Querying Do’s and Don’ts from Agent Rebecca Sherman

The following is Writers House Agent Rebecca Sherman’s list of Do’s and Don’ts for querying a literary agent. She shared this list at the 2010 SCBWI OC Agent Day:


  • Begin with the kind of description that would appear on the back of your book or jacket flap.
  • Tell me some brief biographical information.
  • Tell me why YOU wrote this book.
  • Tell me abut interest from or submissions to other agents and/or publishers.
  • Tell me why you are submitting to me.
  • Give your query letter voice.
  • Strike a balance between professional and personal.
  • Always begin with a proper salutation and end with a proper closure.
  • Research agencies and agents.
  • Draw a connection with the agent that you are querying.
  • Base on the guidelines of the agent you are submitting to, include samples – full manuscripts for picture books, sample illustrations, up to ten pages for longer work.
  • Use Times New Roman 12 pt. font or a similarly standard and easy to read font/font size.
  • For snail mailers, include a self-addressed stamped envelope that will properly accommodate the material you sent.
  • Note that you are an SCBWI member and if you attended a conference that the agent spoke at.
  • Note if an editor, writer, or someone else that the agent knows referred you.
  • Know the market you are writing for.
  • Be patient.


  • Make the story or your characters unclear.
  • Devote too much space to biographical details.
  • Pad your query with irrelevant publications.
  • Simply take information about an agent from research and paste it into the query or lead with the fact that you found the agent’s name of agentquery.com, or publishersmarketplace.com, etc.
  • Compare yourself to an agent’s client without showing how you are also unique.
  • Compare yourself to a bestseller or award winner without showing originality.
  • Provide a list of issues that your novel will cover instead of an overview of your story.
  • Tell me that your work is sure to be a success because you tested it on your child, kindergarten class, or other small sample group (especially those with whom you have a personal relationship).
  • Include endorsements from anyone other than prominent authors in your genre/for your age  group or nationally recognized in the media.
  • Put a limit on the time an agent can read the material or assume a sense of urgency.
  • Submit to multiple agents at the same agency.
  • Call and agent unless the agent herself has told you specifically to call.
  • Email if the agent does not accept email queries.
  • Email or writer to ask how to submit to that agent.
  • Be discouraged if your query is rejected. Don’t forget that it is one person’s subjective opinion.

Rebecca Sherman is an agent for Writers House. For over 30 years, Writers House has played a critical role in developing novelists and non-fiction authors. They have one of the industry’s finest lists of juvenile and young adult authors. Rebecca continues to build her own list of middle grade and young adult novelists, she’s looking for books with something to say, books that make her laugh, and characters that truly remind her of how confounding and wonderful (ridiculous! frightening! glorious!) adolescence can be. She is also looking for picture books by author/illustrators that can hold up to readings night after night.

Agent Day: Insight from Agent Mary Kole

Andrea Brown agent, Mary Kole spoke at the SCBWI Agent Day this past Saturday in Newport Beach. She shared her genuine passion for children’s literature, what she’s specifically looking to find in her submission box, and her love for the iPad.

A Little About Mary Kole and the Andrea Brown Agency:

  • Andrea Brown has been in business for 28 years, and was the first agency to represent children’s books up through young adult literature.
  • Andrea Brown had nine agents who live in various areas from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and now they will be opening a New York branch headed up by none other than Mary Kole herself.
  • Mary is a writer and she just finished her MFA. She became an agent as a result of her interested in seeing “the other side” of children’s literature. She worked for both Chronicle Books, as well as Andrea Brown before discovering this was her passion and becoming an agent.
  • Mary is a new agent but she is HUNGRY and OBSESSED! She presently has a short list and is actively looking for new clients.
  • Mary represents picture books authors or author/illustrators, middle grade novelists, young adult novelists, and illustrators.

What Mary Really Likes and/or is Looking For in Submissions:

  • Dark and edgy illustration.
  • Stories that explore friendship, murder, and/or betrayal.
  • A well executed “issue” book like Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.
  • A too close for comfort dystopian novel like Feed by M.T. Andersen.
  • A strong love triangle book or a sweet summer romance.
  • Creepy ghost stories that get under your skin, where the ghost follows you home long after you’ve put the book down.
  • Unusual paranormal. If you are writing about vampires, werewolves, etc. then your story needs to be new and exceptional.
  • Books that make her uncomfortable.
  • Books with darker, funnier, or sarcastic sensibilities.
  • Picture books that are quirky, funny, or sweet.

Mary Isn’t Into:

  • Anthropomorphic tales.
  • High fantasy or science fiction.
  • Greek and Egyptian mythology, which is overdone, but there are plenty of other mythologies to use. Do something new!
  • Mary does not represent early readers or chapter books.
  • But she will share your work with a colleague at Andrea Brown if the work seems better fit for another agent.

Why Mary Loves Picture Books and Kid Lit:

  • I  love this audience! I love how kids read! Adults only read when they are about to go to bed (basically to put themselves to sleep) or because they have to, or if it is an established habit. Not kids. Kids are voracious readers! Kids are social readers! Kids share books with their friends, because to them it is important to have similar imaginary landscapes as their friends. Kids devour series.
  • Kids who read, become life long readers!
  • Books for kids help them to become more confident, and as cheesy as this is going to sound, books for kids change their lives!

Mary Kole’s take on the Kidlit Market:

  • The children’s book market was started by the amazing Ursula Nordstrom who published and edited such iconic books as Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, and Harold and the Purple Crayon. She wanted to publish good books for bad children. At this time she felt that books tried to moralize too much and talk down to them. Nordstrom believed that kids have more insight than adults gave them credit for.
  • “The writer of good books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.” – Ursula Nordstrom
  • During this recession the YA book market has gone up 30%, while the adult book market has declined. This says a lot about our readers, but it is also attributed to the school and library markets,  not to mention the popularization of books by Harry Potter and Twilight.
  • “If I can resist a book, I resist it.” – Ursula Nordstrom. Therefore, Mary Kole says – write something that’s irresistible!

