Beyond Good Writing: Two Literary Agents Discuss What Matters Most

Linda Camacho and Jennifer Soloway

Today’s guest post is a Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

Almost anyone who has spent time in the query trenches knows how challenging it is to capture the attention of a literary agent. Most agents, even new agents eager to build their client list, pass on over 90 percent of the queries they receive. In some cases, the reason is obvious: The agent doesn’t represent the writer’s genre; the writer has written a synopsis rather than a query letter; the agent isn’t accepting queries, at all.

In other cases, the writer might be doing everything right—researching agents, following submission guidelines, querying only once they have a polished manuscript—but still experience radio silence. Or, maybe they are receiving requests for pages, or feedback from the agent along with the opportunity to resubmit, but an offer of representation just isn’t coming through. If the writing is good or at least shows potential—how else would they have come this far?—shouldn’t this be enough to land an agent? Does the writer’s professionalism count for something? I asked literary agents Linda Camacho and Jennifer March Soloway. As with all my agent Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they submitted answers to my questions below.

Sangeeta Mehta: Most agents warn that it’s best not to write to the market. By the time the book is written, sold, and published, the trend the writer was trying to capitalize on is usually over. But if you came across a manuscript that speaks to the current zeitgeist, or is at the top of the manuscript wish list (#MSWL) of an acquiring editor you know, would you offer representation, even if the writing isn’t as strong as you’d like?

Linda Camacho: The writing has to speak to me in some way for me to take it on, so if the writing isn’t quite there, I won’t likely offer rep, even if it has a great premise. Because if I didn’t fall for the writing and I took it on solely on the basis of a cool premise, I’ll be reading that manuscript many times as my client and I revise. Working on revisions is no easy task, so if I find the writing “meh” on the first read, I shudder to think at how I’ll feel on the tenth.

On the rare occasion, however, if there’s something special—a spark—in that writing, I might offer feedback and ask that the writer resubmit if those editorial notes make sense to them. If they get back to me later with a revision that has addressed those issues well, then there’s talk of representation.

Jennifer March Soloway: My goal is to have long-term working relationships with my clients. If I fall in love with the writing and voice, and I see great potential, plus I feel I could help the author to polish the story for publication, I might offer representation under those circumstances. But for me, it would be less about the current zeitgeist or an editor’s #MSWL, and more about my personal connection to the story and writing. I have passed on projects with offers of publication in hand when I felt like I wasn’t the right person to champion the project or author.

When evaluating submissions, how much weight do you place on current market expectations? For example, would you automatically pass on a novel written in the omniscient point of view, in spite of the fact that many famous 19th-century novels were written in this style? Similarly, would a moral message or an allegorical approach (also a hallmark of some classics) be a deal breaker for you?

LC: I certainly keep market expectations in mind, as they’re general markers of what is most likely to sell. Still, they’re not the end-all be-all of publishing, and I try to remind myself of that when I’m reading submissions. The market is ever-changing, so what works today is not necessarily what will work tomorrow. Because of the mercurial nature of the market, I am definitely open to working with something considered less marketable.

I’m not personally drawn to an omniscient point of view style, but in that instance, if I started reading and fell in love with that project, I’d still give it a shot. What I’d have to focus on is managing the expectations of the potential client by being upfront about the current marketability of the manuscript. I’d tell the client that, yes, it’ll be a tough sell and it might not make it past an acquisitions board, but that I’d do everything in my power to try and get it out into the world.

JMS: The market is always changing, and it’s impossible to write to the trends. That said, if the market is currently saturated with a particular genre or subgenre, such a project can be difficult to sell. If I think I won’t be able to sell a particular project, I will let the author know I am not the right agent for that project. However, if I like their writing and storytelling, I will ask the author to please keep me in mind for future projects if they do not find representation.

Most agents say that platform doesn’t matter when it comes to fiction writers. But those who have one—staff writers at major media outlets, YouTube influencers, those with connections to the film industry—seem to land book deals more easily than others. Does this mean that the bar is higher for fiction writers who don’t have a platform?

LC: It can definitely be easier for someone with a big platform to land a fiction deal sooner than someone without, namely because they already have a potential built-in audience that could lead to sales. I’ve seen some announcements in those cases where I thought the writing was terrible, but it is a subjective business, so what’s terrible for me is wonderful for someone else. Ultimately, top-notch writing is the most important thing. If that talented fiction writer also has a strong following, then that’s a bonus. Editors are more inclined to be excited by the promise of the following, but if the writing isn’t good, that interest can wane. I know for me and many of my colleagues, if the writing isn’t strong, it’s a pass, even with the platform.

