In Search of Specific Information

Lately I’ve been hearing complaints from writers that agents are not specific enough in telling writers what kinds of projects they’re looking for. On my post “Too Much Information?” I received several comments that echoed this opinion from A3Writer:

Agents are sometimes a little closed-mouthed about what they are looking for. I love the agents that are highly specific on their detailed pages, but others simply put out “looking for commercial fiction” or “most genre fiction.”

I believe I can speak for the majority of agents when I say this: You are simply not going to get more specific information.

To give more specific lists of “what I’m looking for” would be to defeat the whole purpose of my job. Let’s get this straight:

It’s the writer’s job to come up with the best book idea they can, and write it as well as they can.

It’s the agent’s job to sift through all the manuscripts and proposals, and find the ones they want to represent in the marketplace.

To be more specific about the kinds of books I’m looking for would be extremely limiting. I’d be cutting myself off from a vast array of creative ideas out there – the ideas that are so terrific, I’d never have thought of them myself.

In other words, it is out of respect for you, the writer, that I refuse to be more specific in what I’m looking for. You’re the idea person, not me. You need to write what you write, then send it out and find someone who loves it enough to advocate for it. Impress us! Wow us! Blow us away with your creativity and talent. That’s what we want – to be swept off our feet.

Most of us are specific enough about what we represent and what we don’t. For example, some agents rep only romance, some specialize in mysteries and thrillers, some represent only books for the Christian market. Many of us are specific about what we don’t want, such as the fact that I don’t look at fantasy, sci-fi, or YA.

Other than that, I’m open to being surprised by finding something I love that’s perhaps not what I would have itemized on a specific list of “what I’m looking for.” In fact, I believe that’s my only hope of being successful as an agent – having an eye for talent, and being open-minded enough to consider book ideas I’d never have thought of myself.

I encourage you to avoid worrying about exactly what each agent or editor wants. There is enough information out there for you to know in general whether you should send them your project. Beyond that, be thankful that most of us are sincerely hoping to be blown away by a project we absolutely love. And our best chance of that is to be open to a wide variety of ideas and genres.

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Orlando Demello on October 7, 2011 at 5:01 AM

    Hello! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

  2. Elizabeth West on September 21, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. Querying is confusing enough. I do like a general idea, like "commercial or genre fiction, excluding fantasy, YA or erotica," for example. My crime novel could fit into that.

    If their list is online I'll look and see if there is anything in there falls into that general area. If so, I feel like I can at least try. If not, I don't waste my time or theirs.

  3. Anonymous on September 14, 2010 at 1:25 AM

    >Good point, Liz. I just picked up a new release with a glaring error on the FIRST page! The same word was repeated twice in one sentence–an obvious error, not even a typo. What happened to the editors? Not only do many new books sound alike, I fail to see what inspires "passion" in their readers or agents (perhaps it's the paycheck? lol). I rarely feel passion about ANY book–I'm starting to think it's just an invented excuse to say no. (With apologies to Rachelle)

  4. Liz Carmichael on September 14, 2010 at 12:33 AM

    >When I'm send a MS for editing, I can't tell the publisher "I don't particularly feel like editing this genre right now". Good writing is good whatever the genre, even when I'm not feeling like reading that it for pleasure.

    I think it confuses writers when they are told the agent must feel passionate about a story before they can sell it.

    Having been an avid reader for longer than some agents have been able to read, let alone been in the industry, I often wonder what they found to be passionate about in some recent books – like those I cannot read past the first three pages because the writing is so dreadful.

    There are times I have edited a manuscript and been captured by the writing and the story from the first page. Yet that writer has still had to spend years trying to get an agent or publisher to pick it up.

    This next is not meant as an insult, or to start an argument: "It is an agent's job to sift through all the manuscripts and proposals". But is it you or, as in some agencies, an assistant, who could be new to the job, who does the sifting?

