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How to Be a Writer Literary Agents Want

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig, Literary Agents Tips Tags: Brian Klems.

All agents, admittedly or not, have a wish list—markers that help us determine which writers are primed for our representation. With hundreds of projects flooding our inboxes daily, writers who follow these simple guidelines can catch the eye of an agent and rise like a lotus blossom out of the slush pile. Here’s how to do it.

—by Literary Agent Kimiko Nakamura

Your Platform

Think of your platform as the foundation you’re building for success. It’s made up of everything that qualifies you to write and speak about your chosen topic (even if that topic is fiction) and that demonstrates your popularity with potential book-buying readers. It comprises ongoing relationships with publications your writing has appeared in, leadership/public involvement in associations with a tie to your work’s focus, classes you teach or talks you regularly give/present and, more and more important these days, a social media presence. Publishing houses think authors with success in social media are a good financial investment because they can see that these writers have a ready-made audience. Think of your social media platform as your virtual business card. People aren’t looking for you in an office building anymore; they’re looking for you online.

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Here’s a breakdown of popular ways you can effectively elevate your platform and visibility.

Your Website:

Essential for all writers, published and unpublished.

A website is the best place to give people a point of reference for your work and connect them to your social media presence elsewhere. Things to include are: contact info, a professional-looking headshot or photo of yourself, blurbs about your projects, a bio, a list of any awards and writing credits, and your social media links.

Who does it well: Geraldine Brooks, geraldine
brooks.com

Facebook:

Essential for nonfiction writers building an audience, or for published fiction writers cultivating readerships.

Facebook is like a public bulletin board. [Note: Creating a Facebook page for a writer or (soon-to-be) public figure is different from creating a personal Facebook page. To create a writer or public figure page, visit facebook.com/pages/create.] Promote yourself by offering posts that entertain and inform your audience. People who enjoy your posts can “like” your page and automatically get notified every time you post something new. But every “like” isn’t an instant book sale, which is why agents look for nonfiction writers with around 3,000 “likes” to start. We’re hoping you’ll double that number (or better) before publication.

Who does it well: Jack Canfield, facebook.com/jackcanfieldfan

Twitter:

Good for nonfiction writers building an audience, or for published fiction writers cultivating readerships.

Twitter is a way to update and engage followers multiple times a day in rapid-fire bursts of short text. Users pick which Twitter accounts they want updates from and receive a news feed where they can click through to interesting articles you’ve posted, see funny comments you’ve made, and know what you’re doing in real time.

Who does it well: Sarah Dessen, twitter.com/sarahdessen

Blog:

Great for nonfiction writers building an audience, or for published fiction writers cultivating readerships.

A blog can be a phenomenal way to build an audience, but you need a specific focus that directly relates to the book you want to publish. This will show agents that subscribers to your blog have interest in purchasing your book. So remember, unless you’re looking to score a cookbook deal, we’re not curious about what you had for breakfast. Also, before you launch a blog, make sure you have the time and stamina to make a minimum of one post every week or two; it’s necessary to regularly provide new content in order to build and retain a strong readership.

Who does it well: Deb Perelman, smittenkitchen.com

Self-Publishing:

Let’s clear up a misconception about platform and self-publishing. For the average first-time writer, self-publishing is not a reliable way to expand your platform. It’s simply a way to publish on your own, without the help of an agent or the resources of a traditional publishing house. Agents do not see self-published authors as any more serious about finding an agent than non-self-published writers.

Authors with well-established platforms have better odds of self-publishing lucratively and successfully, but it’s important to have a realistic mindset about where you want to go from there. It’s a full-time job to sell books without the backing of a publisher. Selling (not giving away for free) fewer than 10,000 books and/or e-books can demonstrate that your project lacks strong audience appeal. If you then try shopping that self-published book to agents or publishers, they’re likely to view it as “sloppy seconds.” Self-publishing is not a precursor to publishing for writers hoping to secure agent representation. It is the real thing. Once a book or e-book is published and given an ISBN (an industry tracking number), it has a traceable sales history. If your book sales are not a selling point, your work, not the medium used to publish it, will be seen as the cause. Self-publishing can benefit some writers, but if you choose this route make sure you are OK with the possibility that that project very well may not be traditionally published later.

The good news is that even if you have already self-published and those sales were not brag-worthy, most agents will not be deterred from considering submissions for your new, unpublished projects. Just make sure you are transparent about your self-publishing history (without overemphasizing it) and that the new project isn’t intended to piggyback on the self-published work in any way.