A Breakdown of Age Ranges and What’s Selling in the Market:

Picture Books:

  • Age group: 3-5 or 5-7.
  • Picture Books are cyclical (the market is). In the 80’s picture books were big, then it declined, but it will be going back up soon.
  • Houses are acquiring fiction and non-fiction picture books, illustrator/author projects, and newer and edgier illustration.
  • Traditional verse is hard to sell.
  • Character driven books with snappy text is selling well.
  • Houses are looking for picture books with quick hooks, or possibly multiple hooks. Hooks could be anything from the re-telling of a common fairy tale, to the inclusion of a cookie recipe in the back of a book.

Middle Grade Novels:

  • Age group : 8-10, or 10-12, and sometimes as high as 14.
  • Fantasy and adventure rules in this age group!
  • Literary middle grade novels do exist, but these stories are usually more sweet and friendship based.
  • This is a great age group to write for because these character’s worlds are full of contrasts. They feel the pull between their family and their friends. They are beginning to find and explore their own individuality and identity, but they still have one foot still in the door at home. This is a wonderful frame of mind.
  • Mary likes characters in this age group who make tough – if not the wrong – choices and have to deal with the consequences.
  • This age group is not very edgy in its content (i.e. sex, drugs, and rock and roll).
  • If there is romance in middle grade novels it is very sweet.
  • Historical books are very popular in middle grade novels, but be sure that the setting is essential to the story.

Young Adult Novels:

  • Age group:12 and up, 14 and up, or 16 and up.
  • Anything goes in this age group – as far as content. Yup you can have your sex, drugs, and your rock and roll.
  • It is a myth that YA has edgy content. If you have a softer and sweeter young adult novel, that’s okay! There are houses that will publish both types of content. Just because “edgy” is in, doesn’t mean you have to write it. And don’t try to force edgy content!
  • Teens have a highly sensitive and honed BS barometer! They will call out a poser!
  • Paranormal and romance is presently huge in the YA age group. This is because young adults have a rich fantasy life. They like to read about things that they are not necessarily doing. They like to live through the experience of reading about huge epic romance. Often times teens feel like they have little control of their lives, like they’ve been put on a train and they can’t get off. So they like to read paranormal and romance as a way to escape. As a way to explore them selves and the darker parts of themselves.
  • Despite the paranormal craze, editors are clamoring for REAL LIFE! They want stories about our world.
  • YA has room for bigger conflicts that can end on a bittersweet note. Everything doesn’t have to tie up in the end of the book. Teens are aware that everything doesn’t always end well. They are aware that you must lose something in order to gain something.
  • A book that really affected Mary Kole is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and there is a section in that book where the main character described a moment where they felt infinite, there is a welling like you could explode. Mary thinks this really captures a key element of the teen experience. For teens everything is big. Teens have surreal experiences, and they come one after another after another – first kiss, first friend betrays you, etc. It is an incredible and electric time!

Mary Answered the Following Questions from the Audience:

What do you see as the difference between the school and popular markets?

Books in the institutional market must have hooks. They particularly like book that can have a great curriculum tie-in. Books that are non-fiction or have an educational bent to them work well in institutional markets. Niche books as well – this would be something like a book about the Australian Indigenous Population. Where vampires – for example have a much wider audience and would work for main stream.

If I’ve submitted something to the Andrea Brown Agency and I haven’t heard anything can I revise and re-submit or query another agent?

We do share work with other agents at Andrea Brown. So if I think a book has merit but isn’t right for me, I will share it with another agent. Therefore a “no” from one of us is a “no” from all of us. But I will let you know if I am sharing your work with another agent. In terms of revision, unless the book has gone through major changes and is pretty much unrecognizable as the previous work, then you can re-submit it, but otherwise don’t. Query us with something new.

Can you tell us a little bit about the early agent/writer relationship?

Absolutely! If I get a submission and I like it and think it is promising, but I don’t quite think it is ready, I may give the author general notes. This way they can revise and I can see how they apply the changes in his/her revision. This will tell me a lot about a writer. If I offer representation, then I become highly editorial with my client. I really like digging into the hamburger meat. We will work on the book for as many rounds as we need until the book is ready to go out.

What publishing houses do you have a close relationship with?

Andrea Brown originally worked for Knopf, so we have a strong relationship there. However, if an agent is doing her job then she doesn’t have favorite houses. This is because an agent needs to know who wants what at different houses so they are serving the client in the best way possible. I do have relationships with houses, but it’s important to move past those first close relationships and find the perfect house for your book.

What advice do you have for an author who wants to work within multiple genres or age groups?

In children’s books authors are more apt to hop between genres. As long as you are aware of the voices and how they are different within different age groups, then it’s okay to write in multiple genres/age groups. An agent should want to be your career representative. I personally love to give career advice, and want to help shape my clients careers. When you approach an agent and you write in multiple age groups you should always query with the strongest material. You can mention in your query that you have other interests, but don’t unleash your entire creative resume. Pick the work that is the strongest, that you are the most passionate about, that is your favorite. Focus! Even if you are a picture book author, send only one story. I will ask to read more of your picture book manuscripts if I am interested.

How do you think the Kindle and e-readers have changed the marketplace?

This is a constantly changing landscape and an intricate discussion. The great thing about e-readers like the iPad is that you can add elements like sound, video, and pictures. Think about how that can effect your storytelling. But the big question right now is what “rights” is that. Digital rights will be a new thing to sell, and an important one.

Right now only three to five percent of teens get their book content digitally.  The market for e-books is really geared toward adults right now, particularly business adults who travel a lot. There isn’t a large teen market for e-readers yet, but it is on the up and up. In terms of overhead for producing content, as well as royalties – these are all a constant discussion that comes up and changes every day. The cost of producing books digitally is not just about saving money on paper and printing and binding. But we are working through it.

