What literary agents want

Six literary agents weigh in on platform, publishing, and why you should never address a query to “dear sir.”

A literary agent can do a great deal for a writer’s career – help with the editing process of manuscripts and book proposals, negotiate a contract, lobby for a higher advance or a two-book deal or a book-to-film option. Who are these professionals dedicated to literature and a roster of clients who rely on them for everything from moral to legal support?

In June, I caught up with six agents – based on their clients’ enthusiastic recommendations – and asked them about their perspectives on the industry, their pet peeves, and their most beloved success stories.

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They agreed universally that a sloppy query letter CC’d to dozens of agents at a time and addressed to “Dear Agent” – or with the recipient’s name misspelled or written as “Dear Sir” (especially when the agent is female) inspires them to hit delete. The best way to get an agent’s attention, they say, is to craft a professional query letter full of intriguing details about your manuscript and state clearly why you think he or she is the perfect person to represent the project.

Some agents suggest that writers look at the acknowledgments pages of published books similar to their own for the name of the agent who represented it, then send a targeted query with that information in mind. Others advise writers to sit down with agents at writing conferences to pitch their projects. Still, others explain that recommendations from their current clients carry a great deal of weight, while some actively solicit writers who have written a particularly powerful newspaper or magazine piece, or writers with an interesting field of expertise.

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Malaga Baldi, Baldi Agency 

Malaga Baldi calls herself a voyeur. “I love to hear about other people’s professions,” she says. “Becoming a lawyer or medical doctor or psychiatrist – those types of books are of interest to me.”

Since launching her career as an independent agent in 1986, Baldi has represented books about becoming a musician (Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing), becoming a hustler (Rick Whitaker’s Assuming the Position), and becoming a drag queen (Daniel Harris’ Diary of a Drag Queen). Now, she’s on the lookout for a book proposal about how one becomes an architect.

“It’s one of the most difficult professions,” she explains. “They stay up all night, and not only do they wear white socks, but they’re very competitive. If you’re going to study architecture,” she adds, “keep a journal” – the better to write the book she’s longing to represent.

Baldi specializes in literary fiction, memoir, and cultural history, including a reprint of Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whistthe Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. “It’s the type of book I gravitate to,” she says, “a story told in a new and different way that can really open your eyes about a subject, but everyone thought it very academic and unpublishable.” She sold it for a modest advance in 1992; since then, the book has earned out its advance many times and continues to earn royalties.

Many of Baldi’s clients write about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender issues. Elizabeth Early (A Map of Everything) was a 2014 Lambda Literary LGBT debut fiction finalist, and gender-nonconforming author Kate Bornstein celebrated the 20th anniversary of the classic literary nonfiction book Gender Outlaw with a re-release through Vintage Press.

“You see gay and lesbian characters and issues and challenges all over the place now,” Baldi says. “A whole bunch of young adult publishers have gay and lesbian novels for young readers, which is fantastic. Characters in books should represent everyone. Books should be read by everyone.”

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Baldi has 21 books coming out in 2016. She’s particularly excited to be pitching a book about Greenland, which combines the history of the country with the author’s journal entries. “I love to place hybrid nonfiction,” she says, “nonfiction that crosses many disciplines, in which the writer brings various level of expertise and knowledge about the subject and somehow gets it to read like a memoir that makes a topic I knew nothing about just sing.”

She advises writers to buy and read books they love, and to study the parts of those books that resonate, while continuing to write and edit with the help of a trusted critique group.

 “If you believe in your story, keep on going out there and testing the waters,” she says. “If you’re a good writer, you will find an advocate who believes in your work. That’s what it’s all about.”

Jennifer Unter, The Unter Agency

Jennifer Unter’s least-favorite question is “What trends do you see in publishing?” 

“People who follow trends are not writing for themselves,” she says. “They’re just doing what someone else tells them to do. Everyone wants to write the next Harry Potter, but there is no next Harry Potter. It’s been done. The whole idea that writers should write to a trend is anathema to my own way of thinking.”

She founded The Unter Agency in 2008; previous to becoming an independent literary agent, she worked as an editor, as a copyright lawyer, and as a VP at a literary agency. In particular, Unter gravitates toward books about food and cooking, nature and the environment, health and fitness, and travel and adventure. She also represents biographies, political and pop culture books, and memoir.

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Right now, she’s particularly interested in narrative nonfiction such as Justine Gubar’s Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan and historical fiction like Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale, a crime novel set in colonial America. She’s also passionate about graphic novels. “They’re basically comics that deal with real-life issues. There’s so much interesting material out there.”

Unter also represents numerous children’s authors, including Sue Fliess and Christopher Pike. “There’s been a huge change in the content of children’s literature,” she says. “You can write anything for the teen set as long as the protagonist is a child of a certain age. You can write about sex, drugs, drinking, suicide.”

Even picture books have gotten much more sophisticated, she notes. “For a while, everybody wanted ABC books, something sweet. Sweet is now boring. They’re funny, snarky, and straightforward.”