Your Query

Agents look for queries that make us want to turn the pages of your story. That means you need to think of your query as the first and most important page of your manuscript. Not only are you introducing your manuscript or proposal, you’re also introducing yourself as a writer—and as with any first meeting, you’ll want to make a good impression.

A query is a map of your manuscript or proposal, and agents need the keys to understand what direction you’re headed in and decide if we want to come along for the ride.

For fiction, orient agents by stating your manuscript’s stats: title, word count and genre. If you’re not sure what your genre is, pick the one closest to the theme of your manuscript and, if necessary, reference one supporting subcategory. When done well, your query should read like a movie trailer version of your manuscript, not a synopsis. So keep the details short. Identify your main characters and tell us why we’re rooting for them, and include only the most important conflict and action points.

For nonfiction, show agents the scope of your platform and what qualifies you to write about your subject. Also, tell us the clever things we will learn and briefly mention audience potential.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, highlight the unique points of your project—especially if elements of your work are similar to popular books already in circulation. Agents aren’t looking for carbon copies of pre-existing books, but they are looking for new twists on trends that haven’t already peaked. Stay current by reading your genre’s trendsetters and bestsellers. It’s not essential to compare your title to a bestseller, but do let your description show you’ve taken the thread of a popular or emerging market and spun a story all your own.

Whatever you do, don’t blindly pitch your work. Know which agents you are pitching and why. Your job as a querying writer is not to change the mind of an agent who doesn’t rep your genre, but to find agents who do—and demonstrate to them that your work is ready for representation.

Thank us for our time and consideration before signing your query, and avoid the following query sins, or you might find yourself so far at the bottom of an agent’s list, you’ve fallen off:

1. Don’t say your friends and family loved your manuscript. Unless they are industry professionals, this doesn’t mean anything to us.

2. Know that querying via mass email will lead to mass rejections.

3. Stay away from negative statements like, “I know it needs a lot of work,” or, “I don’t have any writing experience.” You might as well say, “Don’t bother.”

4. Don’t send agents links to websites that host your query or sample pages, expecting us to go on a
scavenger hunt.

5. If you’ve self-published Book 1 of a trilogy and want our help selling Book 2 to a publishing house, it won’t happen. You can’t mix and match one series using different publishing models (unless you have mind-blowingly phenomenal numbers on Book 1, in which case you should be pitching us that one first).

Your Manuscript

The biggest trick to rising up on an agent’s wish list is to wow us from the beginning, but not for the reasons you may be thinking. The truth is that most agents rarely read manuscripts from front to back, and even more rarely in a single sitting. As a writer, you have no control over which pages an agent will read more thoroughly than others, with one exception—without fail, we will always look closely at the beginning pages of your work. Manuscripts and proposals are then set aside into one of two categories: rejection or possible representation. Get past this initial screening and you’ve placed yourself on a shorter list of work that an agent will take more time to consider.

There are tremendous resources available for writers looking to improve their opening pages. If you want an agent, you’ll need to exhaust every one of them. The essentials to have in those make-or-break pages—in any genre—are a clear POV with a strong voice, fantastic language and prose, and a solid emotional connection between your main character and the reader.

Almost every agent agrees that poorly executed prologues are the quickest route back to slushville. Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back. Most have backstory that is too often “told” instead of “shown.” We’ve seen so many terrible prologues, we reason reading yours will only do you a disservice. If you insist on including a prologue, assume that it might not be read, and carefully craft Chapter 1 as if it’s the first thing an agent will read. Take any shortcuts by renaming your prologue as Chapter 1, and we will know!

After you’ve taken care to craft an exceptional beginning, don’t let rookie mistakes break the spell of an agent reading your work. Typos happen; no writer is immune. If you can’t afford to have a copy editor proofread your work, be extra vigilant about self-editing. Or consider hiring someone to proofread your first 25 pages and then using their corrections as a model of what to look for in polishing the rest of the manuscript.

Lastly, avoid getting too inspired with formatting. Save the creativity for your writing. We need clean, easy-to-read pages to avoid premature graying and permanent frown lines. Misguided “finishing touches” may actually detract from your writing. Please don’t break our immersive reading experience with bizarre formatting, distracting fonts, and more italicized words than we know what to do with. If an agent has not stated a personal preference, pick a simple default-style font to showcase your work.

Handling Rejections and Resubmissions

As disappointing as it is to receive a rejection, how you conduct yourself post-rejection will set the stage for any future communication with that agent. The quickest cure for anger is compassionate forgiveness. The Dalai Lama can back me up on this. Please forgive us for rejecting you. It feels personal, but it’s not. Neither was sending you a standard rejection. We don’t enjoy sending them, and rejections—thank goodness—are not our main job. Our main job is to help promote and sell the authors who we’ve made commitments to, and to find new authors we know we can do right by. Email us a nasty response and we’ll never look at your work again.

