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.
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 Any successful agent who’s not new on the scene is in the same boat, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to unpublished writers.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.
So, what do I always look for in an unpublished writer: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.
Perhaps this falls into the intersection of professional and winsome, but . . .
The ability to hear criticism with grace, consider it with wisdom and apply it without losing her (his) unique essence.
Wow, Shirlee, that’s a good ‘un!
Definitely a necessity, Shirlee. Good point!
Well said, Shirlee.
Huh! This was a relief. Knowing what an agent wants is a treasure…
I do have a question though. Do agents (and publishers) take on new fiction writers who lack a great platform but are willing to work towards having one?
A platform is less important for a novelist than a nonfiction author. Several publishers, however, are still looking for fiction authors who know how to connect and gather a “tribe.” So as you write start connecting with your potential readers. (Not just fellow writers.)
Very helpful info, Wendy. Thanks for the encouragement to this not-yet-published novelist. I am now beginning to work on building a platform (though you said it isn’t as important for novelists, I’ve read some agents look for a platform regardless). To that end I just set up my blog site and wrote my first blog. Yeah!
My questions are about social media. I have had a personal FB page for several years with 600+ friends. Should I set up a separate page to “gather a tribe” focusing on my writing projects, or simply inject my writing info, blog updates, etc. into my current page? My second question is this: how important is it to Tweet? (Must I open a Twitter account?)
Thanks for your time.
Response very appreciated, Wendy… I’m wondering what it takes to gather a tribe… Do they not come as a result of the book?
What a great post, Wendy! I’m sure a lot of people will look to this day and the days to come with more hope than they have had for a long time, and I’ll bet that you’ve relit some nearly-dead writing embers.
* I’m in what I suppose is the kind of weird position of being published but unrepresented; BPH was originally SP’d under another title, and was picked up by a vanity press on a traditional contract (no advance) when one of the editors saw it and liked it.
* That said, I would dearly love to have been represented, and still would. Being able to work with a professional is a great motivator; in other areas, it pulled me up to be better than I thought I could be, and I assume it would have done the same in writing.
* Not going to happen, though, because I can post some ‘fails’ to your list, and one that isn’t on the list but is significant.
> Superlative writing – I’m not the one to judge, but I suspect my writing’s good but the style is dated. I’m not that old, but I read a lot of old books, live according to an archaic code, and it’s had an influence.
> Winsome is definitely not a word one would use to describe me in person, unless you happen to be a stray dog or cat. ‘Forbidding’ is probably the nicest description, and both my wife and a good friend use ‘scary’. I have a sense of humour, but like that of C.S. Lewis’ sorns it doesn’t go far past irony. (But hey, it does keep me professional, ’cause I’m serious as a heart attack, so Score! on that one.)
> Hope and future…I’m actually happier and more at peace than I have ever been precisely because I don’t HAVE a hope and future, or more accurately hope for a future. I’ve lasted a lot longer than I should have, and I think it’s in large part because I could let go of hope and fully live in the now. Not that I don’t work on long-term projects; I do. But seeing them completed isn’t the important thing. Doing my best by them in this hour is.
> And finally, the Big Red X is genre. I’m way too religious for ABA, and way too weird for CBA – my religious background is a mixture of Roman Catholicism, Zen Buddhism, and Orthodox Judaism. How that came to be is a story for another time, or better ‘never’, but it sure as heck informs my writing in a very visible way. I couldn’t write a straight secular story, because I would find it pointless. And I don’t think I could write a straight CBA, because there are points at which my spiritual framework (though perhaps not my specific beliefs) is incongruent with the accepted norm.
* If anyone’s still with me, there was a time…oh, most recently about three minutes ago…that I would have given my right arm and firstborn child (but NOT one of the dogs) to be an ‘insider’, a represented writer in this community. I can’t leave my home now, but I’ve traveled the blogosphere widely, and have never seen a place with the values, professionalism, and welcoming values of Books and Such. So my counsel is…dudes and dudettes, keep trying for representation, and focus your efforts here. There are other great agents out there, but for a loving, supportive and highly professional community, you’re already home.
Herein, Andrew, we see your unique essence. And we love it!
Shirlee, thank you so much! A priest once told me not to be too upset about not fitting in; the word eccentric has to be defined by SOMEONE.
