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