5 Qualities Agents Look for in Writers

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Our agency receives at leastdo  3,000 queries every year. That’s pretty discouraging for those looking for an agent. But let’s talk about the other side of the coin. What makes me say yes?

Qualities agents look for in writers:

1. A strong sense of what the market will respond to.

Ever sit next to someone at church who is tone deaf but utterly enthusiastic about belting out the hymn or chorus? Writers can be tone deaf as well. By that I mean some writers have no sense of what readers will buy. So they come up with idea after idea that just isn’t the right tune sung in the right way.

As an agent, I’m looking for writers who can sing on key time after time. They have the ability to write about a topic in such a way that a reader is compelled to buy the book.


2. An understanding of what makes him or her unique in the marketplace.

If you’re writing romantic suspense, you are so not alone in that venture. What makes your work stand out from all the rest? As I read queries, I’m looking for what makes sense for this writer to be producing. If you have access to an investigator who specializes in gambling fraud, and you place your story at a casino run by an Indian tribe, why, you have a unique angle to write from.

3. A personality match-up.

One of the aspects of agenting that I love is that I only work with the people I want to work with. How cool is that? So when I consider representing someone, I want to not only be enthusiastic about the writing but also about the person. When I talk about a project to an editor, I don’t discuss just the project; I sell the writer more than the project. So remember that, if you present yourself in an antagonistic way to an agent, that person is not going to fall to her knees and beg you to be her client.

Nor is an agent likely to find a writer who asks fifty questions for every answer a good candidate to represent because that person will take up 80% of an agent’s time. But that writer not make 80% of an agent’s income–it just never turns out that way.

I’m looking for writers I’m sympatico with. If we weren’t relating as agent and author, we’d be friends because we’re compatible.

4. Realistic about the active role an author must play in marketing and publicity.

I remember reading a quote from an editor in the 1950s that an author should be heard and not seen. In other words, you should “hear” the author through his writing, with the author as a sort of Wizard of Oz, working the great mechanism of his manuscript but never visible.

Today publishers want authors who are heard and seen. The author needs to be prepared to make a big marketing fuss when her title is released. That’s now an inherent part of a writer’s life.

I’m looking for clients who get that and have applied themselves to building an e-mail list of readers, a plan for promoting their books, and a significant Internet presence.

5. Stellar writing.

Remember the Pillsbury slogan, “Nothing says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven”? Well, “Nothing says represent me like irresistible writing.”

Most agents are suckers for good writing. Why, we’ll take on a client because we just can’t say no to the writing. Writing trumps everything else. And that should encourage you–beyond words. All the other aspects of a writer (aside from compatibility, of course) can be worked on. Like adding icing to a cake. But that also means the cake must be out of this world.

What quality (or qualities) do you plan to concentrate your efforts on in 2017?


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What makes a lit agent say yes to you? Click to tweet.

36 Responses

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  1. Lara Hosselton says:

    Janet, I love that you look for writers you’d also want to call your friend. I imagine this makes for an awesome relationship between agent and author.

  2. Great post to start the week, Janet!
    * I think I do pretty well at getting along with people, and I recognize that the agent is the industry professional – I don’t have, and can’t have that level of experience. I listen pretty well, and don’t like to take up people’s time with un-needed questions.(I think that sometimes the ‘excessive questioning’ problem can be kind of an ego thing, trying to passively show off. I’ve seen that in students and academics…including, I hate to admit, myself.)
    * I recognize the need for promotion; it’s part of the job.
    * But in the other three areas, not so good. I doubt my voice turns heads, though I think it doesn’t close books once a reader begins.
    * On the points of market reading and uniqueness, I have two questions, if I may:
    1) It seems to me that reading the current market is useful, but with the lead time inherent in TradPub, the ability to divine direction is golden. Is this an accurate observation, and is it found in more than a than a small minority of writers (and is it ever consistent over a career?)? Sorry, three questions in one, there.
    2) Do you look at uniqueness as more of a trademark ambience/setting, or a unique voice? The former seems to be something a writer could identify herself; the latter assessment might more readily come from others’ assessments.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, regarding how to stand out among the current books being published can be tricky, especially if the writer will need considerable time to write the manuscript. Trends can change without warning. But one approach I encourage writers to take is to keep up on what authors are publishing that fit in the writer’s genre or category. Often the zeitgeist tends to lead to several books talking about the same topic with a similar approach. That’s a great time to write about the topic but take an opposite view from current titles.
      Regarding whether I’m referring to uniqueness of brand or voice, I was thinking brand. It’s hard to maneuver voice; that’s more of an instinctual part of writing.

