Agent Seeks Novels

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog about the the best time to submit a query. The upshot? It is impossible to gauge the perfect time to submit. One of the commenters, Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild, wrote: “I find it is very difficult to determine what an agent sincerely wants.  Most of the agent write-ups are very general.  And in my own excitement I think that could be me they are looking for. It might not hurt an agent to say though they certainly have an interest in many fields their highest level of enthusiasm is in… ”

Hmmm. You mean we are not specific enough when we say what we’re looking for? I told Jacqueline that the answer to her comment deserved a whole blog post, so here goes. . .

Let’s talk fiction. Here’s why an agent is so wiggly when he/she gives a list of the types of novels he/she is willing to consider:

  • We’ll know it when we see it. I know, you hate this answer. Unfortunately, it’s the best way to describe this once-in-a-lifetime, comet-like, miracle of a book. Some books defy description. This is often the book that defines a whole new category or the book that melds two previously distinct How else would we request this book? “I’m interested in the book that goes where no book has gone before.” (We’d get every crazy book that belongs nowhere on the shelf.) “I’m interested in the book that breaks all the rules.” (We’d end up with a book that eschews capitalization and is only 10,000 words.) “I want a book that knocks my socks off.” (The problem with this kind of description is that the writer can’t possibly know what will knock off an agent’s foot-warmers.) The truth is: I’ll only recognize this book when I read it. An agent can’t be more specific than that. Finding this book is like winning the lottery– same kind of odds, same kind of ability to make it happen.
    • What does this kind of description mean for the agent? We’re going to have to read every kind of submission if we are open for that “one.”
    • What are the chances of having this “miraculous” book? Probably one in a million.
    • If I do have that one in a million book that the agent loves, what are the chances it will be a commercial hit? Probably one in a million. Just because it is the book the agent has been seeking all his life doesn’t mean it is the book the market has been seeking.
    • Upshot– What does it mean for the writer? The agent is saying, go for it. Try me– you might very well be the one to knock my socks off.
  • The market is ever changing. An agent may say she is seeking a writer of, say, sixties-era fiction. You say to yourself, “I’m a former flower-child. I could write that.” You get to work and a year later you finish the manuscript and submit a query to that agent. She gets back to you, saying, “While I like your writing, we’ve found that the sixties-era just doesn’t work these days.” What?!? You wrote the book specifically to meet her stated need.
    • Upshot– What does it mean for the writer? When an agent cites a specific want, it may only be good for that day. That agent talked to an editor who was looking for one specific book. That need could have been filled the next day. Specific wants have a short shelf life– an expiration date.
    • You can’t write to catch the market– it’s running faster than you’ll ever be able to write.
  • Sometimes we respond with the books we love. Listen closely to the question that’s being asked. Sometimes on a panel the moderator will ask a group of agents, “What kind of books do you love?” or “Name a recent book that you couldn’t put down.” The agents will wax on about books they’re crazy about and writers take copious notes.
    • Upshot– What does it mean for the writer? It might mean something if that agent represents the kind of books he likes to read.
    • Or it might mean nothing because an agent may not be able to sell the kinds of books he loves. (Example: an agent in the CBA market who reads and loves SciFi.)
  • Sometimes we respond with the books we can sell. Again, listen closely to the question. I may love complicated women’s fiction but I know I can sell a novelist who is willing to write excellent category romance and grow their career that way. So I may say, I’m looking for romance writers, contemporary romantic suspense, historical romantic suspense, etc. You know I’m giving you a list based upon what I can sell.
  • Sometimes we just list what we don’t represent. This is a lot easier and is usually a list you can take to the bank. If I say I don’t represent SciFi– that’s pretty clear. When we list what we don’t want to see it probably wouldn’t change even if that genre became hot. Take SciFi for instance– even if it became the hottest genre of all, I could not pick out the finest manuscripts and become an important agent in the genre because I have no experience with it and have not read enough to know what’s new and what’s tired.

So we remain wiggly and nonspecific. But that’s good news for writers because unless we say we don’t represent a certain genre, the door is pretty much open.

Your turn. How closely do you follow an agents likes and dislikes. When you go to a writer’s conference do you study these for each agent and editor? What do you wish we would say?


