Agents vs. Editors

I’ve had a few writers recently come to me with questions similar to this one (summarized):

Help! I am querying agents and publishers simultaneously and I’ve noticed something strange. All of the agents seem to say complimentary things about the writing but reject my idea. Some have even said that they wouldn’t know how to sell it and that there’s no market for it. One went as far as to say, “Give up already, nobody is going to buy this.” Meanwhile, the editors I’ve reached out to rave about the writing and say that it’s a really good idea. Does this happen often? Who’s right?

I’m going to try and address this intelligently without insulting too many people. Agents and editors are different and represent different steps in the publishing process. Agents can often be accused of taking more mainstream projects with an eye toward the market and current trends. That comes from the way that agents make money: They want to attract as many buyers to your project as possible so that you, your project, the agent, and the agency get the most favorable outcome, which usually tends to happen to “bigger” or “commercial” projects that inspire a bidding war. Then they want to use this momentum to sell even more rights, like foreign and film. They take a percentage of the sale (sometimes with a salary, sometimes working only on commission) so they have to do a lot of big sales in order to profit.

Editors, on the other hand, often seem more sympathetic to more marginal projects without paying as much attention to market trends. They know that their publishers service many audiences, including schools and libraries, and that there are many different slots that a potential book can fill. They are willing to look at things that aren’t as immediately marketable and see their potential. They also don’t have to hustle for their money. Sure, they are under pressure from their bosses to acquire profitable projects. But they have more job security they can take more time and be more charitable with feedback for things that come across their desks. (This is not to say that editors don’t work hard. They work incredibly hard! But they, in general, are also more secure financially because they work for large companies that pay a salary.)

Before you think that I’m calling agents mercenary art-killers and editors starry-eyed idealists, though, here’s another layer of complexity: In the real world, it is very difficult for either party to get what it wants. Blockbuster commercial projects that will go on to sell in the six- or seven-figures come around once in a blue moon. Everybody wants one, everybody fights for it when it appears, but only one agent gets it. The rest of the time, agents have to see the potential in more challenging concepts. And as fun as it is to hold a huge auction, it’s just as fun fun to sell a “quiet” book to the perfect editor who immediately “gets it.” Finding this fit is a lot more work for often less (monetary) reward, but it feels amazing, too.

And while an editor may love the idea of doing a book for a very limited audience or with a totally out-there subject matter, they have to answer to their bosses, their pub boards, their finance guys, their marketing departments, etc. etc. etc., and they sometimes get brought back down to earth by a “no” that comes from above. So while the editors in the sample question all seem to be much more amenable toward marginalized concepts, I didn’t hear that any of them were offering to buy the manuscripts in question, either. Liking something and saying nice things about it is very different from putting cold, hard money on the line. We all go into children’s publishing to help get amazing books into the hands of worthy young readers, but these aspirations often butt right up against the fact that publishing is a Business-with-a-capital-B. And sometimes a book with a challenging subject matter, or one without “high-concept” commercial potential will take more work to see in print.

Agents do have to focus on more commercial concepts sometimes to stay afloat. And editors have to jump through a whole lot of hoops and “sell” a book to their team before they can make an offer. For books where the potential to profit isn’t obvious, that means it will take time to place them witheither and agent or an editor. I don’t think it’s right for anyone to say “Just give up, this is a fool’s errand!” But I also don’t want to say that every book will get published, because some ideas are jut too far out there to invest in in a competitive market.

Part of trying to get published, however, is understanding the process. Here I hope I can offer some insight into why agents and editors sometimes seem at odds when it comes to their decisions. It’s never quite as black-and-white as it appears. A caveat: This post is NOT about drawing a line in the sand and saying “this type of book is commercial and this isn’t.” Part of the gamble of publishing is to look and imagine and take chances. I will never tell a writer that this idea categorically won’t work and that idea is a guaranteed bestseller. It doesn’t work like that. There are no certainties. My core message has always been that writers who focus on the craft and learn about the publishing business are setting themselves up for greater success. This post is instead about addressing a disparity between agent and editor responses that several writers have noticed, and trying to explain the possible reasons.

