.

“Do you have an agent? Or are you looking for a new one?”

“Most YA novels are written from a younger person’s point of view.”

“My husband’s is simply gorgeous!”

At the AWP Bookfair 2018
At the AWP Bookfair 2018

I’m scrolling through the agent’s websites, scanning their bios and interviews seeking the slightest connection.

Jeff Kleinman is looking for “for extremely well-written, character-driven book club fiction that make me absolutely fall in love with the characters and their world.”

Sarah Bowlin worked with Sheila Heti and Juan Gabriel Vasquez, two of my favorite contemporary authors who sell well.

Anjali Singh seem to have a penchant for YA, and Paul W. Morris, the moderator, has a well-stamped literary-citizen passport and is currently the VP of Marketing and Outreach at The Authors Guild. He explains the much needed services of the Guild before introducing the agents.

What do you specialize in?

Jeff: I like books that make people cry. I don’t do commercial fiction. I won’t do historical fiction, but I will do a voice set in the past.

Anjali: I love books that tell a family story. I’m new to agenting. I want books that are meaningful to me and I want to represent voices that are under-represented. It makes sense to query projects that we have published before because we have relationships with editors in those genres.

Sarah: I want beautifully written transporting stories that take us out of ourselves. Place and landscape are important. I was a military kid growing up, so I moved around a lot. A solid sense of a place, atmosphere, I need to know the place throughout the book. As an agent, I’m working on the ground of where I was as an editor. I love being an agent because I can be an advocate.

What do you look for in a writer-client or in a query?

Anjali: I like to feel chosen. So do all your research.

Jeff: Three things:

  1. Look at the premise. Be able to articulate the story in a few words.
  2. Voice. Do you know JD Salinger? Virginia Woolf? [Everyone puts up their hands.] Do ever confuse them?
  3. Are you a good literary citizen? Are you involved? Journals? Editing? Well, you’re here, so that’s a start.

How you advise writers to put themselves out there?

Anjali: Build your community as early as you can. Book clubs, writing groups are super important.

Sarah: The writing is primary. Yes, building a community is important. Publishing houses are looking for partners, writers that will pitch in and help promote. You need a clear head at the same time as balancing the getting the book out there.

After you start to work with an author, what is the process?

Jeff: I have to love the book a lot. I have eight hours to read a novel. I have a kid. I want to see Black Panther. If you really love the book, it doesn’t matter how much editing is needed. I have one in the works: Othello meets Macbeth meets Breaking Bad and it needs work but I love it.

Anjali: The process can be very long. Some agents will send out short stories and essays, some won’t. We career plan, we help with story, we are your advocates.

Sarah: It’s a match-making thing. You ask them if they are editorial and if they say no that might not be the person for you. I have insight into what is happening on the publisher’s side. The process of getting a book through the editorial process is gruelling, and I know how hard it can be.

What is the best way for a writer to find an agent?

Anjali: PublishersMarketplace.com is invaluable. Spend time on the agency website. Check their authors. What are you trying to accomplish?

Sarah: Poets & Writers is great. Read the Q&As and roundtable archives. As you grow your community, talk to your writing friends. Ask them how the experience was. You want to make sure you understand the ranges and styles of the industry.

Jeff: When you type in the words “literary agent” into a search, you will be overwhelmed. I suggest dividing the list into (a) ones you really want to work with, (b) okay, they’re fine, and (c) maybe in the dark with your clothes on. Choose two or three from each group. Send out two queries from each group. Then down the lists.

How do you know if a manuscript is ready to send?

Anjali: If you know the agent or have a connection, you may send in unfinished work. But if not, when you are really finished is when you hate it—you are completely done with it. Write your own flap copy. Sometimes the act of writing the copy helps you know when you can send it out.

Sarah: When you are 100% sick of it, send it to one of your readers, then get sick of it again. You get a first impression-shot with these agents. Try and solve all the problems you can see before you send it out. Then do it again. I have a stack of hundreds of queries. If I’m not interested in the first 20 pages, I just can’t physically read it all, so are you starting in the right place?

Jeff: You need to let it sit. If you are worried about anything in the manuscript, don’t send it out.

How much does an author need to know about marketing?

Anjali: If the book knocks our socks, then we’ll figure it out.

Jeff: What’s the conversion rate of your email newsletter? Anyone know? It can be between 30 and 50 percent. They work. So build your voice.

Sarah: Of course, if the manuscript is amazing, then everything will fall into place. I don’t need you to sell me you book. I personally get wary if the query is all about platform. If the pitch is too hard, too focused on the pitch, I just need to know what the book is about. The material makes the ultimate decision. Also, if things are a little too casual, like “Dear Sarah, Hi! How are you?” I feel like it lacks respect for the work.

Do you have any pet peeves?

Sarah: Yes, “Dear Agent.” I delete it. If I’m going to spend time reading it, you can use my name.

Anjali: Don’t hit me over the head with a sales pitch. I want to know about the book and why you wrote it.

Jeff: There is something about “writerliness” that turns me off. If grammar and spelling are off, there is something wrong. For me, it’s all voice.

How much do you work with writers during the submissions process to publishers?

Anjali: I have a Google doc and we are totally transparent. They can see every single detail. Post-mortem problems can be avoided.

Jeff: I can spend up to two weeks on a cover letter [to editors]. But I never share rejection letters. We discuss a submission plan. If an editor wants to speak to my author, I want them upbeat and positive, not defensive.

Sarah: It’s flexible. I share the feedback that is productive.

Should writers already have websites?

Anjali: They don’t need one before I take them on. As publication approaches, it is essential.

Any resources for book proposals?

Jeff: Look at Writer’s Digest samples. Read a book. Follow the samples.

Do you consider the existing publication track record when choosing a writer?

Sarah: It’s great, but not essential.

Anjali: Sometimes discovering an unknown writer can be exciting.

Jeff: When dealing with nonfiction, and especially memoir, without a platform, it is a hard sell. I’ve lost deals with amazing books because they had no platform.

Are there any trends you foresee for the next few years?

Jeff: Ebook originals are growing. There is much more literary genre fiction—making the western or sci-fi writing beautiful.

Anjali: Things have to move faster. Pages have to turn faster. Beautifully written, plot-driven books are gold.

Sarah: The midlist is getting harder to sell. Publishers are taking fewer shots, and those shots are more literary.

The panel opened up to the room for questions. The first person began, “I will try to be brief…” and they are not.

David Morgan O'Connor

David Morgan O’Connor is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.

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