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Queries, Pitches and Proposals

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What Agents Really Want

by Natalie R. Collins

"I wish I knew what agents are looking for," a writing friend of mine said the other day. "If I could only read their minds, I'd be in!"

In today's tough publishing climate, most big commercial presses will not accept unsolicited manuscripts or queries from authors, and instead use agents to sort through the slush pile and bring them the best work around.

This means the most important contact a writer can or will have is with his/her agent. There are many things to consider when choosing an agent, including their sales record, affiliations, reputation, and client list. As you query the agents that meet your criteria, you will undoubtedly meet with much rejection.

Once you have an agent, don't imagine you're on easy street. Most agents will tell you to put aside that dream of instant success and royalties that pour in unchecked, and prepare to go to work. New writers must be willing to actively market their work, a job that is both time consuming and tedious. No agent wants

a client who thinks once the book is written, the job is done. Since I'm seriously short on psychic skills, I decided to do the next best thing and ask a few successful agents some questions. I asked four questions of three agents: Jeff Kleinman of Graybill and English, LLC [JK]; Liza Dawson [LD]; and Felicia Eth [FE]. All three are successful non-fee chargers with proven track records and good reputations. One fact came out loud and clear: Writers are making the same mistakes over and over again. Here's your opportunity to learn what an agent is looking for, directly from the source.

1. What is the worst thing a writer can do in a query letter?

JK: Hmm, that's a tough one. How about three things: ramble for more than a page and a half; sound desperate; and make grammatical, punctuation, or spelling mistakes.

LD: Here are two worst things. One, write the letter like it's a promo piece for Publishers Clearinghouse, i.e. "Dear Ms. Dawson: I'd like to offer you the opportunity at a sure bestseller. I've heard you're brilliant and so successful and that's why I'm sending you and the other fifty agents on this e-mail submission this letter." Two, beg me in hysterical language to pay attention because you've never written a letter to an agent and you're really scared and you know that no one will ever listen to you.

FE: Bore me. If the letter does, probably the manuscript will too. Boast about it -- tell me it's sure to be a bestseller, tell me I'll make lots of money. Send it to me, but address it to another agent. You'd be amazed how often this happens. Make it clear it's a form letter, where my name is hand-written in. It makes me think it's been to a million other agents.

2. What catches your eye and makes you want to read someone's work?

JK: A tightly-crafted letter with a great single- or two-sentence description of the work, and an author with very good credentials -- published in national magazines, or with a national platform; winning awards, and so forth.

LD: One, a recommendation; two, a clear description of the work with few superfluous sentences; three, previous publications.

FE: Pizzazz in the query letter. Good, maybe great credentials -- either on the person's expertise, or publishing background. An original approach without being overly corny; sometimes writers cross the line in making something way too cute. It's strong, original writing that catches my eye.

3. As writers, we hear stories of the "good old days" where agents and editors would nurture a promising writer with two or three books until they reached top form. In your opinion, was this ever the case, and if so, what changed it?

JK: I think that's still the case with agents and editors. It's all about nurturing and building up a brand name.

LD: It was true a long time ago. Agents will nurture for longer than editors will. Editors now must justify their salaries in a way that they never had to before. Unless that writer gets fabulous reviews and there's a whiff of a Nobel prize in the air, then that editor has to maintain a wall between himself or herself and the writer -- or else the editor will end up standing next to the writer, looking at the publishing house from the outside rather than the inside.

FE: I've been around for a while, and though things were never 'great' still there are definite differences today. People used to buy a book they loved but didn't think would be a great commercial success, for small money, publish it well and hope that it would help establish a writer for his/her next book. Today no one (of the major houses at least) wants to spend small money on a book with small expectations. They just can't buy those books; they need to meet minimums in terms of the number of copies they can get out. Also, previously if someone was a good writer, credentials and platform weren't nearly as important as they are today. Now, without that, it's a long, difficult, uphill battle and most editors aren't willing to fight that fight. So yes, things are different.

