Note: Because the server was down most of yesterday, Wendy’s blog post will stretch over into Wednesday. You can catch Rachel Kent next Wednesday.
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
A question asked of nearly every agent panel is, “What do you look for in a client?”
I’ve heard this question answered by hundreds of people, some agents, some not. Unfortunately their answers often bear little resemblance to mine. What are some of those things you’ve heard? How about “a great book?” That’s a given, but only part of the answer.
I’ve heard untold writer-hopefuls bemoan the fact that agents are only looking for published writers. Bzzzzzzz. Thanks for playing. Try again.
I’ve also read anti-agent bloggers who rant that agents are all trolling for A-list authors and we agents would all be happiest if we had a client list of only New York Times Bestsellers. Wrong again.
In my next four blog posts– I’m the Books & Such Tuesday blogger, so these will be over four Tuesdays– I’m going to talk about four different level writers and what I look for at each level. Today I’m talking about the unpublished writer. Next week I’ll write about what kind of writer in the early stages of his career interests me. Following that I’ll address the well-published writer who’s much in demand. And finally I’ll talk about the challenges agents face in representing the writers with mega, A-list careers.
Before I begin, let me clarify one other common misconception about agents I often hear at writer’s conferences, “Why is he here? He’s not taking any new clients.” I don’t know a single agent who is not open to a new client if the right person or right project came along, no matter how full his practice. There is always attrition. I’ve had writers retire. Others have taken a sabbatical to raise a family. Some clients have left me and some I’ve let go. An agent’s list is always in flux for one reason or another. Don’t ever discount your dream agent because someone tells you her list is full.
Speaking of full lists, mine is pretty full. Any successful agent who’s not new on the scene is in the same boat, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to unpublished writers. Every editor, every agent dreams of being the one to discover the next Harper Lee, the next To Kill A Mockingbird. It takes no talent to sign a much published author but it takes a real eye to spot genius and we are all addicted to that quest. I looked at my current client list. 48% of them came to me unpublished. Only 6.5% are still unpublished. At the conference I just attended I made an offer of representation to two more unpublished writers.
So, what do I always look for in an unpublished writer:
- A near-perfect manuscript— This goes without saying. The competition is steep so this is the prerequisite. That said, don’t forget, taste is subjective. What one agent may reject, I may enthusiastically embrace. Unfortunately, we are seeing too many manuscripts too early. One editor uses the term “workmanlike” to describe this. It’s all elbows. Every technique seems to jut out. The writing is self-conscious and overworked. The book that excites us is the product of a confident writer who has mastered the craft.
- A distinctive voice— I’m looking for someone who will stand out in a crowded field. If you are writing nonfiction, I’m looking for the writer who can become the go-to person for his category. In fiction, I’m looking for the author who knows the difference between his own unique voice and each character voice.
- A professional attitude— Very important to me. We’re looking to build a team and I want to work with writers who take their work seriously. Before becoming an agent, I spent more than two decades as a successful artist/designer in a tough industry. I never had patience for “artistic sensibilities” then. I’m not likely to change.
- A winsome personality— The dictionary defines winsome as generally pleasing and engaging. Some agents love snarky writers with attitude. Not me. Life is too short to have to clean up all the messes left in the wake of a clumsy personality. Since I get to choose who I work with, I prefer the same kind of people I’d choose as friends. People who add richness to my life.
- A hope and a future— I look beyond the one book to a long-term career. I want to know what book number two and three and ten might be. I want a client with career potential. Does that mean I wouldn’t consider a seventy-year-old writer? No. My favorite book of all time is And Ladies of the Club, published when the author (Helen Hooven Santmyer) was 88. Had that book come to me, I would have done anything to represent it. Some careers can be significant with one book. (Think Harper Lee.)
- A great platform (for nonfiction)— Publishers are risk-averse these days. They are reluctant to publish nonfiction from unknown writers. Not saying it doesn’t happen but it is an uphill battle.
- An impressive “tribe”— A writer who can use social media with skill and finesse is very attractive these days. One of the writers to whom I extended an offer of representation last week was a frequent blog reader. I got to know her first through her interesting comments right here on our blog.
- A writer who will add to our community— This one is specific to Books & Such. Unlike most agencies, we have built a collaborative community of clients. We gather for retreats and we host online forums to communicate and help one another. When we consider potential new clients we take the whole community into consideration.
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