Know that every time an agent does give feedback beyond a form rejection, you’ve struck gold—in no way have you come away empty-handed. Some of the advice may seem simplistic or trite. You want specifics! What do they mean the character development was weak? Yes, often the feedback seems basic, but that doesn’t mean the suggestions should be easily discarded. Take these critiques seriously and you may be able to create an opportunity for resubmission.

Sometimes writers take an encouraging rejection and unknowingly use it to their disadvantage. If an agent invites you to resubmit or points out aspects of your work that made an impression, you’ve grabbed her attention. However, after we’ve taken the time to give you constructive feedback, don’t tell us you were thinking the same thing! Why then did you submit your material to us, if you felt it still needed work? Of course, disagreeing won’t go over well either. Get defensive about feedback and you’re showing how you’ll conduct yourself once you really get comfortable with us. Even a rebuttal couched in niceties burns bridges.

To create an opportunity for resubmission, respond to rejections graciously, promptly thanking the agent for his time and consideration. That’s it. Don’t detail other pro-jects you’d like to submit, or say you were hoping we would come to a different conclusion. Just take a breath. Unless an agent has specifically inquired about your other writing, wait at least two weeks before querying a new project. To resubmit the same project, say you’ve used our exceptional feedback to improve your work and would appreciate us taking another look. In either case, trust that the next time we see your name, we’ll remember your thoughtful note.

If an agent comes out and invites you to resubmit a revised manuscript, she might be considering you as a client. Now, assuming you find merit in her feedback and would like to take advantage of the opportunity to incorporate it, you’ll have to show her you’re ready. The biggest mistake a writer can make when sending revised materials is underestimating the amount of revisions an agent was expecting. Make sure you send back a proposal or manuscript that is a significantly improved incarnation of your previous work. But act quickly. If you wait more than six to eight months you risk the market changing and, with it, the interest of your future agent.

Sealing the Deal

What agents won’t tell you is that every email and conversation with us is a testing ground. Can we trust you to handle communications professionally—not just with us, but also with our publishing contacts who would be involved in seeing your book through to publication and beyond? We are well aware that the behavior of our clients can reflect upon us. We want to know you’re polite, open to suggestions, and enjoyable to work with.

To gauge your flexibility, we’ll ask you some questions, and we also expect you to show that you’re thoughtful and savvy by asking a few of your own. This conversation is the final step in making the leap from wish list to client list.

Questions an agent may ask:

  • Are you willing to further expand your platform?
  • Are you open to revisions? (Basically that’s a trap—say yes and mean it!)
  • Do you have the time to revise prior to publication?

Questions you should ask:

  • What kind of revisions do you foresee?
  • Who do you see as a potential audience for my work?
  • Do you have experience selling in my genre? And do you have specific publishers in mind for my book?

If there are other agents you’re waiting to hear from, this is the time to let us know. We’re hoping you can’t imagine anyone else representing you, but we understand that partnering with an agent is an important decision. Out of consideration, set a reasonable timeline of up to three weeks to make a final choice.

Our Wish for You …

Ultimately you are our compass. We’re hunting for buried treasure, so please point us in the right direction. Establish an image, craft your best work, connect with us on a personal level, and your future will shine ahead of you like a sea of glossy book jackets. You can find an agent. We know this because we’re hoping to find you, too.

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

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brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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15 Responses to How to Be a Writer Literary Agents Want

  1. JanelleFila says:

    I recently had three agents request my full manuscript at a writer’s conference, followed by three prompt rejections. I received wonderful feedback that I’m hoping to turn into an even better manuscript, so when the next agent requests my work it will end in a resounding YES! Criticism is never easy, but I prefer it over the standard rejection forms. At least I know I’ve made some kind of impression, and that gives me hope! Thank you so much for this insightful article. Janelle http://www.janellefila.com

  2. There is a bit of “look down your nose” in this article, which I’ve observed is common for posts from agents. They are, after all, gatekeepers. But, taken as the POV of an agent, it’s probably a realistic, albeit very general assessment of what agents think about and look for, for those who care about such things. My take is that the traditional publishing industry, agents included, is dying, as will eventually B & N, the last great bookstore. When it goes under after the Amazon torpedo does its full measure of damage, the folks will read what they find mostly digitally, for little or no cost, as electrons cost less than paper. I fear that those relatively few writers who were anointed and “published” will be the poorer for it, and that’s too bad…if their stories were good.

