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Dear Editors & Agents…

Part of my job is to constantly talk to editors about what they’re looking for. My biggest pet peeve with these conversations is generality. I imagine authors feel the same way when they talk to agents.

Dear Editors and Agents:

Do yourself a favor, and dig deep when answering the question of what you’re looking for. We all know if you work at a mystery publisher you are looking for mysteries. If you’re talking to an agent and she asks what you’re looking for she doesn’t want to hear what your house publishes (if she doesn’t already know that she should be fired). She wants to hear what kind of book rocks your world.

I get it. You want romance. Great, but so does everyone else at Romance Books. So if I’m choosing between you, Audrey, Frannie, and Jeb how am I to make my choice? Do you have a special passion for Midwestern settings, the South, sports players, rock stars, suspense, dogs, cooking, Paul Rudd…? What book or author do you dream of representing? If you tell me, I might be able to find that for you, and just you, not Jeb.

I’m an agent, I’m a dream maker, I want to make my client’s dreams come true and the right fit is part of making that happen. So, think of it this way, I’m also here to make your dreams come true. It’s not enough to submit urban fantasy to Fantasy Press, I want to find the book that You at Fantasy Press wants to build your career on, because I want my author to be the one you build that career with.

So, next time an agent (or author for you agents) asks what you’re looking for, I want you to dig deep. I want you to wax poetically about the last great book you read, the one you are dying to find your own of. I want to hear about your passions and desires. I want to know why and what I should submit to you versus Audrey, Frannie, or Jeb.

Go big dear editor and agent, because I want to specifics.

Sincerely,

An Old, Grizzled Agent

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16 comments

  1. Yes. Same for agents, please.
    When writers go to your agent page, tell us what you want. Better yet, tell us what you don’t want. This can be adjusted as your tastes (or the market) changes. Spend at least as much time on this as you spend on your personal bio. Why you moved to Poughkeepsie might be interesting
    –maybe–but it doesn’t help your perspective clients know what you’re looking for. Be concise and specific and hopefully your slush pile won’t be as cluttered with queries that don’t fit your needs. And it will save busy writers time, too.

  2. Yikes. This is a tough one for everybody. As a reader, ask me what SPECIFICALLY I want to read? I’d have a hard time answering you.

    I just read a book about a woman reading a book her ex-husband had written and sent to her. The “book within a book” is about a man whose wife and teen are kidnapped and murdered. The rest is about the woman reading that book.

    If you’d described that to me I would have said “no thanks.” But it’s a wonderful book (Tony and Susan by Austin Wright) and made into the intriguing movie Nocturnal Animals.

    Now I’m reading a book about a guy who seems to gay, and is clearly a bit sociopathic, and within 1/4 of the book kills his friend and takes over his identity. It’s told from his point of view.

    Again, probably no thanks.

    But it’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and the writing is amazing. And I sincerely doubt if Patricia Highsmith queried anyone on this that she would have gotten one bite.

    This is a very tough business. Things are so, so subjective and rely so much on pure writing ability. Which is why agents, when they read one or two pages, it’s just not really giving a full picture. Take Gone with the Wind. It was bought by MacMillan and the first chapter hadn’t even been written. She never could have sent anything to agents.

    But agents have no time other than to read one page, if that!

    I think maybe a better database such as the one QueryTracker, where authors can upload details of their book, genre, subgenre, influences, etc. and agents can scan that might help?

    As for editors…. I doubt they know either what exactly will grab them.

    Why we all do this I don’t know. LOL! Good luck, Jessica!

    1. Actually Emily, as readers we often think differently than as industry professionals and often we do know exactly what we’re looking for. In my case I’d love to see more LGBTQ, specifically trans, characters in books. So if you’re writing one of those (women’s fiction) that’s definitely for me. I’m hungry not just for suspense, but specifically domestic suspense. I want more Girl on a Train. After reading Pretty Little Lies I would love more books, either women’s fiction or domestic suspense or mystery, featuring moms, PTO moms and the mom world. I’ve often been a fan of David Bell. Send me another David Bell. I have a passion for cooking, especially if it’s magical realism cooking… The list goes on, but agents and editors do have specific things. We do have passions (dogs v. cats, cooking v. baking, Regency v. Civil War eras) that we love to see in books and that resonate with us. There are certain thing agents and editors see in queries that are automatic requests for them. Those are the things I need to know, especially, from editors. Also, the database that’s best right now is probably #MSWL.

      1. Honestly, that description told me some, but not a lot. Girl on the Train tells me nothing. I have a thriller, you did not like it. I don’t take it personally, others liked it a lot. But you happened to love the style of GOTT. I did not. If I never saw another GOTT again, I would be happy.

