What do agents and editors want? Writers, you tell us

The truth is no one knows what they want until they see it.

Editors and agents always say they are looking for a compelling story, great voice, proper pace, believability–and excellent writing. However, no one can say exactly what that will be until it lands in their inbox.

This isn’t the industry being fickle, it’s what fiction is meant to do: take us to a fresh setting we want to spend time in, introduce us to new characters, make us think about meaning in our lives in a way we haven’t before. As Steve Jobs said: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” (Business Week, 1998).

In education and academic publishing, and certain genre fiction, commissioning editors know what they are looking for and work with authors to create series or texts. However, in trade publishing everyone is looking for the next ‘big book’ and we look to the creators of content–writers and storytellers–to bring the aspirational qualities I mentioned above to life.

I have a good idea what interests me thematically and topically, but I also love being surprised.

(Photo Illustration by Ben Wiseman, NYT)

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

4 thoughts on “What do agents and editors want? Writers, you tell us

  1. And this is the perfect argument for writers to remain true to themselves and write instinctively and with passion, “the market” be damned. If you’re trying to fit in, trying to second guess what the gatekeepers want, your work is never going to ring true to yourself or to anyone else.


    1. Big names get big backing, but debuts need to be smart about their marketing resources. Hiring a publicist and our marketer to help promote your book goes a long way in taking control of your career and standing out from the pack.


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