What Agents DO Like!

I commented on a blog last week which was a hardnosed expose about what a particular author thought about literary agents treating authors like frangible commodities whom they find tiresome and wouldn’t deal with unless forced to.

I joined in and had my moan, although being a Libran, it's in my nature to try and find out the other guy’s perspective, and usually empathise with it. That makes me a lousy decision maker, but that’s another story, at least I’m fair!

In Poets and Writers, I found this article written by a journalist who plied four reputable literary agents with food and alcohol and threw questions at them.

The agents were:
Julie Barer of Barer Literary Agency, Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary, Daniel Lazar of Writers House and Renee Zuckerbrot
Snippets are paraphrased here, but if you would like to read more, go to Poets and Writers and read the other three pages – it makes for fascinating reading.
And proves that agents are people too – which is what I did say in my comment, but also with the lines of, ‘when you have would-be clients banging on your door begging for representation and don’t have to go looking for work, wouldn’t you be a bit complacent and take the,
Please don’t call me, I’ll call you stance?

What are they looking for?
BARER: Everybody's looking for a book that you can't put down, that you lose yourself in so completely that you forget everything else that's going on in your life and you just want to stay up and you don't care if you're going to be tired in the morning. You just want to keep reading.
ZUCKERBROT: Doesn't that have to do with voice? It's about the way that somebody tells a story. It's about a person's worldview. There are probably very few new stories, but it's the way someone sees the world and interprets events. It's their voice. It's how they use words. It's how they can slow things down when they need to. It's how they build up to a scene. It's how they describe ordinary things. A gifted writer will make me see things I've never seen even though I may have walked down the street a thousand times. At the end of the day, for me at least, it comes back to voice.
LAZAR: I generally find myself liking books that are not set in New York. Give me a weird little small town any day of the week.
BARER: I love reading a book where I don't know anything about the setting.
KLEINMAN: I have three criteria. The first is missing your subway stop. The second is gushing about it to any poor slob who will listen. The third is having editors in mind immediately.
BARER: That's so important. If you can't figure out who you're going to sell a book to from the get-go—if you finish it and think, "Who on earth would buy this?" and you can't come up with more than three names—it's a bad sign.

Aside from referrals, where are you finding writers?
LAZAR: I get most of my fiction through slush.
BARER: I found The Heretic's Daughter in the slush pile. The author had never written a novel before. She had never been in a writing class or an MFA program. She came out of nowhere. She simply had this incredible story, which is that her grandmother, nine generations back, was hanged as a witch in Salem. Just because you have that great story doesn't mean that you can necessarily tell it well, but it was an incredible book.
ZUCKERBROT: I still read literary magazines, and I'll write to people whose work I like to see if they're working on a novel or a short story collection.
BARER: Bread Loaf. The Squaw Valley writers conference. Grub Street, in Boston. I found the Sri Lankan novel at Bread Loaf last summer. I heard the author read for five minutes and was so blown away that I was basically like, "You. In the corner. Right now. Don't talk to anybody else!"


Lisa Yarde said…
Interesting post, Anita. In their defense, agents are bombarded by would be-published authors in droves everyday. Their rules are understandable sometimes, as authors are asking them, both of us virtual strangers, to take a chance on us with no more promise of hitting it big than the possibility of winning the lottery. I used to think some were being mean until one summed it up for me, "Agents have to eat too, we have mortgages and kids' tuitions to pay, all riding on whether or not you can sell."
Anita Davison said…
Yup - there are always two sides to everything, and one of the agents said he received 10,000 queries a year - That's a lot of manure to get through to find the pony!

So the precision of the query letters isn't being a prima donna at al - how else are they going to find something that might be worth reading?
Kim Smith said…
I am beginning to think that agents and getting one is just the first hurdle you have to leap through though. With the tight economy, no matter how well they like the story, if it hasn't got money making ability, they won't take it on. Just my opinion, but think of it, all those thousands of submissions (signs of a LOT of writers out there) and the small small number of acceptances and then the even smaller number of books from that which are sold.
Jane Beckenham said…
Scary stuff and high hurdles to jump to get noticed LOL. But also it shows how tough the competition is. It makes me the author realise that everything I do has to be the best I can make it.

Mirella Patzer said…
I very much enjoyed the article Anita. You portrayed their needs and interests very well. I don't have an agent yet, but my plan is to seek one for my next two novels which are still works in progress.

Have a great day,


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