6 Qualities That Make an Agent Say Yes: Finding Literary Representation
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.
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?
6 qualities a literary agent looks for in potential clients. Click to tweet.
What makes an agent say yes to a potential client. Click to tweet.