    I guess I'm asking, it it the agents who miss a Great Story, or is it their assistants?

  5. Lenore Buth at on September 13, 2010 at 11:46 PM

    >I read this as encouragement, Rachelle. Thanks.

  6. Lenore Buth at on September 13, 2010 at 11:18 PM

    >I read this as encouragement, Rachelle. Thanks.

  7. Jil on September 13, 2010 at 10:51 PM

    >Right on, Rachelle!. You said just what I would hope an agent would say

  8. Kelly Jamieson on September 13, 2010 at 9:06 PM

    >"It's the writer's job to come up with the best book idea they can, and write it as well as they can.

    It's the agent's job to sift through all the manuscripts and proposals, and find the ones they want to represent in the marketplace."

    And yet, in this month's RWR, agent Irene Goodman writes about common mistakes by new authors, including choosing uncommercial subjects and choosing genres that are out of style. She says "It would be nice if authors could just write any old thing they feel like writing, and then leave it to the professionals in New York to figure out what to do with it…"

    So I guess it is important to have some idea of what agents might be interested in…although I also think that what agents are looking for is what the PUBLISHERS are looking for. It's what they can sell.

  9. Michelle DeRusha on September 13, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    >I like your take on this, Rachelle. Of course I'd love for this to be the whole answer…but unfortunately the platform issue comes strongly into play as well. It's not enough to be a great writer with a great idea…as far as I can see, one must have a pretty great platform, too.

  10. Gwen Stewart on September 13, 2010 at 6:18 PM

    >I'm reminded again of singing auditions.

    When I'm looking for a soloist in my choirs, I have certain qualities in mind. Obviously, a jazz piece requires a different voice than a madrigal, etc.

    But often singers surprise me. In fact, they constantly do. I might have a certain singer pegged for a song, but when I hear another singer, the magic happens and there's no second guessing: that's my soloist. Like Rachelle, I could list a dozen requirements I want in a singer before I hear her/him, but magic trumps delivery every day. I can teach delivery. I can refine technique. But I can't replicate, contain, or even refine musical magic. A singer either has it or she doesn't–and may have it for a particular song but not for another.

    I see so many parallels between writing and singing.

    Thanks for a great post, Rachelle.

  11. myimaginaryblog on September 13, 2010 at 6:05 PM

    >Sorry about that double post.

    Oh, P.S.: The Donald Maas agency does sometimes put lists on their website of books they'd like to see. Fascinating stuff–but again, useless without great execution.

  12. myimaginaryblog on September 13, 2010 at 6:01 PM

    >I think this has been said in other words by other commenters, but I'll make my comment anyway:

    I think another reason for agents to be a little on the vague side is that if they're very specific, writers who believe they've met those requirements can come to believe the agent owes them. "Here, you said you wanted an epic steampunk about circus performers in Eastern Europe, and I wrote one, so you HAVE to represent me." Whereas, as has been said so many times, ideas are a dime a dozen but execution is everything.

  13. myimaginaryblog on September 13, 2010 at 6:01 PM

    >I think this has been said in other words by other commenters, but I'll make my comment anyway:

    I think another reason for agents to be a little on the vague side is that if they're very specific, writers who believe they've met those requirements can come to believe the agent owes them. "Here, you said you wanted an epic steampunk about circus performers in Eastern Europe, and I wrote one, so you HAVE to represent me." Whereas, as has been said so many times, ideas are a dime a dozen but execution is everything.

  14. Rachelle on September 13, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    >Anonymous – At the risk of repeating myself, it's not about mixed messages or double speak. It's about the fact that we receive several hundred projects for every one we can say yes to.

    So a project can fit every single thing I ever said I wanted in a project, and still not make the cut, because it's up against ten others that were equally suitable.

    I encourage you to look at this realistically and don't allow resentment to creep in, or unnecessary blame about double speak or whatever. Blame the numbers. There are simply far more people querying than will ever be picked up by a publisher, and there's nothing we can do about that fact. Agents aren't responsible for it; we're stuck dealing with it, just like you are. We're all in this together!

