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.
What Literary Agents Want
(First, check out this post: how to get a literary agent.) 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 send a full manuscript request to those 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.