Describing Plot in a Query Letter

Describing plot in a query letter can be tricky. Many writers stumble over the “meat” of the pitch. One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” (Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.)

describing plot in a query letter, query letter, slush, literary agent, young adult query, middle grade query, novel query, picture book query
Fill this page with your query “meat.” Sounds gross, but I’m about to rock your world. Get your mind out of the gutter!

This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.

Are You Listing or Are You Describing Plot in a Query Letter?

Here’s an example of a query letter that relies overly on situation instead of plot:

Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.

Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…

Sell the Reader on Your Query Letter

This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.”

In a pitch letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.

Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.

Structure the Pitch, Don’t Ask the Agent to Do the Work

That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot shines through, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. Something that’s more specific would go like this:

Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.

Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the query is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

I spent five years as a literary agent, and I saw tens of thousands of queries. Hire me be your query letter editor, and I’ll help you avoid common traps and rise above the slush.

Getting Agented in Multiple Categories

This is a question that I get asked at conferences all the time and I am, frankly, shocked that I haven’t responded to it on the blog yet. This version of it comes from Wendy, and that’s what reminded me to finally address it:

I am looking for an agent for my YA fantasy novel. While researching, I cross the names off my list of those agents who state that they are not looking for picture books. I do this because I also write smaller stories that would make great picture books. My question is: If and when I find an agent and he/she does not want to take on my other stories or does not believe in them as strongly as I do, do I find another agent for these works? Do authors usually have multiple agents?

First of all, it depends on the agency. A lot of agencies who represent you for the children’s market will want to represent ALL of your work in those categories. (Eternal point of clarification: “middle grade” is not a “genre,” it is an “audience” or “category,” same with “picture book” and “young adult.” “Fantasy” or “contemporary” are genres. This is a vital distinction to make.) When I worked at Andrea Brown, this was definitely our MO. Since we all specialized in ALL children’s categories, from picture book to young adult, we took on clients writing for multiple audiences with the full confidence that we would be able to pitch their picture books as well as their gritty YA (as long as all were done very well, of course, per this previous post on the topic). Now at Movable Type, I also expect to be a writer’s only children’s agent because I am the only person at the agency doing children’s books.

The reasons for this are many, but the biggest one boils down to ownership. Suppose you have a picture book agent, a chapter book agent, and a middle grade agent for your work and you write well in all three categories. (This is a pie in the sky scenario, used only as an example, and extremely unlikely.) What if you are working on a picture book property with an agent and they’ve invested a lot of revision and time. You go out on submission. All the editors say, “Wow, this is great, but it should really be longer and a chapter book.” Or you’ve written a middle grade and worked on it with your MG agent, and all the editors say, “Gee, this rocks, but your voice is a bit young. Can you age it down and make it a chapter book? We’d love to see it again!”

Who gets the credit (read: compensation)? Your picture book or middle grade agent did a lot of work on the project and therefore they have a lot invested in selling the property and earning commission on it. But if you also have a chapter book agent, they would be the agreed-upon choice for selling the chapter book side of your portfolio. Again, this is a silly example, but you can see how easily you’d slip into a gray area and pit your agents against one another if you had separate representatives for each category.

My rule of thumb is that, if you write for multiple audiences, you need to seek a representative from the get-go who is confident in their abilities to submit to editors in all your desired categories, and, most importantly, who LOVES YOUR WORK in each category. If they are crazy about the YA and not the PBs, but you have your heart set on writing both, it might be very difficult to walk away but it might save you some heartbreak down the line (them saying, “I just took you on for this YA and, really, I don’t know if these PBs will go anywhere.”) They might be totally correct in their assessment, but you had your heart set on being a PB author as well as a YA author, so that might leave you in a tight spot.

The only time when I think it’s okay to have multiple agents is if, for example, you also write adult (and you can have an adult book agent either at the same agency or a different one) or screenplays (another agent or manager there). Those divisions are much clearer than the divisions between kidlit categories. As long as all agents know about one another and each agency contract is written in such a way that permits you to have other representation, I don’t see that being a problem. But within children’s books–a very tiny world where all the editors usually acquire for multiple audiences and everyone knows one another–it could get really hairy, fast.

