A Literary Agent’s Wish List

People often ask me, “What are you looking for?” It’s a natural question to ask a literary agent, even when the questioner knows that the agent has offered a detailed answer on the agency website (here, for example). After all, something could’ve changed. I may, since updating my interests, have suddenly decided to get bold, branch out, and try to sell a systematic theology in iambic pentameter. You never know.

So, while that post I linked to above remains a pretty good answer for me (and my colleagues and superiors in The Steve Laube Agency have also offered their answers, which can always be found in the right-hand sidebar on the site’s blog page), I started an addendum and then asked the other agents to offer their additions. So, without further doobie-doobie-do, here’s a literary agent’s “top ten” wish list of the things I wish writers would send to me:

  1. A “cover” email addressed to me
    This may seem hardly worth mentioning, but it is worth mentioning. I all too often receive email submissions (the only kind I invite, other than at writers conferences, where I’m usually handed a hard-copy pitch) with a salutation salutating someone else (Steve? Don? Smedley?) or a generic greeting (“Dear Agent”). I much prefer “Dear Bob.” Or “Your Excellency.”
  2. A submission that’s appropriate for the agency
    I know that not everyone takes the time to read all the way to the third line of the agency description on our home page (which refers to “the Christian marketplace”). I also know that when a writer has put in so much work already in getting a proposal ready for submission to an agent, it can seem like such a bother to learn a little about an agent or agency (beyond the contact info in some book, magazine, or website’s listing of agents). But this is my wish list, right? I wish for submissions that aren’t riddled with profanity or don’t present an unbiblical or anti-Christian perspective.
  3. A submission that’s about what I said I was looking for
    I’m often amazed by submissions that say either, “Having looked over the information on your website, I think you’ll be interested in my fantasy/sci-fi/erotic novel,” or “I know you say you don’t represent poetry collections, but I think the attached will change your mind.” Never am. Never does.
  4. An irresistible hook
    Aspiring and developing writers don’t always know what a hook (for a book idea or a book proposal) is, and even accomplished and published writers sometimes struggle with writing good or great hooks. However, it’s worth brainstorming and laboring over, because I love it when I see an irresistible hook, one that in a few words says what’s unique and compelling about this book.
  5. Irresistible writing
    When people stop me on the street or at a writers conference to ask, “What are you looking for?” my pat answer is usually, “Irresistible hooks and irresistible writing.” They’re both that important. You don’t have to write like Hemingway, or Lucado, or anyone else; in fact, it’s best if you don’t write like anyone else. But I want to be unable to stop reading your sample chapters. I want to be so enthralled that I can’t wait to request the full manuscript.
  6. Clean copy
    Sure, not everyone is a grammar freak, punctuation expert, or spelling champion. But everyone has the same tools: dictionaries, thesauri, spell check, proofreading techniques, and so on. So, I love it when I see clean copy in a proposal and manuscript.
  7. Professional presentation
    By professional presentation, I mean the look and feel, not only of a proposal or manuscript, but of the writer himself or herself. The author’s website looks inviting and professional. The author photo looks clear and sharp (and doesn’t use up 10 MB of space). The proposal is organized and formatted well. And so on.
  8. A respectable platform
    Don’t click away just yet. I know you’re not a celebrity. You don’t have to be. But the marketing section of a proposal, which details the writer’s platform, needs to communicate that you understand the importance of reach and influence in today’s publishing world. I’ve often seen excellent writers seem to freeze and bumble their way through this section as if they forgot the fundamentals of good writing. But this section is a great place to showcase your writing. Put the best info in the first lines, the second-best in the last, and only the most helpful information in between. If your platform is still developing, show how it’s growing rapidly. Show that you have a pattern of reaching an audience with the message you’re writing.
  9. A comparisons section that shows good knowledge of your genre and/or solid research
    Don’t just list a few books off the top of your head. Don’t tell me that there’s nothing else like your book, as that probably indicates there’s no genre or market for it. I love it when a comps section clearly indicates to me, “I can see right where this author and book fit and why there’s a good chance of strong sales.”
  10. A delivered promise
    An editor of mine once impressed on me the importance of making a promise to the reader—and then delivering on that promise. I love it when a writer does both. 

That’s a lot, I know. But these are not unreachable standards. I know, because I represent writers who do them all.

10 Responses to A Literary Agent’s Wish List

  1. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. May 27, 2021 at 5:53 am #

    Hello Your Excellency…..I mean, Bob:

    Thanks for the superb information. My younger son got a rejection letter from a company whose computer science job he had applied for. The letter began “Dear Charles.” His name is David.

    I got a rejection letter from a major university; the letter contained so many grammatical errors and typos that I almost corrected it and mailed it back. Feeling that it might seem like sour grapes, I restrained myself. I also never got the job teaching for them. They could have used me, at least in HR.

    My favorite story is when students tell me they don’t have to poof reed ’cause there writings prefect. I actually wrote a blog about that on my college student success blog…..

    You nailed it on this blog posting.

    Have a great day,

    Sheri

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 27, 2021 at 6:59 am #

    ‘Twas Mick and the Stones who sang,
    “you can’t always get what you want”…
    that’s hard-rocking sturm und drang,
    but don’t let this message daunt
    your heart for setting out your needs,
    and strong preferences,
    that he or she who stops and reads
    will see in your sentences
    the way into your agent’s heart,
    representation’s road,
    but don’t yet let assumptions start,
    for I must hand you this load,
    that if what’s set out is idiot-proof,
    comes better idiot…that’s the truth!

    • Bob Hostetler June 1, 2021 at 1:41 pm #

      Andrew, maybe you should give some thought to that systematic-theology-in-iambic-pentameter thing.

  3. Shulamit May 27, 2021 at 7:28 am #

    A well-published author friend of mine explained to me the necessity of knowing where your book belongs in the market, and not being unique.

    Bookstores must put it on one shelf. There is no floating, “unique” book shelf.

    Even though we may feel like our books don’t perfectly fit into a specific category, if we can’t say what shelf our own books belong on, we can’t expect someone else to know better. And agents and publishers will not find the lack of clear genre or market endearing.

  4. Nancy May 27, 2021 at 7:32 am #

    –A “cover” email addressed to me–
    My favorite letter came to me with the greeting, “Dear Oprah.” I was confused, amused, and irritated all at once.

  5. Frank May 27, 2021 at 7:55 am #

    Your Excellency–Great info

  6. Laura May 27, 2021 at 8:15 am #

    Thank you! May all your wishes come true!

  7. Kristen Joy Wilks May 27, 2021 at 11:09 am #

    Your Excellency, I promise you rampaging pets! … also wild animals, that are of course rampaging! Can you tell I’m enjoying middle grade? Which you do not represent. Sigh.

  8. Marsha E Young May 28, 2021 at 9:59 am #

    Dear Bob:
    Thank you for this clear and compelling post. It is a lot. But then few of us are looking for a little.

  9. Lisa May 30, 2021 at 6:25 pm #

    Had to smile at some of what you said. Sometimes people just want you to represent them, even if they’re outside your genre.

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