Have you ever had a client or submission where they were an author/illustrator and you liked the text more than the images, or vice versa? How did you deal with that?

Yes, this can be an issue. Usually in this type of situation the illustrations are stronger than the text. This is good for me, because my strength is in writing and I can help the author/illustrator to develop his/her writing abilities. Where visual storytelling and illustration is not my strong suit.

How much of my novel needs to be finished before I query you?

All of it! You must complete the whole novel before you send out a query. Sure the pitch and the premise could be amazing, but it is all about the execution! I need to be able to see the whole arc of the book, and how you deal with an entire novel structurally. Don’t submit until you have had others look at your work and give you feedback. This will make your project stronger, and it will become more attractive to me and other agents.

What are you looking for in the first ten pages of a submission?

The first ten pages wont show me the arc of the book, but it will show me the level of the writing and craft. I can identify where a writer is based on those ten pages. Also, beware of what I call “Conference Polish.” I see this a lot. Because you only submit the first ten to agents or at conferences like this one, writers spend a lot of time making those pages perfect. But once I get to page eleven…everything starts to fall apart. Make sure that the time and energy you put into those first ten pages, you put into the rest of your book!

What are young adult boys looking for in books? Do YA boy books sell?

You don’t see a lot of boys reading young adult books. Around middle school boys stop reading, or they jump from middle grade books to adult books. But if you are writing YA for boys stay away from romance and try horror, thrillers, or science fiction. It’s really hard to find YA books that hit a boy audience. Even if you look at author John Green, he has a huge female audience. Yes, his books have male protagonists, but they are often geeky and they are in love with a girl, and the girls want to be the girl that that boy is in love with.

If I am an author/illustrator what do I send you with my query?

You can copy and paste the manuscript into the body of the text, as well as a few pages of your book dummy. Or a link to your book dummy or website. I will then request the full dummy if I am interested.

Mary Kole is an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You can learn more about her and her agency at: The Andrea Brown Website. Mary also keeps up an award-winning blog about children’s literature, writing, and publishing called: www.kidlit.com. Mary is also a big fan of the iPad, but you’ll have to ask her about that.

SCBWI Agent Day: The Quick Take-Away

I just spent the day in Newport Beach, at the Orange Country SCBWI Agent’s Day. This great event included presentations by four fantastic kidlit agents including Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Agency, Kevan Lyon of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, and Brenda Bowen from Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Each presentation was filled with gems and insight, inspiration and the cold hard facts. I will be blogging shortly with notes from each speaker, but in the meantime I thought I’d give you a few fun quotes, thoughts to think about, and the quick take-aways from the event (as pointed out by Ms. Bowen herself):

What I learned at Agent Day:

  • It takes a village to make a book.
  • Show don’t tell.
  • Agents are looking for that “swept away” feeling when they read your submission.
  • Beware of conference polish – this is when the first ten pages are amazing, but on page eleven… everything goes south.
  • Don’t be too weird, just be weird enough.
  • We are writing good books for bad children – don’t moralize your stories for kids.
  • Make sure your query letter sounds like you.
  • Be profitable to your publisher.
  • Publishers Marketplace is a great resource. It tells the truth, but it doesn’t always tell the whole story (more on this soon).
  • Don’t take it personally if someone passes on your book.
  • Don’t take it personally if it takes six weeks to read your submission.
  • Queries are like shopping. You may like what you see on the hanger but you don’t know if you’ll really like it until you try it on.
  • When you feel like putting your pen in your eye balls, you know your book is done.
  • E-rights are a hot topic, and the terms change every day.
  • iPads are good!

Please be sure to stop back soon when I cover each session individually, including sizzling topics like:

1) Mock Agent and Editor Negotiations by Brenda Bowen and Rebecca Sherman.

2) Rebecca Sherman Debunks Common Myths about Agents.

3) Mary Kole Breaks Down the Market and How to Make Your Submission Sing.

4) Kevan Lyon Reveals the Inner-workings of the Client-Agent Relationship.

5) Insights on What Each Agent is Looking for Right Now!

Dan Lazar: Crafting a Winning Query Letter

Writing a query letter always feel like a chore. How can I distil the essence of my book into one short page? In fact sometimes it feels like writing a query is harder than writing the book. But Writers House agent, Dan Lazar, points out that if you can write a good book, then you can write a good query letter! The following notes from his talk at the 2009 SCBWI Summer Conference have been the most informative talk on the subject that I personally have attended. I actually left excited to write my queries!

Dan Lazar’s tips on how to write a winning query letter and keep yourself out of the rejection pile:

“One voice of dissent is often louder than the voice of approval.” This is the quote Lazar used to start his talk, in order to illustrate how difficult the acquisitions process can be. He followed by asking (by show of hands) how many people in the audience liked the book The DaVinci Code. Then he asked people who thought the book was awful to raise their hands. Slightly more people said they liked it than didn’t. Lazar pointed out that sometimes the people in power at a publishing house are like those who raised their hands to say they didn’t like The DaVinci Code – these people would have passed on a multi-million dollar book. A book that a majority of people really liked. It’s not always that easy to sell a book, even one that is an international best seller.

Okay first things first, before you even address your query letter…

You want to research the agents and editors you are interested in sending your manuscript to. Learn their full names, what they are looking for, and their submission policies. Great places to do research on editors and agents include:

  • The Children’s Writers Market Publication and the Jeff Harmon Guide – these are a good place to start, however often times the information is outdated by the time it is printed/published so be sure to look for additional information elsewhere.
  • Publishersmarketplace.com – Listings are free and are edited directly by editors and agents. This is probably one of the most up to date places to find information.
  • Agentquery.com – This is updated by the site and not the editors/agents.
  • Verlakay.com – Look for the forums page. Dan Lazar found his client Ingrid Law (who wrote Saavy) because of a posting he’d left on this site.

Okay lets write that query! What to do:

If you can write a good novel, then you can write a good query letter. It’s that simple.

