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What I Learned From a Panel of Literary Agents:

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Hey guys! I was lucky enough to attend SDCC this year and had a total blast. One of my favorite panels from the weekend was a q&a session with a panel of literary agents, it was amazing! I thought I’d share what I learned because I found it sooo helpful.


Our first panelist Jennifer Azantian founded Azantian Literary Agency. According to their website they are particularly interested in stories that explore meaningful human interactions against fantastic backdrops, underrepresented voices, literary science fiction, historical fantasy, creepy stories for young readers, humorous space operas, well crafted and hopeful futures, internally consistent epic fantasies, obscure retold fairy tales, modernized mythology, and eccentric protagonists. Submission guidelines are listed at azantianlitagency.com


Our second panelist Thao Lee works at Sandra Dijkstra Literacy agency, she is currently seeking young adult and middle grade contemporary stories that are witty heart felt and authentic. She is particularly drawn stories about family and friendships from the point of view of diverse protagonists. She’s a fan of young characters who are passionate about the arts, spots, stem, activism and geeky fandoms. She adores stories with a touch of magic and whimsy and is a fan of mythology and fairy tales. Submissions are listed at dijkstraagency.com


Our next panelist Taylor Martindale Kean works at Full Circle Literacy. She’s looking for YA fiction and literary MG across all genres. She’s interested in unique and unforgettable voices in contemporary, fantasy, historical and magical realism, she is looking for books that demand to be read. more than anything she is looking for diverse, character driven stories that bring their worlds vividly to life and voices that are honest, original and interesting. Submission guidelines are listed at fullcircleliterary.com


Our 4th panelist Kari Sutherland works at Bradford Literary Agency having previously worked as a senior editor at Harper Collins. In children’s books she is interested in character driven stories, new twists on classics tales, empowering themes, epic fantasies, fresh voices and experiences, inventive mysteries, humor and magical realism. In YA which is near and dear to her heart, she is drawn to compelling voices, tight pacing, and clear world building regardless weather it is a space drama an underground dystopia, a small town or big city contemporary she is open to any genre in YA. Submission guidelines are listed at bradfordlit.com


Last but not least our final panelist Tim Travaglini is an agent at Jill Corcoran Literary which has recently become a part of transatlantic literary agency. He has a fondness for science fiction and fantasy, bibliomysteries, rom coms, middle grade boys books, picture books with monsters, graphic novels and comics, swash-buckling adventures, well loved stories reimagined in new ways, exotic settings, parodies, anything over the top, innovative stories that break ground and anything to do with roller derby. He wants a book that makes him laugh out loud he wants a book that makes him cry he wants a book that makes him fall in love he wants a book that breaks his heart. Submission guidelines are at jillcorcoranliteraryagency.com


The panel was moderated by Henry Herz (author of Good Egg & Bad Apple).


Henry: If you are a writer and write for YA or younger I strongly recommend membership to SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Good for people who don’t know where to start in publishing a great 1st step. How to query, what is a query, all the beginner steps.


Question 1: How do you feel about receiving manuscripts that have already been shared publicly but not published?

  • Taylor: I think it depends on what your goals are with that particular project and the type of agents you want to work with. There are some agents that work with specifically representing self published projects like something you’ve published but they are interested in the sub-rights. Then there are some agents who just don’t work in that sphere or don’t know how to best leverage that for you and I’m one of them. I just don’t work in that sphere so if I’m getting something that’s already been published but I love your work we might talk about what you have coming next so this can kind of be a first project for you and we can work on a second together. The one thing I want to clarify when this comes up is self publishing something is not a market test. It is in the sense that when you publish it it has been published. I’ll get queries sometimes that say “I self published it to get the ball rolling” but that’s not true. I can’t just take that and then just sell it immediately to a new publisher. It’s possible it absolutely is if you’ve proven in the first month or two months or three months of sales and you’ve had tens of thousands of sales, there’s a showing to me that we can then grow that a lot then you’ve got the ball rolling in a great way. But if it’s only been a couple hundred sales and you wanted to put it together as marketing material then it’s actually setting you back a step. So I think just have clear ideas of what you want and what your goals are for a particular project.

  • Jen: Yeah I also don’t really do a whole lot of it. The hesitancy on my side of it as far as self publishing goes I think there is a lot of that part has been a bit saturated on the publishers side and I would probably be interested in something that is doing well on patreon or a serialized podcast but I don’t think publishing has quite caught up yet. Those are very rare exceptions. And even just hearing at this particular con editors talk about this and they say there are very rare cases so I’m not seeking them out. I’m listening I’m kind of seeing but when I only see one editor saying “that would be a really cool thing to do” it’s not quite worth my while as an agent to be seeking out those projects that are unfinished or have very unique markets. in that case sometimes the publisher will go directly or something like that.

