Joelle Delbourgo is the President at Joelle Delbourgo Associates. For this installment of our Ask an Agent Series, we asked Joelle 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:
WHAT SPECIFIC CRITERIA DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CONSIDERING A MANUSCRIPT FOR PUBLICATION?
There are many factors to consider. First, in the case of nonfiction: Does the subject interest me? Does it provide compelling research or a new way of thinking about that subject? Does the author have substantive authority (credentials) and experience to write about this subject, supported by a well-developed author platform? Is the manuscript well executed, i.e. organized logically, clearly and well-written, compelling and exciting to read? Who is the audience? Finally, is it marketable, and is the size of the potential market big enough to warrant taking it on? For fiction, it’s very much a matter of taste and sensibility, but some of the same criteria apply. It has to leap out in terms of the writing and the talent. Is the voice distinctive? Is the story line fresh? The author should not submit a novel that is not honed and polished. It can be beautifully written, but if we can’t connect to the characters or there isn’t a plot to drive the narrative, it probably won’t sell. What are the authors credentials? Has this author been published previously, and if so where? Does the author bring any special connections in the literary world that could be helpful in marketing the book. Is this a genre that is currently in demand (yes, there are trends in fiction) and if so, is it a genre I’m comfortable selling? A good test in terms of taking on any project is whether I can immediately imagine how I would present it and to whom. I need to feel: I can’t wait to tell…(editor x) about this amazing work.
WHAT SHOULD A WRITER INCLUDE IN A QUERY TO AN AGENT?
A writer should showcase his or her writing and personality in the letter. It should be well-written, not casual. I am very interested in how the author distills the idea or essence of the project, what compelled him or her to write it. Is there an interesting back story, for example? Who does the writer think is the intended audience; can he visualize his reader? I also want to know something about the writer and his/her credentials and track record.
AS AN AGENT, I SUSPECT YOU RECEIVE MANUSCRIPTS THAT AREN'T QUITE FINISHED. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR WRITERS CONCERNING REVISION/EDITING?
Polish, polish, polish. Never send out something half-baked. Agents are incredibly busy and selective. You usually have one chance to get our attention. Even if a manuscript is promising, if it doesn’t reflect the authors’ best effort, that tells me something very important about what it will be like to work with this author. I look for people who are professional in how they approach me. Some things a writer can do is to build a network of trusted readers to review the manuscript. Ask them for honest and constructive criticism. Join a writers group. Go to writing conferences. Educate yourself about the process. Then take a deep breath, and send us your baby.
WHAT IRRITATES YOU AS AN AGENT WHEN YOU'RE EVALUATING A MANUSCRIPT FOR PUBLICATION?
Sloppiness. If it isn’t proofread, don’t send it to me. Arrogance on the part of a writer who tells me that this manuscript is a sure-fire bestseller. Let me be the judge of that.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU PROVIDE TO WRITERS WHO WANT TO SECURE AN AGENT?
Learn everything you can. There are great resources in terms of books that explain the submission process, how to write a great query letter, etc. Read them. Research the agents you want to approach. Most agents have terrific websites with a wealth of information and clear submission guidelines. Follow them. I can’t tell you how many times it is evident to me that the writer knows nothing about me, my taste and the kind of authors I represent. For example, I get submissions for picture books and screenplays, neither of which I represent. You can check the AAR website for agents who have met certain criteria and maintain high ethical standards. Jeff Herman puts out an excellent annual guide to publishers and agents that profiles some agents in depth; those interviews will reveal a lot about the agent you are approaching. You can ask other writers. Read the acknowledgment pages of books that are similar to yours; usually, they mention who the agent was. Do searches: Top 10 agents for self-help, etc. Read agent blogs and follow agents on twitter. Finally, get your trusted writer friends to vet your query letter so you know you are sending out a letter that will grab our attention.
IS SELF-PUBLISHING A GOOD OPTION?
Today there are many pathways to publishing. As someone who comes out of traditional publishing, I am biased in favor of what a publishing house an do for a writer. The access to so many publishing professionals who will become a full partner with you in editing, shaping, packaging, marketing and selling your book is a gift. When it works well, it’s amazing. But if for any reason, you are unable to get a traditional publisher, self-publishing can be a way to start. It’s not easy. It means you are the publisher, which means you have to wear all of the hats that a publisher normally wears. It can be exhausting. You have to decide if you want to put your efforts into the publishing process or if you want to reserve that effort for your writing. If your book sells poorly, it will make it that much harder for you to secure a traditional publisher in the future. You also will have a hard time getting any visibility in bookstores. But having said that, it can be a godsend for many writers. It’s a way of getting your work out there, and for a few—a very few—it can be lucrative.