What Agents & Publishers Want and Why

I have written a lot about the value of collaborators in your creative work. How there is a difference between creating art for the sake of your own personal experience, and in wanting to share it with the world.

In working with hundreds and hundreds of writers, I often hear things like:

“An agent said they wanted to see me have at least 10,000 Twitter followers.”

Today, I would like to share my impression of what agents, publishers, and any collaborators want to see from you and why. If you do other types of creative work, this advice applies. Perhaps you are an artist who seeks a gallery show or a licensing deal; a musician who seeks a producer or label; an entrepreneur who seeks investors or a co-founder. All of the advice below is about how to help collaborators help you.

Now, I am not an agent. I’m not a publisher. I’m someone who works with authors & creative professionals to help them connect their work with an audience. So this is my interpretation after working with so many wonderful authors, agents, and publishers. But an agent or publisher may be reading this, and will want to clarify with their own feedback. I do not pretend to speak for them. My goal is only to try to give writers more clarity to understand how to be great collaborators.

Okay, let’s dig in…

Write an amazing book that resonates

This is always number one on the list.

Of course, the first thing that an agent or publisher values is an amazing book.

The only thing I would add here is this: they want to see something that resonates. How often have you read a super popular book, and said to yourself, “The writing here is crap.” Or “this is a rip off of 1,000 other stories.” Even if you are correct, the bottom line is: something about it resonated with a massive audience.

Too often, writers hide behind the notion of “quality” in the marketplace. The marketplace does respect “quality,” but they may define it differently. Of course, you should focus on craft work of the highest quality. But you should be aware that “quality” can be defined in different ways. Quality is something that resonates like a laser focus to the heart. And the bottom line is: different people, different tastes.

Say what you want about some popular authors or creators: they know how to move someone. To get people to keep turning pages. Keep buying books. Keep telling friends about them.

Each agent or publisher will have their own definition of a “great book” or “quality.” All I would suggest is: don’t be constrained by a limited notion of what this means. For instance: I have seen platforms around historical romance novels that were too bogged down in historical accuracy. In other words, 99% of what the reader saw was an overwhelming amount of accuracy, but a story, dialogue, characters that didn’t resonate. No doubt that author spent countless hours researching, ensuring the highest level of historical accuracy. To them, they felt they were doing right because this was there definition of “quality.” Are they wrong? Nope. But if they want to resonate with readers, they may have to broaden that view to include other things, like working more on the plot, characters, dialogue, etc.

Likewise, a nonfiction author may rely too much on stats, or perhaps not enough. A memoir may be too bogged down with a moment by moment, play by play of their life, which is “accurate” (and therefore “high quality”) but does not resonate with readers because it doesn’t move them. There are many ways to tell the same story, and if your goal is to engage others, you have to experiment with them.

This is why I encourage writers who want to reach an audience to engage with others. It could be other authors, or readers, or librarians, or booksellers, or so many others. No, this is not to say that you should write to a market, selling out your own vision. It is about understanding how to tell the best story you can by understanding what resonates and why.

There is no one perfect way to do this. I would simply encourage you to not get comfortable in a single way that makes sense to you because it is comfortable to you. A lot of books have been thrust into the marketplace with a quiet “thud” because of this. No readers, no sales, no reviews. What I am encouraging is for you to find out what resonates before you publish.

Can you get lucky with your query or your proposal, and have it instantly resonate with an agent, then a publisher, then readers? YES!!!! It happens. Just not as often as we would like.

For agents and publishers, they want to say “yes.” They want to wake up and be blown away by a story. But too often, their reality is about sorting through thousands of things that fall flat to them.

Come to them knowing what resonates with readers.

Some of this is about craft, some is understanding what a particular agent loves, and some of this is about breaking all of those rules. There are wonderful resources to help you explore this, starting with Writer Unboxed’s own Donald Maass.

Have a sense of who the core audience for the book is

A good partner for a book is someone working with them to get the book into reader’s hands. Who has a clear sense of who this book is for. That will be able to assist in marketing and promoting the book.

Too often, writers look to agents and publishers to know who the audience is, and what they may not realize is that agents & publishers are looking back at the author with the very same expectation.

So how can you, the author, help collaborators with understanding the core audience for your book?