Communicating With Literary Agents While On Submission

Today’s question about communicating with literary agents while on submission comes from Peter:

I’m submitting simultaneous submissions (only when they say it’s OK, of course). I know it is common courtesy to let agents know the submission is not exclusive and inform the others when I receive representation from one. But what of the time in between? If I query two agents, and one emails me back with suggestions and asks me to resubmit, do I need to tell the other one? In other words, should I keep everyone in the loop of events prior to anything less than a signed contract?

communicating with literary agents, received offer of representation, following up with literary agents, submitting to a literary agent
The train is leaving Fiction Station! Rec’d offr 4 rep. U in? (No, please don’t text or call literary agents that you have another offer, but you do want to send an email…)

Keeping Literary Agents in the Loop–How Much Is Too Much Communication?

Good question! There are a few things going on here. I’ll do my best to unpack them. I hope all of you are already as up-to-speed as this writer and know that it is courtesy to both inform agents when something is a simultaneous submission (and most things should be, you know how I feel about exclusivity), and when you receive an offer on a manuscript.

Now, some people are torn as to whether to contact EVERY agent who has the query when you receive an offer, even if they haven’t responded yet, or just those agents who are reading fulls or partials.

I’m neutral on the issue. I’ve had querying writers inform me of an offer and this made me read their query immediately if I hadn’t already. I’ve also had writers whose fulls I was reading email me to tell me that someone had scooped me and offered quickly. Both work for me. What I don’t love is someone whose full I am considering emailing me to let me know that they’ve received an offer–and accepted it already–without letting me have time to decide whether I’d also like a chance at the manuscript.

Communicating With Literary Agents When You Receive an Offer

Of course, I understand that sometimes you have an instant connection with an offering agent and all other agents start to immediately look like chopped liver. But the usual time to inform everyone is when you receive an offer. If you do accept without giving anyone else a chance, a courtesy notice to other agents reading is, of course, appropriate, but try and make them aware earlier.

What I don’t care about are partial and full requests you’re getting while I either have your query or full manuscript. There is no need to keep everyone informed about this. I understand the psychology behind writers sometimes think this is a good idea, but it’s more annoying than anything. They want you to think, “What a hot commodity! I must read immediately!”

This is what I think instead, “As nice as they feel to this writer, partial and full requests are actually quite common. Depending on the agent, however, they could mean very little in terms of getting an offer, and we all know it.” This type of nudge email is just that: a nudge. And, the more often a writer does it, the more annoying they might start to seem.

My response may not apply to all agents across the board, but the above are pretty standard best practices that you can follow to play fair and also not antagonize the agents you’re hoping to impress. If it’s an offer, keep us in the loop. If you’d like to withdraw your query, partial, or full for any reason, keep us in the loop. Otherwise, wait. I know it’s tough, but it makes a good impression if you can be patient.

Do you feel lost navigating the ins and outs of submission to literary agents and publishing houses? Bring me on board as your manuscript and publishing consultant, and we can work on a game plan together.

Synthesizing Feedback

One of the most difficult things to do if you get a lot of critique or pay for reads at conferences is to synthesize all the feedback you’re receiving into something that makes sense. Last week, a blog reader wrote in to ask the following:

I have a question about feedback about a WIP. I recently had 3 manuscript assessments completed, two full reads by highly recommended freelance editors (paid for), and one 10-page review by a professional agent (also paid for). The first two were really positive with minor ‘fixes’ to consider and when asked if I should persevere, the response was ‘absolutely’. However, the third feedback, from the literary agent, basically told me to start something new and give up on that MSS. So how does one take such varying feedback? Which feedback do you take on board and which do you reject without being biased?