How do we know what kind of books a literary agent represents? Click to Tweet

“We’ll know it when we see it.” Literary agent @wendylawton explains.  Click to Tweet

How can a writer figure out which agent likes which kinds of books? Click to Tweet




55 Responses

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  1. “What DON’T you like?” is actually a much easier variable for almost everyone concerned.
    Who goes to a posh buffet and declares “I love everything!”? Some dolt will end up grabbing your plate and filling it with capers, radishes, moose meat and onion rings. Then he’ll give you a steamy mug of cream soda.
    Mmmmmm. Bucket, anyone?

    I know not to send ’50 Shades of Gray…Wallpaper’ to Books and Such because those first 4 words would have my query deleted before anyone saw ‘Wallpaper’.
    And seriously? Who’d be that clueless? I mean, COME ON?

    Gray wallpaper?

    I have done my research and I know who says what on their websites. Not paying attention to details such as what to query labels the writer as somewhat inattentive of minor details. If a writer can’t get the small deets right, why would that writer think an agent would read 200,000 words of space opera written in Spanish haikus?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s a great start, Jennifer. “I know who says what on their websites.” We agents just need to make sure to update. 🙂

    • Dear Wendy: Thank you for addressing my concerns. Oddly, your answer makes me extremely happy and hopeful…because it means I just need to strike the right cord with the right person. And isn’t that the whole secret? That click? And if it means going through literally a million queries well, that’s Ok.

      Your honest evaluation helps melt off that discouragement that comes when I get the form rejection. Because when it is right for an agent it is great for the writer. And I really want someone who gets me or I feel I’ll be just one more person they have to deal with.

      So thank you.

      Warm regards,
      Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild

      ps I have written quite an assortment and in all honesty can I say they are all show stoppers…no. So maybe this was the nudge I needed to look seriously at some of my work.

  2. Jeanne T says:

    Wendy, thanks for this glimpse into an agent’s mindset. It’s so helpful. For a writer, it still seems to boil down to writing a unique story with a distinct voice, and I might even add a story the writer is passionate about.

    As I read your post it was such a good reminder that ultimately, God is i control of if/when I become represented by an agent, and if/when one of my stories gets published. Your post reminds me that If I try to write to a specific agent’s likes, or spoken needs (that day!), I may be focusing on the wrong thing.

    This writing journey is a trust walk, trusting the Lord to guide my steps. I’m so glad you took time to answer Jacqueline’s question. Your words are insightful.

    • Jeanne, I’m glad you added passion because I believe that is imperative. When I jump around the living room and gush to my family about a new scene idea, or peel back the layers of my characters past even when the darkness I find there represents something I struggle with, or save money to fly across the country for a research trip, that is passion that fuels the fire to keep moving forward.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s the key! The passion comes across. Forget writing to the market.

  3. rachel says:

    I think so much of this industry—from and agent and editorial point of view is gut instinct. Book love requires dollops of subjectivity and personal preferences may be so deeply interred one can’t always put their finger on ONE necessary thing: no matter what part of the spectrum you are coming from. As a reader and reviewer, I try my best to translucently express what I loved about a book that makes me squeal and clap and sigh; but often it is hard to put it into words– it’s a feeling— a je ne sais quoi. I think that agents and editors can capitalize on their good instincts to be successful in the selection process while admitting, as you have here Wendy, that writing is an art— not something we can measure or colour inside the lines with perfunctory specifics. It’s too intertwined with feeling and personal preference 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Good instincts — that’s the pre-requisite for being an agent. If we don’t have that well-developed “gut” we’ll be out in a couple of years. Think about the angst you have trying to pick the right agent. We do the same thing in choosing the perfect editors for each project. If we get it wrong too many times the editors are going to stop putting our submissions to the top of the pile. Next step, out.

  4. Those descriptions with enough wiggle room to march a platoon through are all well and good for the agent. Not so much for the writer when he does his homework by thoroughly checking the agent’s web site and winds up wasting his one conference appointment on her only to find out she only represents books for women. That piece of information would have been quite helpful much earlier than 10 minutes into a 15 minute appointment.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Hopefully, though, the appointment won’t be wasted. A good agent will discuss your project with you and suggest other agents and editors for you. And don’t forget, the actual 15 minute appointment is only one opportunity to connect with an agent or editor. (And IMO, not the best opportunity.) You have meals and times to rub shoulders in the lobby or on a bus to and from, sharing a cab, etc. We consider the non-scheduled meetings every bit as important as the scheduled ones.

