Sunday, July 21, 2013

24 YA Literary Agents Share What They're Looking For

Thank you so much to all of the young adult literary agents who shared their insight with us this month!  It never ceases to amaze me how generous agents are in helping aspiring authors navigate the publishing industry. We asked agents from some of the top literary agencies to tell us what they hope to see when they open queries.

Besides “good writing” and “voice,” what are you currently looking for and not receiving? What do you hope to see when you open your inbox and why?

Ammi-Joan Paquette, Erin Murphy Literary Agency

I am looking, first and foremost, for a manuscript that exceeds my expectations. I want to be caught off guard, taken by surprise, brought around to a conclusion that is both inevitable and wholly unexpected. I love unconventional forms of storytelling, unreliable narrators, stories told out of chronology or with unfamiliar mechanisms. Obviously the story and characters should never suffer; the execution has to be stronger than ever to be able to take such a risk and pull it off. But when it succeeds… magic!

Marcy Posner, Folio Literary Management

I receive a lot of manuscripts that fit in well with their genre: "Thriller," "YA," and "Women's Fiction." But these same stories often are very similar to other already published novels. I would love to see new stories that still fit in with those genres, but contain a new theme, character, plot line, etc, that really stands out.

That being said, there seems to also be an over-reliance these days on creating really great stories, without focusing on really great characters. No matter the genre, what makes a story stand out is a character or characters that really fascinates the reader—by being authentic, complex, not fitting into just one quick category. I would love to see more stories that center on strong characters, characters that are like real people, while still placing those interesting characters into new and intriguing circumstances and stories.

Katie Shea, Donald Maass Literary Agency

A balance of depth and playfulness. Give me the good with the bad. A set up of a story with immediate conflict. I want to see secondary character who can star in their own novels. An interesting structure: how do you entice your reader to read past the first page, structurally? How are you delivering your plot in an interesting way? I love seeing novels that deal with specific themes/subjects, such as a sport, a school club, a job, etc. Using these specific angles could help branch your story to a wider audience. The most important thing I hope to see in a YA project is a universal message. What are you trying to say about this story? How will THIS novel affect your reader? I want to represent novels with a solid message. Something that will take a hold of you and never let go. Something that you will continue to think about for weeks, years, or maybe a lifetime. These messages should be big. Big enough for all ages.

Jessica Faust, BookEnds

While I'm always attracted to Steampunk and Dystopian YA (I'm currently reading The 5th Wave and I'm enthralled), I think what excites me most right now are contemporary thrillers and/or contemporary issue driven books (ala John Green). Right now Dystopian is a tough sell so it really has to be new and different to grab my attention and I'm not the right person for big fantasy YA.

Julia Churchill, A.M. Heath

I always expect the unexpected, and can never predict what my next signing may be. Yes, I look for voice - so hard to explain, so easy to spot. And I look for a story and a character, and an idea that has clarity and focus and cleverness and simplicity.

I'm talking in such broad strokes, but imagining the next standout submission is like imagining a new colour.

Here's a bit more detail of what I'm looking for, though I've no doubt the next book I fall in love with will be a million miles from any one of these:

Tamar Rydzinski, Laura Dail Literary Agency

The number one thing on my wish list right now is a great sci-fi manuscript--both kids and adult. I want something that makes me terrified of what might be coming in a few years. Keeping in mind that I don't love conspiracy theories. I would also really love a big, gorgeous, contemporary women's fiction manuscript. Perhaps something that spans multiple generations and ends up in the contemporary. Otherwise, anything with "good writing" and "voice" that falls within the genres I represent :)

When I open a query letter, I want to see a confident writer who tells me what the story is. I don't need any thanks for reading. I don't need you to open with three paragraphs about who you are. Have you sold a million copies of your self-published novel or won numerous awards for your writing? Awesome. That takes a sentence or two to tell me. I need to know what the plot of your new book is to see if it intrigues me. Because the writing and the plot is how I decide if I want to see more. The rest is just gravy.