  3. Carol Ashby says:

    Building my internet presence for marketing will be my focus for 2017…and 2018 and 2019 and…
    *It’s a never-ending issue, and to top it off, I need to flip my http sites to https without losing any rank in the search engines. I’d like to tell my webmaster to just take care of it and don’t bother me with the details, but I’m my own webmaster so that won’t help at all.

    • I like to think, “Jesus is my webmaster.” But there are those technical details [sigh]. Looking on the bright side, my kids are impressed that tech-challenged Mama even knows such issues exist.
      *Sometimes I long to be an ancient monk, shut off from the world, writing in my quiet cave. But then I copy my work to a flash drive, take a hot shower, and decide this is a very good time to be a writer–platform building and all.

      • Carol Ashby says:

        I hear you about the hardware, Shirlee! I wrote my first book (thesis) by hand since no one had PCs with word processors on their desks back then. The real blessing is how easy it is to edit and re-edit until I can’t find anything else I need to change.
        *I love doing the research and writing the articles for my history author site. (Anyone want to know how to make the fermented fish sauce the Romans loved?) I have fun figuring out the tech parts even when implementing can be a pain. It’s the need for social media numbers that’s a problem for someone who spent her life in the “need-to-know” world.

      • Me, too. You nailed my feelings exactly.

  4. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    Thanks Janet.
    One can never learn too much about this business. Very informative post!

  5. Janet, I don’t see the figures as discouraging. Assuming the 6 agents at Books & Such get an equal number of queries (false assumption, but bear with me), that’s 500 per year per agent, or about 40 per month. Sure, the odds are long–but they’re not zero. Thanks for letting us know what agents are seeking. I appreciate the post.

  6. I’m looking for clients who get that and have applied themselves to building an e-mail list of readers, a plan for promoting their books, and a significant Internet presence.

    Janet, how does this apply to a new writer of fiction? How is that writer supposed to build an email list of readers without readers? I think this causes undue and unwarranted stress for a writer who should be focused on one thing: the writing, making it the best it can be. Because only that kind of writing inspires readers to become fans who sign up for an email list in the first place.

    I also worry about “platform paranoia” over what constitutes a “significant internet presence.” What’s this new writer supposed to do? Be on FB, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTwitFace, and blog? When we all know now that social media does NOT sell books in any significant way … and that being spread over too many places (and especially blogging) is time-sucking quicksand away from the writing that actually matters.

    Now, I can see why publishers worried about dwindling revenue want to lessen their risk. That’s simple business sense. But this kind of blanket “requirement” placed on the shoulders of new authors is not the way to go about it, IMO.

    Besides, if a new or emerging writer does manage to have boffo social media and a strong email list, and if that author is being asked to shoulder most of the marketing anyway, shouldn’t that author also be asking why he or she is only getting 17% of the pie?

    • Katie Powner says:

      Thank you Mr. Bell, I would be interested in hearing the answer to your questions as well. I completely understand that an author needs to be committed to marketing, but at what cost? As you said, focusing on producing the best writing possible should be an author’s top priority.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Platform that will sell product – that’s a huge challenge, Scott!
      *Getting that email list is an intimidating goal. My Roman history site has had visitors from 27 countries (just picked up Estonia!), but almost no one signs up for email notification of new postings. I’ve just begun to publicize the site to homeschoolers and teachers. I hope they’ll be more inclined to subscribe, but will they?
      *I bookmark my favorite sites, but I usually don’t sign up for their emails. Am I typical?
      *How does any new fiction author build a list if people who enjoy your nonfiction writing resist subscribing like I do?