Andrew, your “cyber” presence is such a blessing!!! I always look forward to reading your comments.
Lara, it’s a privilege to be part of this community, and an honour to have met you here.
“You’re already home” … yes. 🙂
Shelli, home is where the heart is…and so very often I found new strength for a weary heart right here
Andrew, your knowledge of yourself and your transparency is commendable. Thank you for your honesty in a time when it can be difficult to know anybody via social media. From my perspective, I would rather work with someone who knows exactly who he is (and who he isn’t) than someone who believes he is someone he is not.
Thank so so much, Meghan. Looking into a mirror can be tough, but I figure that God is the Dude holding the mirror, and He doesn’t see the reflection I see. He’s just looking at one of His slightly wayward kids, perhaps rolling His eyes, and trying very hard not to laugh.
Andrew, have you considered writing nonfiction? Every time I read your comments (nonfiction) they are strong and spot on. Some things I’d love to hear is how one lives with “no hope” in this life but a deep faith in the one to come.
Perhaps even memoir– how a Catholic/ Buddhist/ Jew came to a vibrant faith that saw him through war and personal battles. Just a brainstorm.
Wendy, yes – I actually have two nonfiction ‘short ebooks’ available on Kindle, and one of them addresses how to keep faith when hope is gone. The other one’s about helping a veteran with PTSD survive the holidays.
* There are also two book-length manuscripts on the shelf. One is on keeping a marriage alive in a culture that wants to kill it, and the other one’s about building a ‘winning season’ in life. Both were a bit of an experiment, as each chapter ends with a short story that illustrates the main points discussed.
* They were fun to write, but as I don’t have credentials in the counseling/psych areas, I can’t imagine they would be taken seriously by any agent, let alone a publisher.
* My current blog series will eventually be reworked into a book and offered, but I have to find a way to put a positive ‘life-coaching’ spin on caregiving for a terminally ill spouse. “The Last Lecture” wasn’t really about Randy Pausch’s illness; it was about making dreams come true. I’ve got to find a positive unifying theme.
* The memoir’s an interesting idea; thank you for that.
Janet Ann Collins
Andrew, I’d also love to read about your background in all those religions and how they got you to where you are now.
Jan, it would be a hard write…but I’ll give it a try. Thank you so much!
Andrew, I reread all your comments on this post now (we are in the wee hours of the day here), and I can’t help but marvel at the wisdom. Maybe, just maybe I’d visit one day, and browse through your pots of wisdom for peaceful living…
Thanks for being a part of this community…
Michael, wow…thank you so much! Your words honour me.
Thank you, Wendy, for your words of encouragement. They truly make one feel a part of the B&S community.
*Lack of a platform is my biggest challenge at the moment, but with God’s direction, this too shall come to be.
*I believe the distinctive voice I’ve given each of my characters is my strongpoint.
Don’t forget, the concept of platform keeps morphing. Be creative in how you can gather avid potential readers.
Wendy, you always give us hope. Thank you. I need to work on many things, but I’m polishing my second novel and looking for a third idea. Seeing where I was three years ago compared to today is encouraging. Much of that progress is thanks to this community–the advice and friendships extended here. 🙂 And this from you–I’m “pure potential.” Thank you for that.
Wendy L Macdonald
Shelli, I can relate to the joy of noticing progress. 🙂 This blog is on my shortlist for must reads too.
You are welcome. I’m proud of the unpublished writers I took on who have become bestsellers or well-know authors. Writers like Tessa Afshar, Jill Eileen Smith and Cunthia Ruchti.
I’m feeling discouraged for no particular reason. I’m headed to ACFW in a few days, I finished my third manuscript (thought it’s not yet ready to show), and I’ve generally carved out both discipline and a manageable routine in which to write daily. I have a supportive family and the drive to create. Still, I’m blue and wondering if all of it is for nothing. This post encouraged me (though who can ever know if their manuscript is near perfect?) and I needed to read it today.
I’ll be praying for your time at ACFW, Hannah. I wish I could be there … to meet you. 🙂 There is little as special as being surrounded by like-minded people, writers and Believers. I get goose bumps thinking about it. 🙂
I wish I could meet you, too. Thanks, Shelli. Your comments are always permeated with sweetness.