  15. Anonymous on September 13, 2010 at 4:24 PM

    >Let's say you've written an "amazing" book, gotten compliments from agents and readers, researched which agents rep that genre—but seems agents just don't want to take a risk in this economy with new authors. Or they say they're open to queries but then reject your requested ms. cuz "their list is full." Seems there's a lot of double speak and mixed messages in agent land.

  16. Clarissa Yip on September 13, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    >Great post. It is true that agents like editors have a preference to tone and voice from authors. And very understandable that agents like to be surprised. I believe it's important to find an agent that can connect with an author's work and not just to have them represent without passion or love as much as the author loves their own work.

    Thanks for sharing!

  17. Rick Barry on September 13, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    >Rachelle, this post makes perfect sense.

    For readers who aren't convinced, let's pretend that, some years ago, an agent dealing in Hollywood screenplays decided to express exactly what she was looking for: "I want a story that involves an odd mix of conflicting personalities who get trapped on an uncharted island where strange things constantly happen." One writer might shout "Eureka!" and develop the TV show LOST. But another writer would take the same premise and concoct a show called "Gilligan's Island." Both ideas sold and became famous using entirely different spins on the very same, specific idea. So even if an agent tried to be super descriptive, the results would still fall across a wide spectrum, and the agent wouldn't love them all. Better for business types to say basically, "I'm NOT interested in fantasy, or poetry, or _____, but I'm willing to consider stories in the ______ or _____ genres." After that, it's up to the author to conceive of a tale that just can't be ignored.

  18. Jessica on September 13, 2010 at 12:17 PM

    >Although I completely understand why agents leave themselves open to choice, I really do love when agents get specific at times, even if it's just a "I'd really love to find a historical saga" or whatever. I'm not going to see that as a turn off and I'll still be submitting (as long as my books fit the broader categories the agent is looking for), but I do love to see the specific things the agents is currently hoping to find. I know that, as a reader, I get in the mood to read something particular. I imagine that agents are the same when reading through submissions. 🙂

  19. Kellye on September 13, 2010 at 12:10 PM

    >Good info, as always, Rachelle. Obviously, agent research is important, but sometimes it seems that writers focus too much on that and not enough on the actual craft of writing. I agree with what Dan said. There are many reasons my "angsty YA" might get rejected once I've targeted agents who represent angsty YA. The best way to get their attention is to write an amazing book.

  20. Timothy Fish on September 13, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    >Dan makes a good point. Personally, I don’t see why agents have to use phrases like “this isn’t a good fit for me” rather than just saying “no, I’m not interested.” To say that a manuscript isn’t a good fit is to imply that there’s something wrong with the manuscript. I’m sure many agents are thinking that, but why try to place the blame anywhere? If the agent says, “not right for me,” the author wants to go fix it and make it right.

  21. Beth on September 13, 2010 at 10:47 AM

    >I don't see how an agent could be more specific. After all, they're really in much the same boat as an author who is directly submitting.

    You're not going to get specifics unless you're contacted and asked to write a book for a publisher. Otherwise you have to simply try to guess a little and come close to what you think they'll like.

    Write your book. Hope for the best.

  22. T. Anne on September 13, 2010 at 10:30 AM

    >I'm glad the door's been left wide open as to what kinds of stories some agents are willing to look at. I've never had an agent get testy with me about a query I sent. I can't imagine that would be fun. I do look forward to brainstorming story lines with an agent one day. I'm thinking with an agent's guidance those might be some of the best stories I write.

  23. Shennandoah Diaz on September 13, 2010 at 9:40 AM

    >Rachel, Thanks for providing another insightful post. It's amazing how many stories I've heard from agents who say they fell in love with projects that were outside of their normal repertoire. Just because they haven't represented it yet, doesn't mean that they won't (of course don't stray too far from the formula–e.g. if they say no fantasy they mean it).

