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What Literary Agents Want When Evaluating Full Manuscripts

Written during my agenting days, this post details what literary agents want. This past year, I’ve built up a great client list and sold some great books. What are literary agents looking for changes often, as I mentioned on Alice Pope’s blog a few weeks ago. For example, once they have a great base of clients and don’t feel the same frenzy to grow their lists, they get more selective. But they will always want strong work. Here’s how to give yourself top consideration.

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What literary agents want when evaluating a full manuscript.

What Literary Agents Want

And as publishers have tightened lists and as my own experience with editors and published books and writing and marketing grows, my standards have risen even higher. It’s more difficult to catch my eye now, as I’ve seen more, and, more importantly, gotten sick everything that’s tired and flat and been done hundreds of times before. There’s still, of course, room on my list. Lots of it. But those slots are harder to grab, and those worthy writers are harder to win over, as they tend to have lots of offers. (I find that, if a project has me really excited, more often than not, a handful of other agents are also about to offer or already offering on it…more on that in a future post.)

So now that I’m entering my second year as an agent, I’m finding myself being more exclusive about what I want to take on, but I’m also finding myself in more competitive situations with bigger agents. It’s a tough position to be in, and it doesn’t always let me go through my entire manuscript consideration process (which was supposed to be the point of this post). Still, while this is happening more and more, I wanted to let you in to my regular manuscript consideration process, since my slush consideration process post seemed to get a good response. This is how it all goes down on my end.

What Are Literary Agents Looking For: A Good Query Letter

First, a query letter catches my eye. Because I want to be completely sure of my judgment and rule out chances of slush psychosis, per the post linked above, I put it in my Maybe Pile. Since this is a fantasy scenario, let’s just say I dutifully return to my Maybe Pile the very next day (instead of a week later, after I realize that life has gotten away from me) and request those manuscripts that still sound good. For any batch of slush, I end up requesting one or two manuscripts at a time.

Once I get the manuscript from an author, I put it in my queue. At any point in time, I may have between two and ten full requests in line. And I get to them depending on how much time I have and in order of request date. It usually takes me two weeks to a month (this summer was slow because of the move) to respond to a full (unless, of course, the writer has other offers or I’m very interested in something, right after the query, and need to read immediately…and this doesn’t happen that often, even with full requests).

Literary Agency Interns

The other thing I do when I get a full request in is I send it to my readers. Yes, I have readers. ABLit agents work with qualified young publishing enthusiasts on full manuscripts and sometimes client manuscripts. Since we’re scattered all over the country, my colleagues and I have our own networks of readers, although there are some readers that everyone at the agency works with.

I currently have several readers and I also work with one of our agency readers. I have a very rigorous reader screening process and choose my readers very carefully. Though, I don’t always agree with them, I value their feedback. They provide a valuable service to me, as they fill in my blind spots and make sure I’m not missing anything — good or bad — about a manuscript. (I started out as a reader for ABLit, so I love teaching and working with my readers, it’s a great learning experience for both of us. Speaking of which, toxic assistant attitude toward “lowly interns” can get you in trouble, so avoid it.)

What Literary Agents Want in a Manuscript

So anyway. I send the full request to all my readers and read it myself, as well. If the manuscript really catches my eye on a read, or if a reader highly recommends something that I haven’t gotten to yet, I kick the submission into high gear. When I’m interested, I read quickly.

Most submissions, unfortunately, tend to fall apart by page 50 — the first benchmark, when I tell my readers to check their guts and see if they still want to keep reading. If I can put a full request down by page 50, I will not pick it back up again. The issue is usually voice, character, pacing, or plotting. (The voice is flat, the character is one-dimensional, the story crawls along, and we haven’t gotten into the main plot/action of the manuscript yet.) If my readers chime in and say that they put it down as well, it’s a decline. (My readers don’t talk to each other about submissions, nor do I let my readers decide for me. It’s not rejection or offer by consensus. But because I have such good readers, I tend to agree on manuscripts with at least one of them and really do take their feedback into consideration. Still, the final decision is mine.)