JMS: I think a strong, positive platform is always a plus, but it’s possible to land a book deal without such a platform. I have sold fiction projects for clients who do not have a public persona or a large social media following. Some authors may not initially have large platforms but can build a presence after their book deal. For example, several of our fiction clients write articles and op-ed pieces for media that relate to the topic of their book, which helps to build name recognition, etc. Platform or not, the best way to sell a book is to write a terrific book people want to read.

If you receive a project that’s almost but not quite ready to send to publishers, how likely are you to offer the author an “R&R,” or the opportunity to revise and resubmit? Are you willing to go through rounds of revision with the writer, and does this make you an “editorial agent”?

LC: I’ve gotten busier these days, so I’m less apt to offer an R&R, but yes, it has been known to happen. If I do offer an R&R, I’d have provided a light editorial letter of sorts, and if the revision comes back in a way that I think addresses my notes on a deep level, I’d be inclined to offer representation. For an R&R, it doesn’t tend to go in rounds for me. It’s just one round of revisions so I can get a sense of whether a writer can revise.  It doesn’t always work out, but if that writer goes on to land representation with someone else due to that revision, I count that as a success.

I do consider myself an editorial agent, since I work on revisions with my clients before going on to submission. The amount of revision varies from client to client. One person took about two years, while another took four months. I’ve only had one case where I didn’t really need to give notes, but that is most definitely not the norm!

JMS: If I like a project and see a lot of potential but it needs a lot of work, I will send specific feedback and ask for an R&R. That step is a test for both of us: I want to see if the author can revise, and if my feedback inspires them to produce a better draft. In turn, the author gets a sense of my editorial style and if I would be a good fit for them—a win-win.

Once an author is my client, I am willing to go through multiple rounds of revision to help prepare the project for publication, but I encourage my clients to use me to their advantage for the last three rounds of revision and use other resources for developmental edits. I think I have strong editorial skills, but after I’ve read a project four or more times, I might miss opportunities I’d catch on a first or second read. For this reason, I encourage all of my clients to have critique groups and other readers. It’s important to get feedback from multiple readers and perspectives.

Assuming that a pass letter isn’t necessarily a reflection of writing quality, how does a writer know if they should continue to query their project as is—or if they should revise or start over with a new project? Is there a way for them to find out how close they are to finding representation?

LC: That’s a tough one. I’d say that if a writer is getting numerous passes on their full manuscript and they’re caught in a constant editorial loop where not much is substantially changing, after a point, it could help to put that project aside and work on something new. With a new project, the writer is still moving forward and developing their craft. And, really, it can be helpful to just take a break from a particular story. You might even go back to it some day and sell it later. Who knows?

JMS: A great question. Querying is a little bit like dating. You’re trying to find the person who falls in love and can champion your work. Even with #MSWLs, it can be tricky to discern which agent might fit that bill.

If an author gets feedback from an agent (or an editor or reader), I think it’s worth considering what they say. Literature is so subjective, and what one person loves, another person might loathe. However, if an author gets the same feedback from more than two or three people, I would think about how I could address the issue they raise and consider revising accordingly.

And if an author is not hearing anything back (which is always the worst, I know), it might be time to consider either (a) revising the project, (b) revising the pitch, (c) trying a new title, (d) all of the above, or (e) setting aside the project for a while and trying something else.

How much does personal connection affect your decision to take on new clients, or continue to advocate for those whose work doesn’t seem to be selling? Who would fare better as your client: the reasonably talented writer who is a pleasure to work with, or the brilliant writer who is a challenge to work with?

LC: Personal connection does play a role in whether I want to take on new clients. I first fall for the writing and then talk to the writer to see if we’re on the same page before officially offering rep. If they accept, we enter into what I hope is going to be a long-term partnership. I’m very much invested in my clients and their careers, and I do advocate for those whose work doesn’t seem to be selling. When I go on submission with a client’s work, I’m already telling them to work on their next project, since there’s the chance that the current one might not sell. If it doesn’t sell, we move on to the next one.