This is a tough one. If it were me and my manuscript, I’d try and find a middle ground between “minor fixes” and “trash the thing.” Also, keep in mind that the editors read the full manuscript, which is helpful, while the agent only read the first 10 pages. In this writer’s case, I would be very tempted (as a human) to choose the editors’ opinions and discard the agent’s. However, as an agent (definitely not human, LOL), I say that the source does matter. Don’t reject the agent’s harsher feedback because you don’t like it. Here’s why: Besides writing quality, agents also have to react and think about premise and marketability, and they know more on that front than laypeople or even trained freelancers. They’re the ones staying on top of trends and the ones closely familiar with what is and isn’t selling.

(Sidebar: I’m not particularly thrilled with the agent’s response myself, though I would say there’s probably some truth to it. The reason for this is that saying “burn it” isn’t constructive to a writer. Even if I see little hope for a manuscript, I always try to at least provide some actionable feedback. I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t the case in this situation.)

Freelance editors focus primarily on the strengths and opportunities for grown in the manuscript as it exists before them. If the manuscript is technically good and the story moves along well, they may be tempted to rate it highly. Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason (usually a too-slow or too-quiet or too-clichéd premise). So while the agent’s feedback is harsh, there may be truth to either the writing or the concept not working.

If the writer in question wants another agent’s opinion and money is not an issue, I would encourage them to seek yet another agent or editor’s opinion (someone from the sales side, not another freelance editor). That should clarify the picture a bit. If they can’t get another professional critique at the moment, I would focus on tweaking the story and concept to something that’s more exciting by today’s standards. Concept might, after all, be what the agent reacted poorly to. There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else. Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. That’s a way to take the agent’s negative-sounding advice and make it empowering instead.

Big Announcement

As of today, I am officially a Senior Literary Manager and the head of Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult at Movable Type Management! This is a wonderful new opportunity for me and I’m leaving with the full support of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, which has been my foundation and professional home for the past three and a half years. A huge thank you to my family of former colleagues: Andrea, Laura, Caryn, Jen, Jenn, Kelly, Jennifer, Taryn, and Lara. I’ve learned so much from this amazing team of women–truly among the best in the children’s book business. I have been blessed and am so grateful to have had my start at such an amazing place.

Being in such an enviable position, however, raises its own set of questions: Where can I go from here? What’s the future of publishing and agenting? Where do I fit into the brave new world of books and content and digital? As many of you know, I spent the first six years of my professional life working at a start-up that went on to sell to Google. I grew up in the Silicon Valley. There’s a rebellious and entrepreneurial streak in my blood.

Even though I’d found a wonderful place to work, I caught myself yearning to learn more about some other elements of publishing–namely digital books and packaging–because I believe they will become more and more important in the future. I wanted to amass new skills and explore what another agency is doing–both for my future as an agent and to provide new opportunities for my clients. I wanted my years of experience as a dot.com-er to dovetail with my passion for children’s books. I wanted more of that start-up feeling in my life.

It has been an absolute joy to learn from the very best, but I know that there is no reward without risk. Now it’s time for me to evolve and join a new and like-minded team at Movable Type, a small, nimble, and entrepreneurial agency. So here’s to my new colleagues: Jason Allen Ashlock, Adam Chromy, Jamie Brenner, and Michele Matrichiani. There are so many possibilities out there in today’s publishing world, and I want to learn about them and make them happen for my clients. Plus, I want to grow! I can’t describe to you the thrill of starting a department, enriching my relationships with the children’s publishing business, finding new clients, and truly being responsible for my own enterprise within an agency. This is the kind of leadership role that I’ve been dreaming about and I couldn’t be more excited to get started.

This transition may come as a surprise to some of you. It certainly did to me when I found myself seriously considering walking away from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. But this is the right choice, and I’m thrilled to also have the full support of my client list! That vote of confidence means the world. These last few weeks have been extremely fraught and bittersweet. There were lots of tears, but they’ve all been tears of gratitude. I am completely indebted to my colleagues, past and present, my friends, my family, my clients, my blog readers, and everyone else who has stood by me and decided to go along for the ride. As I wrote in the acknowledgments for my book: “Y’all know me–and you love me anyway!”

Now. Nitty gritty. The blog and my work for Writer’s Digest will not change. Neither will my availability for conferences and events. I’ll still write posts here every Monday and Wednesday. I’ll still teach webinars (including a children’s market overview this Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern, click here for more information). I’ll still hang out on Twitter and Facebook. If I still owe you a Writer’s Digest critique or a response to a manuscript or query, you will still get it as soon as possible. I still have all of your submissions and correspondence.