Open with why you are contacting this agent/editor:

  • Open with praise and compliments. Explain why you are contacting this agent, they always like to be flattered. You don’t need to use logos, or fancy paper, glitter, graphics, etc.
  • Saying that you have read an agent’s clients work really does help you to stand out from the rest of the slush.
  • Don’t start with: To Whom It May Concern – This is almost an automatic rejection. Always research who you are sending your work to! Make sure you match!
  • Don’t be vague in your opening. “I hear you are a good agent.” Be specific. Mention you saw them at a conference. Mention the book they have represented. Read those books. Compliment and feed the agents vanity.

Start talking about your book and your main character:

  • Present your main character first. Don’t give a general idea of the story.
  • Show the voice of your character in your summary. Lazar read an example of an over-the-top voice, where the author used specifics in describing the character instead of generalities. Lazar understood right away that this character was sassy, raunchy, and jaded. (This was for an adult book). The voice of the character is what caught his attention.
  • Never use the terms quirky or interesting. These are vague and don’t mean anything. Be specific. The example used was: “Everyone in the class had thought (character’s name) was weird. Now (character’s name) had turned dark.”  This is a more engaging and specific way of saying the character is quirky.
  • Instead of saying “best friend” try – “(character’s name) is her one true confident and co-conspirator.”
  • You can make anyone love your character by showing who they love and who loves them. This is how an audience will create a connection with your character.
  • Be efficient, yet full of detail.
  • Mention your character’s age.
  • Don’t start with the “What if…” entrance to your story. Lots and lots and lots of query letters start with “What if you were stranded on an island…” etc. This is a good tool for yourself to figure out what your story is, and what it is about. But it gets repetitive and annoying in query letters. It shows a lack of originality.
  • Beware of using the phrase “My novel is a story in the genre of….” If you do not specifically know exactly what genre it is. You will end up using slashes and saying your novel is a fantasy/mystery/YA/Horror. If you don’t know, that’s okay. The agent will help you to define what it is later. Just leave this out.
  • Do not use a vague synopsis. Be specific! Be evocative!
  • Your query is a pitch, and a pitch is not a synopsis – it is a taste meant to draw you in.

Beware of making claims you cannot live up to:

  • Be careful in saying this book is gonna make me laugh, or cry…etc. Make the agent laugh in the letter. Don’t tell them you can be funny. Be funny in your letter.
  • Don’t mention that the book will make a good movie, or be a blockbuster. This shows your naiveté. Don’t be presumptuous.
  • A logline is a tricky thing – it is a film term for “this meets that” (i.e. Twilight meets Jurassic Park.) If one is not excited about that comparison then it can really hurt the submission.  Sometimes it is best to focus on character and story and forget about comparisons till later. If you are a good writer you will probably be able to fit in the logline when you are talking about your character.

When it comes to your biography:

  • Don’t apologize for not having any credits in your bio. In the example he read the author just told him sassy things about herself – again communicating her voice.
  • Skip your bio all together if it is going to turn into an apology for not having credits or experience. Instead introduce yourself in relationship to the story, what connections do you have that make you the only person who can write this book.
  • Film and TV credits or writing experience are good things to mention in your bio. Lazar had a client who he helped turn a TV pilot idea into a book.
  • Beware of vague or stretching connections when you write your bio. If it really doesn’t relate to your book and writing, don’t mention it.
  • Don’t toot your own horn in your bio or mention who already likes your book – people like your kids or your friends. If an author likes your book – that’s different – get a recommendation from them.

Also include with your query:

  • Send the first five pages, and they should be good!! If your story only gets good a page 50, then it is not ready to send out.
  • Read submission guidelines. Most agents want you to send pages with your query.
  • Include a SASE if you are sending a snail mail submission.

Okay, lets talk about query etiquette…

What about exclusivity and multiple submissions?

  • In Lazar’s opinion the exclusivity issue is an old-fashioned way of submitting work. If an agent asks for it, then you should honor it. But someone asking for up to 6 months is a little out of touch. You have every right to send an exclusive submission and tell the agent that you have given them a 6 week exclusivity submission. This is more than reasonable in Lazar’s opinion. However, if they are a really high-profile person, then you should follow their rules. If they are your dream agent, then respect the rules. If you give exclusivity, then you must honor it! Follow up with an email. Usually its good to give an extra week and then email. Politely let the agent know that you will be sending your work out to other agents, but you are still happy to hear from them.
  • Lazar assumes his submissions are simultaneous submissions unless it says it’s exclusive on it.

So I have multiple projects. Should I mention them?

  • If you would like to mention another project you are working on, or that this is a series, you can. But only spend one sentence on this project.

Try and keep these tidbits in mind too:

  • You do not need to mention the word count in your query as a good agent will know how many words the book should be based on the genre.
  • You do not need to list all the different ways in which you can send a file: CD, Email, Etc. The agent will ask for the way they want the work delivered to them. Focus on your character, and use your sentences more wisely.
  • Do not email in HTML – it will get caught in the spam filter.
  • Do not send a pre-query email. “Do you accept submissions?” Look on the website! All the info you need is there.
  • Always put your contact info at the bottom of the email. Sometimes email addresses get lost or cannot be read, so be sure your info is in your letter.
  • When a full manuscript is requested be sure you email it as a single attachment.
  • If you don’t know who your market is don’t worry about it. The agent will help you figure this out.
  • If you plan to use your initials in your book – for example J.K. Rowling, or M.T. Anderson – don’t use the initials in your query. This is something that will get ironed out later. Right now sign your name. Otherwise if the agent calls you or emails you it seems impersonal and awkward for them to ask for J.K.
  • Be neat and professional!
  • Lazar can tell in the first three paragraphs if the writing is interesting. So make it good!

About Writers House: Writers House has represented such books as: Captain Underpants, Sweet Valley Series, Baby Sitters Club Series, Twilight, Eragon, etc. The Agency represents both children’s and adult literature.