Learn to Write a Novel

If a submission is really good, a “kick it into high gear” submission, a “finished it in one sitting submission,” and I think it is especially commercial or might attract other agent attention, I will ask that all my readers finish it and send me a reader’s report. I will also take notes on the manuscript. If I finish a manuscript and can’t stop thinking about it, I know I have a very strong candidate for an offer of representation. I usually give myself a few days to make sure the project is still an I-can’t-live-without-it submission. If I’m still obsessed with it, I let the writer know and then we schedule a call.

Still, not all of my offers end in the writer signing up (more on this, as promised, later). And all of the manuscripts I take on do go through revision, based on my editorial notes from my first read and from the repeat read that I always do after I take someone on. And yes, I have read good manuscripts that were getting lots of offers but that I thought needed work, and I’ve passed on them rather than competing for them.

But high as my standards are and tough as my editorial vision is, I do love the whole process of reading a potential client’s manuscript — from the exciting request to the potential treasure trove of the full to the rare manuscripts that sparks my imagination. And I’m definitely looking for more of this magic, and more successful offers. What are literary agents looking for? In short, good stuff! Keep writing and revising!

Though I’m no longer a gatekeeper, I can bring my literary agent experience to your novel. Hire me as a developmental editor.

Getting Offers from Multiple Literary Agents

Every writer dreams of getting offers from multiple literary agents, right? Maybe. A reader asked about what a writer should do if they happen to get offers of representation from multiple agents. First of all, congratulations are in order. An offer of representation is professional validation to a writer who has, most likely, not really gotten such praise and confidence from an expert source.

A lot of writers, though, think this is an embarrassment of riches and a great problem to have. It’s not. It’s a really stressful situation where you have to make a major business decision under time pressure, all while being wooed by really nice, really encouraging, really savvy people.

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Did you get an offer from multiple literary agents? How will you possibly pick?

What to Do When You Get an Offer of Representation

When you first get an offer of representation, send an email to all the other agents who have your partial or full. More often than not, in today’s really busy climate, you’ll probably get another offer by doing this.

Agents want the hot commodity and will likely chase a writer they know already has an offer — that means someone else thinks they’re good, too! (Occasional truth: some busy agents screen their slush pile by focusing on the writers who email to say they’ve gotten multiple offers from literary agents…that way the agent knows which projects are worth reading.)

Getting Offers From Multiple Literary Agents

So now you, the writer, have offers from multiple literary agents. The first one feels great. The second one starts to feel confusing. By the third, you’re queasy. Who to choose? They all love your book, or should. If you get a lukewarm offer, that person is just playing the game, most likely, and can be cut from consideration. They all have editorial advice. They all have enthusiasm for you and your career. Well, what now?

Talk to each of the agents. Get a feel for their passion level and for their ideas for the manuscript. Try not to let the gushing or hype or big promises go to your head, even though it’s hard. What do you want as a writer? An agent for the long-term or for just this project? Or an agent who gives editorial notes or one who is more hands off? An agent who communicates openly or who just gives you the verdict after the submission round is over? An agent who communicates by phone or by email? Or an agent who does small, careful submission rounds and waits to hear editor feedback or an agent who submits you all over town in a huge, splashy round?

Questions to Ask a Literary Agent

Whether you get multiple offers from literary agents or a single offer, remember: you are hiring this person. Let your needs and your feelings and your understanding of what’s right for you guide your questions. Good questions to ask:

  • How many clients do you have? (You may have trouble getting a straight answer here.)
  • How big do you want to grow your list?
  • What houses do you work with? (It’s the agent’s job to make connections, so if they only know or sell into a few houses, that might be too narrow.)
  • What is your submission style?
  • How often do you follow up once on submission?
  • Do you do editorial work? A little or a lot?
  • How do you see us growing my career together?
  • How often do you communicate? How do you best communicate?
  • Are you receptive to questions from me? How quickly do you respond? (Some agents are more standoffish, others do a large amount of “hand-holding” and support for their clients.)
  • Do you share submission lists and rejections as they happen? (Figure out if you want to know this…some authors love transparency, others like not hearing bad news.)