Hannah, it’s never for nothing. Our actions in this life echo in Eternity. (I stole that line from the film ‘Gladiator’).
* Your voice is uniquely yours, and very much valued in this community; the stories you tell can never be told by another.
* In the end everything we write, nay, everything we do are messages in bottles, set onto the Empyrean currents to be collected by hands we may never shake, but held close in hearts that we have surely touched.
* Take heart, dear friend; your words and your work matter.
Thanks. That’s encouraging.
Hannah, I’ve definitely been in that place of feeling discouraged. I’ve had “a year” and life has drained some of my excitement and dimmed my perspective. I’ll pray for you today. Discouragement is a tough place to be. Just remember, if you’re doing what God has given you to do, you’re right where you need to be.
*I’ll be at ACFW. I hope we run into each other!!
I’ll sure echo that, Jeanne. If my writing career had taken off in the way that I hoped it might, then I would not have been in the position of having to pick Barbara up from the commuter train on July 5, 2013. And on the ride home she would not have spied movement in a flooded ditch, and a small broken-backed terrier would have drowned in fear and loneliness, with the question in her heart – “Why did someone do this to me?”
* She’s now named Bella the Miracle Dog, and has learned to walk again. She doesn’t yet have full independence, but she is moving.
* There’s a story I am sure you’ve heard about the difference in dining in Heaven and hell.
* In both places the only spoons and forks are longer than one’s arms, and once picked up can’t be put down for the meal’s duration.
* Hell is a place of constant hunger, because one can’t get the food to one’s mouth.
* And in Heaven hunger is banished, because the people there feed one another.
Oh, that’s fun! I hope to see you, too. I’ll be at Donald Maas’ early bird talk. Then, on to other sessions. I’ll look for you.
See my reply under Andrew’s comment. Oops. Cold and flu brain this morning.
Don’t let discouragement derail you. Three manuscripts! That’s wonderful. When you get your first offer the publisher might say, “What else do you have?”
(That’s what happened to me.)
I’ll bear that in mind. I must say I haven’t “shopped” any of my work yet, so it’s not as if I’m reeling from rejections. It’s just that there’s so much to learn and my attempts feel feeble and ridiculous so often.
Hannah, I don’t know if this will help, but when I’m discouraged I have a go-to piece of music, Linkin Park’s “Iridescent”. Here is the Youtube link if you’d like to give it a try –
Thanks, friend. 🙂
You’re so welcome, Hannah. Your comment has been on my mind all day.
I understand the writer blues. They creep up on us when we least expect it. Somehow, some way, somewhere, through Someone, we are able to pick ourselves up and cheer onward to that last page where we know God wants us to be.
May I share a personal experience with you?
I’ve worked on a series of books for 18 years, went through bachelor’s and master’s, and still have not fulfilled my “dream.” This series has changed so much over the years in ways I couldn’t even imagine, but for the grace of God, I’m continuing the path that He’s taking me. At times, I’m drowning in despair; other times, I’m on the highest mountain. But, through it all, I know that my God will raise me up in His time, the right time, the necessary time.
All I am called to do is write, rewrite, and wait. And learn.
Hope to meet you at the conference!
Wendy, I so appreciate your candid approach in this blogpost. In the current age of publishing, it’s easy for us unagented writers to become discouraged. It all feels like too much to keep up with.
*That said, your words offer hope and encouragement to keep pressing forward.
*I’ve been working on platform, and I’m seeing it growing, albeit not at a rapid pace. One thing I’ve been grateful for is that many of the people who comment on my blog share thoughtful comments. I know that engagement is important, and I’m thrilled to be getting to know people (and who knows, maybe one-day readers).
*One good thing I have is future book ideas.:)
*One thing I’ve worked on this year is to refine a couple craft-areas to make my writing shine.
*Such an encouraging post. 🙂
For me, your writing already shines, Jeanne. It glows from a heart of faith. I think anyone who’s read your comments here, your blog, or your manuscripts will agree to that.
One thing I don’t mention is that if you’ve already been in contact with an agent and you are working on rewriting and editing, you’re almost there. Don’t be discouraged.
Wendy L Macdonald
Thank you, Wendy, for this steeped-in-hope post. I’m giggling as I wonder if it will take me until I’m 70 to create a near-perfect manuscript. But since you’ve mentioned you’re not concerned about age, I’ll keep writing.