4. If you could give a new author one piece of advice to help advance his/her career, what would it be?

JK: Build up your credentials! By that I mean: One, learn to make your writing as solid, tight, and wonderful as possible; and two, become an "authority" on your subject, with some kind of very strong regional, or national, platform.

LD: Cultivate a following on National Public Radio. Come up with a high concept gimmick.

FE: Build credentials -- short stories or magazine and newspaper pieces. Contests, supportive quotes from any major name you know. Build up a good case for why your work needs to be taken seriously, and then, amazingly enough, it will be. That's no guarantee it will be bought, but at least it will be read and that's an important first step.

I also asked one final question, half-jokingly: "When you become a literary agent, are you automatically required to use the word 'subjective' in your rejections?" Liza Dawson says yes: "Every time we send out a rejection notice we're afraid that we're going to spark a suicide, or reject a fabulously successful novel and the author will then make merciless fun of the agents who rejected the book and post the pompous rejections on his web site."

Felicia Eth had this response: "You know, I do use 'subjective' myself, because it is. In fact, I don't love 'commercial' novels, with all that implies, and probably reject a fair number of them that are good and likely to sell. But that's not what I do, not what I like, and though other agents probably think I'm nuts, that's my criteria. Authors should know that. I told someone this week that I don't do Mob novels -- and said, 'yes I probably would have rejected the Godfather.' So that's how subjective it is."

An important thing to remember is that this ruthless business is also difficult from the agent's perspective. The goal of an agent is not to crush the spirit of a new writer, who often has great potential but simply is not ready to seek publication. The only way to succeed is to write, rewrite, edit and write again, until your work is perfectly polished. At that point, remember the business of publishing is, indeed, subjective. What one agent hates, another may love.

More of What Agents Really Want

Dear Author:
Your work sounds intriguing. I would be interested in seeing the first fifty pages, along with a synopsis and your original query letter.

Best,
Joe Agent

Now what do you do? Page fifty leaves the heroine dangling precariously from the outer tip of

See my point? Should you send forty-five pages, which ends a chapter and has a better breaking point, or should you send seventy-five pages, which ends the chapter you started on page forty-six?

For this question, I went straight to the source. I asked six agents exactly how they felt about the following questions:

  1. If you ask someone for the first fifty pages, and they send you fifty-two, because that is where a chapter breaks, are you going to disregard their work because they didn't follow your guidelines?

  2. Should a writer automatically send a synopsis? If so, how long should that synopsis be?

  3. How long should a query letter be?

Overwhelmingly, the agents I asked stated that a writer sending extra pages or a few less than requested would not really affect how they look at the work. They had differing opinions on whether or not to send a synopsis and how long it should be. From their answers I believe that you should only send a synopsis if the agent requests it. All were in agreement again, however, when it comes to a query letter being only one page long. Keep it short.

Kind enough to respond politely to my inquiries were B.J. Robbins of B.J. Robbins Literary Agency; Liza Dawson, of Liza Dawson Associates; William Contardi, formerly of William Morris who is now with Brandt and Hochman; Pam Strickler, of Pam Strickler Literary Management; Simon Lipskar of Writers House; Linda Hyatt of Hyatt Literary Agency; Jeff Kleinman of Greybill and English; and Nicole Aragi, who recently left Watkins-Loomis to start her own agency.

If you ask someone for the first fifty pages, and they send you fifty-two, because that is where a chapter breaks, are you going to disregard their work because they didn't follow your guidelines?

BJR: No, I would never disregard or reject out of hand someone's work if they sent me a few pages more than I had requested. I ask for the first three chapters, which eliminates this problem.

LD: Of course not!

WC: Of course not... fifty pages give or take, this is a writerocracy not an agentatorship.

PS: No, that would be fine.

SL: Of course not. If there's a natural break somewhere near fifty pages, then send that many pages. However, if the first chapter ends on page ninety-seven and the agent has requested fifty pages, just send fifty pages.