        David Bell, never heard of him. As an editor, I may not have either. So now I have to go read him? Maybe I have time, maybe not.

        I definitely feel you that editors should get more specific, more passionate. As a journalist, I was always on PR people. Don’t tell me your product. I don’t care what your product does, 100000 other things do the same. Tell me a STORY. It was hard. Most people can’t do it.

        But yes, editors need to learn how to dig deeper. I feel you, I really do!

        1. If I could play devil’s advocate for a moment…

          I remember querying agents about a mystery I’d written years ago, and one of the agents I was considering for my query posted something very similar to this blog post. In it she gushed about how much she LOVED Gone Girl, especially the ending. Well, I hated Gone Girl. ESPECIALLY the ending.

          In the end, I decided it couldn’t hurt to query with. Needless to say, she rejected my MS. I eventually got an agent for my mystery MS (who also didn’t care for Gone Girl either). Coincidence? Maybe. But if writers are truly looking for an agent to fall in love with their work, there needs to be a good fit and not just a superficial one regarding genre. It doesn’t matter, for example, that my agent loves military thrillers and I don’t because I don’t write military thrillers. But my agent *should* enjoy the same style of books in the genre we’re working in.

          Just my two cents. 🙂

          1. Agreed, that can definitely help, but is still kind of random. There were two agents I queried who mentioned liking one specific book. My book has some superficial similarities to that book so I queried both. One got back right away (even thought she was closed ) and loved it and went on and on about my book, though she asked for a few changes.

            The other never even responded to the query.

            Tough, random biz. But I agree with Jessica, the more people can get specific the better.

  3. On this topic a little more (sorry, fascinating topic). If I was an editor, and was going to get specific with you TODAY, I’d say something like:

    – I tend to like a bit more philosophical style of writing. I’m not so much interested in the what but the why

    – I like dark, but it has to be tempered with some humor. And what I find funny may not be what someone else finds funny, or what the author even meant as funny.

    – I tend to like rather detailed descriptions. Don’t tell me the moon is out, describe the look of it in a unique way, and how it looks in the sky, and how the sky looks, and how it makes the face across from you look. But only if you can do it well, otherwise it’s cheesy.

    – I’m going through a period of not liking first person, or just one POV. But I don’t like it when POV changes just for the heck of it, and I REALLY don’t like it when that POV switch is announced via title chapters like “HER” or “EMMA”. But this could change next month.

    LOL. You’d want to kill me, right?

      1. Well, good luck. Most people don’t dig that deep. They just don’t. Here’s to hoping they learn, for all of our sakes! 🙂

  4. Sorry, I meant domestic suspense, not thriller. These genres still confound me, and I can tell you as a professional writer, they confound most of us 🙂

  5. I’m sure you have enough to do, but how about doing something similar for yourself? Don’t tell us you want Girl on the Train, tell us WHY you liked that. What about it resonated for you? I didn’t like that all the women were obsessed with men and babies. The writing style was too jejune for me. But what did YOU like?

    Don’t tell me David Bell, tell me WHY David Bell.

    Be the change you want, Jessica! LOL. Love you, girl.

  6. Thank you! What frustrates me is when an agent/editor says something like, ” I want to be wowed!” Or, “I’m looking for a strong voice and characters I connect with.” We all think we have that!

  7. I can see why detail would be so important between editor and agent, but the level of detail Emily listed (and you would like, Jessica) might be too much for a lot of authors. I could imagine authors reading that list and if their ms didn’t fit the pigeonhole exactly not querying the agent.

    Maybe I’m off the mark, but if an agent says they represent cozy, I’ll sub to them. If they say they represent cozy but are especially wanting magical cozy I’ll still sub them (even though mine isn’t magical). #mswl is great, but only if you have exactly what an agent specifies ready to rock. By the time you were to write what they #mswl they won’t want that anymore and be after something else.

    For me, I just need to know the genre and if there is anything within the genre an agent doesn’t want (eg paranormal but no vampires).

  8. I’m glad I came across this article. There are so many types of romance, thrillers and so on. I lean towards comedy/romance. My writing tends to wink towards a sarcastic style which, given the personality, can turn some people off. I try to refer to movies and books that entertained me and match my writing style. If I receive a response that they too enjoyed them I know I have a chance. On the other hand I sometimes wonder if us writers are doing nothing more than throwing darts. You throw enough you get a bullseye. Maybe we’re reading to much in to this. Maybe the answer is to get a bag of lawn darts and hope for the best. Ahhhh…..visions of my childhood and the 4th of July. Yes, I’m dating myself.

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