Thursday, November 17, 2011

What an Agent Wants

What does an agent want? Isn’t that the million dollar question? For a writer who wants to go the traditional publishing route, agents are key. Many publishing houses only accept agented submissions. So writers must entice an agent with their work and hope for representation. But literary agents are known to play hard to get. What exactly do agents want?

Recently, I had the opportunity to find out. I signed up for a Writer’s Digest Webinar entitled “How to Make your Romance Hot Enough for an Agent”, hosted by Sara Megibow of Nelson Literary Agency
LLC (  Sara went through her checklist of what she’s looking for:

- Superior writing
- Unique concept
- Platform
- Professional attitude

Sara says that she uses these four criteria to evaluate a submission at every stage in the process, from the query letter, to the sample pages, to the the full manuscript. During the webinar she explained her checklist to let us know exactly what she’s looking for.

1. Superior Writing – These are components that make up superior writing in Sara Megibow’s estimation:

Completed manuscript – the manuscript is not only done, it is the best product you can produce. It is critiqued, edited, polished and 100% ready to go.

Strong Mechanics – Can you write well? The manuscript is well-written from a technical perspective. The writer has a handle on the “tools” of writing, such as dialogue, flashbacks, backstory, sexual tension, character development and motivation, and each of these tools is in balance. There’s not too much or too little of any one of the tools. She says that one of the main reasons for passing on a submission is too much backstory in the opening pages.

Authentic characterization – Sara gave the example of a character who is a librarian and sees a man getting shot when she looks out the window of the library. She immediately goes to investigate. What? No, your average person would call 911. A character who investigates does not feel authentic. Characters should be authentic, engaging, intelligent, and their actions should seem organic to who they are. In other words, if X does something and Y does something else, X’s reaction should be realistic.

Engaging plot – She wants something unique, something she hasn’t seen before. It should have a twist that hasn’t been done to death but should still be realistic. The story must be interesting and engaging. If a writer has been getting the feedback from readers/critiquers/editors that they’re not falling in love with the story, that might be a clue that the plot is not engaging enough. As an example of an engaging plot, Sara Megibow cites “Private Arrangements” by Sherry Thomas.

Interesting world – This is important for paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi novels where world building is the most important element. She doesn’t want stuff she’s seen before, such as a vegetarian vampire who likes humans and doesn’t kill them or a dystopian novel in which food is central to the plot.

Unique narrative voice – Your submission stands out in the slush pile as different without being silly. It is unique, intelligent and well put together and your query is professional.

Brilliant pitch – This is one of the most important parts of your submission whether you are going the traditional publishing route, small/epublishing or self-publishing. This is one or two sentences that immediately engages the reader and describes the plot of your book. Sara gives this example of from “The Fallen Queen”, a fantasy with romantic elements, by one of her clients, Jane Kindred: The heiress to the throne of Heaven is deposed in a celestial coup and is whisked away to Earth and hidden in Russia by two nefarious demons. The pitch should read like a back cover blurb or a movie tagline.

Strong hook – The hook and the pitch work together. Can the reader easily understand the characters, the world, the story they can expect just from reading the pitch?

Sara says that the lack of superior writing is a deal breaker for her; she likely would not offer representation if she felt the writing wasn’t there.

2. Unique concept

- The writer must understand the market and the difference between different genres and subgenres. Most people understand the difference between contemporary and historical, but what about dystopian and urban fantasy? Middle grade and YA? What’s appropriate content for each? What’s appropriate word count? Sara says that if you can nail the subgenre in your query, such as “a 65,000 word YA historical with romantic elements” you’ve made a good pitch and got her attention. If your concept isn’t completely unique (such as another vampire novel), it isn’t a deal breaker for her as long as the book is well written.

3. Platform

- She often uses a writer’s platform to help evaluate a submission. The lack of a platform is not a deal breaker if the writer’s submission is great, but it is important in going from writer to published author. A writer who understands this is a step ahead.

- Elements of a platform can include:

Professional website – may contain a head shot, short bio, what I’m writing, industry blogs I like, books read recently, etc.

Blog or active news page

Twitter or Facebook

Member of Romance Writers of America – Sara highly recommends membership in RWA. It is a fantastic organization to help the writer understand the publishing industry.

Sara says the most important thing for the writer to focus on is writing. However, she is impressed by a writer who has done some self-marketing.

4. Professionalism – Sara is interested in working with writers who want a partner in publishing. She expects a professional query letter, professional responses, and professionalism when attending conferences. Lack of professionalism is a definite deal breaker. Even if the writing is good, she likely wouldn’t offer representation to someone who shows from the outset that they would be difficult and unprofessional to work with.

At the end of her webinar, Sara invited attendees to send her the first five pages of a work in progress for evaluation and possible request of a full manuscript.  Next week, I’ll let you know how that turned out for me.


  1. A great peek into the world of an agent, Jana - thanks for sharing.

    And I've got my fingers crossed for your submission. Looking forward to hearing how it goes.

  2. Great post, Jana. Lots of great insight into an agent's thoughts. I've noticed on Twitter that some agents are already warning writers against sending in the 'novel' they've written for NaNoWriMo! And I don't know why, but it's the platform part that worries me to the most. I've heard scary things, like agents wanting to see large number of Twitter followers or blog subscribers or Facebook fans. Oh, well! Off to work on the superior writing part of things :)

    Good luck with your submission!

  3. Janet, let's just say I'm not booking my cross country promotional tour just yet! But it was an interesting and worthwhile exercise.


  4. Karyn, the platform thing worries me too. I am so not good at it! But I was comforted to know that platform is not a deal breaker for Sara, and I imagine, many other agents.

    Good luck with that superior writing!