  5. Sarah Thomas says:

    Even when I was getting rejected, I didn’t find it was because agents and editors weren’t clear about what they wanted. It was because I hadn’t gotten to the point of publication in my writing. I checked websites and read the conference bios. In all those pitch meetings no one ever said I didn’t fit what they were looking for, just that I wasn’t quite ready. I LIKE the general-ness of it all. Makes me feel like the possibilities are wide open.

    • I’m (freakishly terrified)a bit nervous that a whole lot of agents are going to say “Now, we’re gonna say this r-e-a-l slow, so you get it…go back to your day job” and then murmur to each other (into a live microphone) “do you think she might’ve recently been deprived of oxygen and THAT’S why she so’s dim?”

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        No one is going to tell you that, Jennifer. Your passion and your investment in this industry prove you have that fire in your belly. Someone might say “not this book” or the “writing’s not quite there yet” but you don’t have to prove you’ve been called.

        And no one judges you based on this one manuscript. I can’t tell you the number of people who only got published on their second or third or twelfth manuscript.

      • Thanks, Wendy. 🙂

      • Jeanne T says:

        Jennifer, I agree with Wendy! For whatever that may be worth. 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s it exactly. Nowadays it takes a level of writing far above what we would have accepted even a couple of years ago. The fiction market is tight and the possible novelists are legion. It means we look for that ready-for-publication manuscript. Why? Because that is what editors expect.

  6. I’m learning to follow more closely. Your post today suits me wonderfully — a few loose guidelines and the rest left to my imagination and prayer. I’m thankful for those open doors, Wendy.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      The worst that can happen is that this one manuscript is not the one for the agent. The upside? The agent now knows you and relationship has been established.

  7. I agree with what most are saying–that the openness doesn’t bother me. I like that agents have an open mind and are willing to consider different stories based on a variety of factors. And the fact that I don’t have to try to figure out what those factors are, since there is really no way to know? All the better. We can simply write, edit, and query (once we’ve researched how to do those things, of course…we don’t want to waste anyone’s time).

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      As long as you are paying attention to the broad strokes. Like if an agent says he doesn’t represent children’s books, you don’t send that middle grade novel to him.

  8. Lori says:

    I try to follow an agents likes and dislikes. I know you love to read mysteries and you represent romantic suspense, but how do you feel about suspense with that has a lot of science (not science fiction at least for the most part)?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I like CSI type stuff but a lot of science– not so much. But it all depends on how it’s worked into the story– if the story is strong and wonderful it can support details we’re not wild about. And right now, romantic suspense is very good. Straight suspense a little less so but still. . .

      Of course, all that can change tomorrow. 🙂

      • Anne Love says:

        Recently a crit partner suggested I might want to call my manuscript romantic historical suspense. I reacted that I want some suspense peppered into my romance, but I didn’t want to label it that because it isn’t my main thrust or gift. I love conflict, page turning, and intrigue, but I would shy away from labeling my work that way in fear that I might not deliver to the degree the label suggests–thereby disappointing the reader who might pick it up just for the suspense. Is that weird? 😉 I’d love your thoughts.

  9. I do love the editor panels at conferences. Listening to current needs and preferences is so helpful in knowing how to craft proposals. Needs and preferences seem to change quickly, but a panel is a little glimpse for the moment.

    • I love those panels too, especially when they’re a session right at the beginning of the conference. So helpful to know the latest info before you pitch to them.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      You are understanding them exactly. “For the moment…”

      I just gave a State of the Industry talk at Speak Up and for this I collected everything I heard earlier in the week at ICRS. It meant that the info was as up-to-date as possible.

      You want to pay attention to agents who are on the phone with publishing houses all week– they’ve usually got the goods.

  10. You all make it easy for us to find out your interests. Reading your previous blog posts helps the pieces come together. Meeting you and Janet at Mount Hermon helped immensely. Even sitting with you at lunch and watching your responses to the pitches around the table was eye opening.
    Studying the likes and dislikes of an agent or editor prior to a conference is strategic and smart, and with the convenience of connecting on blogs and social media, we really have no excuse to come unprepared.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      It’s professional stalking, right? 🙂

      Actually we do the same with you. We listen to your pitch but then we also listen to what you say around the table and who you hang with and what you contribute in classes, etc. It’s really about getting to know one another, isn’t it?

