The November 2017 Agents Panel, an annual event sponsored jointly by SCBWI-Metro NY and The New School’s creative writing department, featured three literary agents responding to questions about the author-agent relationship.
Panelists Molly O’Neill of Root Literary, Carrie Pestritto of Prospect Agency, and Brooks Sherman of Janklow & Nesbit discussed how writers can, as Sherman put it, “negotiate their transformation from artist into small-business owner.” The panel was moderated by SCBWI-Metro NY volunteer Adria Quinones.
How do writers get a good fit in an agent?
O’Neill: Sign up for PW Kids newsletter, which is free, to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry. Check agents’ blogs to get an idea what they’re looking for.
Pestritto: But also feel free to query someone you think you’d like even if they’re not looking for exactly what you’re pushing. People don’t always know what they’re looking for, and their needs change over time.
Sherman: Check the acknowledgments of books that you like. When several of your favorites are represented by the same agent, that’s a good sign that the agent’s taste might click with yours. Because you don’t want just any agent; you want the right agent.
What is the right agent?
O’Neill: As I’m reading, if I love something, I’ll ask myself, “Who is this for? Who would pay for it?” If I can’t answer that question, I’m not the right agent. I ask myself, will this be passed around by kids? Promoted by librarians and bookstores? Used in classrooms by teachers? The answer to these questions indicates which editors I’ll approach. If the answer’s fuzzy, that’s not a good sign.
Sherman: But it’s not just about sales. I’ve read manuscripts I was 99 percent sure would sell, but I didn’t like them. In the past I’ve gone ahead and signed up and sold manuscripts like this, but I’ve learned if I’m not invested, I’m not the best advocate. So now I won’t do that any longer. I need to have the energy and drive that come from loving a book in order to do a good job representing it.
Pestritto: I always consider that I’ll be working on this project for a year or more. So I must have a passion for it. And the writer and agent must be compatible.
What do you look for in a writer?
Pestritto: I look for someone who’s willing to make changes and isn’t extremely precious about their “artistic vision.” The author must be willing to put their book through several stages of plastic surgery.
Sherman: The writer needs to have an open mind and be willing to make changes to their manuscript. Always listen to your editor! You don’t have to agree to everything, but you need to learn what’s worth pushing back on. Your agent can help you figure that out. Writer and agent need to have mutual respect, because your agent is going to be a really important partner for your career.
O’Neill: I want clients who are ambitious, who care about their craft and want to be better writers tomorrow than they are today.
How important are cover letters and queries, really?
Pestritto: They are our first look at your writing. But I would say, keep them short and snappy! Don’t give me the word count or a whole synopsis – just a teaser, like back-cover copy.
Sherman: We’re going to drive you crazy here because agents want different things. For example, I’d love to know the word count! But I agree: do something like flap or back-cover copy. Tell me about the main character, what their status quo is, and how it changes in the book. You want to tell just enough to entice the agent to read further. Don’t give away the ending!
O’Neill: I care most about your writing. I tend to gloss over the query until the story captures me. Then I’ll go back to the query. I want to get an idea how much you know about the publishing industry.
How do you find new clients?
O’Neill: I look for artists on Etsy and for writers among people who have good blogs or have a strong platform in their topic. And also the slush pile! Don’t underestimate a good old-fashioned query.
Pestritto: I agree. About 80 percent of my clients come from the slush pile. The others come from contests and pitch wars online.
Sherman: A social media presence is great, but you’re not doomed if you don’t have one. It’s the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.
Publishing is an overwhelmingly white industry. What about marginalized peoples?
Pestritto: The best thing we can do is support each other. There are many online groups for marginalized peoples which writers can join.
Sherman: It’s not just authors, it’s also the gatekeepers – we need diverse sets of eyes there too. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But we need to ask, who are we? Who can afford to work in publishing, and how can we even the playing field?
O’Neill: We have to pay attention to under-represented voices and look for talent in less-traditional places.
An important craft tip:
O’Neill: I want a first page that makes me wonder, so I’m curious enough to follow the character into the book.
Pestritto: Characters shouldn’t start fully formed. I like seeing them grow and growing along with them as I read. Don’t overprotect them!
Sherman: Beware of emphasizing message over story and character. If there is a message in your book, readers should come away with it without it being overtly stated.
Pestritto: Your first book may not get published, or your second. So always be thinking about what you’re going to do next.
Sherman: You owe it to yourself to query widely, I’d say at least 20 agents at different agencies.
O’Neill: Giving “comp titles” in your cover letter shows you’re thinking like an agent or editor. Be sure to use recent titles (from the last 2 to 5 years), and avoid naming big, obvious books, like Harry Potter.
O’Neill: It’s important to think about why you’re writing, beyond just “I want to be famous.” Having sight of something beyond your own ego helps you stay grounded in this business. And hey – if riches befall us both, we’ll get through it somehow!
Emily Goodman is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She is the author of the award-winning picture book Plant Secrets.