by Janet Kobobel Grant
When literary agents sit on a panel at a writers conference, inevitably questions pop up about what agents are looking for. Generally a lot of heming and hawing occurs in response to the queries.
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
“I’m open to great writing.”
“Please don’t send me sci-fi; I don’t like it. But other than that, I’m open.”
Why agents can’t explain what they are looking for
Agents seem like relatively articulate people. They are constantly reading queries, proposals, and manuscripts looking for a Eureka writing discovery.
So why can’t agents tell writers what they’re hunting for?
While the question seems straightforward, the answer isn’t. The response, if accurate, must be complex.
Here are some of the elements every agent will weigh
- Is the topic overdone?
- Does this proposal offer an unusual way of looking at a perennial topic or a current hot topic?
- What credentials does the writer bring to the subject?
- If it’s a novel, is the overarching conflict compelling?
- Are the characters empathetic enough for the reader to care?
- Is the reader likely to suspend disbelief?
- Is the story predictable?
- Would the writing be classified as better than workmanlike?
- What kind of platform would a publishing house expect from the author of such a book?
- How many editors would I send this sort of project to? (It needs to be more than one or two or the possibility of finding a home for that project is slim.)
Lit agents are looking for material they like
Even if the agent’s finding all the right answers to the questions above, he or she still might decide not to represent the work. If the agent isn’t personally enthusiastic about the concept, the writing, or how the writer presents him/herself, the agent isn’t doing the writer any favors by offering representation.
That’s because it’s downright hard work to sell a project. And the agent must be an enthusiastic proponent of the concept, or the editor won’t be eager to read it. Agents are, ultimately, salespeople. We have to believe in what we’re selling, or we won’t be successful.
Unfortunately, even with strong belief, that doesn’t guarantee success.
The rocky path of a submission
The agent has to put out considerable effort to ready a proposal, often going back and forth with the writer over several rounds of revisions. Each revision takes the writer and the agent many hours, days, weeks, or even months to work through.
Some agents send out the proposal to every editor the agent knows. Such a fire-hose approach certainly makes the task straightforward. But editors know which agents operate this way, leaving the editors un-eager to read over that proposal when the in-box contains carefully curated projects.
If the agent is hand-picking each editor, even creating the “send” list is labor intensive.
The time-is-money equation
All that work could end up with no editor being interested, or many editors being passionate about the project but unable to convince marketing and sales to agree to offer a contract.
That results in the agent and client needing to start the cycle all over again with a new idea.
All the time this process is unfolding, neither the writer nor the agent is making any money. The idea behind selling projects is to make a living.
To take such a risk, an agent needs a certain level of confidence he or she will successfully find a publishing home for a manuscript. Sometimes that can mean that the agent might love a project but decide not to represent it. Or might thoroughly enjoy the writer but still not offer representation because of a lack of confidence that this project can find a home.
Beyond genres and categories
Imagine an agent sitting on a panel and trying to figure out how to say, “I’m looking for the perfect project that reminds me why I love agenting–I can bring manuscripts I’m passionate about to the reading world.” Yeah, it’s challenging to verbalize in a way that can be helpful to wannabe authors.
An agent can’t just say, “I’m looking for historical novels” or “I’m someone who enjoys representing pop culture.” While both of those responses might be correct, they’re an anemic version of what the agent really wants to say.
So many subtleties go into each decision to represent one writer and not another. And sometimes the agent can’t find the right words to describe it to anyone else.
It can come down to this: My gut tells me I have to work with this person.
How might the question of what lit agents are looking for be phrased in a way that would result in more helpful answers?
What are lit agents looking for, anyway? Click to tweet.
Writers: If you are trying to figure out what lit agents look for, this blog post might help. Click to tweet.