  • Kari: I would agree with that. There’s a sense of “ok you’ve sold x number of copies is that all you’re going to sell?”. For me it’s I always want to see something new (and not the sequel because then that gets into sticky rights situation with the publisher because they want to exploit the property) so yeah I would say something new.

  • Thao: Yes just to go off of that this is not to discourage you from putting things on patreon or building a following that’s actually great. I think social media and getting your name out there and creating a fan base is really important it’s just if you publish the whole book or the whole work and sold it at say .99 and you sold 1000 copies how a publisher or editor or agent would look at that would be to say ok so that did well at .99 but a publisher isn’t going to sell a book at .99 they’re going to sell it for 9.99 or even more. That’s a huge jump. So if you can get 1000 buyers for .99 they might feel like they’ve exhausted those sales and that it might not be the right project to pursue. These are just business thinkings because again publishing is a business so we have to think about price points and see how lucrative a project could possibly be. If you’ve already put the project out there it already has a sales history and they have to take that into account and that could affect how enthusiastic they are about your project. To contrast if you have a blank slate or a debut or there’s no proof of how well you can be it can even be subjective we can get a lot of people on the acquisition team you know you have an agent and an enthusiastic editor, agent and sales team who are excited about your idea who think they can break it out in a certain way and have a strategy for it then that’s how you’re going to get an offer.

  • Tim: I love the comment that it’s a great first project you had maybe its multiple projects and you can springboard that to your next novel that you want to submit and you can say oh I’ve also done patreon and here’s my performance there but yeah I’d put more energy into your next book and submitting it and seeking a traditional publisher if that’s what you want rather than trying to resell something that’s already living and out in the world. That being said, if you’ve sold 100,000 at .99 let me give you my card but don’t think you’re going to do that because that’s extremely rare.

Question 2: (backstory: a girl self published her book and it didn’t do well but she wrote the second one and her friends told her it was amazing so she went back and rewrote the first one and now it’s basically a new book) can I take something that I’ve self published and then re-work it significantly and then now submit it for traditional publishing?

  • Thao: I think the answer is maybe. I think it’ll depend on your agent and how much you rewrote it. I will say when you’re querying to be up front that it has been published in some kind of form so it doesn’t take the agent by surprise. Sometimes an agent will fall in love with it and they won’t care if it’s been previously self published especially if it’s changed so much I think that’s a big aspect is that it’s changed a lot and that it can be a different animal than it’s first self published self. Some agents have the skill to revamp and resell a work and you’ll have to do your research.

  • Tim: that’s a hard maybe. If it’s significantly different you might be able to take down the original version and try to scrub out the fact that it was ever out there.

  • Thao: It’s not impossible but it’s definitely more difficult than a new project. But I wouldn’t say it’s a no especially if it’s changed a lot.

  • Tim: If you want to pursue traditional publishing it would be best to erase all traces of it.

  • Thao: But be up front with the agent about it that it’s been self published and then taken down.

  • Tim: You can say you put up an earlier version of it and stress how different it is and how young you were when you started.

Question 3: What things rise to the top of your pile? What things do you look for in a submission?

  • Jen: It ends up being a very small list. It ends up being people’s heart stories and they’re kinda different from issue books which are focused on a sad coming out story. What really speaks to me is books that are based on their growing up but it comes up organically through the stories. All of my stories basically come through the slush and that’s what speaks to me. There’s something about those stories like working out your own issues in your book that’s what I’m drawn to. I’ve fallen in love with MS that i didn’t even know were on my radar. Something that pulls from your own experiences and particularly underrepresented voices.

  • Taylor/Kari (I can’t remember who said this oops!): I look for something that feels new to me even if its a new spin on something. Something that’s going to stand out from all the other subs I’ve read that day. Something that has that tension that keeps you reading. You care about the stakes. I look for stakes, relationships and writing. If the voice can really pull me in definitely its passion and heart and someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously is someone I’m drawn to.

Question 4 (mine!): What are some big red flags that make you turn away from a MS?

  • Tim: It always comes down to writing so it’s hard to be real specific. Terrible writing is a no no and fantastic writing is the best way no matter what your story is to win your audience over. There’s endless things you could be doing wrong and there are endless books and ref material on it what makes good prose and what doesn’t.

  • Taylor: So much of it is about voice but one red flag for children’s projects is I’ll open queries that start a lot with “when I was growing up” and starting the book in the adult perspective reflecting on what happened when the character was young and that doesn’t work in MG or YA. So much about those categories is an amazing experience. being in that character being in that direct POV, and you’re not able to look at that story with the benefit of adult wisdom and experience so that’s a red flag for me because it shows me that it isn’t actually a children’s book but rather an adult book reflecting on childhood.

