Agent Jon Sternfeld On: Breaking Through the Slush

Jon Sternfeld is an agent with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency representing literary fiction and narrative nonfiction. Jon’s co-agent, Irene Goodman, offers manuscript critiques on eBay every month, starting on the first day of each month, with all proceeds going to charity. Click on the link for more details on these critiques and charity auctions.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)




Quite honestly, on days where I have the time (and the energy and the optimism) to go through the slush, I just want something that stands out among the hundreds of email queries. (And I mean ‘stands out’ for the right reasons – fresh, professional, original – the annoying overly-casual queries get deleted pretty fast).

One downside of the digital revolution in publishing is that even more amateur writers are giving it a shot because it literally takes minutes to submit to an agent. As I have said ad nauseam to my colleagues, because everyone knows the alphabet, just about everyone thinks they can write. You don’t see so many people trying to be welders without the skill for it.

Also, the process of querying itself doesn’t weed out the uncommitted or lazy writers. In the old(er) days, you’d have to buy (or go the library for) a book with a list of agent names and contact information, photocopy that, make your submission list, type and print your letters, proofread, stuff envelopes, etc. Now, being published is just a click away.

Well, not really. If anything, because of the easiness with which others can query, the standards have gone up for what agents are willing to look at. The pool is that much bigger, we see that many more queries a day, and your query and pages need to be that much better. The irony of the easiness of querying, is that the end result has become much harder. (Think of the shortcut home that everyone uses and now has more traffic than the standard route).

(Why writers must make themselves easy to contact.)

Of course, every agent is different so I can’t really give a list of how to stand out. I can say the obvious – follow each agent’s guidelines, proofread your letter (and yes, just because it’s an email doesn’t mean it’s not still a letter!), do your research on what he/she is looking for. Beyond that, compressing your book’s idea always helps – long synopses at the start of the letter are beyond boring and a surefire way to get me to move on to the next query. I’m not a fan of the ‘elevator pitch’ wisdom, but I also don’t want to hear the plot of your book before I even know if I care about it.

Also, work on your tone – it should be a mix of confidence, creativity, and professionalism.  (Saying “I’ve never done this before” is the worst way to get in the door. I don’t know why writers keep doing this.) Putting yourself in the agent’s shoes is super useful too. Literally picture someone at a desk reading your letter among hundreds of letters– does it seem interesting? Engaging? It’s hard because a writer’s query is such a big deal to him/her but to an agent, it’s just a nameless email among thousands. Unless you make sure that it isn’t.


Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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5 thoughts on “Agent Jon Sternfeld On: Breaking Through the Slush

  1. Paul Stanner

    Dear John :

    I recently watched a biography of Jeff Dunham. Now to me it was always incredibly obvious what a giant talent he was. I found it very curious that the ” experts ” of the entertainment field couldn’t see that. Talk about not being able to see the forrest for the tress. He essentially self financed his career. I’ll bet all those experts feel very foolish now. My question is Do you Literary Agents ever feel that in your rush to read all your submissions that you are going to miss the literary equivalent of the next Jeff Dunham? I look forward to your reply.


  2. Billy Kravitz

    I appreciate the cogent information. The ‘old days’ you referenced weren’t all that long ago for me. I never touched a computer (except maybe to dust it, or throw mail on it) till about fourteen months ago. Google was my guide. I knew how to access that site. It was my Hal 9000. Within minutes I had a blog. It seemed like an obvious, direct way to promote my material. The site, entitled VAMPIRE WONDERLAND is an ongoing, urban fantasy and a rather literate take (I hope) on a venerable genre.My neurotic cast of unusual specimens includes exotic varieties like the ‘elves and cherubs.’ The former are vampires taken on the cusp of puberty. Ears, fingers and certain other extremities continue to grow for a bit due to the strength of juvenile hormones. Cherubs are their younger siblings, tragically burdened during the first years of life. We have wide-eyed ‘mole’ people inhabiting intricate warrens of deep, forgotten subway tunnels and folksy ‘pow-wow’ (country witchcraft) people from the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Our central band inhabits a mellow, gray stone, slate roofed manor in Philadelphia’s rather carriage trade Chestnut Hill district. They vacilate between doing what’s
    right and doing what’s easy.

    My central character, Jonathon, claims descent from an aristocratic, Andalucian, Sephardic family, but who knows? It may be just a lie. He has a newborn vampirina named Sarah, as well as other, extraordinary ‘relations.’

    The tale is blogged by a resident, mortal, ‘familiar.’ We see his digital abilities increase with each post. He reports these events to fill the hours when his masters are otherwise occupied. Sometimes he channels disembodied spirits who crave a bit of ‘human’ interaction. VAMPIRE WONDERLAND is a true ‘slice of life’ look into the existence of the not really living.

    If you like, you can sample a portion of our 382 pages (over 220,000 words) at or Google that link for hundreds of cached episodes.

    Thank you for taking the time to examine this letter.

    Yours truly,
    Billy Kravitz

  3. wondering04

    Jon, thanks for your post.

    Although it’s obvious, I never thought about how email increased the amount of query letters agents receive. You’re right, professionalism would stand out. You mention that a query is a letter, so I was wondering if the email should be typed in a business letter format?

    While I am still months away from submitting a query for my manuscript, I’m beginning to think about my query letter. The query letter seems harder to draft than the original manuscript.

    Thanks for your hints. Heather


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