Develop an audience for your writing, even if it is tiny. No, you don’t need 1,000 readers, but can you have 10? Or 7? Can you have experience understanding what resonates with your book from the perspective of others? What parts do people always talk about?

I was doing research for a client recently, and waded through hundreds of Amazon reviews for Outlander. It was fun to see the common themes that came up in the reviews:

  • Readers focused on the story and characters first, historical accuracy second. To them, the historical accuracy was that was nice for context, but what they couldn’t stop talking about were the characters and story. I bring this up because, as I mentioned above, I have spoken with historical fiction authors who put story/character second, because they want to “make use of” their hundreds of hours of historical research. Again: know what resonates with readers.
  • Readers kept saying “I never read romance, but I loved this book.” It was like they had to apologize or justify liking this book, which has strong romance themes. That would be amazing to know, as an author, that this book would resonate with an audience who normally distances themselves from romance, but loved it because of the romance themes.

What is it about your work that resonates with readers? Knowing this will help your collaborators understand how they can best connect it with more people. What can you tell them about who these readers are? This doesn’t have to be a peer-reviewed analysis with stats.

Think of it this way: often a band will tour and tour as they seek a record deal, or before they release their first album. Part of that process is to develop a sound, and to develop an audience. But it is also knowing who comes to their shows, what moments in a song get people to dance, get them to go crazy, and get them to hold up a lighter.

Knowing this about who resonates with your work and why, is an incredible gift you can give to those helping you share your book with the world.

Understand the current marketplace

Know your comps. In other words: the other books in the marketplace that a bookseller would shelve yours next to. Know why you align with some of them, where you fill in gaps.

Have a clear sense of who will buy this book, and proof that there is a market for it. An awareness of comparable titles in the marketplace and an analysis to prove this, along with insight into how you align, and where you are different from them.

To show a focus on genre-specific online centers,or related topic-specific areas online. These include social media, blogs, podcasts, media, and prominent people your ideal audience loves.

Publishing is a business, and if you are asking for collaborators to invest in you and your work, then take the marketplace seriously. Don’t pretend that doing so is “selling out,” or that “this is someone else’s job.”

Help them help you.

Develop the relationships you need to reach these people

If you are a professional, you need colleagues. These can be friendly relationships, formal partnerships, affiliations with organizations, connections to booksellers and librarians, or general engagement in the “community” to which your work matters.

Focus on this years before you think you are “ready.” Relationships with colleagues require trust, and that takes time. One day, you may reach out to these folks for emotional support, for advice, to ask for an introduction, to write an endorsement for your book, or to share it with others.

No, this shouldn’t be a selfish targeting of “influencers” whereby you judge the value of the “relationship” by how much they can promote your book. This is about being genuinely curious, helpful, and caring to the many people who you will be on this journey with.

These relationships don’t have to start in some huge way. Send an email saying something nice. Ask for advice that really matters. Go out of your way to help them out.

Have ideas for how to reach your ideal readers

Come up with marketing ideas on how to interest in your book. This may include: messaging, launch plans, contests, bulk purchases, promotions, bonuses, pre-orders, partnerships, events, or so much else.

Even if the ideas you come up with are nuts, it shows agents and publishers that you are someone who is working on behalf of the book to make it a success.

Develop direct channels to reach these potential readers

Show that you have an active social media platform, with a plan for growth, on channels that readers value. Maybe that includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, plus an established website and email newsletter focused on the themes of your book.

Too often, the “best practices” dictate that after you right a great book, the next thing to focus on is “Tweet your brains out!!!!” But I put social media lower on this list for a reason.

Now, I love social media. Looooooooove it. For every author I work with, we are highly engaged in social media. But I think people get distracted by the technology, and miss the point: this is about people. Let’s have Steve Jobs explain it, here is an excerpt from a 1994 interview:

INTERVIEWER: You’ve often talked about how technology can empower people, how it can change their lives. Do you still have as much faith in technology today as you did when you started out 20 years ago?

STEVE JOBS: Oh, sure. It’s not a faith in technology. It’s faith in people. Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them. It’s not the tools that you have faith in — tools are just tools. They work, or they don’t work. It’s people you have faith in or not.

I love authors. I love agents and publishers. Every day, I try to have empathy for their goals and challenges.

What does an agent or publisher want from an author? A great book. And help in connecting it with the world in a meaningful way.

What do you feel makes a great collaborator?