While no literary agent has an exact checklist of what it takes to make a book sell, there are certain things that every book has when we do offer representation.
Not to be confused with #ownvoices, voice is best defined as the author’s style of writing, their tone, and the way the narrator tells the story. Robert B. Parker for example had a very distinct tone and voice for his Spenser novels, sort of a quick-talking tough guy. The same is true of Kevin Kwan who writes humorous and uses footnotes in a brilliant way. As a reader, the voice is what first connects us to the storyteller themself.
Voice is what we know will be consistent from book to book by that author, it’s what we come to expect to find, even if the story and characters are different.
Writing is different from voice. Of course, there are technicalities like the use of commas and quotation marks, but it’s also how well you write dialogue, description, and things like action scenes.
The writing is your ability to show and not tell, to write believable dialogue and characters, and to give a sense of atmosphere to every bit of the story.
Plot is pretty self-explanatory. You need a solid plot, with surprises and twists and turns. You also need to satisfy the expectations of your genre. A romance will have a happily ever after and a mystery will solve the crime, but how we get there is equally important.
Is it too much to say, “well duh?” You can’t have a great book without great characters. They need to be well-rounded, multi-dimensional, and fun to read, even if they aren’t necessarily fun people. I mean, let’s face it, Hannibal Lecter is still arguably one of the best characters in fiction, and yet I don’t think he’d be that fun to be around.
A good setting almost becomes a character in its own right. Whether a small town with quirky characters and cute shops or the dark, foggy streets of 18th century London. Whatever the setting, it needs to come alive. The best settings are those in which you put the book down and feel surprised that the world around is nothing but your living room.
I was once told by an editor that they couldn’t buy the book because they weren’t sure what kind of cover to put on. While that is a little extreme, that’s marketability. Can I find a publisher who can sell this book to the public? How will it be marketed? Most importantly, is there an audience for it.
Hook in some ways goes hand-in-hand with marketability. How does this book distinguish itself from others in the genre? What describes this book in one or two sentences? It can’t just be another mystery, what about the characters or plot make it, well, marketable. What makes it stand out and what grabs the reader’s attention and shows them it’s different from other romances or mysteries or business books.
This is where developing my submission list comes in. As I’m reading and knowing I love this book, I’m also thinking about who I can submit to. If for some reason I can’t come up with anyone this might not be the book for me or, more importantly, I might not be the agent for this book.
The marketplace is slightly different from marketability. Marketability is how we sell the book. Marketplace is whether there’s a space for this book. Horror is growing in popularity right now so if you’re writing horror I know there’s a market for this book. On the other hand, historical novels can be a tougher sell with fewer editors and houses buying. While that might not mean a quick rejection, it will likely mean that your book has to stand out a little to find a spot in the current market.
And last on the list is enthusiasm. Without it I won’t likely offer representation. I need to be enthusiastic enough to want to share it with editors, but also to want to work with you on it, potentially reading it over three or four times. While enthusiasm is at the bottom of the list, it’s usually the first thing that makes me fall in love with the book and, at the end of the day, the one thing we can’t fix. It’s either there or it’s not.
This blog post is based entirely on brainstorming with James for our video on the same subject.