Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What Agents Want: Making Sense of Submissions

Your manuscript is complete and polished, and now you are ready to embark on the task of sending query letters. (Or alternatively, you can go to a conference and pitch an agent in the flesh. Go here for a list of conferences: Writing Conferences )

Before you send your query, you need to do a little research. Does the agent accept your genre? Does the agent have a track record? Does the agent clearly describe his or her submission requirements? And when the agent starts describing what it is he or she wants, what on earth are they talking about?

Agents, like publishers, use jargon - it's one of the hazards of the trade. But as an author, you may have no idea what they mean by "high concept," "upmarket," "literary." Reasonably speaking, your job is to write your book; theirs is to find a niche for it. Unfortunately, writers are expected to define not only their genre, and their audience, but also their market niche, which is something they may know nothing about.

It's never too late to learn!

Here are some terms you may run across in agent bios when they describe what they are seeking:

High Concept means the book can be made into a movie. In general, books that fall into this category have a single premise ("what if..."), clear story lines, are highly visual, appeal to a mass audience, and have a well-defined emotional focus that fits into a movie category. (Family comedy? Drama? Romcom?) If you can sum up your book in one sentence, you may have written a high-concept novel.

Up-market fiction is any novel that has mass appeal and is also well-written. Memoirs of a Geisha falls into that category. These are books you want to keep. Frequently, non-genre fiction may be used instead of up-market.

Commercial fiction is entertaining, has a plot that moves right along, and may or may not feature writing that makes you cringe. The Stephanie Plum mysteries would fall into that category, as well as most popular mass market paperbacks. (Romances, in particular.) These are books you read in a dentist's office, because you found them there, and which you will probably leave in the waiting room after your teeth have been nicely polished. Most genre fiction is commercial.

Literary fiction is art. Nobel Prize winners fit into this category. (Pretentious wannabes also end up being called "literary," because people often can't tell the difference between art and gimmickry.) In literary fiction, the way you tell a story is more important than what actually happens. (As a case in point, what exactly happened in White Noise?) The exploration of character, style, and theme is what moves these books along. If you are reading a book, and you have to stop because the prose is stunning, revelatory, or just plain deep (and you are not stoned) you are reading literary fiction. If you need a half hour to explain what's in your book, you may have written something literary.

Narrative non-fiction is any non-fiction that reads like a novel. The Poet and the Murderer is a great narrative non-fiction book that tells the story of how ... no, I won't spoil it for you. You'll just have to read it. If you can turn forging an Emily Dickinson poem into a gripping tale of obsession, murder, and suspense, you're writing narrative non-fiction.

Strong platforms are what agents representing general non-fiction like to see (though not necessarily narrative non-fiction). Are you the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation? Have you been a quarterback in the NFL? Are you a surgeon doing experimental face transplants? Does everyone on the planet know who you are? Those are people who have strong platforms. If you have a few thousand followers on Twitter, or a blog with a couple thousand followers, or lots of "friends" on Facebook, you do not have a strong platform - although all those things may be useful if you write any kind of fiction.

These posts will help you find an agent who is right for you:

How to Research an Agent

Beggars Can Be Choosers - How to Pick an Agent

Valuable Tips for Pitching to an Agent or Editor

Finding an Agent – Look before you leap

Are You Ready to Contact an Agent? Take This Short Quiz and Find Out

What Not to Do When Contacting an Agent


  1. Thank you for writing this blog. I have been writing for years mostly books to entertain my children at bedtime . Reading this blog has been incredibly informational and I think has finally helped me to gain the courage I need to try to become published. For years many people have told me that my writing is good and that I should try to get published. But it wasn't until I read this blog that I felt like it was something I might be able to accomplish.
    Thank you so very much.
    Yours truly,
    Michelle Irby

    1. You can do it, Michelle! I didn't publish my first novel until I was 50. (It didn't even occur to me that I could publish my books. Then Random House picked up three of them.) Have courage!!


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