Madeleine Clark is an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. For this installment of our Ask an Agent Series, we asked Madeleine 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?
As an agent, I am obviously thinking about what has been working in the marketplace – both in terms of what is popular on the bestseller list and what trends we see in editors buying titles two years out. While this influences my decision on what to take on, the most important thing is for the material to strike a chord with me personally. I like to know if authors have an MFA or previous publications as it can give me a sense of where they are coming from and how far along they are in their career but I’m far more interested in the writing at hand than the resume. In a perfect world, the manuscript is both beautifully written line by line and also has a tense, tight, unique and compelling plot. I do feel more comfortable working with a good writer who does not quite have the story right than an engaging story with poor writing. In terms of specific genres, I’m looking for realistic YA, literary thrillers (think GONE GIRL, SECRET HISTORY, and A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY rather than commercial crime/detective thrillers), and while I love novels that introduce a bit of magic I am not looking for hard sci-fi or fantasy. Narrative nonfiction also welcome!
WHAT SHOULD A WRITER INCLUDE IN A QUERY TO AN AGENT?
I think it is a common misconception that there will be a universally accepted set of materials to send to an agent: email/snail mail, pdf/Word, partial/full manuscript, material in the body of the manuscript or as an attachment, etc. The problem is every agent has their own system of organizing, reading, and evaluating submissions. That is why it is so important for an author to do their research on every agency/agent’s specific submission guidelines. It is too easy for an agent who receives hundreds of queries a week to delete or ignore a submission that has not followed their rules. For example, my agency has a hard copy submission policy but I personally will take email queries directed to our general inbox; my preference is to have a cover letter in the body of the email with a synopsis and, as an attached Word document, three chapters of any fiction project or a proposal for nonfiction.
AS AN AGENT, I SUSPECT YOU RECEIVE MANUSCRIPTS THAT AREN’T QUITE FINISHED. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR WRITERS CONCERNING REVISION/EDITING?
Most agents will not accept unfinished novels although nonfiction projects are often only partially completed, with a detailed proposal that fills in the gaps of what the book will entail. If a novel could still use some revision and another editorial eye, that does not preclude us from taking a look. If you feel like your draft needs a lot of work, however, it may be useful to get involved in a writer’s group where you can workshop what you have. Or you can ask trusted friends and family to take a look because even a reader who isn’t familiar with editing may be able to call your attention to plot holes and inconsistencies that you, as the creator, have overlooked. Contrary to popular belief, a professional edit is not necessary before submitting to an agent.
WHAT IRRITATES YOU AS AN AGENT WHEN YOU’RE EVALUATING A MANUSCRIPT FOR PUBLICATION?
Too many exclamation points!! Badly executed regional dialect. Misogynistic male characters that are supposed to be someone the reader can trust and identify with. Those are pretty specific but mainly what irritates me is receiving manuscripts of genres I do not represent. Other than that I really am happy to read your writing. We may not connect on this specific project but I am always impressed by what people of all different backgrounds and talents can create on the page.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU PROVIDE TO WRITERS WHO WANT TO SECURE AN AGENT?
A working relationship with an agent should be a very supportive, mutually respectful arrangement. Look for agents to query in the acknowledgments of your favorite books or do your research on who you think would be a good fit in terms of taste, experience, and their current list. Query them, using their specific guidelines, and be clear, sincere, and to the point in your cover letter. If you have been referred by someone or have something in common (university, program, hometown), let them know! Blasting hundreds of agents at the same time with an impersonal letter may feel productive but it could get you sent to the bottom of everyone’s slush pile. Try to avoid being gimmicky or starting off with a big, cliché question. Go for content rather than tone in the letter – tout your accomplishments and give a solid synopsis of the work you are submitting rather than spending time on snarky or clever catalogue copy. Your good writing will still show through even if you are concise.
IS SELF-PUBLISHING A GOOD OPTION?
It really depends on what your goals are. If you are a blogger or someone else who has a sizable platform, you may be able to self-publish and turn a modest profit after some professional editing, cover design, and promotion. Or if the money is not important and you just want people to have the opportunity to read your work then it is a great, time-efficient way to make things available to family and friends and anyone else who might luck into finding it. That said, traditional publishing affords an author a team of people working towards the same goal: getting a quality book into the hands of as many readers as possible. This allows the author to create and self-promote, the agent to advocate and sell, the editor to shape, and a whole marketing, publicity, and sales team to give the book a fighting chance in a sea of other titles. That’s obviously a simplified trajectory but I do believe publishers have a undeniable impact on the success of a book.