Deborah Schneider is a partner at Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents Inc. For this installment of our Ask an Agent Series, we asked Deborah what she typically looks for when she considers manuscripts for representation (as well as what tips she could provide for writers interested in
1) WHAT SPECIFIC CRITERIA DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CONSIDERING A MANUSCRIPT FOR PUBLICATION?
Commercial appeal and potential, literary command, compelling storytelling, grammatical acumen, strong premise, appealing and sympathetic characters, originality, freshness. When I read, I want to feel that I am in the hands of a master: a writer who knows the story he/she wants to tell and how to tell it, whether fiction or nonfiction. I don’t want to have to do the writer’s work for him. If the story is hard to understand, vaguely conceived or executed, fuzzy, sloppy or unfocused, I don’t want to have to fill in the blanks or try to figure out what the author’s point is. A manuscript should be clean, tight and well-edited before the author hits send. I will work with authors on further conceptual, contextual edits, if necessary, but I am assuming that the author has prepared a manuscript that he considers ready and worthy of publication.
2) WHAT SHOULD A WRITER INCLUDE IN A QUERY TO AN AGENT?
Queries should include a brief description of the work, the author’s bio and credentials, publication history; reasonable comparisons to other works in the field or genre of the book.
3) AS AN AGENT, I SUSPECT YOU RECEIVE MANUSCRIPTS THAT AREN’T QUITE FINISHED. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR WRITERS CONCERNING REVISION/EDITING?
See above. There are too many books published and not enough of them sell enough copies to make publications worthwhile. Publishers are looking for a reason to say no. A book has to be polished and executed as cleanly as possible before it is submitted. Agents and authors cannot give publishers a reason to turn down a book because it is not yet in its most marketable form. Publishers for the most part no longer consider partial, incomplete manuscripts, especially for fiction. Advice: join writers’ groups and workshops. Workshop your book as much as you can before you send it to anyone in the business. So much of good writing is revising. Other writers’ feedback is invaluable for perspective.
4) WHAT IRRITATES YOU AS AN AGENT WHEN YOU’RE EVALUATING A MANUSCRIPT FOR PUBLICATION?
Authors who write because they want fame, want to be bestsellesr, writers who write according to formulas or use clichés, writers who condescend to their audience, writers who don’t know how to spell or understand English grammar, sloppiness in thought and execution. Good writing is good thinking.
5) WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU PROVIDE TO WRITERS WHO WANT TO SECURE AN AGENT?
Do your research. Read Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace, Publishing Perspectives and the Bookseller and all the publishing trade publications. Find out what agents are selling, who their clients are, what they represent and more important, what they don’t. Find out who reads email queries, and who doesn’t. Find out who is taking on new clients (many aren’t). Find out how to spell their names. Don’t send out a mass email query; nothing guarantees a delete faster. Don’t send queries on weekends or over holidays; you don’t have anyone’s full attention. Be considerate; we want time away from work too. If an agent has done an author the good service of reading their manuscript and responding, write a thank you note. Politeness and good manners will be remembered. We get hundreds of queries a week, thousands a year. Make yours one we would want to pay attention to.
6) IS SELF-PUBLISHING A GOOD OPTION? In the digital age, more people are writing books than reading them. Not every story is a book, and not everyone who thinks he has a story can write one. Writing is a craft with a skill set, like any art, that has to be learned and mastered. Self-publishing has worked for a very few talented and entrepreneurial writers, who not only have written good and entertaining stories, but mastered marketing, editing, promotion, book and jacket design, pricing, social media networking and found an audience and a market for their work. For the vast majority, self-published books cheapen the value and quality of the curated ones. They put too much product in the market, for too cheap a price, degrading the value of the truly good books, and making them harder for the audience/consumer to find or discern. Self-publishing is the youtube of the book business: anyone can upload a book or a video; that doesn’t make it worth your time or attention to read it.