  11. I find this rather freeing. In short, it seems to be that we should just keep writing the books that are in our hearts, do what we feel called to do, and just keep getting better and better. I think I can work with that!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And with you, Amelia, you are a speaker so you can test your material on your audiences and see what resonates with them. Speakers have the advantage of knowing what those felt needs are– they come walking up to talk with you at the end of a presentation

      • This is true! I’m often surprised at what connects with people on a deeper level. I’ve been humbled and surprised over the past year to see some common threads of felt needs that span generations.

  12. Love this post, Wendy. It definitely helps narrow down what’s inside an agent’s head. Like Jennifer, I take a look at what an agent isn’t looking for to help me and follow that up with research.

    I’ve corresponded with an ebook publisher about what she would really like to see. She says she would love to work with me based upon my first two books, but I don’t see myself writing YA right now. I don’t have any ideas for that market because I’ve concentrated on younger people–picture books and middle grade. Is that a mistake? I’m not sure.

    Thanks for following up on your previous post. I went back and read the first one. It was a riot.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      For ebooks middle grade and younger are not key areas because so far, young kids don’t own devices. As soon as Fisher-Prices makes a bright yellow landscape-size e-reader, the market for children’s books will explode.

      The print market for those books is also tight, tight, tight, but not impossible.

      • I was actually surprised by how many kids in my daughter’s school (Grades 2 & 3 only) own devices and bring them to school to read on. We finally broke down and bought our daughter a reconditioned Nook because so many of her classmates own them.

        Our two-year-old nephew already has mastered his mother’s iPhone and iPad to play games and watch videos. I really think you’re right about the e-reader. Once there is a good one for kids, watch out.

  13. I write historical romance, and though it’s a generally popular genre, I know not everyone reads it. But because it is so popular, I know I have to bring my passion to the table and make my voice sing, so that it has a chance to stand out in the crowd.

    As I looked over all the agent possibilities, I wasn’t necessarily looking for their likes and dislikes, I was looking for someone I knew would be a good partner–that was my main criteria. I just hoped and prayed when she read my manuscript that she could feel my passion and appreciate my voice. I’m so happy she did, and I’m thrilled that we work really well together. I’m continuing to pray for the same thing in reference to an editor.

    • I should also add that I wouldn’t have submitted to my agent if she didn’t represent historical romance–that was also on my list of criteria. 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      When you write in a broad, evergreen genre like historical romance, it’s hard not to find that on an agents list. The trick then is to stand out from the competition. Sounds like you did that!

  14. Micky Wolf says:

    Yes to non-specific and being wiggly! Works for me…but then again, maybe that’s because it’s taken many years to realize life itself is wiggly. Some things fit neatly into compartments, others not so much. Write–and agent on! 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Micky, it sounds like you’ve conquered that perfectionist thing so many of us deal with. Neat compartments are so easy, so tidy but the good things rarely happen in those compartments. Surprise is the thing that makes this journey such fun.

  15. Wendy, in all seriousness, the comment you left on Jeanne’s note about writing from our passion gives me more hope than you know. I’ve wrestled lately with sticking with my particular hist/fic focus (The Long Walk) or writing contemporary to show a potential agent that I have the versatility in my work to meet the demand set by the whims of the pub world.
    I was FB’ing with a writer friend about what to do and took her wise advice to stay within my chosen genre. She said something that hit me. “I needed to be sure I wanted to stay there, or close to it, for a potentially considerable length of time.”
    (She wrote a wee book that comes out soon, and it’s got a pretty cover with a sky on it.)
    The thing is, I WANT to be there, in New Mexico, with those people and hear what they need to say as they walk there and back.
    I like them, I care about them. I am passionate about their story.
    I am driven to tell it.
    I’m not as driven about any other subject, yet.
    So I hope that shows in my voice.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Your passion will show but the problem comes in when readers are not there yet. For instance if I became totally focused on a community people by the likes of Honey Boo Boo, say, thinking maybe I had come up with the “next Amish.” If this small area of interest were the only thing I wanted to write but readers couldn’t identify with belching contests, I would have boxed myself in.