  • Tim: and to point everyone back to SCBWI they have dos and don’ts. You should always be studying info like that and it will help you get your voice and make it the best it can be. Always working on craft and keeping that paramount in your goals. Even more important than getting published is becoming the best writer you can be.

  • Thao: For me a red flag can be too much telling in the beginning of the story. I understand that this is a brand new story for the reader and you want to catch them up with things but for me it’s more important to start with a scene. There’s action, there’s stakes, there’s motives and goals and you can understand things about the characters organically instead of you starting out the story by describing what they look like and describing what’s going on in a very expositiony way. I prefer it to happen through a scene or through action.

  • Jen/Kari: I totally agree with that. it needs to feel organic. It’s my pet peeve when you introduce a character and then the narrator pauses to explain how long they’ve known each other and how they met I’d rather see their relationship and see their dynamic and understand their bond that way than being told.

  • Tim: If you’re writing SFF there are some challenges with that. The more fantastical your world is the more you can’t preume knowledge on behalf of your reader so there is that instinct to front load a novel with backstory and to overdo the spoon feeding of details. But the more you can pull it off with a scene with tension, dialogue being in the moment the better. It can be a tricky balance.

  • Taylor: I get a lot of queries that start very dense trying to fill in that world. And maybe this is a slightly different thing than Thao’s action comment but I get a lot of people running through forests or in a lot of danger and that “start in the action” kind of wisdom you get told as a writer and I think if I don’t care about your character then I don’t care that they’re in danger. And that may just be me and thats why different agents fall in love with different projects. But I get a lot of high stakes immediately but I don’t care about the characters yet very very dense and you get every little detail and you’ve lost me immediately.

Question 5: Any advice for middle grade historical fiction?

  • Taylor: I’m hearing that WWII is very saturated, but there are always people who will buy it. But if you have a new angle on ww2 it needs to be fresh.

  • Tim: There is an ebb and flow to it. There will be a period where editors say yeah I don’t want any historical fiction and then two years later they’ll say they need it. That’s why you should never trace a trend always write what you want to write.

  • Taylor: That’s the thing to remember is the books that are hot right now sold two years ago, sometimes more. So that window is pretty much closed. Publishers have already acquired for the next two years.

Question 6: If you are an author only should you have to collect artwork/etc for your book before pursuing traditional publishing?

  • Tim: Short answer, no. If you’re going after traditional publishers they’re going to reserve the right to edit it so you’ll want a complete ms and some sketches never hurt or art samples never hurt but they’ll bring in a designer and even before that they might change half the book.

  • Taylor: Your job is to get the book as close to ready as possible and then get an agent. You’ve gotten it as polished as you can get with beta readers, critique partners, etc, then the agent will help make it even shinier. Once you get placed with a publishing house then they’ll hook you up with an editor. There are steps for it to improve along the way and you don’t want a printed book that’s been self published and then it’s already done and the editor can’t change it. Get it as perfect as you can and then be open to collaboration. Traditional publishing is all about collaboration and you want that team behind you.

Question 7: How likely is it that my book will be changed when pursuing traditional publishing?

  • All agents: 100 percent.

  • Tim: For those of you who haven’t been traditionally published keep in mind that your agent and editors and such are very good at their jobs and have a lot of experience. That being said there’s always a balancing act because its your writing, but I encourage everyone to be open to the process when you get that revision. You have to be open to that process and not be so attached to what you’re creating that you’re not listening to valid input and working on it to find an audience and be a success in the world. It can be shocking and some authors never get comfortable with changes but most do. Most value the process.

  • Taylor: I’ve learned to warn my authors ahead of time that my edit letters are long it’s not personal I just like to ask questions. But it’s worth it you’re getting a team that supports you that loves your work that wants it to succeed.

  • Tim: And their goal is to make you the best writer you can be. That’s all they want out of it in the end so they’re only working in your best interest.

  • Thao: I’d say it’s important that you find an agent and they’ll help you find an editor that shares your vision. If they’re trying to change your book completely… it’s better to have no agent than a bad agent that’s changing your book into something you’re no longer proud of. Make sure the agents you’re querying are working on projects that are similar to yours like same feel or theme and not just saying yes to anyone because they might be a great agent but they might not be a great agent for you because maybe your visions are clashing not meshing.

Question 8: Does an agent help you with things beyond the book itself like other media? (tv show, movie, etc)

  • Taylor: A lot of us have in house or co agents that we work with to help with that kind of thing.

  • Tim: Ultimately the answer is yes. A lot of the bigger agencies all of the agents pretty much have some sort of relationship with hollywood movie management. But when youre looking at agents specifically you can see on their website if they have movie experience or no.

And that’s it! I hope you found this helpful


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