What is an agent looking for?
November 12, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor
Someone wrote to ask, “What do you look for when you are considering representing a new novelist?”
I suppose every agent is looking for the same basic components in reviewing a proposal: a great idea, expressed through great writing, supported by an author with a great platform. Those are the general issues an agent considers when reviewing any proposal, in my view.
But more specifically, I’m always looking for a strong voice in the writing. Is it fresh? Does it stand out? Is it something that makes we want to continue reading? Is there personality that shines through? If I can find a manuscript with a strong voice, I’m always much more apt to continue reading. And I guess I’d also have to admit I’m looking at the writer, not just the writing. I don’t represent any high-maintenance people, so I often insist on meeting an author before I agree to represent him or her. I want to make sure we’re comfortable with each other (I’m not a fit for everyone). Occasionally I’ll have an email exchange with an author and we’ll seem to be a match, but then we meet and the vibe isn’t right. So I value being eye-to-eye with an author, and having a chance to visit if at all possible.
On a related note, someone wrote to say, “I’ve been told by a well-known author that publishers look more for a novelist’s ability to sell books (i.e., the author is an established speaker, or someone in the media) than they do for the ability to write books. True?”
I would say that’s an overstatement. Certainly publishers are looking at writers more and more with an eye toward “platform,” and there are some qualities the publisher will appreciate. (Is the author an expert? Can she get major media attention? Does he have connections with a source for selling large quantities of books?) But with fiction, I find that less true. While I think it’s fair to say publishers are now at least asking the “platform” question of novelists, they still weigh their publishing decisions more upon the bigness of the story and the quality of the craft.
Another person asked this: “When does a writer’s strong voice have an advantage, and when does it become a detriment or a distraction from the story? Does it matter more in certain genres than others?”
I’d be hard pressed to tell you when a writer’s voice becomes a detriment. As I’ve said several times, I’m a huge fan of voice in fiction. I believer our educational system for teaching writing (college classrooms, conferences, even many mentoring workshops) have a tendency to flatten voice by making it appear as though there is one way to write a novel. Sure, I suppose one could argue there are some genres where the house doesn’t care about the author’s unique voice and merely wants a romantic story told… but I’m not sure I believe that. Not every voice fits every genre, but every editor I know falls in love with a great writing voice.
And I has several people write to ask a version of this question: “With all the talk about high concept novels and the importance of platform, where is the best place for emerging writers to focus their time? Should we develop an audience, or learn to excel at the craft?”
That’s an easy one: Become a great writer first. I don’t meet that many great writers (I meet a lot of “pretty good” writers). Whenever I meet a great one, I try to sign them up. It doesn’t even matter if they’re unpublished — if they’re great, they soon WILL be published. Because greatness gets discovered. In simpler terms, if you really want to get published, focus on creating great characters in a compelling story. (That may not be the most profound thing you’ll read today, but it’s the truth. Acquisitions people at every house are on the prowl for great characters in big, marketable, compelling stories.)