What Are Literary Agents Looking for In Your Manuscript?

What do agents look for in a book?

Well, perhaps not surprisingly, they’re looking for a lot of the same things as publishers; after all, that agent is going to have to convince a publisher’s acquisitions editor that you book can sell!

Below I’ll list some of the qualities that literary agents want to see in a new manuscript. Of course, it’s difficult to scientifically quantify things in this realm; there is no set criteria, and agents are going to be going on their gut instincts more often than not. But at the same time, if you keep these things in mind when writing you’ll increase your chances of finding an agent to represent your book:

Marketability- Hmmm. What the hell does that mean? Well, will your book sell? To how many people? Maybe you’ve written the definitive volume on mass-produced pre-war clocks. While that may be exactly what a niche press is looking for, it probably doesn’t have the makings of the next Da Vinci Code. To attract an agent (whose main task will be to get you a deal with one of the major houses), you’ll need to write a book that can sell, and sell big. The broader the appeal, the better your chances.

Uniqueness- Having broad appeal does not mean you need to pander. It shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter book. You should provide new perspectives on a relatable theme, or twist expectations in pleasing ways. Can you make the familiar new? You’ve upped your chances of finding an agent.

Clear demographic- This is part of marketing, of course, but you want to be sure your book has a target audience and an obvious place on bookstore’s shelves. While you SHOULD be unique, you don’t want your book to be so complex and convoluted that people don’t know what to do with it.

Along these lines, if someone asked you what your book was all about, could you pitch it to them in two sentences or less? Could you convey something about the plot, characters, attitude, AND style, all in a matter of seconds? If so, agents, editors, and publishers will appreciate the effort to keep things succinct! Plus, if your pitch is concise and descriptive, they probably will assume your writing is equally crisp and focused.

For more on this, see the point below about writing effective query letters.

Killer Query Letter- It’s worth mentioning that agents won’t even see your actual BOOK until you’ve intrigued them with an excellent query letter. This letter needs to convey the uniqueness and marketability of your book in just a few paragraphs. Make sure to spend some serious time and effort on your query letter. You’re a writer, after all! If it doesn’t sparkle, why would an agent assume the prose in your manuscript is any good?

Here are 3 videos with advice on crafting a great query letter.

Memorable- The people you want to impress most are the hardest people to impress. They have a hundred other manuscripts on their desk right now. At the end of the day, did your query letter stand out? Did you hook them enough with a few paragraphs so they want to read the whole manuscript? And when they read the book, did you leave them with a feeling they can’t shake? Did you make them laugh the loudest? Think the hardest? Uncap their deepest reservoir of sorrow? With so much competition, your book needs to be worth a second thought.

Polished Product- Does your book read like a finished work of art? Ask friends to read it and point out any flaws they find (grammar, syntax, character development, continuity, etc.) The less work an agent has to do to prepare your book for the big time, the more they’ll like you.

So, those are my thoughts. What has your experience been like finding an agent? Were they able to successfully pitch your book to a publisher? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!

-Chris R. at BookBaby

P.S. Also, see our article on finding a literary agent. 

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Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for a very helpful summary. I just wrote a book, Soothing: Lives of a Child Psychologist that received five glowing reviews, including a starred review from Pacific Reviews. The company that helped with the self-publishing has completely dropped the ball in terms of promotion and fulfillment, so the book is not widely known yet. I am seeking Literary agents who can help the book find a home with a traditional publisher. Are there literary agents who will promote previously self published books?
    Thank you very much, Hans Miller

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