6 Qualities That Make an Agent Say Yes: Finding Literary Representation

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Our agency receives at least one hundred queries every week, which, when you think about it, means more than 5,000 per year. Plus we agents hear somewhere between 50-100 pitches when we attend writers conferences. For those of you who feel despair in the face of how keen the competition is, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Not the number of people we have to choose from but rather what makes us say yes. These are the qualities we look for in the potential client:

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 what readers want.

2. An understanding of what makes the writer unique in the marketplace.handshaking

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.

One of my newest clients has a doctorate in strategic organizational design. In his nonfiction writing he offers a different way for churches to think about how to make themselves relevant in our highly-disrupted society–through their organizational design. This client differentiates himself from all the other gurus who are offering ways for churches to remain relevant.

3. 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 abrasive or caustic 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 select a writer who asks fifty questions for every answer. Sure, I want you to understand the specifics of how you would relate to me and vice versa; why I think I can sell your book; what I perceive as a good career trajectory for you, etc. But I’ve found  that a person who has no end to his or her questions is also a client will take up 80% of an agent’s time but not make 80% of an agent’s income–it just never turns out that way. I’m looking for writers who get how business works. And who trust I have their best interests at heart.

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; it’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-mailing list, a plan for promoting their books, and a significant Internet presence.

5. Open to critique. I confess that it’s eye-rollingly frustrating to have a client come up with an idea that the agent knows will be a hard sell, but that client to insist on moving forward. I represented an author who wrote an Amish novel with a dark, mystic tone. Even after I explained that readers sought out Amish novels because they liked to escape to a quieter, gentler way of life, the writer insisted on moving forward with the project. It came as no surprise to me that editor after editor responded to the proposal with the comment that an Amish novel needed to avoid being sinister. A healthy dialogue between the agent and author is a win-win, but when the author doesn’t pay adequate attention the the agent’s concerns about a project, that pretty much adds up to a lose-lose. Give me a client who accepts critiques.

6. Stellar writing.

Remember the Pillsbury slogan, “Nothin’ 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. Because that means all the other stuff is icing on the cake. I like cake with icing a lot, but I’ve been known to bite into unadorned but out-of-this-world cake.

What encourages you most in what an agent looks for? Which quality do you need to work on most in your quest of finding literary representation?

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76 Comments

  • Angela Mills says:

    I have an agent. My dream agent, actually. That being said, this is a great list of things I can improve on while I wait for publication. I especially need to work on knowing the industry and stellar writing :)

    God led me to submit to you, Janet, and only you. Even though writers at Mt. Hermon told me I needed to branch out and increase my chances, I only ever talked to you. I just felt you were the one. I wasn’t worried about missing other opportunities because I had a total peace about it (very rare for me, haha). Now that I see how many queries you get, I am even more convinced it was a total God thing!

  • “I only work with the people I want to work with.” Forget being an author; I want to be an agent (sorry, that’s my Monday morning back-to-work whine).

    So I need to be realistic, enthusiastic, teachable, a great communicator and nice. Sounds like my day job–so I’m building writer’s skills while I work. I’ll head out with a smile after all. Thank you, Janet.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Shirlee, being an agent requires a full set of complicated qualities (which most people don’t understand until they TRY to be an agent), but one of the pluses is that I get to choose clients. Of course, if I don’t make good selections…well, so much for being an agent.
      I love your simplified list what it takes to be a strong candidate for representation–and your upbeat perspective. Now, back to work to build that skill-set.

  • Anne Love says:

    Hmmm. I think I’m teachable with critiques, possess a reasonable understanding of the market, and hope that my personality remains sweet through all the ups and downs of writing. Who couldn’t improve writing? I read the latest in the market for the genre I write, and have for 30 yrs. I’ve spent more of my life being the market reader than the market writer. So I think I have that one, but it does seem the market for my genre is a bit flooded right now.

