Monday, April 8, 2013

6 YA Literary Agents Talk About Reading Submissions

A huge thank you to all the fabulous young adult literary agents who participated in this month's round-up!

This month we asked the agents: What is different about the way you read the first pages of a manuscript as an agent versus how you would read them as a reader or critique partner? 

Catherine Drayton, Inkwell Management

That’s a really good question! When I read the first pages of an unsolicited manuscript as an agent I’m hoping that the author will impress me, make me feel that I’m in the presence of a writer who has command of the language and their characters. I am looking for a distinctive, confident voice that isn’t afraid to take risks and which makes me curious to keep reading. I’m basically looking to make a quick decision. When I read a published novel that level of trust has already been established ( especially if I know if has sold well and been published by well-known imprint) so I’m more forgiving. I believe that the it will be worth my while to continue and trust the author to take me on that journey. I’m also always thinking about my clients - how the book I’m reading relates to their work in terms of quality and the market. It’s a 24 hour job being agent!

Kelly Sonnack, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

When I read a submission, I read it like I would a "real" book - to be delighted, surprised, and to fall in love with the characters. I want to read it until the very last word because I'm loving it that much. Unfortunately, that doesn't usually happen and I have to stop reading when the story isn't carrying me away, is too familiar, the character isn't someone I want to go on a journey with, or any of the other reasons that a manuscript stops keeping my interest. (I would stop reading a published book for any of these reasons too.) Of course, many of the authors whom I've offered representation to had sent me submissions that I still thought needed work. So, beyond simply falling in love or being carried away, I need to see that there are problems that can be fixed, and that are within my abilities and time limits.

When I'm reading a manuscript that is one of my client's, however, I'm already starting off with a critical eye. I'm challenging every word, sentence, and paragraph, to make sure my client has chosen the best words. I'm looking for holes so that I can help him/her fill them. I'm pushing the author to ask difficult questions of his/her characters and looking for the places an editor/reviewer/reader might have problems. This is where I get my hands dirty, so that the manuscript is the strongest it can be when we send it out to editors.

Ginger Clark, Curtis Brown Ltd.

There is no difference. I read the first pages of a book thinking about whether a customer in a bookstore somewhere will pick up that book and start reading it and be enthralled. And if that customer won’t be enthralled, then why? And are the problems something I can assist an author in fixing, or not?

Juliet Mushens, The Agency Group, Ltd.

When I read as an agent there are three different responses to what I'm reading. One is the 'reader' response, which is fairly instinctive stuff. Is it gripping? Do I like the characters? Do I want to know what happens?
One is a more technical response which is where my editorial side comes to the fore. Does the dialogue feel believable? Does the style work? Do the sentences flow? Do the character motivations work?
And finally I consider it with my 'sales' hat on. What would an editor think? Who would I send it to? How would I pitch it?
That makes it sound very complicated when in reality it is much more of a gut feeling. However, if I am seriously considering something I am always aware of these three aspects to my reading process.

Marie Lamba, Jennifer de Chiara Literary Agency

I think when you read an opening as a critique partner, you've got your "editing hat" on. Meaning you are on the lookout for ways the manuscript can be improved right from the get-go. But as a reader, you are looking for a way into the story. Something that makes you flip the page and want to continue. With my "agent hat" on (which I imagine is large, flouncy, and probably has purple feathers sprouting from it), I'm seeing things more as a reader would.

Does the writing and story pull me in and make me want to continue flipping pages? Is this a book that I'd purchase? Or would I set it back on the shelf and move on to something else? As an agent, I'd hope to not see a ton of things that need fixing in those opening pages, since I assume the writer is sending me her very best work. Sometimes the pluses in a manuscript's opening will have me overlook bits of clumsy writing and read on, but more often it'll signal that this manuscript isn't at the level it needs to be for me to take it on.

The most successful openings are the ones that suck me in and make me quickly forget that I'm reading something. These are stories that get me involved in the character and welcome me with a voice I'll want to spend lots of time with.

Carlie Webber, CK Webber Associates

The biggest difference in reading a manuscript as an agent vs reading for entertainment is that I have to look at the pages with an eye towards the current book market and how well the manuscript fits into its gaps. I have to ask myself not only, "Do I like this book?" but "Will someone else like this book and want to invest time and money in it?" Reading as an agent means reading not only for pleasure, but for commerce.

Having never been anyone's critique partner, as I am not a writer, I don't have an answer for how I would read one as if I were. But as an agent I do a lot of editing of manuscripts so they can be in great shape before I send them to editors. When I do that, I read for flow, voice, continuity, plot holes, or anything else that could keep a book from being the best it can be.

Gina Panettieri, Talcott Notch Literary Services

When I read opening pages to a manuscript, naturally I'm looking for my 'reader reaction', but I'm also reading with an immediate eye toward the market. So not only am I purely gauging my enjoyment of the writing, but I'm evaluating where the book might fit and who I've heard asking for a project like this, how fresh and unique the concept feels, what I know is already 'in the hopper' at publishing houses that would compete with this book, and how it could be positioned.

That doesn't mean I won't keep reading if something is amazing and I'm not getting a clear view on those issues immediately. A beautiful voice and compelling character will keep me turning the pages every time. I'm so excited to see the envelope being pushed in YA and I'm looking for books that can do just that.

Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency

When I read the first pages of a manuscript it is always in the interest of find a new voice, a new author to represent. And we are in the business of representing what we believe we can sell. When I begin the sample pages I would have already read the cover/query letter which will have given me a brief introduction to the story. With the genre, hook, word count in mind, I may be starting out feeling like the work is super promising because of the general state of the market or a total long shot. At the end of the day, every agent knows that we can love something that may not be very marketable. And we can love work that isn't in our best interests to take on. We have to be mindful of business and not just purely at the mercy of our emotional reactions. Does emotion and our gut reaction play in to our decisions? You bet. On the flip side, if I am reading for fun, I really don't have to do anything BUT emotionally react to the story. I definitely don't have to be mindful of anything other than my own enjoyment. When I read to critique, I usually take the perspective of playing devil's advocate. What would an editor think about it? Would the average reader who can choose from a gazillion books keep reading after the 1st page? I listen to my own reactions but I also try to project how it could be received by others.

Jennifer Mishler, Literary Counsel

What is different about the way you read the first pages of a manuscript as an agent versus how you would read them as a reader or critique partner?
As I read manuscripts that are sent to me, the first few pages undergo the most scrutiny. As I read, I have a checklist beside me with questions like: Do I like how this starts? Are the main characters interesting? Do I care about them? Does this fit my list?
Of course this list is a lot longer but I think you get the point. If I find myself wanting to skip past the first three chapters, odds are that I will most likely reject a manuscript. If the story cannot keep me interested, then how is it going to keep a reader’s attention?
Unfortunately I think like this as a critique partner but not as a reader. When I have the time to read for enjoyment, I read the book without my agent cap on and try not to analyze every paragraph.

Jessica Regel, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency

I actually don't see a difference in how I read a book as an agent versus how I read a book as a reader. The questions are the same: Does it immediately draw me in? Is it well-written? Is it fresh (or have I read an opening like this a million times before)? Does it flow nicely? Do I get a clear sense of setting or a clear sense of character? Ultimately, do I want to keep reading?

As an agent and as a reader, I have a limited amount of time I can devote to reading, so I'm constantly asking myself that question: Do I want to keep reading? If the answer is no, I have plenty of other things on my office to-do list, like read a current client's next book and catch up on my emails or, if I'm reading for fun, catch up on my laundry or watch the next season of Game of Thrones. So if a book doesn't demand that I keep reading it, I won't... and neither will the editor that I'm trying to sell the book to... and neither will the reader who picks it up in a bookstore.

Gordon Warnock, Foreword Literary Agency

If it’s something I’m looking to sign, then it also has to pass the subjective test. I’m very hands-on with my clients’ manuscripts, so it has to not only work for a specific market, but it also has to excite me enough to make me put the kind of time, effort, and enthusiasm into it that it deserves. When seeking an agent, it’s all about finding the perfect match for your work. You might find someone who handles your genre, but if they can’t connect with your work, it’s best to keep looking.

I get asked to read a lot “as an agent” for critiques and consultations, and for those, I’m quicker to let go and be purely objective. Sure, if it works for me, I’ll want to snap it up, but I tend to be more focused on matters of craft and marketability for the pure benefit of the author. Most of what I critique doesn’t excite me enough to garner an offer of representation. But that’s perfectly fine when I get the email later on thanking me for helping them attract an agent or publisher.

Christa Heschke, McIntosh & Otis, Inc.

That’s a great question. When I am reading for fun , I try to turn off that part of me that critiques and thinks about what imprint and Publisher may be a good fit for a novel (although as an Agent it can be hard to turn off). I’m thinking more about the big picture and that is---is this novel entertaining me? Has it grabbed a hold of me? As an agent, I think about this too, of course. The first pages are so important. They need to pull you in---something exciting needs to happen. If they’re too slow or I can’t see where the story is going, I’m not likely to read on. This is why it’s paramount, that as a writer, you really think about your opening pages as you’re writing and after you finished the novel. Do they foreshadow what’s to come and pull readers in? This is also why critique partners or trusted readers can be such a crucial asset to have in your corner. Think of them as a test audience before sending to Agents (and beyond)—just make sure it’s someone who isn’t afraid to be completely honest with you.

As an Agent, I’m also thinking whether what I’m reading is sellable in the current market. While entertainment value and compelling first pages are important, if the plot is too familiar or doesn’t stand out to me in a meaningful way, a little red flag pops up as I read. The writing could be wonderful, the story well executed, but if it reads too much like other novels on the shelves I may pass. Reading for fun (or as a critique partner) I may not think about this as much. If the story is engaging, even if it’s just like Twilight except with another paranormal creature, I probably won’t care. I’m enjoying the read, not thinking about how to pitch the novel to editors.

My advice is this: Actively read other books in your genre/ for your target audience and don’t write for trends. Remember it takes a book 1-2 years to publish after it’s been sold, so while you may be seeing a lot of one genre now and it’s selling well, the market may be oversaturated in two years and editors will already be looking for other genres for their list. Write what you love. Write the story that you have to get out or you can’t sleep at night. Leave the rest to us!


  1. This is so informative to see how agents are reading the first pages. If you do this again, maybe they could add a few sentences on what type of projects they're looking for now.

  2. I loved this post. Thanks to all the agents who replied to your question and offered such valuable insights.

  3. This is awesome! Thanks so much for sharing:)

  4. Absolutely loved this post! Most of the info I had heard before, but I think it was interesting to see the differences/nuinsances in what they said. Also, the emphasis they all seemed to put on checking for 'marketability' or the can-this-sell-right-now question. This is one of the reasons I hang on every word at editor/agent panels and check PM everyday with a keen eye - to see what is being picked up right now, at this moment - not what's hitting the shelves. I think many novice writers make the mistake of checking bookstores to see what's 'trending'. By then, it's way too late!

  5. While I read this, I thought, "Wait...Does my manuscript do that?"

    Thanks for the information. :)

  6. Aloha nui loa--
    Many mahalos for taking time out to give writers insight into your thinking. Is broadening cultural horizons a thing editors look for, or is too near 'schooling' and hence 'kapu'?


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