Interview with a Literary Agent

Please note this article was originally published in the Romance Writers of Australia Heart's Talk magazine...

So many times I've heard writers say that signing with an agent can be even more difficult than getting a publishing contract. So, I sat down with my agent, the wonderful and oh-so savvy Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, to ask her a few questions about querying.

For those uninitiated, a query is the act of approaching an agent to request representation of your book. Like submitting your book to an editor, this process can be a little daunting. So, what elements of the query are most important?

“The book description is key for the agent to know what the project is about and if it might be a fit for their list,” Jill says. “I also like when one of the early sentences of the query tells me what genre the project is so that I can have that clear in my mind as I read the description and don’t have to be distracted trying to figure that out.”

Along with the book description it’s a great idea to include a short bio (one paragraph is fine). Jill adds, “ideally, they would make sure that the genre matches what the agent is looking for.”

Tip: Not all agents represent all genres, but that information will be on the agency’s website.


To give your submission the strongest chance of success, ensure that you pay attention to the details. Follow the agency’s submission guidelines and check everything over before you hit send. Ever wondered what an agent’s pet peeves are? “I don’t like when someone sends me a query addressed to another agent’s name—that is a little sloppy,” Jill says. “And no fonts smaller than 12—I read so much a day, it makes it hard when someone sends a query in 8 font to ‘fit in extra words.'"

But what about the manuscript itself? I asked Jill what she looks for when singing a new author. “Strong writing- a great voice, interesting characters, good story or “hook”, and intriguing plot,” she says. “When I am reading a manuscript, I want to be caught up in the pages. This means there should be an interesting character or compelling storyline or great voice (and hopefully all of the above).”

What happens when a submission doesn’t have those elements? “If I’ve read a number of pages and feel that none of those elements are coming across as strongly as I would like, that is typically when I will stop reading.  I also want to feel like there is something in those opening pages that “hooks” me to keep reading.  Again, it can be based on questions raised in the plot, something to do with the intriguing character, or the high quality of the writing.”

Having said that, many agents also look beyond that first book to an author’s career potential. “When I sign a client, I prefer to sign for the long term.  I like to help grow an author and build her/his brand, and I am looking at this from a long-term perspective rather than a one-off.  I think an agent can help with different things at different stages of an author’s career so it is important to be focused on the bigger picture and not just a quick sale, in my view.”

Here are the top things I recommend you do when getting ready to query your manuscript:

1.     Research the agencies you’re interested in—make sure they represent your genre and make note of their specific submission requirements.

2.     Have a kick-butt book description which clearly showcases the hook of your story. In some cases, the agency may not even want to see pages from your manuscript at this point – so your book description needs to do the heavy lifting.

3.     Include important information about your book such as the genre, word count and whether it’s complete. (If you’re a first-time author, generally agencies will want the book to be complete unless you get a request via a pitching competition or event, such as a conference).

4.     Have a bio that’s concise and includes only the best bits, such as award wins or finals, professional memberships and other career highlights. If you have skills or experience relevant to the book you’re querying (e.g. you’re a doctor and you’re querying a medical romance) be sure to include that.

5.     Cross your t’s and dot your i’s before you hit send. Make sure you get the agent’s name right.

But what happens after you sign with an agent?

The next big ticket item is selling that first book or series. The process of approaching publishers is both thrilling and terrifying (something I can personally attest to!) Often, agents will pitch your project to a few publishers at a time, starting with the appropriate top tier based on your submission strategy.

They work as the conduit between the author and the publisher, championing your project and assisting with providing any information that the publisher may request during the acquisition process, for example sales information if the author is already published. If the author receives an offer, they will notify the other interested parties and ultimately negotiate contract terms on the author’s behalf.

But what happens if the first round doesn’t yield an offer?

“When a project doesn’t sell, I like to review all of the feedback we have received from editors and then see if there is a way to revise and respond to that,” Jill says. “If so, then I will recommend edits to the author and put together a second round of editors for a submission.”

But not all projects sell the first time around. “Sometimes, when a project doesn’t sell, we need to put it on the shelf, try a new project, and then after we establish a relationship with an editor, we can go back and offer the first manuscript.  I have had several authors where we have done this and after selling the second manuscript, we have been able to go back and sell the original project once the author is established with the publisher.”

Like with any other partnership, communication is key. At first, the focus tends to be on selling that initial book. But, once you get past that point, there are a lot of other areas where your agent can provide support, including planning for career growth, managing publishing schedules and developing new projects.

Jill advises that authors should “keep their agent informed of what is happening so that the agent can help as needed. Often, editors will send covers, edit notes, pub dates, etc. to the author and if the author keeps the agent informed of these things, the agent can assist with whatever issues come up,” she adds.

This is especially important for those who are juggling multiple publishers and/or projects. “If the author has questions or concerns, let the agent know so they can help,” Jill says. “A good agent will have years of experience working with other writers and editors and can offer advice based on that.”

What about the next project? How early on do agents like to be involved when their authors are working on something new? 

“It depends on the author and what they are looking for,” Jill says. “For new writers, I like to see a short blurb or synopsis before the writer puts too much time into writing the full project so I can offer feedback and suggestions early in the process. That way, if they want to make changes, they can do so without losing a lot of time on the manuscript. And then I will offer feedback, as needed, as the manuscript takes shape. For more experienced writers, some like to brainstorm early in the process but may not want as much editorial input later on if they have a number of manuscripts published and are at a different level.”

Another benefit of agents is access to inside industry information, especially for those authors wanting to go down the traditional publishing path. Agents cultivate a relationship with the editors at various publishing houses and often know what types of projects are selling or doing well, whether editors have a gap in their catalogue and are looking for a particular type of project etc.

Treat your relationship with your agent as you would any other business relationship. The best thing you can do is to be honest and open about your career goals, your expectations and how you like to work.

If you’re looking to sign with an agent this year, but aren’t sure where to start in finding the right one, here are a few tips:

1.     When looking at an agency, see who else they represent. If they have a decent catalogue of authors in your genre, then chances are they have established relationships with publishers of interest to you.

2.     Ask questions! If you happen to know one of the authors on the agency’s list, reach out and see if they’re willing to answer any questions about the agent and/or agency.

3.     Be sure to check that the agency is reputable! Check out sites like Writers Beware and the ‘water cooler’ forums at Absolute Write to hear about other people’s experiences with the agency.

4.     Know why you want to have an agent. These days there are many publishers who accept unagented submissions, so not all writers require an agent. If you’re going to give up a percentage of your earnings in exchange for representation, have a good reason to do so. This might be that you want support with managing your publisher relationships, or perhaps you want to approach a publishing house that requires an agent. Whether you choose to have an agent or not is up to you. There’s no right or wrong way get published.

If you’re on the hunt for an agent, I wish you the best of luck!