  3. SAtkins says:

    I think this article has to be taken in the context of which it is written: “How to be a Writer Literary Agents Want.” If you’re a writer who doesn’t want an agent, then this article is not for you. If you’re a successful independent author, you WILL find fault with Mr. Klems’, so skip it.

  4. Clinton A. Seeber says:

    I also wonder how many agents get “hundreds of projects flooding their inboxes daily”. That is nearly impossible. There aren’t really that many people that write stories for publication consideration.

  5. Polemyx, methinks you overthink about formatting. It’s not complicated.

  6. DocLove says:

    I, too, write for the creative pleasure of it and have been doing so for many years. There are many good tips in this article that introduce the newbie to the world of writing. The “gotta get me an agent or I’ll die” mindset and the highly competitive publishing arena, however, tend to blow most newcomers away. So, when you boil it all down, doesn’t it really come to being in the right place at the right time? As in, some carbon life form out there tags himself or herself as an “agent” who can sell your stuff to a publisher if you only follow the current rules of the game? Never mind the quality of the content. In so many ways, that becomes almost a sideshow compared to the maze that you have to fight your way through: style, format, query, samples, feedback, calls, letters, more feedback, edits, social media platform (let’s not forget that current fad – what was Harper Lee’s facebook/twitter/CB handle?), contacts, number of friends, number of pals, number of potential friends and pals with money who will actually buy something you created…

    All in all, if you know how to write and craft your story, someone somewhere will notice it and say “It is good.” Unfortunately, the vast majority of folks who say they have that one best selling book in them don’t write none too pretty good, and no amount of coaching, editing, writing, rewriting, crying, or coaxing will change the quality of their stuff.

    I’m still waiting for that return call from the folks who said they liked my short story and wanted to discuss making it into a movie. Had I simply said I’d wait on hold while you take that other call rather than saying sure, call me back, who knows… But now that I’ve turned it into a short novel, maybe I’ll give them another chance!

  7. JeanetteNaidoo says:

    I write for my pleasure. Whether or not I will publish, we’ll see. I am writing this comment from the perspective of a READER. I cannot count the number of books I have read where at the end I was so upset that I had wasted so much of my time reading such rubbish. (The only reason I continue reading is because I cannot leave ANY book unfinished). All these tips are great. But if this is what we need to do to get published, why do we have so many bad book filling up the shelves in libraries and bookstores? When I come across these books, I often wonder what on earth the author’s agent was thinking when she/he saw the MS. I think agents make as many mistakes in their line of work, as authors do in theirs. Also, books like “The Help” and many others that were shot down dozens and dozens of times I think proves that agents are as human as the rest of us, and therefore they cannot be the reason we never publish. I do tend to have a reaction to agents who imply that they need to be worshipped in order to be impressed. It’s an exaggeration,I know, but the tone of some articles (although the information might be good and useful) tend to make (especially unpublished) authors feel like hungry children standing in the food line hoping that the lady serving is in a good mood today- she might give you the fried chicken and potatoes or she might decide that you’re only good for peas today without any explanation and there’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t know- I’m ok with agents rejecting bad stories. But as a reader, it baffles me how poorly written stories end up on my lap, even after it has passed the discerning eye of the agent and the publisher. I suppose, in the end, its all about doing your very best (both agent and author) and hoping that the universe has attached to your MS a ticket and seat number on the train going in the same direction as The Next Big Thing.

  8. Tam Francis says:

    I found this helpful and insightful. I’ve had some wonderful rejections and took them to heart and made changes based on them like: “Are you planning on making this into two books.” What that told me, my ms was too long. I had another agent tell me some of the descriptions were too technical, I lost the magic. I went in and edited and remixed the descriptions. I could go on, but I agree there is a wealth of knowledge in snippets of rejection.

    I was wondering what you thought of google+ for authors? You didn’t mention it and they’ve got the google authorship and rating system. It would think this would be very valuable to writers? I also spoke with an agent who told me I spent too much of my query on my platform. What are you thoughts on that? Is there a good ratio of synopsis to platform and bio?

    Thanks for taking the time to give us the inside scoop. Every insight helps. My big take-away is to re-query some of those agents who gave the feedback. I thought once I was my manuscript was rejected that was the end of story!

    ~Tam Francis~
    http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com

  9. Althea says:

    Exactly “what” I was looking for ;-)….

  10. Althea says:

    Thank you for this. It was exactly was I was looking for. It’s all about professionalism, expertise, and doing your research. A positive attitude helps too. :-)

  11. Polemyx says:

    “avoid getting too inspired with formatting. Save the creativity for your writing.”

