Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome the wonderful Abby Saul, literary agent at The Lark Group. She’ s given a lot of sensible advice on the dreaded query process, some of which I’ve highlighted in blue!
Thanks for letting me come on your blog, Damyanti!
Agents and the whole publishing process sometimes get a bad rap because writers feel like there are hoops to jump through and too many pitfalls to possibly avoid. I love opportunities like this to dispel those myths. Yes, there are ways things are done in this business and it behooves you as an author to know those ins and outs, but at the core agents are people who are looking for great reads. If you have that – and present it well – you’re going to find success!
- How and why did you become a literary agent?
I love books. I knew I wanted to work with books and when I interned at a literary agency in college, I was hooked by the business of agenting and how it required (daily!) a mixture of editorial work, reading skills, business acumen, and sales and negotiation. It is such an incredible side of the industry – and incredibly challenging – that I knew it was where I wanted my career in books to take me. I spent a few years on the publisher side of things working on big brand cookbooks and digital initiatives, and then came back to fiction and agenting with all that insider knowledge. (The toughest and most valuable lesson I learned when I started working in publishing was that this is a business. A love of books is what draws people like me to, and keeps us doing, this work, but our day-to-day is not all reading for fun. There are tough decisions, financial problems, and moments of heartbreak alongside the amazing thrill of discovery and the joy of falling into a new world that an author has created.)
2. What are you reading right now? Which books from 2017 would you recommend?
Between my new son, clients’ manuscripts, and my requested slush pile, I’m not reading as many published books right now as I normally do. But I’m still reading – I’ve got an old Elizabeth George mystery on my Kindle (which has been great for middle-of-the-night reading), I just started Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, and I’m finally getting to Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. It’s typical for me to have a few books going at once, and by necessity I’m a fast reader. Some highlights from 2017 (that are not my clients’ work, which obviously are my favorites!): Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal, and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby.
3. What genre do you represent? Is there a thread that runs through all your choices? What sort of stories are on your wish-list right now?
I represent, broadly, adult fiction and more specifically women’s fiction, mysteries/thrillers, historical fiction, and upmarket and literary fiction. I’m willing to follow bends and twists in genre and plot if the author truly takes me there, but those are my beginning parameters. I rep all sorts of different projects and authors within those parameters – my taste is broad and eclectic – but quality is the thread that ties all my clients’ work together. I’m game to take on a cozy mystery or a Literary-with-a-capital-L novel, but only if it is damn good. My ongoing wishlist is up on manuscriptwishlist.com but I’ll say that top of my list of wants for 2018 is an immersive and transportive historical fiction that’s set in a “new” (read: not overdone!) time period.
4. What do you look for in a Query Letter ? What resources would you recommend to an author attempting to write these?
I get about 200 queries a week, so I’m picky about what I look for in them.
The first thing I notice is if the author has done a professional job with their query, which means they have followed guidelines and sent an error-free message. (Remember, publishing is a business! Your query is trying to sell me your books, yes, but it’s first and foremost a business communication. Would you send a note to your employees without making sure you presented yourself well?)
After that, I respond to a query like a reader considering a book at the bookstore: Does this description make me want to read more? Am I dying to know what happens? Does it make me want to spend time (and thus $$) on it?
And finally (if we’ve gotten this far!), I respond to a query like a literary agent: Is there a market for this book? Does the author bring anything extra to the table (awards, publishing history)?
So the best queries — the queries that make me request the manuscript–
— are professionally written and edited,
— follow submission guidelines, and
— describe a book that I’m eager to read and that I think I can sell.
(Bonus: queries for a funny project make me laugh, queries for a serious project don’t!)
There are great resources online with query tips and samples – Jane Friedman’s website has some especially good ones – but I think the best places for guidance are:
(1) books themselves (how did the description on the back cover convey the story? Do that with your synopsis!) and
(2) Twitter, where so many agents give SO MANY TIPS about what works and what doesn’t.
The biggest query takeaway: take your time. You’ve spent so much energy on your manuscript – don’t skimp on the query. A bad query means no one will ever read your book! Take your time crafting your query, get lots of reads on it, edit, and then send to a curated list of agents.
5. What qualities do you look for in a prospective client, other than a good story and writing? What would be a deal-breaker for a literary agent?
I always joke that the first call I make when I’m interested in a project is the “nut call.” Is the author on the other end a professional human or a bit of a nut? Feeling that out before making an offer is important because I’m looking for someone with whom, hopefully, I can work their whole careers. We’re going to be spending a lot of time doing tough editorial and emotional work together, and most significantly, entering into a financial and business relationship together. So all of my clients are people who are not only extremely talented but who are ready to do the hard work, have more books in them, treat me professionally, AND are people I’d love to chat with for hours over a cup of coffee.
Note, authors – you should be doing a “nut call” of your own when an agent reaches out to you! Take a moment to be excited, but then shake it off and get professional. Is the agent you’re speaking to someone you would trust with your book and with your money? Do you like them? But more importantly, do you trust them? You should be sniffing out any “off” moments with caution, just as the agent is likely doing with you!
With 10 years of publishing experience, Abby Saul is an editorial expert with a passion for fantastic reads.
Abby founded The Lark Group after a decade in publishing at John Wiley & Sons, Sourcebooks, and Browne & Miller Literary Associates. She’s worked with and edited bestselling and award-winning authors as well as major brands. At each publishing group she’s been a part of, Abby also has helped to establish e-book standards, led company-wide forums to explore new digital possibilities for books, and created and managed numerous digital initiatives.
A zealous reader who loves her iPad and the e-books on it, she still can’t resist the lure of a print book. Abby’s personal library of beloved titles runs the gamut from literary newbies and classics, to cozy mysteries, to sappy women’s fiction, to dark and twisted thrillers. She’s looking for great and engrossing adult commercial and literary fiction. A magna cum laude graduate of Wellesley College, Abby spends her weekends—when she’s not reading—cooking and hiking with her husband. Find her @BookySaul on Twitter.
As a writer, have you worked with a literary agent or would you like to work with one? As a reader, have you wondered about the role of a literary agent?
Do you have questions for Abby Saul? Abby is open to queries! Check out her website for her query guidelines.
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