    So that leaves the thing I struggle with the most–what makes me unique? You can’t buy uniqueness, you either have it or you don’t. So, what is it? I don’t think it’s a single story, that’s too short lived. It seems broader–where you live and work in life, your worldview, your life experiences, your voice in writing. It has to be something that will color all that your write, like breathing–it has to be something you can’t help but to do when you touch the keyboard everyday. I just feel blind about this one–or maybe it’s more of a fear that I just might not have “it”.

  • Hi Janet,

    Besides writing, I’m a pharmacist. I can understand your frustration with #3 and #5.

    I don’t mind answering a patient’s questions, but some patients take up 80% of my time. Then they call and ask one of the other pharmacists the same questions. They drain my enthusiasm for answering their questions the next time when I know they either aren’t listening or don’t like my answer.

    When a customer comes in and asks my advice about a health issue, I can tell when they want to do what a neighbor suggested over what I’m suggesting. No matter how unsafe the neighbor’s advice is.

    I want an agent because I know you all are the experts. This is what you do every day, and you’re good at it. My job is to write and learn as much as I can about writing and social media. As far as business issues, I know that’s the job of an agent. When I get an agent, I plan to soak in their advice and follow it wisely.

    Thanks for sharing. I’m so glad I stopped by today!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jackie, we’re kindred spirits on the advice giving. It’s frustrating to offer information based on training and years of experience, only to have the recipient decide they (or their neighbor) knows more than the expert. That’s especially difficult when that person is a client for whom I have the responsibility of selling their projects. If they don’t listen, how is it I’m supposed to succeed for both of us?

  • I’m hoping that one day I’ll be represented, and all of the points you mentioned are encouraging…but I’m not worried about it.

    I’ve already won.

    In following this blog, and in meeting – virtually – so many of the people who make up this community, I have learned much of life and care and compassion and humility. Far more than I thought I would learn.

    It’s made me a better writer (in both the technical and marketing senses), but more importantly, the process has made me a better person.

    The journey is the purpose. Happy is the miner who, pan in hand, delights in each breath of clean mountain air as he searches for the modest yellow flake.

    That’s me.

  • Good day to you, Mrs. Grant. Thank you for posting this list; it is very encouraging that there are concrete ways in which one might make one’s “package” more attractive.

    I wonder if there are some items that might be added? At first if seemed as though they would be subheadings under your categories, but as I contemplated them, it seemed that they might deserve a place of their own.

    With respect – and a bit of trepidation at my temerity – here they are. The three “P’s”, as it were.

    1_ Patience – the patience to go through the revision process, build an online following on the strength of one’s platform, and not least patience in understanding that one is not the agent’s sole client

    2_ Perspective – a well-founded understanding that while writing is important, being a well-rounded individual whose cares extend past the scroll and inkwell is a delight to God. Monomaniacs are engaging at first, but tedious at length.

    3_ Preparation – it would be my assumption that a writer who can be counted on to be prepared for agent-author conversations (and other time-dependent events) takes a burden from the agent’s shoulders. A talent for ad hoc work is useful, but relying on it is something akin to making hope part of a tactical plan.

    • Surpreet, I appreciate your comment about “understanding that one is not the agent’s sole client”.
      I was reminded of this very thing when I signed my contract with Books & Such. Agents have so many plates spinning at once, and each of their clients are at different stages of the process. Just one more reason to admire the forethought and diligence of the B&S agents.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Surpreet, your suggested list of writerly qualities is accurate. From an agent’s perspective, they are hard to judge because these aren’t “testable.” I can ask a writer to respond to a critique I offer and can thereby determine how teachable he or she is, but patience, perspective and preparation are qualities a writer needs to determine within oneself whether they exist and to what degree.

      • The implicit subtlety of those qualities is a point well-taken.

        If I may, I would like to offer suggestions based on my own experience in another field. I hope it is applicable. I used these assessment tools in initial conversations with those whom I was to recommend (or not recommend) for engagement with my employer.

        There may be ways to develop some idea of a writer’s sense of perspective – in conversation, whether in person or by phone, does the writer tend to circle back to the business of writing (or in an even more focused manner, his or her own work)? Or does the capacity, knowledge and interest seem to exist that can sustain a social discussion?