    I see so many thou shalt‘s” from literary agencies about 12-point, single font/Courier, 1″ border, that it makes me think the whole US industry is stuck immovably and immutably in that “the English-speaking US is the single part of the only country on Earth that has any market value at all” jingoist attitude of the 1950’s (and 1980’s). I’m surprised some of those agencies don’t specify which shape of lower-case ‘g’ the particular font has to have! (“No rotated 6’s! Christina, bring me the rejection axe!”)

    What can one, then, possibly do about formatting that is integral to the story, that carries plot-defining or narrative-enriching cultural meaning? Are there no literary agents in the US who speak/read/comprehend anything beyond their own, personal pica-throttled English? Are there any who grasp that underſtanding different formats is very often vital to the full portrayal of hiſtorical meaning, or of vital or unuſual twiſts of plot?

    The modern standard for films is for non-English-speaking characters not to speak English, but to remain ‘in character’ within their own language, with actions and dialog true to their specific culture—including characteristics of language untranslatable into English. (Yes, those are actually extremely common!) A viable translation would be provided, of course, at the same time, just as in film. Why should printed texts—and certainly etexts—not strive to be as realistically true to fact/life/culture as the writer determines the text must be? Bin ich der einzige Amerikanische Schriftsteller, der etwas anderes als Englisch sprechen so wie schreiben muß—und dazu sich erdreist? J’espère que non! !איך האָפֿן ניט (That’s a test for your browser, if you can’t read Yiddish, yet…)

    The default dumbing-down to the lowest 12-point-font denominator of American literature: like is it like really like what you like want…like?

    And, of course, this doesn’t even touch on how to include or format multimedia aspects!

    This all just increases the pressure on writers to skip the literary-agent-search onus—the emotional-literary equivalent of the labor of Sisyphus—and go directly to self-publication. Failure to appreciate and act on the opportunity to work with authors blazing new trails is going to be a fast-growing problem for all literary agents who can’t get past the self-serving laziness of their demand for submissions that have been dumbed down to “teleprompter format”. And is the verbal pablum and fourth-grade level English of your local newscasters really a good model for literature?

  12. I enjoyed this article, as it gave advice from someone on the ‘inside’. It was a sample of how agents think. That is also one of the reasons that I did not appreciate the negative comments. I don’t think the writer was trying to set herself up as the only one who knows how to do this; rather, I think that she is speaking from experience, and is telling the plain truth without bias, or prejudice. She is giving advice from what she knows to be a solid approach. The truth is that there are a lot of bad writers in love with their work that pitch their stories to agents everyday, all day, and because of this majority, agents skip things (like prologues) which better writers can pull off.
    To conclude, I found this instructive, and I will use this advice later. The only thing I didn’t agree with was the social media part, but then, that could be just because I am uncomfortable with that sort of thing, and not so good at it. Anyway, she’s the one with the experience. Thanks for posting.

  13. Clinton A. Seeber says:

    Honestly, I don’t like this guy’s attitude. He is telling everyone that there is a certain response we should give to everything, and that we need to brown-nose them. And telling us that we should have “professional websites” and have thousands of social media followers before we are even published authors is ridiculous.
    I am not yet published; haven’t even finished my first novel, but I know that agents need writers more than we need them. This guy’s advice is narcissistict dung, and he is no one that I would want to work with anyway.

    • William Cory says:

      Clinton, I agree with you. what struck me about this article was its high-handed, Mount Olympus preaching. I just wonder how successful this agent is. Either he (she?) is extremely successful and wants to show prospective new clients the exclusivity of his/her client list, or the person is not successful, and in this article, displays the reason for that! This person would not be moderately successful, as that would indicate he/she takes chances. The overall message I got from the article was: “Don’t submit to me unless you are already a perfect writer, and then be ready to be told you are not.”

  14. jannertfol says:

    “Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back. Most have backstory that is too often “told” instead of “shown.” We’ve seen so many terrible prologues, we reason reading yours will only do you a disservice. If you insist on including a prologue, assume that it might not be read, and carefully craft Chapter 1 as if it’s the first thing an agent will read. Take any shortcuts by renaming your prologue as Chapter 1, and we will know!”

    That prejudice just makes my blood boil. So an agent ‘assumes’ every Prologue isn’t necessary or will be boring to read? Why don’t they just try reading it? They might get a surprise.

    If the author has chosen to start with a Prologue, there’s usually a reason. If the Prologue doesn’t work, dump the MS into the reject pile, by all means. But if the author has carefully crafted the Prologue as the entry to their story, it’s just pure vandalism to ignore it. Shame.

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