Sarah LaPolla, Bradford Literary Agency

There are two things I’ve been searching for in my submissions and am having a hard time finding lately. The first is the element of surprise. I’m not talking about a shocking plot twist, necessarily. Or at least I’m not just talking about that. I need to be surprised by what I’m reading. That could mean a plot twist I didn’t see coming, but it can also mean a number of things. Am I feeling a range of emotions I didn’t expect to experience? Has the main character grown and changed in a way they didn’t seem capable of at the beginning of the novel? Did the writing itself surprise me in its style, quality, or form? I like knowing what type of novel I’m getting into when I request a submission, but the last thing I want that manuscript to be is predictable.

The other thing I’m not seeing as much of lately are strong male characters. We talk a lot about what makes a female character “strong.” I, for one, talk about it a lot. But, the boys in YA are being forgotten. I see too many perfect boyfriends, perfectly imperfect bad boys, “nice guy” best friends, and sassy gay friends. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of submissions with female main characters, and boys are generally cast as friend, enemy, or love interest to the main character. That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t mean they have to be one-dimensional. Whether it’s a male or female character, I need them to be strong... meaning, they should be able to stand on their own and have just as many complexities as humans in real life.

Joe Monti, Barry Goldblatt Literary

I like the question: "What do you hope to see when you open your inbox and why?" That's succinct. My answer: Love at first sight.

I'm an incurable Romantic, emphasis on the capital 'R'.
I like to cry./I cry easily.
I like to tilt at the windmills of publishing and push envelopes.
Inside, I'm a nine year old.

Does your work feel simpatico with one of these?

How about this: I'm more actively looking for middle grade than young adult, but the singular power of your story trumps category every single time.
I am an unabashed genre fan of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but I adore realistic fiction with all of my heart. Send me more so I can sell more.
We can make children's publishing more reflective of the world at large by telling more diverse stories. I want to represent more fiction that tells these stories.

Suzie Townsend, New Leaf Literary Agency

This is tough to explain. I really want to see something that feels like I haven't seen before. It could be a completely new take or twist on a done before trope or just something very unique. I want to be able to get swallowed up by a world that feels real so much so that I'm depressed when the book is over and I can't spend more time there (sort of like all those people who saw Avatar and were unhappy they couldn't go there).

Elena Giovinazzo, Pippin Properties

I'm looking for stories that will last and that I'll be able to pass along to my own children someday. So much of what I read feels very much of "today" or jumping on a trend. While there's definitely a market for those books and many agents represent and sell them very well, those just aren't for me. I'm looking for a story that will mean something today and tomorrow. A story that's not just about the prettiest girl at school or the hottest guy, but about the more interesting characters we don't always hear from.

Dawn Frederick, Red Sofa Literary Agency

I'm always looking for new pop culture books and fresh MG/YA projects that aren't attempting to follow the current trends. They're starting to trickle in more, but alas it would be nice to see more in all these areas. Especially pop culture books that are offbeat. My inbox is even happier when the narrative of books within these categories is strong and in good shape, vs. being more of a work in progress. In short, these ideas, as well as any other book ideas, need to be in great shape editorially and not rushed out the door. Taking the time to strengthen one's story is a benefit to the author and a book's success.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. It's always great to see what agents are looking for. That's amazing that you got so many agents to share here. I'll post this on Facebook.

    1. Thanks, Natalie! The sharing is very much appreciated. We'd love to be part of helping more writers connect with the agents of their dreams. :)

  2. Thanks for sharing, Natalie. Excellent resource!

    1. Hi Theresa,

      Jan was actually the one who put all this fantastic information together for us. But we are very grateful to Natalie for helping us spread the word about the post. And anyone who hasn't already stopped by Literary Rambles, Natalie's blog, ought to jump over there and look at the fantastic agent profiles that Natalie's blog partner Casey puts together. Have you seen them? They're amazing!

  3. This is always a great question to pose to agents, even though I fear that they could all answer: "I don't know, but I'll know it when I see it...." I appreciate the effort to let us know--basically the answer lets us know that the bar is indeed high.

    "Am I feeling a range of emotions I didn’t expect to experience? Has the main character grown and changed in a way they didn’t seem capable of at the beginning of the novel?"