        Preparation might also be measured in a conversation with a writer as a prospective client. Given that social media and a marketing plan are cornerstones to a writer’s participation in the publishing process, is he or she ready to talk about them both in general and in the specifics of his or her case? Is a plan ready to hand, or do you have the sense that it is being made up along the path?

        Patience is harder to analyze in an initial conversation; I have never found a good way to assess it.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Surpreet, these subtleties often do become apparent during an initial phone all, but sometimes the person knows all the right answers but is lacking in the ability to live them. Inherently, I think most agents are weighing whether these qualities seem to exist during that first phone call.

      • Of course, Mrs. Grant, you are right.

        Those I interviewed were, if engaged, passed on to others in the organization, and I did not see a potential for the inherent inability to live these qualities.

        If my approach and suggestions were simplistic, I beg your pardon, and appreciate your patience.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Surpreet, no, your comments are simplistic. They are valid; just a bit challenging to discern sometimes.

  • Thank you, Janet.

    I need to work on dependable stellar writing. I want my life to be so soaked in my Savior, that only stellar can flow out.

    Like Andrew, this website has been critical to my life over the last year. The friendships help with sustenance and growth. I already feel represented.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, thanks for the comments about the blog. I’m pleased that this has become a writing community, which is over and above what I ever envisioned. I’m humbled and thankful.

  • I love this post, Janet. It does give hope to this unagented writer. :) Knowing that personality match up is important to an agent (as I am guessing it is for most writers) is an encouraging aspect of this post. And knowing that stellar writing (which I aspire to) is huge. I’ve heard that point before, so it’s good to be reminded. :)

    As for the area I most need to work on? #1 and #2. I’m learning what the market does/doesn’t respond to as I watch the books coming out, and even in seeing what genres are represented (or not) in writing contests. I’m also working to better understand what makes a writer unique in the marketplace. For a gal who doesn’t like to stand out as the center of attention, I’m changing my mindset to figure out what’s unique about me, my style, my content so I can do just that. In a humble way.

    • “Who doesn’t like to stand out” … I so get that, Jeanne.

    • Jeanne I don’t think you realize the perspective of those of us who know you in regards to “standing out”. Have you ever walked through a garden and enjoyed the beauty all around you and then, off to the side, stands an elegant rose. That rose is not alone and idle, but is quietly gracing the garden with a soft, genteel beauty that possesses a refined wisdom and sweet grace that the other flowers, while perfectly happy in themselves, only wish they could possess.

      Honey, that rose is you.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, clearly you’re applying yourself to learn everything necessary to be a successful writer. That investment will pay off some day, I’m sure.
      Studying the market is important because the market keeps shifting (just to keep things challenging, you know). The frustrating thing about the market is that, this year, historical fiction might be trending downward because publishers overbought and have too many offerings, but three years from now, publishers could be back busily buying historicals.

      • That’s what I’ve noticed, Janet. That the market shifts. Frequently. :) I guess this could lead into trying to discern that fine line between writing the story on my heart and writing for where I think the market might shift to. I’m learning how to do this, but I’m not at that point yet. :)

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Jeanne, here’s a little hint: Don’t invest yourself in a genre that seldom if ever is popular among publishers. It’s unlikely to gain in popularity–or to stay popular. But classic genres take turns at the top of the heap. That adds up to writing what your heart long to as long as it’s not in a minor genre.

      • Thank you, Janet. That’s helpful!

  • What quality am I working on most? “The author needs to be prepared to make a big marketing ‘fuss’ when her title is released; it’s now an inherent part of a writer’s life.” Right now, I am consumed with learning everything I can about getting the word out. The highlight of my weekend? Finding envelopes the perfect color for an upcoming mailing. The 80% off made it even sweeter.

  • Thank you so much for this post. I’m encouraged this morning, after stewing and fretting for a few days. Several things have stopped me and made me smile. This is one of them. Thanks.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    Thank you for the perfect post on how to find an agent, Janet. As a writer I need to look pass my own horizon and realize that the world is round.

