What Literary Agents Want to See Before Signing With a Writer

What Literary Agents Want to See Before Signing With a Writer

So you’ve written a book. It’s taken you three months or 18 months or seven years. You’ve shared your manuscript with your sister, significant other, office mate and that kind-looking stranger and they all really, really liked it.

Now what?

In the best of all possible worlds, the right agent would fall in love with your writing at first glance and guide you through the publishing process. But how do you find your perfect literary match and convince him or her to love your book?

The New Jersey-based Writers Circle Workshops recently presented a panel discussion with three literary agents: Liza Dawson, founder of Liza Dawson Associates; Tamar Rydzinski, Vice President of the Laura Dail Literary Agency; and Marietta B. Zacker of Nancy Gallt Literary Agency.

These agents shared what attracts them to a manuscript, what turns them off and how aspiring authors can improve their chances of matchmaking success. Here are some of their best tips from the discussion.

1. Keep your query concise and professional

Query letters are intended to pique an agent’s interest in seeing your manuscript. Think of your query letter as a job interview: It should be concise and professional.

“This is your sales pitch,” Dawson said. “I need you to tell me why I need to read your book.”

A query should include a brief biography, but agents don’t want to read paragraphs or even pages about your life. “Give us too much information and you just give us a reason to reject you,” Rydzinski said. “Just tell me what your credentials are briefly and what your book’s about.”

As a children’s book agent, Zacker added, “Don’t tell me your child loved your book or her teacher thought it was like Percy Jackson. Very few children tell their parents their book sucks.”

But all three agents agreed there’s no “one-size-fits-all” template. “The query letter that tells a [brief] story … works best for me,” Dawson said. “If you can entertain me and keep my attention, I’m more likely to read your submission.”

Take a look at publishers’ catalogues and review Chuck Sambuchino’s Successful Queries blog series for ideas and advice on crafting your query letter.

2. Polish your manuscript

Before you send out your queries, make sure your manuscript looks its best by revising it, getting feedback from beta readers and working with an editor.

“People forget that getting an agent is not the end. It’s barely the beginning,” Zacker said. “When you send out a query, you should feel that your manuscript could be published tomorrow. It needs to be ready if we ask for it.”

Zacker also recommended printing out your manuscript when you’re revising. “There’s a difference between seeing text on a screen and reading it in hard copy,”she explained.

3. Do your homework

If you send query letters to agents who don’t represent the type of work you’re pitching, you’ll expose yourself as an amateur.

Every agency has information and submission guidelines on its websites that define the types of books it represents. The websites often also list which genres each specific agent is interested in, or you can use resources such as Publishers Marketplace and MS Wishlist, a compilation of tweets from agents using the hashtag “#MSWL” to call for queries.

Other places to find this information include the Writer’s Market agent listings and associations representing your genre, such as the Historical Novel Society, Mystery Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

And, no surprise, writers need to read a lot and know the market. “That’s part of our homework, just as it’s part of yours,” Zacker said.

While agents and publishers want to find that “unique voice,” they also need to believe there’s a market for your work. Writers need a solid grasp of who and what is being published in their genre and any relevant trends.

This is also useful information when comparing your book to another author’s work, an important part of any literary pitch. All three agents recommended picking a notable writer in your genre, but not an author who has become a phenomenon — not a J.K Rowling or a Lincoln Childs. Over-reaching is a turn-off, they agreed.

A corollary to knowing the market: “Don’t write ‘what’s hot,’” Rydzinski warned. Finishing her sentence, Zacker added, “… because you’re already too late.”

Today’s hot trend consists of books sold to publishers two years ago. Moreover, if the market is saturated with the type of book you’ve invested your heart in, you may have to shelve it for a while or redefine your book’s genre in some manner. Write what you’re passionate about, the agents concurred.

4. Keep up with social media

A lot of book marketing is on your shoulders these days, Dawson and Rydzinski confirmed. That means you need to have a solid author platform, including social media.

The agents agreed it’s important to find a social media platform that makes you comfortable. “There’s nothing worse than opening a Facebook page and seeing a year-old post,” Zacker said. Concise writers might prefer Twitter. Writers of adult works might be better off on Facebook. And children’s authors should try Instagram. Play with each platform, and tweak your online profiles to make them work for you.

