I’m excited to announce that agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of Liza Dawson Associates is here today to talk about “Beyond the Query and Manuscript: 6 Things Agents Look for in Clients.” She shares her thoughts on queries and manuscripts:
Obviously, as agents, the first thing we consider is the query letter. Is it something we’re looking for? Is it well written? Does it make us want to read more? Then we dive into the manuscript, and the clichés are true—with limited resources, we have to fall in love with the book to offer representation. Those things are undoubtedly paramount, but looking beyond them, there are six things I love to see in a potential client.
Attention to Detail
I’ve requested pages from authors who have misspelled my or the agency’s name, included sample pages when we ask for just the query, forgotten to edit lines in the query referring to materials included, etc. There are agents, though, who definitely reject if you say, forget to include requested pages. And even if it’s not an automatic rejection, a query letter is your first impression. You want to make the best one possible so that an agent reads your work with nothing but positive feelings in mind.
Social Media Presence
For fiction writers, I don’t need to see that you have X number of followers. (Nonfiction is different; there, platform is essential!) But I do like to see that you’re on Twitter for a couple reasons. First, if I sell your book, you will need to be on there. Agents have certainly taught clients how to use social media, but it’s a bonus if I know I don’t have to. Second, Twitter is a wonderful resource for querying writers; if you’re on there, I know that you’re starting to tap into the publishing community.
Beyond Twitter, a website (even a simple one) helps add to the impression that you’re savvy and professional. (For more on that, see my interview with Atmosphere Author Websites.) And then beyond that, just make sure there’s nothing offensive out there. I don’t mean never swear or don’t post photos where you’re holding a cocktail. But start to build your platform as if you already have a book deal. What would attract potential readers? What would make them run away?
A Shared Vision
Agents often refer to their clients as being on their team. Another way to look at the agent-client relationship is as a partnership. Whichever metaphor you adopt, the fact remains that we’ll be working very closely together, and we need to fundamentally agree on a few things. First, I’ll have revision ideas for your book. If you hate my ideas, I’m not the right agent for you! It’s truly best to walk away in that situation. Second, we should match up in terms of communication styles. I want to give every client the necessary support, but at the same time, I have more than one. I tell potential clients how I tend to communicate—if you need something different, that’s okay, but it might mean we’re not the best fit. Third, we should agree on a vision for your career. We all want to write good stuff and sell many books, but different clients and agents may have different priorities. With all of these issues, it’s best to start thinking and talking about them from the beginning, before you commit to each other.
I recently encountered one agent who says she almost always does a revise and resubmit before offering representation. I’ve personally decided that I dislike the R&R in part because I don’t think it lets me put my best foot forward. But regardless of when it happens, I will almost certainly ask you to revise your work, and if I sell your book, an editor will ask you to revise it further. It’s frustrating when a client isn’t quite getting it, or worse, is resistant to change. Revision is a skill, just like writing; the more you can do to develop it, the better off you’ll be. If you tell me about revisions you’ve gone through, based on feedback from critique partners or beta readers, that’s a good sign.
A Thoughtful, Thought-Out Approach
As an agent, I often think that part of my job is to provide the business perspective to the writer’s creativity. But while you should absolutely write what inspires you, I love when writers are reading strategically, analyzing the marketplace, and thinking about how their work fits in. Writing is an art, but publishing is a business. Agents will give you their expertise, but it’s wonderful to work with clients who are being smart about their careers.
My goal is always to build long-term relationships with my clients. In order to do that, you need more than one book! I’ve never had anyone say “nothing” when I ask what they’re working on next, but sometimes they’re working on things in wildly different genres. That’s fine, particularly if you write quickly (perhaps you could write under two different names, even), and sometimes you need to shift gears to reboot your career. But in the beginning, you want to build an audience and ideally, a relationship with an editor as well, and it’s easier to do so if your books have a similar readership.
I hope this gives you some additional insight as to what’s going through an agent’s mind when we’re thinking about taking on a client. Most of these are “bonus factors,” but those have occasionally tipped the scales for me. Definitely keep your focus on your query and manuscript, but if you’re ready for the 200-level classes on landing an agent, these are some great areas to work on.
Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: www.jjohnsonblalock.com.