Dan Lazar has been with Writers House for over six years, and is always on the lookout for distinct fiction and great, lively non-fiction. He represents adult and children’s books (middle grade and YA). Lazar is not a picture book agent. Though if you have a career with him and later you decide you want to do picture books then he will represent you, but that is not his strong suit.  Agents at writers house that do represent picture books are: Steve Malk, Lindsay Davis, Rebecca Sherman. Dan Lazar represents: Ingrid Law, Evan Kuhlman, Chris Lincoln, Rachel Renee Russell. In his publisher’s marketplace bio Lazar says “If you think your pages can make me hold my breath or miss my subway stop or even laugh out loud, please read my submission guidelines — I’d love to hear from you.” You may email him a query at: dlazar@writershouse.com (Note from Ingrid: It seemed to me that Lazar was particularly interested in middle grade books and books for boys).

A Talk With Three Literary Agents

Every year the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) sponsor an agent night. This year’s agent representatives were Sally Van Haitsman, Angela Rinaldi, and Natalie M. Fischer, who all represent a variety of work from picture books to YA, to adult and non-fiction, as well as memoir and romance novels. The following is their point of view on submissions, the business, and how to find the perfect agent.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your agency, and what you represent:

Sally: My new agency the Van Haitsman Agency, is only five-weeks-old (as of April 26th, 2010). But before that I worked at the Castiglia Literary Agency for six years. You can find our submission guidelines online, but I am looking for a variety of work including: commercial fiction, literary fiction, memoir, science, education, etc. I do not represent young adult work or genre fiction. Prior to working in an agency I worked at the San Diego Reader for five years, and I received my Masters degree in communications at UCSD.

Angela: I started out as an editor and worked at Bantam and Pocket Books. I also started the publishing division of LA Times Books. I left in 1993, and started my agency the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency in 1995. My passion is fiction, but what pays my bills is non-fiction. Successful books of ours include: Who Moved the Cheese, Zen Golf, and Calling in the One. In terms of non-fiction I look for the “quirk within the obvious.”  This is a smaller subject non-fiction book, something specific, rather than a large general book. Some books like this include: Quirky, yes. Hopeless, No (a book about aspergers). For fiction: The Starlight Drive-in, Blood Orange, and The Good Sister. I am also looking for suspense, literary novels, historical thrillers, womens issues books,  and self-help books. I do not cover young adult, but Spencer Humphries at my agency does. If you email me do not send attachments. Please let me know if you are sending me work exclusively. If you mail something to me include a SASE and do not send anything that needs to be signed for as it drives me crazy. I am also a member of the AAR.

Natalie: I work for the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. I am a new agent, and began in sales and and also worked as an intern for one of Dijkstra’s agents who represented romance novels. We keep a very small list at our agency, which means we are very involved with our clients. Right now about eighty percent of my sales have been in children’s books, middle grade, and young adult fiction. I am looking to fall head over heels in love with your submission. I am looking for character driven literary middle grade or young adult novels. I really like fantastical and sexy projects, and I am really looking to build my commercial women’s, historical, and romantic adult fiction lists. I mostly take paper submissions, please include a query, a synopsis, and the first fifty pages of your book, or non-fiction proposal. I am very involved in online blogs, and I find a lot of work that way. I am often scouting in places like www.absolutewrite.com and twitter. If you submit to me, I will not respond unless I am interested. And it is always good form to be kind and not send nasty letters to agents who pass on your work. I have a lot of time right now and I am really looking for clients and work.

How do you find clients?

Sally: I meet a lot of my clients at conferences, and through referrals. I also get queries from people who have found my agency online. In regards to conferences, sometimes the client is someone I met many years ago, and they are only submitting now that their work is ready.

Angela: I find clients through referrals or online. Sometimes a client will find me based on an acknowledgments page in a book they liked. Occasionally an editor will refer a writer to me. Publishers like to have the middle man (agents) because it allows them to only have an editorial relationship with the writer and things don’t get bogged down in regards to money conversations. I also find people through journals I read.

Natalie: I find clients through referrals and conferences as well. But as I said before I am on the internet a lot. I suggest everyone start a blog! Then put a blurb about your project on that blog, a description of your book in one or two lines, maybe even an excerpt. “Teaser Tuesday” is a forum online where authors will put excerpts of their books up on the internet, and I often read those.

What type of role do you like to take in your client’s lives?

Sally: If your work is ready and you are up in the 90th percentile then I like working with a client. But if a writer is really not at that place with his/her work then it can become very overwhelming. I would then suggest a writer take a class at a community college, or find a writers group to help them develop. I like to help smooth out the bumps, and make connections with the work, but I’m not a writing teacher.

Angela: I will do some editing with my clients. I feel like I have a lot more input to give on a non-fiction project because that is more of my specialty. I don’t polish prose. If the writing was not almost there to begin with I would be very reluctant to take on the writer. I might suggest you find a co-author to help you. In regards to fiction you are either a storyteller or you are not. And I do take caution when a query says that a book has been professionally edited by someone else as I am then unclear how much of the writing is the author’s.

Natalie: I am not going to fix peoples sentences or grammar for them. But I do participate in general content editing, things like concepts, how you got from one point to another, structuring, etc. I am not a proof reader.

How has the economy changed submission for you?

Sally: I am taking on fewer projects now, and being more conservative. You really need to be judicious. So the more professional and polished your book is the better. Red flags can be small things like typos, grammar, verb tense issues, etc. These will cause me to lose confidence in a submission. After we have gone through two or three revisions, if the book isn’t where it should be it can become difficult, particularly with a fiction book. You can do more with a non-fiction book. You should always get a second opinion before submitting, and research and learn agent’s affinities.

Angela: Editors are buying less, and are looking for books with more weight. There is a lot more pressure on editors to find a winning book these days. Sometimes it is about platform. This is particularly important if you have a non-fiction book. You can look up anything you want on Google now, so you need to be an expert on what you are talking about.

Let’s talk about platform, is it important?

