What are agents looking for in a writer?

contract signingOne of the most popular questions I get asked during an #askagent Twitter session or at a conference is: What are agents looking for in a writer?

All agent interests and guidelines aside here are the qualities I look for–these are my personal opinions–in a writer:

  • Professional demeanour online and via emails/phone conversations

You are a reflection of your agent. When we matchmake you with an editor we step back, let you build your author/editor relationship and talk directly with them. We have to know that you are going to conduct yourself professionally during that time. If we bring an editor an author that doesn’t conduct themselves professionally it looks poorly on us. Not to mention when an author starts promoting their book and interacting with fans there is a certain level of professionalism expected.

  • Incredible passion and persistence

I need writers to love their work, voice, and style and be ready for the long haul. There will be times when writers get down and their agent has to pick them back up, but overall they have to believe in themselves and believe in their work. Start building some thick skin and pick who you trust (i.e. carefully choose critique partner and agent). There will always be conflicting advice, but you have to know in your heart that you can make it and your agent will work with you to achieve that.

  • Mutual respect

Granted, understanding the agent/author role comes when you have that relationship in place. You’ll get to know each other. But, right away you’ll know whether that level of respect is there. I know it’s hard to hand over some control to an agent to take care of your baby, but that’s our job; it’s what we’re trained to do. Choose who you’re querying carefully and ask the right questions when an offer of representation comes. I can tell when I start to interact directly with a writer if that level of mutual respect is there. 

  • Patience and understanding

This business moves slowly. Ask any published author how long it took from inception to publication, or from shopping the book to landing a publisher and they’ll laugh. There is no formula, there is no ‘norm.’ Everyone works so damn hard to get where they are and success will NOT happen overnight. Get realistic with your expectations and goals. Agents need to know you understand this.

  • Extreme talent

The competition in publishing right now is fierce. When we take new authors on we’re looking for a fresh voice, a major talent, and something that takes our breath away. We talk with editors to get an idea of what’s going on in the industry from their side and the most common thing I’m hearing lately is, “Books that we would have signed up 5 years ago are not getting published now.” The space on booksellers’ shelves is getting smaller and smaller and the choice of booksellers is fewer so publishers cannot over-publish the way they might have in the past. We want our authors to be successful and for them to blow through the acquisitions meetings they need to be outstanding submissions.

  • Similar editorial & career vision

When I am reading a submission and start to fall in love with it I have to wait to get excited until I talk to the author. With every client I’ve signed I’ve had editorial feedback to share and I need to know that the author is on board with my vision for the book. I ALSO need to know that the author is on board for my vision of their career. Do we agree on what genre you are writing in? Do we agree with what type of publisher is best for you?


I love my authors, they work SO hard. I know querying is tough. I know there are times you get down, but agents are out there looking at submissions–waiting to fall in love with a manuscript and a new author so let it be you.

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.

14 thoughts on “What are agents looking for in a writer?

  1. I liked the bit about trust and professional behaviour and how LONG it all takes – aware of the other stuff, but nice to think about other aspects of the hoped for relationship to come and be reminded of the rest in such a nice friendly tone … cheers jac


  2. Good thoughts, but shouldn’t it say “The business moves slowly” rather than “The business moves slow?”


  3. This was a great read. I particularly enjoyed the issue of mutual respect. It can take a lot for an author to hand over their project, so it’s important that they not only trust their agent, but respect their abilities. Ultimately it’s like any relationship between two people: you each have strengths, so it’s important to let your partner play to theirs.

    Thanks for the read!


  4. I have both passion and persistence. I queried you last year, received a polite no thanks, and used that as incentive to take more writing classes, win award for one of my short stories, and even present at the Va. Festival of the Book. Worth querying again?


  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m sure you must encounter all sorts of writers in your career and it’s good to know what might push someone into the “yes pile.”


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