My weak area is staying focused on one goal/one project. My desire is to write both fiction and nonfiction;however, once a door opens for me, then I’ll have to set up house in that genre. One of my strengths is professionalism (I’d be mortified to be caught wearing a snarky hat), and I’m strong in engaging warmly on social media. I care about readers, other writers, and publishing professionals. Life’s too short not to be a blessing to those you cross paths with.
Blessings ~ Wendy Mac
You are definitely a blessing to me. And I’m so thankful our paths have crossed. Because you care, you are easy to talk to, and you are a very sweet friend. 🙂
I agree with your strengths. It’s good that you’ve taken stock and understand your “capital.”
Wendy, I appreciate the information you presented. Thanks.
You are welcome, Norma.
“You are pure potential.” Thank you, Wendy. Sometimes I lose sight of the goal and that is to honor the Lord through my writing, even if I’m unpublished.
And that is truer than you might imagine. When we are presenting debut authors to publishers there are no negatives (like bad sales numbers) we have to explain away.
Thanks for this very helpful and insightful post, Wendy! Good questions for thought at the end. I believe I have some of these traits agents look for, but I’m working on some of the others. I’m especially working to build my tribe as much as I can. I so enjoyed meeting you in Wisconsin this month. Thank you for taking the time to meet me and offer encouragement!
I loved meeting you in Wisconsin– a bonus for me. Building your tribe will only help. You can see, from Lauraine’s response at that signing, what an enthusiastic bunch of readers can do for your career. They become your own word-of-mouth marketing team.
To date, this web site I stumbled upon, while googling Agent’s and stuff, was so far the most useful and informational yet.
I was very happy to get a much better idea on what agents as an example, are trying to get their hands on.
And once my book is in what I call final cut, I would like to send it toBooks & Such for an audition.
I was checking out another place & I did send them a sample chapter’s, but they take incomplete work…. in any case, I saw their BBB rating and it’s not awful, but it had many complaints, but they was all resolved too.
But from the post I read above, I feel a bit of a pull .
So at the moment, I have completed the full first draft & some chapters are in their 3rd to 4th stage, so once I feel it is done, Then I can do what is listed above and see how it goes!
Thanks for the Blog & when I’m not reading I read a lot about what you need to do for trying to get agents and publishing and so forth, it’s a lot to take in for someone who is new to try to become a write, before this i wrote for the yahoo Contributor which was fun, but they have disband.
I do hope to be in contact, when the time is right !
In the mean time, this is where I have put some of my short stories, that anyone may like to check out & comments are always welcome too.
So glad you found us. Learning about the industry is an important step these days. One of the things that concerns us are the number of potential pitfalls a good writer can fall into. I caught some television commercials a week or so ago from a company looking for Christian books. They promise (probably for a hefty fee) to get your manuscript in front of agents and publishers.
Frustrating! An author has no need for a service like this. Those people have no special “in.” If I saw a bunch of questionable queries coming from the same entity, pretty soon I’d ignore the submissions sent. Publishers will do the same. As agents we are aware that the more excellent manuscripts we offer to our editor friends, the more they anticipate receiving something from us. If we sent queries shelter skelter, editors would soon groan when they saw a submission from us. That’s what’s going to happen to those submission after a time. Too sad.
Money would be much better sent attending a writers conference and sitting down to a meal with an agent or editor.
As an unpublished fiction writer, I appreciated this post. The sense of community resonated with me. The more I get involved with the writing community, the more I realize that encouraging each other is important for the success of every Christian writer and author. Didn’t Paul exhort us to uplift the brethren?
I also believe that communication is just as important as community. Without good, clear communication, we haven’t got anything. 🙂
And for one thing that I could improve upon is social media interaction. There is always something new to learn! It’s exciting, exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting — but the Lord is my rock, and He will sustain me and keep me going!
Looking forward to what the Lord does in and through each of us.
I love that you point out how important community is. You are absolutely right. This is actually a small industry. Eventually you will come to know most writers, editors and agents through conferences and social media. And the fun part– many of these people change positions over the years. I’m guessing some of your fellow writers, right here in our blog community, will one day be the editor to whom we’re submitting proposals.