Sally: If you are writing a non-fiction book it is very important that you have credentials. If you are writing memoir then the book can be more fiction related and credentials are less important. However, if you’ve done something significant and are writing your memoir then the book can have a nonfiction slant and it is good to have credentials/platform. Overall show you can participate in the internet community.

Angela: You should establish your reputation with your blog or blogs. Network with peers. Get blurbs from people who will ready your book. But be respective, don’t be silly. No one is interested in the person who will stand on his or her head with a sign that says “will work for book contract.”

Natalie: Credibility will help even with fictional stories. An online presence is also important for fiction writers.

Let’s talk about proposals for memoirs…

Sally: If your memoir is more of a family story then you will want to approach your book as if it is a fiction novel. But if the memoir is subject based, then you can submit a book proposal.

Angela: Memoirs read like first novels, therefore the proposal has to work as if it is for a novel – need chapters and a detailed outline, and a fleshed out story.

What do advances look like these days?

Sally: The middle house has collapsed. Big houses still give out big advances, and the smaller houses have small advances. But it is the middle size houses where we have seen a significant drop. Large advances often go to people who are celebrities or have a significant blog or platform. Examples of high-profile blogs are: Shit My Dad Says, and Hungry Girl.

Angela: Those blogs do so well because they have created a niche market. The content doesn’t even have to be good if the platform works.

Sally: The break down is – High advances are six figures and up. Middle level is 50,000 to 100,000. Small is in the 25,000 and under, and sometimes with presses like universities an advance can be very low and only in the thousands.

Angela: There’s always an exception in regards to advances. Don’t think about the money.

What makes a winning query letter?

Sally: The query captures the voice of what you are writing. I am also a sucker for a good title. But always get into the matter at hand. Forget the whole “I have a book, blah, blah, blah.” Of course you do, that’s why you are querying me. Also, don’t start with hypothetical questions like “Hey, have you ever wondered why people wear pants?” Uh…No! Also, only query one project at a time.

Angela: Be professional, but don’t lose the essence of what you are writing about. Avoid the name Jake for your protagonist. Try and capture your voice, or if it is non-fiction explain why it is that you are the perfect person to write this book.

Natalie: I like it if I’ve met you or we have some connection. Start with how you know me.

Sally: Find a secret reader with a critical eye and have them read your query. Also think about this like it is a job interview.

Natalie: You can post your query on the website absolutewrite.com and get feedback on it. Also, on our agencies Facebook page we have a template for good query letters.

Angela: Be sure you address the query to me! Say my name! Don’t mass query agents. It feels like spam and I delete it immediately.

Do you think there is a market for personal essays?

Angela: No. Personal essays don’t work unless there is a celebrity aspect.

How long should a work of fiction be?

Sally: There is a sweet spot between 60,000 and 100,000 words. If the book starts to get over 400 pages it can get really daunting. Think about this as the difference between watching a normal one and a half to two-hour movie, or watching a three hour movie. Plus the longer your book is will affect other things like printing cost. This doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. However, a first novel that is over 100,000 words sends a message that the writer may not have done the proper amount of editing before submitting it. Granted you can get away with longer word counts if your book is fantasy or science fiction. A good rule of thumb is to go to the book store and compare your word/page count with other books in your genre.

Angela: Publishers don’t like long first novels because they cost more and there is a bigger gamble with and unknown author. This really raises the steaks for the publisher.

Natalie: In general, don’t go over 100,000 words. The break down for children’s literature is as follows – Picture books are less than 1000 words, chapter books are between 5000 to 10,000 words, middle grade is 40,000 to 60,000, and young adult is 60,000 to 90,000 words.

Would you ever represent a self published book?

Sally: This can work if your book is selling. But you need to consider what happens when you change from self published to main stream publishing. You will get less money if you go with a main stream publisher, so if your book is selling really well as a self published book you need to decide if you want to change.

Angela: Self published books with low sales is a ding (not a good thing). I would not mention that you’ve self published the book if this is the case.

Natalie: I won’t take self published fiction books. But a self published non-fiction book has some options. If you are going to self publish you should do it because your book is regional or serves a small niche market, or if you are doing it to give it to your family.

What do you look for in a book proposal?

Sally: Proposals are getting shorter and they need to be punchy. Be succinct. They shouldn’t be longer than 50 pages, and they do need sample chapters.

Angela: The overview is very important. Be engaging, grab my attention. Tell me how this book will change my life, will it show me how to cook a meal in ten minutes or discipline my kids, etc.

Is there a difference between having an agent on the West Coast versus the East Coast?

Sally: No.

Angela: If a novel is great it will sell. Agents don’t need to be in New York. The agent’s reputation is what holds water, not where they are located.

What kind of weight does a verbal contract hold?

Sally: I don’t take things very far with a potential client before having them sign. I want them to think about the long-term. In regards to termination, this should be a mutual agreement. But all our policies are all laid out very clearly in our agreement.

Moderator: “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it is written on.” Email can be used as a paper trail and record agreements, but you really want things to be in writing.

What are you looking for in a synopsis for fiction projects?

Sally: They should be one page long. Get to the gist of the story! Some other agents like to have a longer synopsis.

Angela: One page or even a few paragraphs (only 2 or 3). You should query and send your pages. I read the pages first. I don’t usually read the synopsis because I don’t want to spoil where the book is going.

Natalie: Not more than two pages. I will read pages first, also, but if they seem to have issues, yet I am still interested, then I will read the synopsis to have a sense of where things are going.

What is your turn around for submissions?

Sally: Four to six weeks for manuscripts.

Angela: I’ll respond to an email query within a few days. If you mail me, then four to six weeks.

Natalie: I will respond within a month if I want to see more of your work, then it will depend on my time.

Is there still a chic-lit genre?

Sally: This genre has changed, it is a bit older and come of age. It’s not all about shoes anymore.

Angela: Editors are not really looking for it anymore. It has matured and turned into women married to defunct hedge fund managers.