    The journey begins with great writing, but grows in expectation as the voyage expands.

    I just have a few questions…only kidding! :)

  • I knew my story was sort of a bit unique, because there isn’t another one out there, other than a few very nice children’s picture books. So if someone in the CBA is working on a novel specifically dealing with adult characters who either lived through that period (The Long Walk), or escaped it, I’d love to know.

    Mostly so I can be neurotic and worry about how much better there’s will be than mine.

    When my agent offered representation, it wasn’t until after I’d learned to up my game, write better, deeper, tighter and with more intensity than previous renditions of the story.
    The rejections were hard, I won’t sugar coat that aspect, but they were important because I had to decide how hard I was willing to fight to improve my work. And how hard I would fight to bring my story to the world.

    When I was sending those queries, I had to be honest with myself just how much would I let God keep of my sacrifice? Who owns this story? Me or Him? Who do I write for, and why? How hard would it be when an I pitched to an agent and they rolled a lip and said “Seriously? Indians? Why not just tell people you’re writing about dancing monkeys in space?”

    I was praying for an agent who was enthusiastic and excited about it. And I am far more thankful than I can adequately convey that God blessed me with Mary Keeley.

    When I think about where God has placed me, I am humbled to my knees because not for one second, not one iota of time, do I think I deserve a spot in the Books and Such client family. I came to writing late in what could be considered “the perfect time”, out of the world of hockey moms and minivans. I knew very little about craft, and ZERO about the publishing industry. And less than zero about what I was doing.

    And yet, here I am, one of Mary Keeley’s clients. And I am utterly and completely aware of how hard it is to get to this place, and how blessed I am.

    Does that diminish the fire? Not a chance. Do I take my blessing for granted? Not a chance. Do I work with the same fire as I did before? Nope.

    More.

  • Janet, #3 seems like it should be a no-brainer, yet it’s amazing how many people don’t think about it. I particularly appreciate your comment about trusting the agent. When I worked in immigration law, I had clients who just didn’t trust me when I told them that we wouldn’t receive a response from the INS for at least two weeks. They also didn’t trust me when I said I would call them as soon as I heard something. So guess what happened? Every single day, the phone would ring. “Any news today?” “No,” I would remind them. “I’ll call you as soon as I hear something.” Repeat, repeat, repeat, until I finally had to tell them that I could get a lot more work done for them if they would wait for me to call them. I appreciated their anxiety and their impatience, but why hire a lawyer if you aren’t going to let her handle your case? And yes, I’m praying that I remember this whenever I receive representation. We lawyers like to ask questions. :)

    • Oh, this is sinking in …

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meghan, it’s so true that a client who has unending questions or needs to be told that, yes, we’re still waiting, actually takes up time that a lawyer or an agent could be working FOR that person. I understand the need to be assured you aren’t forgotten, but taking time to give that assurance does nothing to help get a deal or an INS response.

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I had one agent tell me gifts of coffee also help ;) … although that could be considered bribery and or kissing up a tad too much, so I can see why it’s not on the list.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      To be honest, it feels a little uncomfortable to receive a gift along with a proposal from a client wannabe. A bag of tea is one thing, but a dozen cookies crosses some sort of line that feels like an attempted bribe. The sender might not intend that message at all, but the agent has no idea what thinking went into the gift. Pre-representation gifts scare us.

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Janet,

    Thank you for this blog. It is quite encouraging. The number of queries agents receive can feel discouraging to me yet you have shown that there is hope, especially for someone who has really worked on and studied her craft. “Writing trumps everything else” gives me both hope and challenge. I continually work at improving my writing, read and study good writing, and study the business of writing. This blog greatly helps me with that last part (thanks to all of you!). I suspect that some writers who submit queries have not studied business or the current market (and perhaps have not worked that hard on his or her writing skills). That means if I make sure my writing, my story idea, my pitch, query, and proposal are of the highest quality I can make them, my query, writing, and I have a better chance of being noticed among the crowd.

