Reiko Davis is a literary agent at Miriam Altshuler Literary Agency. For this installment of our Ask an Agent Series, we asked Reiko what she typically looks for when she considers manuscripts for representation (as well as what tips she could provide for writers interested in publishing their work). Here’s what she said:
1) WHAT SPECIFIC CRITERIA DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CONSIDERING A MANUSCRIPT FOR REPRESENTATION?
I want to discover books that surprise me and make me feel something. In general, I look for books with incredible writing and real, loveable characters that make me laugh and/or break my heart. When I fall in love with a manuscript, there’s nothing more exciting. For fiction, I respond to stories that are character-driven. I love beautiful writing, but a book always has to have a compelling story to draw me in. I’m interested in both literary and commercial fiction. I have a weakness for a strong narrative voice, smart, funny heroines, narrowly located settings (towns in the South and Midwest, small communities), and stories that cross borders (in culture, geography, or tradition). For children’s books, I love young adult and middle grade fiction—whether contemporary, historical, or fantasy.
In terms of nonfiction, I’m looking for memoir and narrative nonfiction. My areas of interest include arts and culture, history, biography, women’s issues, current events, psychology, and narrative science. I do not represent any kind of genre fiction.
2) WHAT SHOULD A WRITER INCLUDE IN A QUERY TO AN AGENT?
A query should include a short description of the manuscript, an author bio, and for fiction or memoir, the first one or two chapters of the book. If the book is a work of nonfiction, it should have a full proposal, including one or two sample chapters. I always like being able to read beginning of the book, though some agents only want to see the “pitch” first. Authors should check each agency’s website for their submission guidelines before submitting their work. Agencies have different guidelines for submitting queries and ask to see different materials, so it is best to follow each agency’s guidelines precisely or else agents may skip your query.
To give a more detailed answer, I encourage writers to really do their homework and personalize their queries as much as possible. Ouragency receives around 300 queries a week, and going through them is a full-time job in itself. Maybe you admire a book or writer Miriam or I represent, you met me at a conference, or an editor, writer or another agent recommended me. Be sure to mention it in your query! I always appreciate when writers do their homework and are familiar with the kinds of books I represent. I will be more willing to read a query (and hopefully the manuscript), when I feel the writer is coming to me for a reason.
I also strongly encourage writers to browse bookstores and study the flap copy on books that are similar to their own. Publishers are very good at writing powerful, selling descriptions of the books they publish, and it’s helpful to see how they frame a story in one or two paragraphs and compel readers to buy their books. When I read a query, I am not just interested in straightforward plot summary. I want to know the deeper elements at play, the “heart” of the story and the various issues the characters/author are exploring. It’s also very helpful when writers offer one or two comparative titles or authors. This shows me they have a good understanding of their market/readership.
Lastly, remember how subjective the publishing industry is! It is incredibly subjective. What might not be right for one agent may be another’s dream book. Be thoughtful in the agents you target and do your research, which will save both you and agents a lot of time and energy. Sometimes it’s good to remember that agents also deal with rejection all the time, so we are sensitive to writers even though we often can’t provide feedback on the manuscripts we decline. Our reading time is precious. Agents really invest in their clients and the books they represent, and it’s our job to work closely with writers and hopefully find the best editor/publisher for their books despite the challenges. I think this is what makes the author/agent relationship special.
3) AS AN AGENT, I SUSPECT YOU RECEIVE MANUSCRIPTS THAT AREN’T QUITE FINISHED. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR WRITERS CONCERNING REVISION/EDITING?
It’s important to find an editing system that works for you and stick with it. I think it helps to read aloud what you wrote the day before. Hear the language. It gets you back into world of your book and also becomes your first round of revision.
When you feel you don’t have enough of a fresh eye to edit, put the manuscript away for 2-3 months. Let it sit. The longer you wait, the more objective you can be. Have trusted readers who can give you honest and insightful feedback.
When you revise, eliminate what doesn’t matter to make room for what does. Unnecessary “baggage” (i.e. excessive description, straying plot lines, and ineffectual secondary characters) can bury the moments of genius in a manuscript.
4) WHAT IRRITATES YOU AS AN AGENT WHEN YOU’RE EVALUATING A MANUSCRIPT FOR REPRESENTATION?
I know this will sound obvious to some, but it’s important to proofread your work and ask a couple trusted readers to do so too. So many queries and manuscripts come to me with glaring mistakes. I think many agents shy away from manuscripts that have a lot of grammatical errors. If a writer cannot proofread their own work before sending it out, it’s an uphill battle to read it. All agents have limited reading time, and I am much more willing to read a manuscript from start to finish if a writer has taken the time and care to submit a polished draft.
5) WHAT ADVICE WOUD YOU PROVIDE TO WRITERS WHO WANT TO SECURE AN AGENT?
I strongly believe that writers need to immerse themselves in the culture of writing. Exceptional writers will stand out, but they also need to know how publishing works—how to write and submit a query to an agent, how to consider feedback and revise, and how to market themselves. They accomplish this by joining critique groups, a writing organization tailored to the genre in which you’re seeking to get published (such as RWA, SCBWI, or a local writers group), going to conferences and workshops, following agents, editors, publishers, and literary sources on social media, reading literary blogs, submitting work to journals and other such publications. It really does give you an edge. When I sign a client I don’t look just look at credentials. I look at how well I think we’ll work together, and whether we share the same vision for a book. But it’s also very important to me that writers care about this business and take it seriously, that they are devoted to literature and publishing. And that’s really what it comes down to. No matter what, you need to live and breathe your art.
When talking with a prospective agent, make sure you are both on the same page in terms of the work that needs to be done. Discuss with the agent how much work they expect and how involved the agent will be. It is important for writers to ask questions and understand how the relationship will work. Agents can work differently and it is important to understand the relationship before signing with someone. I believe most agents will help on the editorial side, (though some more than others), and this can be part of the discussion with an interested agent. Some books require more work, so it is important to bring this up early in your talk.
Working with a writer is very important to me, but I need to know that a writer has realistic expectations. Sometimes a number of drafts is necessary and I want to make sure the author is willing to commit until the book is ready to be submitted, and we both agree on the work that needs to be done. A book, whether it is a novel, memoir, or a nonfiction proposal, needs to be as finished as possible in order to sell, so it is a very important part of the process and of the author/agent relationship.
6) IS SELF-PUBLISHING A GOOD OPTION?
It certainly has a place in the publishing business, and it can be good way to make your work available. As an agent, however, I take on books that I believe I can sell, and I work with traditional publishers who can offer an advance and royalties to authors.