      • Yeah, it’s all overwhelming. So I just decided to blog about something that I love “my children and dog and their weekly antics plus the Bible Camp where we work” and let my style of humor and my voice shine through as I record these special and crazy moments in our life. 1) Our family’s adventures are recorded, where if I didn’t blog, I’d never write all this crazy stuff down. 2) perhaps someone will read it and enjoy my sense of humor which is a big part of my writing voice. 3) at least it is something.
        I have only signed up for 1 author newsletter, from a writer that I trust will only send something out a few times a year. On my newsletter sign up page, I promise to only send out 4 newsletters a year. It would be important for me if I were the reader, to know that signing up is not going to clog my inbox and waste my time. I have signed up for shutterfly updates and Papa Murphy updates…because sometimes you get 50% off! But those really are the only examples of times that I have said “yes.” So, with the 4 newsletter limit, I hope to make it safe for readers to sign up. Call me crazy, but it’s what I would want as a reader. Will my plan be a success? Only the Lord knows, but at least I’m trying.

      • Carol Ashby says:

        I just went to you website, Kristen. You’ve done a great job. It’s fun to prowl around it! I’d never seen a “random post” button before. I have to look into that for the Roman site.
        *I’m also going to have to get your upcoming about the Montana taxidermist and the heiress! I married a man who’s a flannel shirt and jeans kind of guy, but he will don a suit for weddings, funerals, and the occasional formal awards dinner.

      • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Carol! And yes, I married a flannel shirt kind of guy, too. They are great! It just takes my bridal designer a bit of time to realize that. I was watching reality TV with my grandma in law and saw this show about a pet taxidermist (his wife was really upset when he brought a raccoon corpse into her kitchen sink, it was hilarious) and I had to have a hero with this job. Super fun. Did you know that if one starts with a pre-made cat mold, it is theoretically possible to stuff a small pet in 12 hours time … although it should be left in a freezer to cure. Usually it takes months to years though as apparently the good taxidermist have a really long waiting list. God Bless!

    • I joined Facebook because it was supposed to help sell my writing and have nearly 2000 Friends, but most of them are either people I already knew, or other writers wanting me to buy their books. I’m also active in other places like LinkedIn and Google Plus and have blogged twice a week for nearly seven years. I enjoy social networking, but it takes lots of time and hasn’t helped my sales much.

      • Your words echo my thoughts exactly. My blog and new FB page connect ever so slowly with people I don’t already know. I am starting to see names I don’t recognize. I look at them and wonder “however did you find me?”
        *God nudges me. “Is this not what you requested? A little gratitude would not be amiss.”

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jim, thanks for stirring the conversation pot. I didn’t differentiate between fiction and nonfiction in my post because some traditional publishers still think debut novelists can magically grow a following despite not having a published novel. But fortunately most publishers have come to realize that a new fiction writer doesn’t have the ability to do so. That means what the person is writing is receiving a publisher’s attention rather than having a built-in platform. But every writer, regardless of genre or category, does need an online presence–a professional-looking website and some involvement in a few social media venues such as Facebook and Pinterest or Instagram.
      With nonfiction, the ability to be viewed as a bit of a go-to person is much more important to a publisher. Although–good news–a few publishers have taken their foot off the gas pedal and relaxed their standards a bit even in nonfiction.
      All of this translates into publishers having realized a million YouTube subscribers won’t necessarily mean a million copies of a book sold. Those simple equations never did work, but still, showing up with a million followers/friends/subscribers is beyond any publisher’s ability to resist.
      Bottomline: Publishers are taking back a bit more responsibility to sell copies of a book than they’ve owned up to in recent years.