As about your agent’s path to becoming an agent, where they see themselves going, what their hopes are for your project. Ask them for client references if you think talking to one of their existing clients will help you. This definitely helped me eliminate a few agents when I was in these shoes.

What a Literary Agent Wants to Know About You

From an agent’s perspective, this is our time to feel you out, too. How open are you to our editorial ideas? (I will often give three big ideas but save most of my editorial notes for later. I don’t want to overwhelm the writer but I also don’t want to give them some of my best ideas in case they go elsewhere with their project but still use my notes.) How savvy are you (in terms of being part of the publishing scene, having an online presence, knowing how the business works)? Do you have stars in your eyes or are you realistic about the marketplace and about how much work it is to be a published author? What are your career goals? How high-maintenance or easygoing are you and how easily would we work together?

The question you’re seeking to answer, as a writer, and the question I’m seeking to answer, as an agent, is this: Would we have a long-term, profitable, communicative, respectful, productive business partnership?

Choosing the Right Literary Agent for You and Your Work

Now, this is a difficult question to answer. It comes down to a combination of gut feeling and your impressions of an agent and their prestige and record. You can check an agent’s sales in Publishers Marketplace. For $25 a month, month-to-month, you have access to a deals database that is pretty comprehensive (some deals aren’t posted there for various reasons, but you do get a pretty good picture) for each agent and agency.

Agency reputation is really important. Has the agent’s agency been around for long? Have they brought many books to market? Are they known for the genre or age range for which you want to write? Publishing is a business of relationships and reputation.

You also need to take the agent’s rank into consideration — are they a newer agent with the agency or pretty senior in the organization? How long have they been agenting? There are pros and cons for a younger agent vs. an established agent, which I address in this post about how to select a literary agent.

This is a big decision. And getting offers from multiple literary agents is becoming more and more common, from what I’m noticing (a post on this later, as well). For every writer who has received multiple offers from literary agents, I just want to say: this is your decision. Take your time and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Agents are intimidating to a lot of writers but, at this level, you really are in control. Use it.

Are you ready to submit your work to agents? Hire me as your query letter editor and I’ll help you develop a strong pitch.

How Long Do I Have To Submit After a Literary Agent Request?

Beth asked a literary agent request question that I’d love to address. Here’s what she said:

My burning question: Is a week–or two too long to wait to get back to an agent requesting a partial? Based on a different agent’s feedback, I’d decided to do a huge revision of the beginning of my manuscript. Recently another agent (queried *before* my decision to revise) asked to see the beginning. Obviously I want it to be perfect before sending it, but I don’t want to lose the agent’s interest or have them think I queried them prematurely (which is actually the case, but it was an honest mistake).

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For those of you winding your pocket watches and working on a typewriter, some great news about literary agent requests.

You’ve Received a Literary Agent Request… But You’re Not Ready!

Honey, every writer I’ve ever known has made this honest mistake. OF COURSE you queried prematurely and now you have a literary agent request for your full. Why? Because, even though I’ve been saying not to f-o-r-e-v-e-r, you didn’t believe me. That’s fine. I don’t take it personally. I know it’s not fun advice, so I know most people ignore it (or think they’re the exception).

The only way to really learn this is to be in the situation where you’re sending a revision to a literary agent and to have that light bulb go off in your head. Even with things you’ve been told a million, billion times, it never resonates until you’re staring at the manuscript submission you just queried around and seeing all the flaws and you have that sinking feeling in your gut.

I won’t scold you any more about it, though. 🙂

Do Not Rush Through Revision

But now I will give you some advice that I really hope you (translation: everybody reading this who will be querying at any point in their future, and not just querying me) take to heart. If you’ve already made this mistake — to be clear, the mistake is rushing out a manuscript that wasn’t as fully revised as it needs to be — once, don’t make it twice.

DO NOT rush to complete this next revision just so you can rush it out to fulfill a literary agent request. How can you POSSIBLY do a “huge revision” in two weeks and have it fully percolate and marinate and settle?

This just happened to me, for example. I usually don’t talk about things where the writer will most likely be able to identify him or herself on the blog, but this is harmless. I asked for a full manuscript submission in, oh, October. I never ended up getting it. And I’m selective about the fulls I request, so I did remember that I’d asked for it, and every few months, I’d randomly think, “Hey, I wonder what happened with that one.”

