What literary agents want


I could write a dozen posts on this topic, since what literary agencies want is such a mystery to most of us. No matter how clear agencies think they’re being (articles in “The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook” are about as helpful as we’re going to get), they still manage to be vague individually, and contradictory as a group.

I like to think that the collective noun for agents is a “barricade”.

Whilst searching for representation for my second novel “Cycles of Udaipur” (third, if you could “The Gun of Our Maker“), I came across an agency’s website that was actually helpful. Imagine my surprise!

Luigi Bonomi, the chief agent at his eponymously named Luigi Bonomi Associates Ltd, wrote the following very helpful piece on what agents are currently looking for. It’s snuck away on his profile page, which appears to have been updated sometime this year. Here is the relevant section, which I hope is useful for writers seeking representation.

It also illustrates the lamentable state of affairs that is the current publishing industry, but I may come to that in another post.

Increasingly publishers tell me that what they are after is a book that has a hook that makes it very easily pitched – not just internally to their colleagues but also to the wider public. So recent successes like Gone Girl, Girl on a Train and The Miniaturist are all very easily pitched. The phrase ‘a story about a husband and wife and their dysfunctional marriage’  is not a great pitch. ‘A story about a wife who sets out to entrap her husband so he is accused of her murder’ is much stronger. A clear strong, high-concept storyline that can intrigue people in one sentence is what everyone seems to want. This invariably means stories with strong plots, lots of secrets, many twists, and a fast pace. There is a huge appetite for crime and thrillers, for novels with unreliable narrators (despite the recent glut of these), for big sweeping family dramas, for novels with secrets.  There is also huge appetite, I think, for cross-genre novels – ‘crime meets paranormal’ being something that has been mentioned, but also other forms of cross-genre novels – as long as it is something that looks genuine, comes from the author’s own passion and is not forced.

So a strong pitch, a clever concept, a terrific plot with well-realised characters. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But I know it isn’t – it’s incredibly hard to get right. Yet I believe there are very many talented writers out there – all of whom just need a break.

It’s nice to see that Mister Bonomi actually seems so kind, as if he really does care about all the authors who are mercilessly (yet necessarily) turned away with little more than a rejection slip. It would be fantastic if sympathetic and thoughtful literary agents set up a regular blog so that folks like us could get some genuine, up-to-date insights. We might then see past the barricade and have some long-overdue good fortune!