Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

What do agents want?

By Jenny Bent

The Bent Agency blog


After sending Author X a polite rejection, he responded with an equally polite question:


Ms. Bent,


If you have the time and inclination could you answer this

question...just what ARE you looking for? It’s not that I’m going to write something according to formula, but I’m curious. I certainly won’t blame or hold it against you if you never reply to this reply (the department of redundancy department strikes again!), but any insight into what the market seems to be would be of great benefit.




Author X


I asked him if I could reproduce his e-mail because I think it’s a question that comes up a lot. It’s also along the same lines as a question I’ve discussed extensively with an intern of mine who is also a writer: If I think a manuscript is good, or even great and absolutely saleable, how come I will still pass on it? After all, if it’s saleable, why not go out there and sell it?


And the answer is thus: why do you like Hemingway but not Fitzgerald? Why do you walk into a bookstore and pick up one book but not another? After all, you know Fitzgerald is a masterful writer. And you know that in the bookstore you could find many more books that you would conceivably buy.


Taste, my friends, it all comes down to taste. If you go into the bookstore with a budget to buy only one book by an author that’s new to you, you have to pick out the book that’s your very favorite out of the books that you see. When I’m reading manuscripts, I have the same constraints. I must pick out my very, very favorite. If I took on every solid manuscript that I read, I wouldn’t have nearly enough time to sell them all. It has to be a labor of love and passion for me to sell your book; otherwise I’ll potentially lose interest if I can’t sell the book in the first round of submissions.


Additionally, even if I see that a book is saleable, that doesn’t mean I can personally sell it. I have to pick a book that I have a true affinity for so that as I’m reading I’m composing a pitch letter in my head and a list of editors that I think will love it. If that doesn’t happen, it means that I truly don’t know how I would pitch this or sell it. If I love a science fiction novel, that doesn’t mean I know how to sell it. I don’t work with the editors that buy it, and I’m not familiar with the genre, so I don’t know if it competes with what’s already out there or if editors will think it’s old news. I would be doing the book’s author a disservice by representing him or her.


So, Author X, I’m looking for a book that speaks to me somehow, in a genre that I know how to sell. And that “somehow” is of course the mysterious element that authors can’t predict. The solution of course is to submit to multiple agents who could potentially be a fit, and keep submitting, until you find the agent who truly “gets” you. And that’s also what agents do with editors. You know that a particular manuscript will probably be to a certain editors taste, but you never know if it will truly spark with them enough for them to try to make an offer.


As it so often is, the message is to keep trying, believe in yourself and your work, and hard as it is, don’t take rejection personally. Remember that Fitzgerald papered his wall with rejection letters, Dr. Seuss got turned down by at least 20 publishers. Check out this link:


Alex Haley was rejected over 200 times before Roots was finally published, etc., etc. And finally, I leave you with this, a great link with lots of rejection stories for when you’re feeling discouraged:




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