If posting to social media feels too daunting, Rydzinski suggested checking out communities like Wattpad where writers share their writing to get feedback and create buzz.

Not sure how to get started? Here’s a great guide to building an author platform from scratch.

Rydzinski advised writers to keep it civil online. “We Google you, just like you Google us,” she said. “I don’t want to represent someone who’s posted really nasty remarks. Why would I want to work with someone like that?”

But the most important message was: “The book comes first!”

If you had been at the event, what question would you have asked the agents?


  • Malachi Eastling says:

    This was so great to read, thank you Mally!
    I can write stories after stories now having eight children’s books but I can’t write an amazing query letter for them, I’m a beginner at that part no lie.
    I read my demo book to the second grade classroom just over a week ago & that was one of the best feelings Iv’e felt & it’s all I want to do now & feels great to know my purpose finally.

  • george clarke says:

    Having been a writer for many years I have read and enjoyed the many comments as in these reviews but have never replied to any of them. My published books have been very well received locally but have never received the publicity I feel they merit. How can I now contact a reputed agent to fulfill the needs of my already written books, two of which were published outside the UK?

  • Joseph Fornabaio says:

    That article was fantastic and very helpful thank you .,

  • Maria Stoica says:

    Very helpful and very clearly written article, Mally. This is the best one I’ve found on understanding the agent’s point of view. Thank you for writing it.

    Best of luck and keep writing!

    • Mally Becker says:

      Maria – I’m glad you found the article helpful. Take care and thanks for commenting! Mally

  • Pimion says:

    Thanks for the incredibly helpful post! Everything states very clear and concise.
    I think the main thing literary agents want to see before signing with a writer is his talent and potential.

  • Pimion says:

    Thanks for the incredible helpful post! Everything states very clear and concise. I think the main thing literary agents want to see before signing with a writer is his talent and potential.

  • You say polish your manuscript..As a new writer, getting your manuscript to an editor could cost a lot of $$$$$. Should a writer spend the $1500-$2000 on a new novel? I had my first three chapters done, and it was extremely helpful. But to do the whole document is very expensive….Your thoughts?

    • Mally Becker says:

      Thanks for your question, which is an important one.

      It’s tough to provide a “one size fits all” answer, as investing in a professional editor’s services has to be an individual choice, balancing finances with results. But it’s a common mistake to send out a manuscript before it’s ready, according to the agents on the panel – and sometimes the writer is too close to the material to judge.

      Ask yourself whether the editor you’ve worked with has a professional background and proven track record. Do you feel that you received full value for the service already provided? Have you learned enough from the already-edited chapters to try modifying other chapters on your own? Perhaps most important, can you afford to have the editor take on your entire manuscript?

      Even if you decide that editing services are worth the cost … even if the resulting manuscript is the most finely-edited document in the history of (wo)mankind, keep in mind the obvious: No one can guarantee that a traditional publisher will purchase the end product.

      If you decide that cost is a “deal breaker,” you might consider other options to obtain insight into your story’s structure, pace, voice, etc. Are there critique groups or workshops near your home that you can join? Are there local chapters of national associations, such as the Historical Novel Society or Mystery Writers of America, where you can network and trade working drafts with writers who have published in your genre?

      Do you plan to self-publish? At The Writers Circle (, we believe that then it’s critical to employ a professional editor. You don’t want to put poorly-edited work out in an already crowded marketplace.

      I wish I could have given you a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” answer to your question. But I hope I’ve at least given you more to think about as you make your own decision.

    • I have seen a bumper sticker: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” If you think editing that YOU admired and praised as teaching you and improving the work was expensive, imagine the cost of your book remaining at the lower level before the professional polish. You can enhance the value to you of the profesdional’s work by letting it teach you. Study the changes to learn how they make the writing more effective for your purpose. The issue is not what you or the editor LIKE, but what stands a better chance of evoking the desired emotional response you want from the target reader. The techniques are known and teachable.

  • Robin Botie says:

    Thank you for this really great list of how to go about the dreaded querying process. It’s time to jump back in so I appreciate this a lot. Cheers!

  • Mally,

    What a great post. This is the most concise information on what agents look for that I’ve read yet. Even though it was written for the author who wants to publish traditionally, all authors can benefit from the expertise of these three agents.



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