Wendy, late in responding. Been soaking up from all of the information and connections at the ACFW conference. I had to smile at your comment about “our blog community” becoming editors in the future. We do have a great tribe of writers who have agent/editor potential. And it is also one of my long-term goals, Lord willing.
I’ve come across most of these ideas before, but it never hurts to be reminded about what it takes to break into traditional publishing. Two things I’m currently concentrating on are distinguishing myself from the field and expanding my Platform. I am “pure potential.” Thanks for the boost!
Excellent observation, Julie. You wrote: “I’m currently concentrating on are distinguishing myself from the field” Bingo! If you are distinctive– the only one who can do what you do– you have a huge leg up.
Thank you for your point of view and encouraging words.
You are welcome, Remco.
The question now is, how to show these qualities?
I’ve thinking about it and I might have quite a few of these factors, but how to move forward. I have written publishers, but it is already difficult to “sell” my book, not that I believe it is not good enough, but it is difficult to describe a non fiction, especially if it is unlike any other.
Then to explain the other factors you have mentioned is difficult. I guess that is why an agent is such an asset.
Of course I have seen publishers mention agents, but the pages of agents is so intimidating, I haven’t yet started looking into it.
I guess I have now found a site where I can stick around to become a bit more familiar with the writing world.
Thank you for this post.
I have a question about the concept of a platform. I have been blogging for years. And, I’ve met some goals of being published at certain sites. My tribe is building, and I’m marching down the non-fiction path. But, truth is, I’m not sure I want to write non-fiction. And, I’m not sure I know how to switch gears to fiction or what to do with blogging if I do.
In summary, what does one do with a platform (a humble, just-off-the-ground one at that) that’s not an exact fit to the trajectory? Is it worth continuing to build? Does it matter to the agent?
Anne Dahlhauser » a platform is always important. And many fiction authors have blogs (nonfiction).
Thanks for this information and your thoughts, Wendy. As a writer hoping to submit to agents this year, I appreciate your honesty and a chance to see what I need to work on.
I’m glad this encouraged you.
I enjoyed meeting you riding the shuttle to the airport after last year’s ACFW conference in Dallas. You gave me encouraging advice for a friend who’d been hurt by a rejection. I was sorry when the driver called my stop! 🙂
I think my strength would be a professional attitude. In over twenty-five years working in Banking Finance, I’ve learned that planning, prioritization, and communication help me meet goals. These same skills help with my writing.
I think I need help with my social media skills – so I ask for it! Edie Melson helped me learn Facebook. Denise Ganley at Desert Sleuths helped me with Twitter. Now a young woman is helping me build a Website. Woot! 🙂
I love your proactive approach to learning the things you need to know. Plus that connects you with that many other authors and friends.
Elizabeth Van Tassel
Wendy, your post is very insightful and helpful. I’ve watched your agency for years, and have friends who’ve posted above here and also are your clients. I love seeing the community you’ve built. A question – do you enjoy seeing a fiction author who’s building a strong nonfiction approach to his/her platform given significant life events? For example, if an author encourages others with overcoming something significant (for us it was surviving a wildfire and life-and-death medical emergencies) and even incorporates elements of that real-life trial into a unique platform and fiction, what are your thoughts about the possible media attention and speaking opportunities adding a spark? I’ve been mentored by several authors and coaches, and love using the “silver linings” in those dark clouds to help others and hope to make a difference.
Yes. Real life events can call attention to you in a way that being a novelist won’t. I remember how appearing on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition catapulted author Kim Woodhouse onto the writing stage. Or Dr. Richard Mabry– a doctor in real life– writing medical drama.
We all need to find ways to be distinctive.
I like you, Wendy. You sound like someone who’s a great friend: down-to-earth, offering realistic suggestions, and maybe even a touch of humor. Thanks for the encouragement here.
In truth, I feel pretty strong in the first five areas you’ve mentioned. But, I’m an old dog learning new tricks in the platform building area. Gratefully, this month my husband (the techy) has taken time off work to help me.
Love the info. I’d like to hear your take on self published authors. Does self publishing hurt, help? What if you have done really well with self publishing but would really like for your books to get into more hands? Honestly, one thing I or other successful self publishers authors would bring to the table is we know how to promote our books…because we’ve had to.