Now, though, you can query me at Movable Type! At Andrea Brown, you had to choose from one of nine wonderful agents. In my new role, I’ll be the only one seeing the children’s queries, focusing on picture books, middle grade, and young adult. We are still tweaking the MTM website, but my new email is up and running. It’s MKole@MovableTM.com! My submission guidelines remain the same as they were at ABLA: I want to see your query letter and the first 10 pages of your novel submission or full picture book text copied and pasted into the body of your email. The word “Query” should appear somewhere in your subject line. No attachments please (illustrators send a link to an online portfolio) and no snail mail.

Thank you all for your support and I can’t wait to see what I can do over at Movable Type. I hope to see your submissions pouring in soon so that I can start my new job off with a bang!

Picture Book Alliteration

Picture book alliteration always annoys. Well, not always, but it’s getting there. I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books since I wrote a new picture book talk for the awesome SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle this past weekend. I’m also doing a lot of webinar critiques.

alliteration in picture books, alliteration writing, alliterative writing, alliteration, alliteration children's books, alliteration kid's books
The best picture books are fresh and vibrant, and alliteration dates a manuscript.

Picture Book Alliteration Is Overdone

This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration.

Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.

A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.

Alliteration Doesn’t Add As Much As You Think to a Manuscript

But more and more, I get picture book manuscripts that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see alliteration in PBs, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.

In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible opening line. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.

So instead of lending you a coveted voice, alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.

Picture books are my absolute favorite manuscripts to work on. If you’re using alliteration but suspect you could do better, hire me as your picture book editor. We’ll figure out your unique writing voice.

We’ll Know It When We See It

At every conference we attend, with every interview we do, and for every bio we fill out, there’s one question that always makes its way into the mix: “What are you looking for?”

It came up on a panel this weekend at the excellent San Francisco Writers Conference, as usual. It’s what writers are very curious about, naturally. Because, if they know what agents and editors want, they can supply…right?

Well, I hate this question. And I said so. And the smartass answer–“I know it when I see it”–isn’t helpful. My actual answers on the panel were “Good stuff done well” and “Literary spark and commercial appeal.”

I’m not trying to be coy here. But I think that fellow agent Taylor Martindale‘s answer to a different question illustrates my point perfectly. When talking about books we were excited about, she said she recently sold a YA novel about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she has become Amelia Earhart. Taylor had just sold the book and, to be honest, it sounds really interesting.

It’s a rare agent or editor who knows exactly, in very specific detail, what they’re looking for. Sure, some editors will say, for example, “I am looking for Dexter for teens.” They tell everyone they know. This actually happened in 2010 with one editor, and they got their wish. Their very specific request inspired author Barry Lyga to write the forthcoming I HUNT KILLERS, which comes out in April and, if you don’t mind me saying, is mind-blowingly great.

It’s much more common to get a vague answer like my panel responses. I bet Taylor Martindale never went on a panel at a conference and said “I’m looking for a YA about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I never went on a panel and said “I’m looking for a picture book about a bird who befriends a snowball” (WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, which was written up in last week’s New York Times), or “I really want to read about a boy who stumbles into a parallel universe to try and reclaim the love of his life” (THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth) or “I really want a story about a Polynesian volcano goddess with a bad tempter” (WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight).

In fact, when we meet with editors, they very rarely get super specific about what they’re looking for. We’ve all been shocked and delighted about what has grabbed us in the past. So I, personally, never say never and leave the possibilities wide open. Most of my colleagues in agenting and publishing do the same. When I meet with editors, it’s less about what they say they want and more about learning the flavor of their imprint and hearing them talk about books that have excited them. Are they focusing on the characters? The plot? The writing? Do they like to laugh? Cry? Fall in love? Basically, I’m trying to get a more general picture of their sensibilities, then match projects to them on that level. Of course, if they have specific requests, I keep those in mind, too, just in case I ever have a perfect match.