      • Thanks, Janet. I’m glad to hear that about publishers and those dang gas pedals. I agree with you about the need for a good website and one or two social media outlets. Specializing in one or two is better, IMO, than trying to something in many.

        As for stirring the pot, call on me anytime. 🙂

  7. Duana Juneau says:

    Thank you for taking the time to tell us what you guys are looking for! Let’s be friends! Come over! 😍

  8. Thank you so much for this! Very informative!
    *I think number 4 is what I need to work most at. I’ve had a very real online presence via my blog, twitter, and FB all “branded” towards my blog for about 6 years now. The problem is, staying active on all those fronts has proven difficult in the last couple of years. I want to work this year at really getting back to posting consistently on my blog (even if it’s only once a week instead of my previous 3-5), and making sure I get a personal touch to each of my social media accounts each week. I’ve seen first hand what a difference having an already engaged audience can make, and I fully embrace that idea. Sometimes just the logistics of all of that plus real life can be a bit messy.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, we’re all so busy that I wonder if I post on FB once a week isn’t equal to posting once a day. Does anyone notice I skipped a few days? I think not. We need to figure out how not to be so frenzied about all these connections and just stay in touch–whatever that means.

  9. Here’s my first comment on this community in 2017, and the topic is a nice way to kick off.
    This year, I don’t see real work been done on any of the five points. Reasons:
    1. I just resumed University.
    2. University means serious writing is paused. And if I wanted to, the laptop is three days away, on a blue table by my room’s window.
    3. There’s no time. And I feel like adding a gazillion exclamations.

    I’m certain, though, that by the time I’m done here, I’d be ten times better. Learning goes on, afterall.

    • Peggy Booher says:

      Even though you won’t be writing, I’m sure God will place in your path there at the university ideas you can go back to when you do have time to write. While right now you aren’t able to do serious writing, you are absorbing impressions and ideas for use down the road.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Michael, my advice is to carry a notebook with you all the time at uni so you can write down ideas and scenes and dialog that might pop into your head. You never know when you might be given something important for later use.
      Keep us posted on how it’s going and remember we’re here to pray for you.

    • Oh yes, ideaS from God. I’ve gotten a few. Even started a Mystery on Campus serial in a notebook.

      Thank you, Carol, for praying. One cannot thrive without it in this place.

  10. Great Advice!

  11. Hmmm … I blog regularly and keep up to date by reading several agent blogs … but in 2017 I’m focused on that cake! Writing, writing, writing.

  12. For me, 2017 will be about staying the course, but growing as a writer. Most everything is out of my control, except my work habits and my work itself.
    Although, I think nI may be challenged to up my game in the marketing department!!

  13. Thank you for putting this information out here. Looking for an agent and an agent’s role have always been a mystery to me. I may consider looking for an agent this year once I finish the rough draft of my first novel next month. I just started a website, and have much to learn about getting that going first.

    I especially enjoyed reading this, because it was helpful to know what agents are looking for in us, as writers.

    I see myself as having a unique personality and, with that, I think it translates to my writing. I am the survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault and Military Sexual Trauma.I like to write about women who conquer and overcome, but are not perfect. I enjoy writing about women that have struggles, yet outwardly appear as if nothing is wrong. God plays a huge role in my writing, even though I don’t tend to quote scripture or preach in my stories. I also survived a life threatening illness and surgery two years ago, all with the help of God. Faith was the key ingredient. I am here for a purpose, and writing is it. Not for money or fame, but for the sake of getting the words out there and encouraging others.

    Thank you so much for putting this information out there! It will come in handy for many, as it has for me.

  14. Carleen Tjader says:

    Great info & advice.

  15. This all makes a great deal of sense.

  16. Suzi Bay says:

    Excellent points. Thank you and Happy Friday.

  17. Thank you Janet! You’ve listed some things I’ve never thought about.