What is your opinion on trends?

Sally: Write what you have a passion for, you will never time a trend correctly.

Angela: Ditto. However, trends can open the door for new genres. For example multi-cultural fiction is very big now, this opened up room for books like Little Bee. Write what you love.

Natalie: What trends do follow are themes that are universal. Trend books were also bought a year ago. You should also consider the fact that this might not be the right time for your book. Maybe it will be part of a trend to come, in five years it could be a huge hit, but there’s no market for it right now.

What is an agents relationship with a publisher?

Sally: We set up meetings with publishers and have lunches with editors we’ve worked with, or new editors we want to work with. We meet editors at conferences too. Editors want to find us too, this is something that goes both ways.

Angela: Publishers see agents as first readers. We are a filter for them. Our job is about knowing what editors want and who to send a project to. We are also the author’s advocate, and we do negotiations. We don’t have to be lawyers because a publisher isn’t going to budge on a lot of things, so we are really dealing with smaller issues.


Sally Van Haitsma is the owner of Van Haitsma Literary Agencey a boutique agency on the West Coast. Sally previously agented six years at the Castiglia Literary Agency and prior to that, apprenticed at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, both located in Del Mar, California. Learn more about her agency and how to submit at: Van Haitsma Literary Agency Website


Angela Renaldi owns Rinaldi Literary Agency in Beverly Hills, California. Angela is passionate for fiction and look for engaging characters, a strong plot, good storytelling and lovely writing with a distinct voice. She is also looking for Non-fiction work. Learn more about her at: Publishers Marketplace


Natalie M. Fischer is an agent at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She specializes in quality commercial books, and currently represents authors in the young adult, middle grade, memoir, women’s, romance (both historical and contemporary), multi-cultural and supernatural mystery genres, biography, popular science/culture and literary creative fiction, cross cultural and select paranormal. Learn more about her agency at: Dijkstra Literary Agency Website

This presentation was sponsored by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC). Learn more about this organization, events, and membership at: IWOSC Website

Quote of the Week: Sarah Davies

“There is more reward in fighting through the pain of revision than giving up and starting something new.” – Sarah Davies

Sarah Davies is an agent at Greenhouse Literary, who represents and manages the careers of authors writing fiction for children, from young chapter-book series through middle grade novels to sophisticated teen fiction. Her clients include: Sarwat Chadda, Jon Mayhew, Harriet Goodwin,Valerie Patterson, among others.

Learn more about Davies and her agency at: Greenhouse Literary

Read her blog: Sarah Davies Blog

Read a great interview with Davies at the Bologna Book Festival: Davies Interview

The Do’s and Don’ts of Submitting to a Literary Agent

Literary Agent, Kelly Sonnack, of the Andrea Brown Agency shared the following list of Do’s and Don’ts for submitting to a literary agent at the 2009 SCBWI LA Conference.

Before Submitting:

  • Become part of a critique group. Get feedback on your work. Agents do not want to be your first read.
  • Get your book to be as perfect as possible before submitting it.
  • Read other authors who have published in your genre. It is good to have an idea of where your book will be shelved in the book store. Know who your peers are, and what other work is already out there.  Find out what authors/books you are similar to.
  • Research publishing houses. Agents like to see that you are doing your homework and that there is some level of education and research done on your part.
  • Pick a good and original title. This helps as a marketing tool to sell your book.
  • Set realistic goals for your book.
  • Separate your dreams from your goals.

The Manuscript:

  • Proof read your work! And proof read your query letters!
  • Don’t submit a working version of your novel. You must have a finished book. Don’t send chapters with a synopsis, or ideas. Finish your book!
  • Format correctly. Correct format includes: double spaced pages, 12 point font, normal margins, and page numbers.

The Query Letter:

  • Present yourself professionally! Think about this like you are applying for a job. Show that you are reliable, punctual, and 100% professional. The agent wants to make sure you will not embarrass them or hurt their reputation.
  • Keep your query to one page only.
  • Your query only needs to be three paragraphs long. First paragraph should explain why you are choosing this agent. The second paragraph should be a summary of your project. The third paragraph should be your credentials.  Your project summary is a teaser, it does not have to tell everything that happens in the book.
  • Personalize your query. The agent wants to know why you’ve picked them. Mention your research, or that you met them at a conference. Etc.
  • Get to the point, be upbeat and interesting. Be positive and professional. Be concise.
  • Include your contact info! Name, email, phone, and address. Even if you send an email be sure to include email address in the body of the query.
  • Do not include your vacation schedule or when you are available.
  • Give a sense of where your book fits into the market. Kelly likes to have you compare your book to other books.
  • Don’t give exaggerated notions of your book, don’t build up expectations you can’t live up to (i.e. This book will be a best seller).
  • List your writing credentials and accolades in your query. These do add up and are important. These are things like writing awards, education, experience that relates to topic of the book, etc.
  • Do not fabricate or over exaggerate your unrelated experience. Writing text-book manuals does not translate into writing for kids. Self published books are NOT experience, unless you have sold upwards of 10,000 copies. (See note below on why self publishing is seen as a ding on your publishing record).
  • Let the agent know if this is an exclusive submission or not. That can simply be phrased as: “I have chosen to query you and several other agents.”
  • Briefly mention other projects you have or are working on. The key here is BRIEFLY! The agent likes to have a sense of what else you might have and your career plans.
  • Picture book clients need to have at least three good book ideas to be represented by Kelly.  She wants to see that there is a future and a career, and that this writer is not a one hit wonder.