LH: Two pages will not break or make a writer. But, when I am overwhelmed with submissions and I respond with "I am not accepting submissions at this time" I do expect the author to heed my statement and try at a later date.

JK: I'm a completely crappy person to ask about that kind of stuff, because I frankly don't care very much. I tend to think, though, that writers should try to follow an agent's requests--because there are a lot of completely anal-retentive agents out there. The feeling is that if a writer can't follow simple directions like send X, they'll probably be difficult to work with for editing and editors.

NA No, of course not, the fifty-page guideline is just rough. I usually ask for fifty pages, or three chapters, or whatever "cut" seems most logical. Under no circumstances should they send a mix of chapters. It's infuriating to receive a query letter with chapters twelve and thirteen enclosed. Like any reader, an agent wants to start at the beginning.

Should a writer automatically send a synopsis? If so, how long should that synopsis be?

BJR: I don't request a synopsis, since I find them tedious to read, but if a writer wants to include one that's fine. It should be short (those twenty-eight-page chapter outlines are a complete waste of time and I never read them) and in narrative form if possible.

LD: A short one. One to two pages. Short is better.

WC: [I'm] not that interested in a synopsis, more about the writing itself. Doesn't hurt, but Ęseveral lines in a cover letter is just as if not more effective.

PS: I think so. I prefer five pages or less.

SL: Yes. One to two pages maximum.

LH: I prefer a pitch letter, with writing credentials and the points of the story so I will be able to tell right away if it is something I can market. A synopsis should be as long as is necessary to work as a selling tool for the novel.

JK: It never hurts. I rarely read 'em unless I really like the book, and then I always want to see how the book will go. I think you should try to limit it to one to two pages, maximum. Double-spaced, of course. And make it read really, really smoothly, too. (Yeah, right--it's far easier said than done!)

NA: It can be helpful, but is not essential. Whereas receiving a synopsis without a sample chapter(s) is distinctly unhelpful. Reading a sample of the text is the only way to make a judgment. [The synopsis] should be no more than a couple of paragraphs.

How long should a query letter be?

BJR: Query letters should be short and to the point, no more than one page. I want to know who you are, what you've written, where you've studied, and any other pertinent information that will help you stand out from the pack. Avoid cutesy, gimmicky letters or anything overly obsequious or grandiose.

LD: One page. Unless it's brilliant and there is a lot to say.

WC: One page-ish with writer credits and a paragraph summation of the book.

PS: Short, on one page.

SL: No more than a single page. Remember, though, if you can't write an enticing query letter, agents will invariably assume that you can't write an enticing novel.

LH: A pitch letter can be one or two pages.

JK: Never more than one page.

NA: Again, a couple of paragraphs, not more.

So there you have it. Keep your query letter to one page. Make it concise and to the point. Do not tell the agent his or her business. Rather, let them know what your credentials are, and why they should read your book. Don't forget your hook. Your first line is without a doubt the most important one in the whole letter. If the agent asks for a synopsis, send one, but keep it short. Don't send lengthy chapter outlines. Do send sample chapters, beginning with chapter one.

And if your fifty pages need one or two more pages to complete a chapter or an important scene, by all means include them. When an agent responds to your query positively, pay attention to what they are saying. Most often, they will tell you exactly what they want. Staying within the guidelines as closely as possible guarantees you the best chance of success.

Copyright © 2001 Natalie R. Collins
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Natalie R. Collins is a writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience. She is the author of the novels, SisterWife, Twisted Sister, and Outer Darkness, and has won numerous awards for her writing of fiction and nonfiction. SisterWife was chosen in the top ten of the 2001 Annual Preditors and Editors Poll. She has worked in newspaper journalism, advertising, and served as an editor for the 2001 and 2002 Sundance Film Festivals. She has spent the past two years researching and compiling information on agents. Vist her website at http://www.nataliercollins.com/.

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