The more an aspiring author knows…

Photo courtesy of Bartlomiej Stroinski

A writer’s search for a literary agent must seem overwhelming and ridiculously complex. When I was asked to explain it once, I couldn’t distill the process into less than twenty-five steps. Apparently getting and staying sober is simpler. (And that’s a bad joke.)

Perhaps it’s no comfort, but an agent’s search for new clients is every bit as complicated as a writer’s search for a literary agent. Over time, we might develop instincts that streamline the process of taking on a client, but what seems like pure intuition probably isn’t. Agents learn to notice all of the signals writers send, in their correspondence and in the samples of their manuscripts. The scales tip as we read. A little online research adds weight, if necessary. Certainly conversations with prospective clients influence our decisions.

On the topic of literary agents’ subjectivity when assessing new writing and writers, so much has been written and debated. Acknowledging the element of subjectivity is an effective consolation, but it also inspires a few novice writers to discount additional reasons their queries and submissions are rejected. Some of those reasons can be quite objective. Half a dozen agents in conversation with each other will find they have more in common than they have to dispute with regard to the selection of clients.

Not long after I started my agency, I happened to discover online Jennifer Holder’s master’s thesis. (Note: the PDF will download automatically if you click on the link.):

pdf icon   “The Art and Science of Choosing Literary Books that Sell: Acquisitions Decision-making at Penguin UK.”

Holder examined the work of editors at one house, deconstructed their process, and then designed a theoretical checklist to help test the commercial viability of a manuscript and its author. When I read Holder’s thesis, I recognized many of the factors I, as an agent, weighed without making notes while reading queries and manuscripts and interviewing prospective clients. In my mind, the scales were tipping gradually with each new piece of information—more often tilting to one side than to the other.

So there it is, for any writer in search of representation and/or publication who cares to know. Textbooks have been written on this subject as well. The wisest writers will recognize that complexity is only the same as mystery or chaos if they allow it to be.

In other words, there’s homework to be done.

3 Replies to “The more an aspiring author knows…”

  1. Thank you for the great post Robin. My question to you is where do I begin my home study course? As a new writer, I am feeling overwhelmed at finding answers to my basic questions. I am glad I found your blog. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Hi, Ellyn:

    Learning and mastering a little at a time is the easiest approach. I use an RSS feed reader (Feedly at present) to follow book industry experts and trendsetters who blog about topics that are important to me. You might try visiting the sites listed in my blogroll. Add to your RSS feed reader any that suit your specific needs.

    If you’re looking for information about literary agents, you could take a look at:


    Agent Query

    Author Advance

    Association of Authors’ Representatives

    Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog

    Some writers learn best by networking IRL, enrolling in workshops, and attending conferences.

    Don’t forget that your local library has some good books on the business of writing and publishing.

    Enjoy the process!

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