    That said, number 2 of your list is the one I worry the most about. Thank you for your response to Anne Love. It helped me as well. :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Christine, the majority of the queries we receive are obvious no’s because those sending them haven’t done research on what our agency represents or on what is already widely published. That means doing your homework on all the levels you’ve listed puts you in the stratosphere of a project worth considering.

  • Thank you for the post! I just recently started the search for an agent. I do have a question about #4. Do you look at how many followers the client has on social media to determine how much self marketing they can do? Is it possible to do a great job promoting the book if they haven’t built up a have a huge number of followers/friends on social media yet?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      LeAnne, agents and publishers have learned the hard way that just because a writer has a significant social media following, that doesn’t automatically mean that person’s books will sell well. We’ve discovered that some writers have medium-sized platforms, but their readers/followers are eager to buy whatever that person writes. So showing that you have a responsive and engaged following can be more meaningful than having a large, mildly-engaged following.

      • This if so valuable, Janet. It reinforces the importance of being responsive and engaged with my future reader, because that will give them incentive to respond in kind.

  • BL Whitney says:

    Janet, I’ve been following your blog, and one question I have is about the Christian/Inspirational category. My book would be considered inspirational along the lines of Celestine Prophesy or Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Spiritual, not religious, in other words. Is this part of your interest or do you prefer to focus on books that include Chrisitianity specifically. Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom on the blog. Brandy

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Brandy, I tend to lean toward projects that specifically include Christianity. That brings up an important point: It pays to know what an agent’s “boundaries” are. We each develop publishing networks, which are relationships we build over the years. While we can represent projects outside those networks, it’s really heavy lifting because the editors don’t know us and vice versa. We might send projects to an editor outside his or her boundaries, even after doing research. While editors are always happy to connect with agents they haven’t encountered before, everyone has to work extra hard to find the right matches.

  • Kathy Cassel says:

    I have worked in the CBA without an agent so far. But I’m working on a secular teen novel. Are there agents who represent both secular and Christian, or are agents just for CBA or secular (exclusively)?

  • Penelope Childers says:

    #5- it’s the ability to learn from critiques that has allowed me to improve my writing skills. I always listen for the positive suggestions when someone is giving me feedback. I appreciate this post and one I will refer to often.

  • Oh, Janet, thank you for this wonderful list of what an agent looks for–in a writer. I feel like you’ve opened the treasure box of an agent’s heart. One is a gem, one a pearl, and there is the chain of gold.
    I didn’t know your desires were so specific, and yet full of common sense. It makes them seem doable. My biggest problem is the marketing and publicity. I’ve never been involved in that and will have to talk to some of my friends who are. That’s one thing I’ve always hesitated to do. Ask. Which I will do now, since I’m preparing to redo my webpage and am looking for a good person who can do it. Do any of you know someone who could help me with it? Thank you so much.
    I totally agree with you on personality matches. Very important. And accepting critiques can make or kill a working agreement. My crit group has educated me on that! lol They are the best.
    But what encourages me the most is your quest for stellar writing. That tells me you insist upon quality. And seek it in each manuscript. My job is to write it that well.

  • Janet, thank you for this super-helpful advice. I had no idea there was an overabundance of romantic suspense out there right now! I’m pitching mine at ACFW this year, so now I will pray the Lord will help my rom/susp really stand out in the crowd. :-)
    Have a lovely week.
    Bethany

  • Before I had an agent offer, I thought I just wanted an agent. I knew, in theory, that I should find someone who had my best interests at heart. Because we got along, I thought that would be enough. Now I realize, I want someone who believes in me enough to tell me what’s wrong with my manuscript and has a clear vision of which publishers would be right for it. After my last experience, what I want most of all: honesty. I’m still looking for that right agent who loves me and my writing.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Theresa, nothing like a wrong step to teach you what’s really important to you, right? Honesty is primary to you, but I’d add that you’re also wanting someone who will take the time to analyze your manuscript, who has the ability to critique your work, and has a strong network in the category in which you write. That sounds like a doable list to me. I wish you the best in your hunt for that person!

  • Sidney Ross says:

    Visionary, my sixth. -sidney

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