Well, an email with a completely revised full showed up this week (April), with a note that the writer had done a serious revision and didn’t want to bug me before it was ready. You know what? Not only did I not forget this manuscript (a), but I now respect that writer, because they got a full request and were about to press the “send” button in their excitement, but they pulled back and really took their time on a revision (b).

Submit to Literary Agents Only When Your Manuscript Is Ready

I tell people at conferences the same exact things (are y’all listening out there from Dallas?!). Most likely, if you have a literary agent request for your full, you will not lose their interest. Let those new ideas percolate and settle. Take your time and do your revisions. Agents would rather see something good than something unpolished that comes quickly.

Let’s just say I prefer slow, gourmet food to fast food, because it takes a lot of time and care and craft to cook really delicious fare. (Edited in 2017 to add that I married a chef, so I take this metaphor super seriously!)

So, Beth, take your time with your revised manuscript submission. Don’t rush AGAIN. I know I’ll end up begging and pleading this particular point for the rest of my career, so here’s yet another entry into the Don’t Rush Out Your Submission Hall of Fame.

Let’s jump into your revision together. Revision guidance is at the heart of every one of my book editing services.

How to Write a Query: The Myth of the Perfect Query Letter

Shannon asked this how to write a query question on my post about the second person and rhetorical questions in queries a few days ago, and I wanted to do a quick post about this myth of the perfect query letter in response:

Do you think that *any* question addressed to the reader of a query letter is irritating? Is it automatically “rhetorical” if you’re not actually there to give the author your feedback? I never thought that it might be a turn-off; I thought it was “marketing”. My goodness, this write a query business is intimidating.

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Think this is the set-up for the perfect query letter? Read on to write a query without losing your mind.

Write a Query Letter Without Stressing Out

I may completely misread her point here, but I do it intentionally, so stick with me. “Marketing” implies gimmicks to me, especially this early in the game. When you’ve got an actual published book out, then you can market your butt off (and should) to try and get people to buy it. At the querying phase, it’s not about selling and hustling at all. This is one myth of the perfect query letter.

Getting an agent means entering into a relationship because two people believe in a project and want to have a long working partnership. The author places a lot of trust in the agent and the agent works hard without any immediate gain. The choice to work together doesn’t originate from any flashy whiz-bang query letter shenanigans. You aren’t trying to trick an agent or use fancy misdirection when you write a query. You don’t try to “market” your way into a long-term romantic relationship, right? It’s the same thing here. The query exchange, to me, should come from a place of authenticity, as stripped free of gimmick as possible.

Adjusting Your Attitude When You Write a Query

If you’re getting intimidated by writing the perfect query letter, that might be a sign that you’re overthinking it. It’s very simple. Tell me about your idea and make me care. The perfect query letter, to me, is just a way to attract interest in your writing sample, which is the heart of the matter anyway. Once I start reading your manuscript and love it, the query letter is completely forgotten. If you want an easy suggestion for writing an appealing letter, you can read a previous post about the kind of query I like to see here: Writing a simple, compelling query. Or you can swim on over to Janet Reid’s blog, Query Shark.

It might seem hypocritical for me to say: “Don’t worry about your query, you’re overthinking it! It’s easy!” while, at the same time, writing so much about queries, but that’s what people ask me about. A query is a writer’s first step into the agent search and, understandably, they want to get it right. So, while I have and will continue to dispense a lot of advice about how to write a query, they’re really a much smaller deal — big picture-wise — than the manuscript that follows.

Every one of my manuscript editing services as a book editor comes with query notes. Take the guesswork out of this simple letter, and get feedback on the book itself, and hire me today.

How to Write a Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to approach a literary agent query letter, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

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Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Beginning

Want to know how to write a query letter? It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the literary agent query letter and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book.  They’re also the key in terms of how to write a query letter that’ll grab an agent’s attention. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story! (For more on this topic, check out my post on writing fiction that makes readers care.)

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Closing

Then, you’ll finish your literary agent query letter with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter format that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only answer to questions about how to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com