Regardless of the genre or plot, a brilliant story conveys a universal truth that I should be able connect with on some level. If by “challenging” you mean a client who is difficult to work with (read: unprofessional), then I’d rather have a reasonably talented writer who’s a pleasure to work with. The agent-client relationship is one of mutual respect and collaboration, so if those things aren’t present, it’s best if the client finds someone who’s a better fit.

JMS: As I mentioned before, my goal is to have long-term working relationships with my clients. A personal connection is nice, but more importantly, I look for open communication, professionalism, and trust in the process. I want to work with people who want to work with me, value my feedback, and are willing to revise in order to submit their best work to editors. Projects don’t always sell immediately, and if I believe in someone’s work, I will not give up.

When it comes to fiction and narrative nonfiction, what is your definition of a “good” manuscript versus a “have-to-have” manuscript? For example, do you prioritize certain story elements, such as characterization, or focus mainly on the premise? Or, do you have more of a visceral response to submissions?

LC: It really is a visceral response that I rely on when deciding a manuscript is something I have to have. I’ve passed on things that have gone on to sell well, some of which I even predicted would. Much of my slush pile is actually full of really good writing. Contrary to what people might think, I’m not passing on a project because it’s bad. It just didn’t sing to me, as it were.

I’m not the grand arbiter of all that should be published; the best I can do is to work with clients whose projects excite me. Not every project elicits that response, but I firmly believe that it will with the right agent.

JMS: A “good” manuscript has a strong hook and a well-plotted story, but there might still be room for more polish and additional plot threads. My “have-to-have” manuscripts feature an engaging voice, captivating storytelling, and gorgeous use of language at the line level. Super bonus points for a dynamite first line that immediately pulls me into the story by raising a question in my mind (or better yet, two or three), setting the tone and establishing the voice, and capturing the entire story in that opening line.

Do you have any other advice for all the good (usually great) writers out there, especially those who follow submission guidelines, attend conferences, and support others in their writing community but still haven’t received any offers from agents?

LC: I know it’s tough out there, but be proud of the fact that you’ve done what so many haven’t—finished a book. Very few people even get that far. The next step is to keep writing and submitting because your chances increase the longer you’re at it. It really does sort of become a game of last man, or person, standing.

Also, find that support group! You’ll need fellow writers around on your journey, people you can celebrate your successes with and cry over your failures with. I’m there for my clients as support, but there’s only so much even I can do. I can always tell when my clients have lost touch with their support, and I remind them to reconnect. There are going to be moments when you feel alone, but it’s those chosen people who will be there to remind you that you’re not.

JMS: Don’t give up. This industry is rife with rejection at every stage. It’s easy to get discouraged, so be sure to celebrate and enjoy your victories, the large and the small. If you write a great scene, celebrate. If you find that perfect phrase, celebrate. If you think of a dynamite plot twist, celebrate. If you get an agent, celebrate. If you sell a book, celebrate. If a reader sends you fan mail, celebrate.

No matter what, keep writing and revising. Revision can be magical!

Linda Camacho (@LindaRandom) was always a fan of escaping into a good book, so the fact that she gets to make it her career is still surreal. Linda graduated from Cornell with a BS in Communication and has held various positions at Penguin Random House, Dorchester, Simon and Schuster, Writers House, and Prospect Agency. She’s done everything from foreign rights to editorial to marketing to operations, and received her MFA in children’s writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Now an agent at Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, Linda is looking for MG, YA, and adult fiction across all genres—especially upmarket, women’s fiction/romance, and literary horror. She’s also seeking select picture book and graphic novel writer-illustrators. You can learn more about Linda at her website.

Jennifer March Soloway (@marchsoloway) is an associate agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She represents authors and illustrators of picture book, middle grade, and young adult stories. She enjoys all genres and categories, such as laugh-out-loud picture books and middle-grade adventures, but her sweet spot is young adult. A suspense junkie, she adores action-packed thrillers and mysteries. Throw in a dash of romance, and she’s hooked! But as much as she loves a good thriller, she finds her favorite novels are literary stories about ordinary teens focused on family, relationships, sexuality, mental illness, or addiction. Regardless of genre, she is actively seeking fresh new voices and perspectives underrepresented in literature. Prior to joining ABLA, Jennifer worked in marketing and public relations in a variety of industries, including financial services, health care, and toys. She has an MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College and was a fellow at the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto in 2012. Find her full wish list at her website.

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