    Love that!

    And, the timelessness of books, that sometimes we forget about in the immediate climate of writing books: "I'm looking for stories that will last and that I'll be able to pass along to my own children someday."

    These are great goals to reach for. :) Thanks for the great post!

    1. Hi Heather,

      The bar IS set high. That's the hard truth in all of this. But I genuinely believe, and I am living proof of it, that if you persevere and keep concentrating on learning the craft and writing books that draw out your own emotions honestly, with characters who have grown real for you, and plots that test those characters to the utmost, that it is possible to find the right agent and the right publisher. Maybe not initially for every book. I had to put two books away before I found the right book.

      There's an absolutely brilliant post from James Scott Bell on professionalism and finding a way to make a living as a writer. It really struck a cord for me. And I think a big part of that writerly professionalism is understanding that we can write great books, but if they aren't original books, lasting books, surprising books, the world isn't going to need them.

      I really appreciate that these agents are being honest about that!

  4. What an amazing resource~ thanks so much for putting this together!

  5. This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    1. Jan does a great job putting these agent round-up posts together, doesn't she?

      Hope you had a lovely weekend!

  6. This is really helpful. Thanks for sharing! :)

    1. Hi Emma,

      Hope you find it helpful when you are querying. Are you sending your manuscript out already? If so, best of luck!

  7. Always great stuff to think about! Love these'

    1. Hi Pk,

      Aren't they wonderful? I wish we'd been able to do them when I was querying, but that would have been too close to a conflict of interest. I'm just glad that we are able to share now, and that Jan is willing to put in the huge amount of time it takes to coordinate all these posts.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. thanks for this list. Will save it for sure!

    1. Hi Carol,

      How close are you to querying? You've got to be just about there, right? Or do you have another round of edits yet?

      Hope you had a lovely weekend!

  9. Its funny how bloggers are looking for the same thing as many of the agents. I find my self reading so many books and thinking the same thing as them. Writers should always think as both writer and reader if they want their books to be hits.


    1. That is such a great point. I know that I do pick up a lot of books lately and skim the first chapter hoping to find something fresh that I haven't already seen a zillion times. If I consider that the published books i'm reading are a tiny fraction of what crosses an editor's desk, much less an agent's inbox, it is mind-boggling.

      One of my favorite stories is one that I heard from Veronica Rossi about a workshop she did with Donald Maass, where he looked at the manuscript she'd been slaving over for 7 YEARS and told her it was good, there was nothing wrong with it, and it was never going to sell because it was the same as a lot of other fantasy books out there already. She ditched that manuscript, thought about what had never been written before, and came up with UNDER THE NEVER SKY. Wonderful, right? And I read UTNS long before I ever heard that story, and I remember reading it thinking, wow, how did she come up with this? :)

  10. First and foremost, I want to give a HUGE shout-out to Jan Lewis for putting these agent posts together! This is another great one, Jan!

    And THANK YOU to the amazing agents who participated.

  11. It is always, and I mean ALWAYS, helpful to get some agent insight. Although I'm not sure I have what is desired at this time from what is mentioned, it gives me a chance to see where a few agents are standing when it comes to what they desire. Maybe one day I'll write a MS I can send to one of these lovely agents...soon :-)

  12. You are real people full of wisdom and expertise! These literary agents have redeemed my faith in their profession by their thoughtful, caring, and precise comments. My experience with some agents has been less than positive. Thank you to these agents who demand wonderful writing, who explain their expectations and markets, and who will take the time to read our submissions from the heart.

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  14. Thanks a bunch for your time. I currently querying agents and one challenge is finding the right agent the first time. My fellow writers advised I saturation query bomb every agent in the world, but that's like skeet shooting with a leafblower. Every agent I've met in person have been gracious, honest and encouraging. BTW, will any of you attend the Crossroads Writer's Conference?

  15. Is the fact that so many YA fantasy agents seem to be younger women have some bearing on the current (mediocre) mainstream of YA fantasy and sci-fi?

    Not trying to be unnecessarily provocative, but the current crop of fiction speaks for itself. Where are all the Harry Potters?


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)