  • Always present your work professionally!
  • Be sure you have carefully selected what agents you want to send your work to.
  • Always, always, always read the submission guidelines of the agency. Be sure you have read them carefully! Follow the guidelines.
  • Don’t call and ask unnecessary questions that you could have learned by looking on their website. Do your research!
  • Don’t send submission to more than one agent at the SAME agency at the same time. At Andrea Brown agents share work with other agents if they think someone else is better suited for this particular client. Because of this if you receive a “no” from any agent at Andrea Brown, then you can assume it is a no from the whole agency.
  • Do not submit more than one project to an agent at a time, unless requested by the agent.
  • Do not mass email agents by sending the same general query to many at the same time (and you’ve put all the email addresses into the same email). This is super bad etiquette!
  • Do anticipate what an agent might ask for. Such as: Pitch – One or two line pitch of the story. A three-sentence synopsis of story, and one to two-page synopsis of story (this will tell what happens in the end of the story). Have all three of these on hand to send back ASAP if requested.
  • Tap any sources you may have for an endorsement (published authors, etc.)
  • Honor the agency’s response time and polices. For Andrea Brown if you have not received a response in 6 to 8 weeks you can assume that it is a “No.”
  • If you mention that you heard Kelly speak at SCBWI conference she will try very hard to give you a written response.
  • Do not send nasty messages. This is a small world!
  • Do take suggestions and notes from an agent or editor to heart. Come back and re-submit when you’ve changed your manuscript based on those suggestions.
  • Don’t send attachments. Links to a website are ok. Attached .jpegs are okay.
  • Thank agents for their responses. Thank-yous are rare and much appreciated.

When You Get A Bite:

  • Get excited!
  • Be Professional!
  • Re-familiarize yourself with that agent’s agency and list. You may have submitted to multiple people and forgotten what they have done.
  • Prepare questions. Some questions that will show you’ve done your homework will include: What is your working style? Do you prefer to communicate via email or telephone? What is your transparency with submissions to editors? How often should I expect to hear from you? Etc.
  • Discuss your expectation and your goals. Ask what the agent’s expectations are for your book. Don’t ask how much the agent will make you on your book.
  • Be honest and forthcoming. Finding an agent is like a marriage. What didn’t work out with your first agent? Have you self published before? Etc.
  • Don’t attempt to negotiate non-negotiable items. For example an agent will usually take 15%. This is standard. If an agent asks for more than that – walk away!
  • Make sure you and the agent are a good fit for one another. This is a very serious decision.
  • Enjoy the journey!

Other Notes and Comments:

Why Self Publishing is Bad – Self publishing means there is a book out there with an ISBN number associated with your name. If a publisher is trying to make a deal with Barnes and Noble or Borders for your book and they go to order your new book, your old book will show up with its ISBN. If your self published book sold only 24 copies there is NO WAY Barnes and Noble or Borders will pick up your new book because the last book did so poorly. This is a huge deal. There are ways of getting around this if you’ve already got a self published book. For example you can use a pen name. This above scenario is not as big a deal if you are an illustrator as illustrators names are not as often associated with ISBN numbers. Be forthcoming with your agent if you have self-published, it is something you can work through together.

Finding the Right Agent – It is important to figure out your communication style and to make sure you and your agent will be able to talk to one another effectively. It is also good to find someone who loves your work and is passionate about it.

Sending Work Directly to Editors – Agents don’t like that you’ve sent your work out to an editor in the past. Agents don’t like this is for two reasons. The first is that you cannot usually send that book to anyone at that publisher if it’s already been rejected, and the agent is disappointed that you sent the book out before it was ready or as good as it could be. And second, sometimes the Agent has a great idea of who to send the book to, but you’ve made a connection with someone else that the agent doesn’t think is quite as good for your project and they work at the same house.

Special Formats – Beware of having a book that is dependent upon a special format – die cut, glow in the dark, etc. These are expensive and hard to sell, and usually are not done for first time authors.

Kelly Sonnack is a literary agent at Andrea Brown Agency. She represents picture books up through young adult fiction, as well as graphic novels and non fiction. Her clients include: Steve Watkins, Merrily Kutner, Jin Pyn Lee, Candace Ryan, and Heather Leigh.

About Kelly and Her Style: Kelly is very picky about rhyming picture books as they are hard to sell. If you are a picture book writer Kelly likes you to have a minimum of three good projects before she will take you on as a client. In regards to revisions, Kelly likes to go through at least two cycles of revisions with an author. Sometimes there are more. You can count on a couple of months of revisions.

Five Things an Editor or Agent Looks for in the First Five Pages

At the 2009 SCBWI Los Angeles Conference, editor Courtney Bongiolatti (Simon and Schuster), and agent Dan Lazar (Writer’s House) shared their views on what they look for in young adult and middle grade book openings.  It all boils down to five main ingredients:

1) Age

Immediately understanding the age of your character helps the agent/editor to get a feel for your book’s market. Age is often communicated through voice, therefore it is essential that your voice matches your intended characters age. Not to mention that the age of your character will change/effect the story you want to tell, so make sure it is appropriate.

2) Voice

Voice will be one of the first things to grab and editor/agents attention. They are looking for a strong and confident voice that  jumps off the page. Voice can make or break your book so nail it from the start.

3) Situation

Start with an undeniable and interesting situation. Don’t begin with a character waking up and starting their day. Get to the action! A great example would be to start with an explosion, followed by a kid falling out of a plane – on page one! Put action and adventure into the first sentence!

4) Tone

You need to know the tone of your book and define it for an agent or editor. The tone will reveal if your book is commercial or literary. If you open with an explosion, then you book is probably commercial. Whereas a book with beautiful descriptions is probably literary. Tone will greatly effect how your book is perceived by an audience.

5) Magic

The magic happens when the reader is drawn in by character, compelling action, or strong emotional elements.  Lazar explains that Saavy (by his client Ingrid Law) as a great example of magic in the first five pages. It opens with the compelling line: “When my brother Fish turned 13 we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane, and he caused it.” This was a story about a character who was moving away from the home they love, but there is a very unique reason why they must move. The book is full of energy, and the magic hits you in the face.

An additional note on prologues: If it is skip-able, you don’t need it. Prologues can be okay for fantasy or sci-fi, especially if the book starts with an every day situation, but it is often used to set up the world.