SCBWI Agent Panel: Advice From The Experts!

Originally Posted: September 2013

by Kirstin Leigh

New York literary agents Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich; Holly M. McGhee, founder and owner of Pippin Properties, Inc.; and Regina Brooks, founder and owner of Serendipity Literary Agency, discussed submissions and the book world at the agents panel in April. The most popular question from attendees was, “What makes you say yes to a writer’s manuscript?”

McGhee is drawn to “books that give something back and speak to my spirit.” McCarthy says, “There isn’t any one thing I’m desperate to find; it’s more of a feeling I’m chasing.” And Brooks knows she’s onto something when “the book just stays on my mind.”

But regardless of each agent’s taste or style, they all agree: the following are universals.

Writers need a concise, clear, well-proofed, well-written, one-page query letter. A query tells the agent briefly what the book is about (the “hook”) and who it’s for (genre and age group), explains why the writer is submitting to this particular agency, and includes the author’s bio.

The agents pointed out that there are numerous websites explaining in detail how to write queries, synopses, and book proposals. Many agencies also have tips, such as dos and don’ts or FAQs, on their websites. So writers have no excuse for not putting together a professional package.

When submitting queries, writers should follow each agency’s specific instructions and guidelines. For example, Brooks said Serendipity has an online submission form. When she reads the answers to the questions on her form, her marketing mind is already thinking, “What five editors do I know who would be interested in this project?”

Dedicated writers who have a unique, fresh, and marketable manuscript are always in demand, the agents said. If the manuscript can be sold across all platforms, that’s a definite bonus!

In this competitive industry, everything a writer submits, says, and does matters. Literary agencies, their agents, and the publishers they work with expect writers to give their best. “We will work as hard as you do,” McGhee said.

More advice: Spell names correctly. Send only your very best work. And don’t send anything on Christmas Eve or at 1 a.m.! Take rejections in stride. Know that they’re subjective. Learn from everything, and give your all.

In conclusion, to quote McCarthy, “It might sound cliché, but keep believing— have faith.”

And keep writing!


Kirstin Leigh is the author of  Just J for middle graders; you can follow Just J on Tim Storey’s, website (April 10, May 20, May 27, and  June 5). Leigh is currently preparing to pitch her pilot for Plan A, a TV drama for teens. Contact her at, and read her blog


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