Unter believes that writers hoping to find an agent would do well to attend writing conferences and take advantage of the chance to sit down with one or more agents face-to-face. Nervous about pitching your project? She says writers should relax.

“I’m not going to bite you,” she says. “I’m here to help you. You don’t have to be perfect; agents just want to hear what you have to say. Think of it as a conversation with a friend about what you’re working on.”

She’s also open to getting emailed query letters from people who have attended a conference at which she’s appeared. “Remember that this is a community, and we’re all in this together,” she says. “Publishing is alive and well, and all the doom and gloom we heard about for years is really just not happening. Join a writers’ group, do your homework, go to conferences, work on your writing, and you will get published.”

Jim McCarthy, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

When Jim McCarthy began his career as a literary agent 14 years ago, he primarily represented urban fantasy and paranormal romance. “I’ve always had a leaning toward the more fantastical,” he says, “so I’m best known for things that dabble in some way in the worlds of fantasy.”

These days, he represents psychic intuitive and New York Times best-selling author Victoria Laurie and cryptologist Linda Godfrey. “I’m interested in people whose understanding of the world is so distinctive, who see things through a lens that most people don’t,” McCarthy says. “For example, Godfrey’s book American Monsters is all about research into unexplained creatures and beings. She’s a fascinating woman who takes a scientific approach that I find constantly surprising and interesting.”

McCarthy notes that the grassroots organization “We Need Diverse Books” has had a powerful impact on publishing over the past two years. “People want to read varied perspectives,” he says, “and a lot of publishers and agents who wouldn’t take a chance before are finally responding, thanks to the work of a dedicated group of activists who have done remarkable things, particularly for the children’s market.”

Recently, he announced a deal for pediatric cardiologist Ismee Amiel Williams’s novel, tentatively titled Broken Angel. It’s the story of a 15-year old girl in New York City who becomes pregnant and wants to keep the baby despite the discovery of its rare heart defect. “Everyone wants her to have an abortion. She’s poor and from a broken home, and she believes the child will be someone to love her,” McCarthy says. “It felt so honest, written by a pediatric cardiologist able to dive into the experiences of people she saw in her practice.”

McCarthy notes that we don’t necessarily see characters struggling with these “big-picture issues” unless they’re white and middle-class. “Williams’ character is Latina, has been abandoned by her mother, has a father in prison, and lives with a grandmother who doesn’t seem to especially care for her,” he explains. “She is a teenager whose circumstances are too rarely depicted and who, in Broken Angel, is vivid and real and thoughtful and intelligent. Her perspective is one that I’m thrilled to see shared.”

McCarthy believes that authors looking for an agent to share their work with publishers must be persistent. Many of his clients received rejections from him on their first manuscript, or requests for revision and resubmission. “One of my clients sent me the first query she’d ever emailed me,” he says. “She’d gotten a ‘Dear Author’ letter from me, and later, a personal rejection.” The third time she queried him, he signed her on and sold her book at auction.

“I want people to remember that as tough and competitive as this business is, they just need to keep writing and keep trying,” he says. “Keeping hope alive is the key to success.”

Regina Brooks, Serendipity Literary Agency

Before she became an agent, Regina Brooks worked for NASA. “My goal was to make sure when payloads went up with the shuttle, they wouldn’t fall apart,” she says, comparing the work to editing her clients’ manuscripts before sending them to publishers.

“Where is this book falling apart, where are characters not yet three-dimensional, where is the voice not yet authentic?” she explains. “As an editor, you’re troubleshooting the manuscript.”

Brooks has selected the agents who work with her at Serendipity Literary Agency for their expertise in various content areas, rather than genres. Some colleagues specialize in social media; others were or are publicists or attorneys or people who’ve come from a background in ghostwriting.

 “One of the big roles of an agency today is to look at the book as content and to see how it can be sold in all these different ways, book to film, book to television, book to product,” she says. “The people who are making money in the industry are taking the book’s content and leveraging it in a 360-degree way.”

Serendipity sponsors the YA Discovery Contest, won last year by Olivia Cole. “As a winner, you can submit your full manuscript for evaluation,” Brooks explains. Cole’s manuscript, a fantasy novel titled The Whitecoat’s Daughter, sold to Harper Collins in a two-book deal.

Brooks attends 25 conferences a year, speaking with up to 30 writers each time. “Of those 30,” she says, “11 or so are interested in writing memoir, and five out of those are writing breast cancer recovery memoir. It’s so difficult to let them know I’ve heard that story before, especially when they’re telling about such a horrendous experience.”

To help potential memoirists identify what makes their book unique, she co-wrote You Should Really Write a Book: How to Write, Sell, and Market Your Memoir. “There are three things that editors look for: hook, incredible writing, and platform,” Brooks says. “The information in this book is for people who are unknown but who have an interesting story – a story that’s going to be universal and transformative to a particular group.”