      But there are so many areas of historical fiction to explore, changing to contemporary wouldn’t make sense. I find writers of contemporary fiction usually couldn’t imagine writing historical.

      • So explore my in-genre options but stay away from boxes.
        Thank you, Wendy.

      • Jeanne T says:

        Yes, color me contemporary. 🙂 I think writing historical would be very challenging. Not that writing contemporary isn’t. It’s just . . . different. 🙂 I love how God has given each writer his/her call—and each call, each story is unique. 🙂

  16. Thank you, Wendy for this blog. It gives me a great deal of hope. No, I don’t think I’m going to write that one in a million book that an agent is looking for (because what are the odds that I will get it to the agent that is looking for it?) What gives me hope is that you and other good agents are open to having your socks knocked off by something you weren’t expecting. The willingness to read and be open to each query is what gives me hope.

    Listing what you do not represent is very helpful. That saves both you and the writer time, effort and grief.

    I am studying agents and I read and pay close attention to what they say. Will that help me in the long run? Yes, in many ways. For one, I know who NOT to send my query to and I know who I might have a chance of selling the manuscript to. Also, I can find out what kinds of submissions an agent wants (just a query initially or a query with a story outline and the first ten pages)rather than just sending generic submissions.

    Listening to and paying attention to what the agents I’m interested in say / write helps me right now as well because I have learned so much by doing it. This is even true in regards to agents whom I know I won’t query. For example, although I would love to have you as my agent, currently I am writing YA fiction and you represent adult fiction. I know, then, not to waste your time with my query. HOWEVER, I always read your blog and try to join in the conversation as often as possible because I learn so much from you. I appreciate not only what you teach, but that you respond to everyone despite your busy schedule (except when it’s impossible to do so). I know that you are a great agent and a good person, so I love learning from you and connecting with you. I am only sad that the chance of you representing me is zero.

    Many blessings!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      You are so wise. I wouldn’t be the person for YA (despite the fact that I’ve written it) because I no longer read widely in that genre. If you look at the sidebar of what we agents are reading you’ll see who knows the YA market backward and forward. You need an agent who not only understands the market and knows all the important books but you need an agent who knows all the YA editors and talks to them all the time. You need an agent who can just pick up the phone and say, “Wait until you see the book I just signed. . .”

      • Thank you, Wendy, for the affirmation.

        By the way, the first query letter that I will send (when my manuscript is finally ready to shop) is already written, tailored for and addressed to a certain Books and Such agent. I am studying a number of agents because…I have to. However, she is my top choice because, as you said, she knows YA and is an excellent agent. In addition, she is a compassionate and kind person who gives great advice and is comfortable to talk with. I pray that, when she comes across my query in the slush pile, she will recognize me from this blog and will feel that I am someone she would like to work with. Then, hopefully, the query will intrigue her enough to ask for pages and, please God, she’ll have a hard time putting the book down. If that happens, I will be dancing around the living room in delight. But the manuscript isn’t ready yet, so it’s one step at a time.

        In order to be discreet, I haven’t mentioned her name, but I didn’t want you to think that I am oblivious to her and the many things that make her an agent to try to win over. (Of course, anyone who reads this blog regularly–or who reads the information on each agent–will know exactly who we’re talking about). 🙂

  17. Ashley Bazer says:

    There we go…pickin’ on sci-fi again. 😉

    Thanks for the insight, though!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      If I were writing SciFi I’d go to the bookstore, to the SciFi section and look at the acknowledgements in every similar book. Hint: Most authors thank their agents. You’ll be able to compile a list of agents who live and breathe SciFi.

  18. I’ve found that by following agents’ blogs, listening to y’all speak and teach at conferences, and meeting y’all whenever possible, I’ve learned what a lot of agents like and don’t like. Sometimes I sort of feel like a stalker (don’t worry–I don’t know where you live), but over time, I’ve picked up clues about what agents are looking for. While it may not have been my desire 4-1/2 years ago when I started writing to wait this long for an agent, those years have been invaluable to me for many reasons. One of those reasons is that now that I’ve written a publishable novel, I know the industry and the players pretty well.

  19. Even though Han Solo doesn’t want to hear the odds, I will gladly take the “one in a million odds” to get my story read by kids. Call me optimistic.