You are the writer. It is your job to come up not only with a really well-written story, but with an idea that’s going to resonate in the marketplace and grab attention. That’s becoming more and more important, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this a lot later. (Not being vague…it just has a lot to do with the Big News I keep talking about.)

A lot of writers say in their queries: “I am happy to write whatever you need.” No. With the exception of work-for-hire projects that houses commission writers for, it’s on your shoulders to provide the idea and execute it with aplomb. That’s what will sell. And if it’s awesome, many different agents and editors will be a fit for it, because we’re all looking for, basically “Good stuff done well.”

So I hope you can understand why “I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t a copout answer.

Questions a Literary Agent Might Ask You When Offering Representation

Today we’re discussing questions a literary agent might ask you when they’re considering offering literary representation. Thank you to Susan who, in the comments for my last post 10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation, wanted to know the opposite: What questions might an agent have for a potential client? There’s no way I can speak comprehensively for everyone in the industry on this one, but as a former literary agent, here’s what I was often curious about, and why.

questions a literary agent might ask, literary agent, literary representation, novel submission, getting a literary agent, interviewing a literary agent
A call with a literary agent is a great chance to interview them. But know that they’re also interviewing you, and trying to suss out if you’ll be a pleasure to work with, or a pain in the espresso.

Literary Agents Want to Know About You

A little more about yourself: All that crazy stuff you left out of your query bio? Give it to me here! Just kidding. I don’t want your entire life story on the call, but I am curious about you as a persona and about your sense of humor, sensibilities, storytelling abilities off the cuff (no pressure!). I’d rather have one or two cool and unique facts about you that are memorable than the dry this-is-where-I-went-to-college spiel. In turn, I usually take a few minutes to say what makes me tick.

Questions a Literary Agent Might Ask About Future Projects

Future ideas: I want to get a sense for what else is in your pipeline, so I ask you to pitch me a few more ideas that you’re kicking around. Your pitches don’t have to be perfect and the books can be far from finished–or even started–but this is a biggie for me. If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to work with you for a long time.

Those projects are a-comin’ ’round the mountain, whether I like it or not, and it’s only going to mean friction down the line if I sign you now and then fight you on every subsequent manuscript. If that’s the feeling I get, we’re likely not a good fit for the long-term, and it’s better to find out now. Don’t feel too much pressure on this one, though, because sometimes all I’m really curious about is whether those ideas are workable. They don’t have to be perfect just yet.

Your Overall Writing Career Goals

Your submission goals and overall career goals: I’ll ask you a little about where you see your career going and how you see this submission being handled. This is where I’ll also talk a little bit about my submission plans for the book and see if the two sync up nicely. The subtle thing I’m trying to figure out here is about your expectations. If you start talking book tour and six-figure advance right off the bat, I know you are going to be a handful down the road.

Publishing is full of big and little frustrations and decisions about your work that are completely outside of your control. Sure, you want to be as proactive as possible about your book and your career, but that doesn’t mean expecting the world handed to you on a silver platter by publishers who are, frankly, not handing out much of much to the majority of debut authors these days. So some questions a literary agent might ask: Are you savvy and humble? Are you realistic? Are you prepared to work hard to see your goals to completion? This is what I’m really asking here. (God, I can’t believe how much I’m showing my cards in this post…)

Literary Agents Are Gauging How You React to Editorial Feedback

Your reaction to feedback: If I’m offering representation, I will have editorial feedback for you. Now. A lot of agent colleagues have spent hours on the phone with a potential writer, giving all their notes, laying out a revision plan, only to have the writer go elsewhere and incorporate their revision notes anyway, but after signing with a different agent.

I’m not this precious about my editorial suggestions for you, but I do think it’s a bad idea to dump all of my feedback in your lap at once. It’s overwhelming, and it may come across as me not liking the book (which, if I’m calling to offer, is the opposite of what I want to convey). So I take my three biggest revision suggestions, including one or two that might be controversial, and float them your way.