She likes to compare writing to singing karaoke. “On any given Thursday, you can go into a karaoke bar and listen to people sing,” she says, “and usually there’s one person who really slams the cover song. But that person still has to be trained in how to dance and how to capture an audience.”

Similarly, she says, even the most talented writers must learn to craft a book proposal and a query letter and hone all the other skills that go into writing a book. When she trains her junior agents, she cautions them not to get sold on the fact that a potential client “can carry a tune.”

 “We want people,” she explains, “who are going to sing at Madison Square Garden and the Met.”

Ayesha Pande, Pande Literary

Ayesha Pande adores her clients. “I respect them and what they’re doing,” she says. “It goes way beyond business, which isn’t always the smartest and most savvy thing in the world, but that’s what works for me.”

Pande runs a small boutique agency with just three agents. “Each of us looks for something slightly different,” she says, “but we’re all drawn to underrepresented voices and stories that in some way encapsulate the experience of being other, whether that’s belonging to a particular religious group, having a multiracial identity, or a particular gender identity.”

One of her clients is Lisa Ko, whose novel, The Leavers, follows an undocumented Chinese immigrant who comes to New York and has a child, then disappears. “I’m just so happy to be a part of it,” Pande says. “She’s worked on it for a very long time. People who work diligently to practice their craft – I have so much admiration for them. I feel really honored and grateful to be a part of their life in some way.”

Another of her clients, Jonathan Levi, wrote his novel Septimania 25 years after the publication of his first book, A Guide for the Perplexed. “We worked on it together for a very long time,” Pande says. “He’s singularly talented and very hardworking, but it was quite challenging to find a publisher for it.”

She sent out the manuscript, received numerous rejections, and then worked on it further with Levi. At last, Overlook bought it. “An amazingly experienced publisher in the world of literary fiction, and they’ve done a beautiful job of publishing it,” Pande says of the company. “We’ve sold it in several different languages and are hoping to publish it in several more.”

Pande believes authors should polish their manuscripts to the best of their ability before they begin to approach agents. “Now that you’ve worked so hard on writing your book,” she says, “you need to take searching for agents seriously. You do your homework and spend a lot of time on your query letter, and include in your query why you are querying me, and what makes you think our agency is particularly suitable for your book.”

She advises authors not to send out 100 queries at once. “Just pick those agents that you actually think will do the best job,” she says. “And don’t rush the process.”

She herself looks for people who respect the craft and art of writing. “People who aren’t just sitting down and filling a few notebooks, and then deciding that they’ve now written a book,” she says. “You wouldn’t want to immediately start performing in Carnegie Hall before you’ve practiced your violin for 10 or 20 years. Writing is no different. It’s hard – show me that you have respect for it.”

Steven Malk, Writers House

This year’s Newbery Award winner, Matt de La Peña, phoned his agent, Steven Malk, at 4:30 in the morning to tell him the news about his picture book, Last Stop on Market Street. “I knew it was a special book when it came out,” Malk says. “It struck a chord with people. It has a lot to say, and it presents a different perspective that I think is really important.”

Malk, one of numerous agents at Writers House, represents both children’s authors and illustrators. He’s particularly interested right now in representing mysteries with complex characters and plots. While he’s solicited some of his clients, he’s found others in the slush pile. “There’s nothing more exciting than opening a letter or email and finding something super exciting,” he says. “It’s an incredible feeling.”

One client who dazzled him is picture book author and illustrator Corinna Luyken.  “She submitted a few things last year,” he says. “I liked them, but I didn’t think they were quite there for me.”

Malk gave her the names of three agents he liked. Instead, she wrote and told him she thought they were meant to work together, and asked if he’d be open to seeing something else when it was ready.

“She sent me something new,” he says, “and it was really intriguing, a clear step up from where she’d been before. I had a lot of notes on it; we went back and forth on well over 20 different versions, and then eventually, I signed her on.”

Luyken’s book went to auction and sold in a two-book deal, the first of which – The Book of Mistakes – will debut next year. “Slow down,” Malk says. “Be patient. Believe in yourself, and believe that publication can happen – it will happen. These are clichés for a reason – Corinna is a perfect example of someone who took a long path to publication.”

He cites client Sara Pennypacker as another example of an author who shows tremendous patience and determination. “She got a later start as an author,” he says. “She wrote her first book 20 years ago, had success with a series called Clementine, and now she’s made it all the way to the top with Pax, about a boy and his pet fox that get separated in a war. It’s on the bestseller list.”

Pennypacker is the real deal, Malk says: an author who works hard and writes what she believes in. He notes that writers sometimes get discouraged, feeling like their first book needs to be a bestseller. “But every case is different,” he says. “Every writer is different. You have to remain open to different possibilities. If you’re working really hard and trying to get better, good things tend to happen.”

 

Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl and the memoirs Wild Within and Gringa. Web: melissahart.com.