4 Things Publishers and Agents Want in a Writer

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If you’re a new author, finding a publisher or literary agent to represent your writing is a frustrating, thankless, and even heartbreaking exercise. I know, I’ve been through it.  The dreaded “Thanks, but no thanks,” … I’m not sure if its better or worse than the classic no-response.

There is a ton of advice out there on how we, as writers, can entice that coveted representation. In case you haven’t exhausted all of your e-resources, here is a short collection of my less-obvious favourites, in no particular order

1. Be professional 100% of the time

That means emails, phone calls, and on-line interactions. For me, that last forum is particularly important, with all the talk about BBA (badly behaving authors). Too often we’ve seen authors (especially, it pains me to admit, self-published authors), who take offense at a negative review or comment, and lash out on-line. This is the biggest no-no you could make if you’re looking for representation. It shows that you’re not ready to handle criticism at an even bigger scale.Capture

Literary agent Carly Watters, in her blog post What are agents looking for in a writer?,  illustrates why this is important:

You are a reflection of your agent. When we matchmake you with an editor we step back, let you build your author/editor relationship and talk directly with them. We have to know that you are going to conduct yourself professionally during that time. If we bring an editor an author that doesn’t conduct themselves professionally it looks poorly on us. Not to mention when an author starts promoting their book and interacting with fans there is a certain level of professionalism expected.

2. Have a platform

This one is not necessary, but it’s a big help. By showing agents and publishers that you are willing and able to market yourself, establish relationships with your readers and peers, and, more importantly, maintain those relationships, you’re making yourself a valuable prospect. Moreover, it shows that you are of the right mindset to be an active writer. After all, writers are entrepreneurs. We may sign contracts, we may have our agents’ and our publishers’ logos on our websites, but in the end, we are in charge of our careers.

By Aileen Pincus If you're like most people, you panic at the thought of speaking before a group of more than a few people. Don't! Remember, this is an opportunity to share your expertise, and your audience is there to hear what you have to say. Let your confidence in your information carry you through. Soon enough, you'll also have confidence in your ability to deliver the information. Then you'll be well on your way to mastering the art of public speaking—and reaping the rewards. Check out our tips for taking the fear out of public speaking.

Sadly, many authors and aspiring authors don’t understand this crucial connection. They think that once their book is represented, their career will be managed for them. Maybe they throw up a Facebook page, or hastily pull together an amateur website. But in the end, the dedication to interaction is not there, and so the author fails to establish the platform he or she needs to promote his or herself (for more on marketing your author brand, see my previous post Self-Publishing 101: Do You Market Your Books or Your Brand?).

Laura Dail of Laura Dail Literary agency explains this author/agent (and, by extension, author/publisher) relationship:

[A platform] can mean a developed, consistent voice (and the followers and friends that come with that) on Twitter and Facebook. Or Pinterest and GoodReads. Maybe you blog or interact with fans and fellow writers … I know this implies new burdens on writers, but we think of our authors as partners, and with so much content out there, we need to know how we can work together to distinguish your work.

3. Let your writing speak for itself

Your talent is writing, not formatting. When querying agents and publishers, it is always best for your manuscript to be plain and simple. If an agent or publisher does not specify on his or her website what font and format you need to use, choose a default setting like Times New Roman. It’s boring, it’s uninspired, I know. But remember: it’s your writing that will bring the pages to life and make them sparkle.

As literary agent Kimiko Nakamura points out,

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.

4. Accept that you are not special

Whaaaat??? I know, right? This sounds a bit harsh, but let me explain. You send a query out, but hear nothing back. A week passes, then two. Then a month. Maybe you send a follow-up email, just to check if your first one was received. Still nothing. Meanwhile your fingers are getting more and more itchy to pound out that scathing admonishment which starts with, “Didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s rude to ignore someone?!”

Here’s the simple truth: everyone wants to be a writer. No one knows this better than literary agents and publishers. So many aspiring authors are querying all at the same time. And here’s an even simpler truth: you cannot expect to get a response to your queries if you want to avoid becoming a bitter, twisted little scribbler. You certainly cannot expect to receive feedback if you are turned down. Better to just accept that you are one of millions of wannabes, smile, and maintain that all-important level of professionalism (see point 1).

To give you a perspective on why an agent or publisher may not be responding to your query, here is what agent Barbara Poelle has to say:

I get about 12–20 queries a day. Right now I have 967 of them in my email inbox … Loosely speaking, out of every 100 queries I receive, I will request 7–10 complete manuscripts. And only about one of every 25–30 manuscripts I request will result in me signing a new client. Now, by those figures alone, you can see it takes a substantial amount of reading time on my part just to find a single author to add to my roster. That’s in addition to the bulk of my job: working on behalf of my current clients. With a client list of about 40–45 now, even if I dedicate just an hour a week to each of those authors I’ve already committed to, I am at capacity for a “normal” workweek … But working with this equation, I have found that my time is better spent—and that I ultimately serve those who query me best—by fishing for the strongest material (in my subjective opinion) in the stack of queries I’ve received, and by requesting full manuscripts based on the queries I like best, and by burning the after-office hours reading those manuscripts, than it would be by tapping out a blanket form rejection 900 times.

Fellow authors, I’ve learned that the key to finding representation is tenacity. Not the bull-dog kind of tenacity where you keep doing the same thing over and over, keep sending the same query letters, and expecting a different result than the one you got before. But rather, the kind of tenacity where you don’t quit, and instead find a way to improve each and every time. Keep at it. If it doesn’t work, fix it. Then try it again.

Hoping these pointers help you the way they’ve helped me.

25 thoughts on “4 Things Publishers and Agents Want in a Writer

Add yours

  1. Number 4 is the one that is most helpful for me to keep in mind. It makes the whole process more human and less emotionally charged when I consider the amount of material that the gatekeepers filter. Rejection is clearly not personal. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. *sigh* I’m waiting for 2 agents who requested fulls, but as you’ve mentioned, it’s not a quick process. So I’m being very polite and professional – of course!


  2. So true. Don’t give up on your dream (even when discouraged). Keep writing (even when tired – If needed, walk away and come back). Keep pressing on (moving forward, remaining teachable). Sooner or later, the right door will open for you … as it did for me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Literary Breadcrumbs and commented:
    Fantastic points!! I would add one more. Before you start querying, sit down and have an honest “conversation” with yourself. Ask Why do you want an agent on the first place and What having an agent means to you. This exercise helped me tremendously with understanding what I expected as an author and as a writer. It also made me be brutally honest with myself and was quite eye opening.


  4. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Think its easy being a writer today? Frankly, I believe that while so much is easier (in terms of technology, the internet, et cetera ) it was probably easier for a good writer to get his/her work out in older times…now here’s Veronica Bala’s excellent post on what a modern writer faces…being a writer is only the beginning of the process…there’s lot more to it if you want others to read your precious work…


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