This is probably the most important thing that happens during this call, for me. First, I get to see if you and I are on the same page editorially. If you’re writing a dark psychological thriller and I call, saying, “What I basically need from you is to make it more like the Clique series,” then we’re not going to be a good fit because you and I see the book differently and we want different things for it. (I sure hope I never miss the mark this badly…) It’s fun for me to get into revision back-and-forth with authors, even if we disagree.

But there’s workable disagreement and then there’s an impasse. If we butt up against the latter in the call, we probably shouldn’t work together. You’re always going to want one thing, I’m always going to want the other, and that sort of resentment is not good in a partnership.

How Will You Handle a Novel Revision?

Your revision style: If we do agree on most of my revision suggestions and it seems like we’re thinking about the book and its potential in a similar way, I still want to know about your revision process. I’ve found that being able to revise is the single most important skill a writer can have. I’ve taken on promising first projects, given tons of notes, and what really made or broke the new relationship is how well the author has been able to run with those notes and take the manuscript to the next level.

Every manuscript will need work once it comes in. I’ve only had one manuscript in my career come in that only needed a minor revision before going on to sell. How well and how thoroughly and how deeply you delve into the task of revision is paramount. Of course, I can’t know all the specifics of how it will really be from a phone call, but that’s what I’m really talking about when we talk about revision.

Is your project going to net interest from a literary agent? Are you ready for submission? Hire me for consulting or editing services and I can give you a no-nonsense, actionable take on your manuscript’s strengths and opportunities for growth.

10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation by a Literary Agent

This is a list that I’d written a while ago to help a friend who had just been offered representation by a literary agent.

questions to ask a literary agent, how to get a literary agent, children's book literary agent
Your list of questions to ask a literary agent might look a little different… Either way, I would recommend coffee.

When you’re offered representation by a literary agent, you should have the opportunity to talk to them about potentially working together. This is an exciting and nerve-wracking phone call for a writer (and sometimes for an agent if we want to work with you really, really badly!), but it’s important that you really take the time, ask the right questions, get full answers, and give yourself as much information as possible.

Getting an Offer of Representation from a Literary Agent

The following are 10 questions that I would ask if I were signing with an agent. They’re questions I answer about myself when speaking to writers all the time. If you get an agent who is unwilling to answer questions or seems to balk at these basic ones, that would be a red flag for me, personally. Communication problems and transparency are big issues in a writer-agent relationship, and if there are issues from the word “go,” the situation is unlikely to get better.

List of Questions to Ask a Literary Agent

So do your due diligence. Here’s the list I would use to get started:

1. What is your communication style? Do you prefer phone or email? Do you check in often even when we’re not on active submission?
2. Tell me more about how your agency works and handles clients. Is there an agency agreement for new clients? (There usually will be, it’s okay to ask to see it beforehand.) What are steps for termination? (You hope it doesn’t happen, but you need to know that you have an out if you need it.)
3. Are you a member of AAR? (The Association of Author Representatives. Member agencies agree to abide by a code of ethics. Their website is www.aaronline.org.)
4. What books have you sold and what publishers do you work with?
5. What is your submission strategy? Do you go on a big round to editors or do you do smaller rounds that let us hear feedback and make changes, should we need to?
6. How would you position this book to editors? Where do you see this fitting in to publishers’ lists?
7. What editorial changes do you think I should make to this manuscript?
8. What happens if we don’t sell this book?
9. How do you work on revisions with clients?
10. How do you work with clients as they’re generating new ideas? (For example, I ask clients for idea pitches and then help them hone in on what’s strongest to pursue.)

How to Find the Right Liteary Agent

Before you put these questions to an agent, of course, figure out what you feel like you want the answers to be. Some of these issues may not matter to you, but you may have strong opinions about others. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, per se, but right and wrong answers for you. (“If we don’t see this book, I will burn down your house and run around your backyard naked,” would probably be a wrong answer for everyone, though…)

Different agents have different styles. Part of this feeling-each-other-out process after an offer of representation is made is to see if you like their answers and strategies and if you can see working well with them.

My editorial services aren’t just for manuscripts. I also offer confidential and discrete consulting services for authors who have questions about literary agents and career trajectory.