How to Get an Agent’s Attention

Eleven agents attended the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference and four participated in the panel discussion “What Gets Our Attention.” They didn’t mention fun things like serving them mashed potatoes in the buffet line or skywriting your query over lovely Myrtle Beach. Instead, they gave us simple advice, a great reminder that it’s not really rocket science. Here are the best nuggets from the session with agents Jeff Kleinman (Folio Literary), Barbara Poelle (Irene Goodman Agency), Jenny Bent (The Bent Agency), and Scott Eagan (Greyhaus Literary). 

Guest column by Lisa Katzenberger, events
coordinator for StoryStudio Chicago. StoryStudio
Chicago is hosting its annual Writers Retreat at
the famous Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Ill.
from July 16-18. Class sessions focus on craft and
getting deeper into characters and stories. There
are accommodations on the site’s five acres for
up to 11 “overnighters” and 9 “day trippers.” All
meals/materials provided. See the SSC website for all info


Just like in The Godfather. At least in the publishing biz, you’re not going to wake up snuggling a horse’s head just because you queried an agent who doesn’t rep your genre. (Probably.) So, keep your business hat on when approaching agents and be professional.


  • They want to work with someone who understands the business and can represent their agency professionally.
  • Barbara reminded us that it’s called the publishing industry, not the publishing feelings. Agents understand that there’s a lot of emotion tied to the time and effort an author dedicated to their book. But you have to be able to separate that emotion when querying and see the business side of a decision.
  • Don’t be funny in a query — don’t pretend you’re writing as your main character. 
  • A query letter is a business letter – a cover letter to apply for a job. Your resume? Well, that’s the manuscript.

There are no new stories, just different ways to tell them. Make sure you know what’s special about your love story or cozy mystery that makes it stand out from all the rest.


  • Scott Eagan said he needs a book that’s more than just well-written. He needs a book with a unique twist.
  • Barbara Poelle encouraged writers to find a unique take on a formula that works.
  • Jeff Kleinman stressed how no one wants to read a book they’ve read before.
  • Jenny Bent wants to see your voice in your query letter. She looks for a great opening line and a story that really grabs her.
THE HOOK, THE BOOK, AND THE COOKBarbara Poelle used this catchy line to describe the three ingredients of your query letter. The hook is a one sentence description of what your book is about. Yes, one sentence. Check Publishers Lunch for examples of great loglines. The book: four or five sentences that give more detail about the story. The cook: brief information about you, the writer.


Would you want to marry someone who’s kind of in love with you? Or someone who is head over heels crazy about you and will go to the ends of the earth to make you happy? Don’t be upset when an agent turns down your manuscript because they weren’t fully in love with it. You’re entering a long-term relationship with an agent, and just like a marriage, you want to find the partner who’s crazy about you.


  • Jeff Kleinman likes to follow this rule of thumb: “Only represent stuff you totally, absolutely love.”
  • Agents are reading submissions in their free time. They do this job because they love books, just like writers do.
  • Barbara will reject a book if she doesn’t feel she can be that author’s strongest advocate.
  • Query agents who represent authors you love to read. Chances are, they’ll dig your type of writing too.
So to get an agent’s attention, be professional in your query and unique with your story. Like a good cook who can rattle a recipe from memory, know your story’s ingredients when selling your book. And if an agent turns you down, don’t get discouraged. Remind yourself that you’re waiting for someone who loves your book as much as you do. 

The quickest way to get an agent’s attention
is a professional submission. That’s why you
Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed.
It has dozens of query letter examples (novels,
nonfiction, short stories, kids books and more).


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7 thoughts on “How to Get an Agent’s Attention

  1. Will Entrekin

    Interesting article. I’m an author in the process of querying, and what an arduous process it can be, with not only mixed but sometimes completely crossed signals. For example:

    "Barbara reminded us that it’s called the publishing industry, not the publishing feelings. Agents understand that there’s a lot of emotion tied to the time and effort an author dedicated to their book. But you have to be able to separate that emotion when querying and see the business side of a decision."

    But on the other hand:

    "Jeff Kleinman likes to follow this rule of thumb: ‘Only represent stuff you totally, absolutely love.’"

    Now, don’t get me wrong; this all makes sense, and I think I might have queried Kleinman (from whom I think I received a personal response, so kudos to him on there at a time when way too many agents are taking a "if you don’t hear from us within x weeks assume it’s no"). But still one has to look at some of the books making it to the shelves (recently, I’m thinking specifically of the Jersey Shore book) and seriously consider it’s really less about love than about the bottom line.

    It’s probably best to think it should be about both, love and business, books one can believe in to represent to the marketplace. But the thing about the marketplace and the books within it is that time and again, publishers have demonstrated they rarely have any real clue about what is going to sell, and what tends to is that which gets the better marketing push; otherwise, it seems to be a lot of throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks.

  2. :Donna

    I really liked this post, especially "The Hook, The Book and The Cook"—clever, catchy and easy to remember.

    I read the post by the Honest Writer blowing off the steam of frustration. Not that I don’t agree that publishing’s bottom line is about money, because without it—books don’t get published! If they don’t get published, NO one makes money for their work.

    What I think is that the agent has to do both: love the story or at least believe it in enough to champion it to the umpteenth degree, AND believe it will sell in today’s market.

    There is, in my opinion, the problems of being both myopic/wearing blinders and tending to follow-the-leader; it’s what creates the contradiction when writers are expected to write what sells AND be fresh. As a new author, it’s nearly impossible to break in, and one thing’s for sure—with finding an agent being like finding the perfect mate (I believe this is VERY true), think of how difficult THAT is! lol

    All we can do is be as professional as possible, continuously improve our craft and PERSEVERE and be PATIENT!

  3. John R. Aberle


    I appreciate this article and the bullet points from the agents’ panel. In heart-centered, sales and marketing, we take a similar approach to finding prospects who want what we offer. We need a good hook that attracts prospects who want what we offer – Judith & Jim refer to them as prospectors because they are looking. The similarity I see is the point about finding agents first who are looking the type of material you write.

    I do have a question, though, from looking at your link to Publishers Lunch. I looked for a list of great loglines and didn’t find one. As you know what loglines are and have an idea of good ones, could you do a post on that topic please?

    Copywriting is a challenging craft that I’m developing. I’m always looking for a fresh insight.

  4. Honest Writer

    This all sounds really good, but check out the YA fiction from the NY Times Bestseller’s list. I’m picking on YA because a whole lot of them are "first time writers". Yeah. It shows.

    There’s no way you can tell me that those folks with their names on the pretty book covers actually roped someone in with their writing. Unless of course English was the "literary" agent’s second language.

    The unadulterated truth is that agents are looking for something that will bring them a paycheck. Quality? Secondary. Decent writing? Secondary. Good writing? Not a consideration.

    All that stuff about the hook and blah, blah, blah — please. Take a look at the bestselling YA today and ask yourself, could this person actually write a query letter that would sell their work? No. They can barely write a paragraph that holds together.

    They hired someone to do it. And that’s what should be said. Hire someone to sell your work, just like you hire someone to sell your house. Do you know how to sell real estate? Then why should a writer know how to sell a book?

    I’m tired of this myth about agents looking for "good writing" being perpetuated. They’re looking for a pay check. If that happens to coincide with good writing, then, happy day.

    Publishing isn’t about words, it’s about green; it’s about making the sale.

    When was the last time you landed a job because you’re a nice person?

    Writers don’t get hired for being good writers. We get hired to make money.


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