    Also, it's important to consider the "personality" factor. Publishing is very subjective. Different people like different things. The same is true for agents. In order for them to represent something they need to be passionate about it. To be passionate they need to love it–which means it needs to fit their personality, so don't be offended by the rejection. This is the dating process, the representation contract is the marriage. You wouldn't marry just anyone and just like dating you have to try on quite a few people before you find the right one. The same is true for agents.

  24. Dan on September 13, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    >This sounds like another situation where people get confused by form rejection language. An author reads on e.g. AgentQuery that the agent is interested in "angsty YA" or something, and think that describes her novel. Then the form letter says something like "unfortunately, this is not a good fit for my list right now."

    The author thinks the problem is that the agent was not specific about what she was looking for, but "not right for my list" really just means "no" to the query.

  25. Crystal on September 13, 2010 at 9:34 AM

    >It's tricky these days, because agents say they are "looking for the great book", but then as Rebecca says, some get testy.

    You say you don't want fantasy, but your looking for list says supernatural. What if your novel is cross genre?

    Do you have any recommendations for how to handle submitting those when the agent you really like only wants one?

  26. Gospel Girly on September 13, 2010 at 9:31 AM

    >Thanks for this post Rachelle, good to see things from an agent's point of view.
    On a different note, are you going to be accepting any new submissions in the near future?

  27. Camryn Rhys on September 13, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    >Donald Maas, at RWA Nationals this year, was asked what he was looking to represent. He said something to the effect of, "A great story." I'm hearing this more and more from agents, which makes me think that perhaps spending all my time researching what agents want to see is keeping me away from what's really important: writing a great story.

  28. lynnrush on September 13, 2010 at 8:49 AM

    >Great post. We, as writers, just need to write our stories. Nobody can totally predict what's going to be the next hot thing, and even if they could, a writer writing to hopefully chase that fad just won't work. . .

    I often throw up a little prayer, "Ok, God. What are we writing next?" Often it comes while I'm out on a long bike ride or long run. It's usually then that an idea sparkles.

  29. Rachelle on September 13, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    >Rebecca, obviously there's no time when it's ever appropriate to be rude or "snap" at someone, especially a writer presenting their work. I apologize on behalf of all agents if you feel you've been snapped at or if agents have been rude to you.

    However, if you've simply received a short rejection letter that said something like, "Sorry, this isn't what I'm looking for at this time," then please don't consider that rudeness, it's simply a form letter, brief and to the point, and the actual wording is not meant to be taken personally except to indicate that the agent isn't interested in your project.

  30. Marcia on September 13, 2010 at 8:35 AM

    >Fantastic post. What would writers do with that "more specific info" if you could give it? Try to write exactly that book? In other words, yield the creativity of their role to someone who isn't even their agent, but only a potential rep? Who will probably either sign a similar project long before they even finish theirs, decide the market has tanked for that type of book, or reject theirs because it's not the best of the 500+ they got that are exactly like it? If we're so desperate to be published that we want to write to order, maybe trade isn't for us. Maybe we should pursue WFH projects. If we want to write trade, we have to accept that conceiving and writing the project and taking our chances in the marketplace is our job. You know how Christians often wish God would give them an entire blueprint for life but he never does? Writers don't get a blueprint either. Writers walk a faith walk.

  31. Rebecca Murray on September 13, 2010 at 8:30 AM

    >Fair enough. My complaint has been those sending out non-specific lists of what they are looking for then being very rude when I send something that fits that broad definition because that wasn't what they had in mind. If you say you want commercial thrillers, don't snap at the author who submits a book about a common water truck driver who gets tapped to put out a forest fire…

  32. Susan Bourgeois on September 13, 2010 at 7:40 AM

    >That was specific and it makes sense to me.

    I think an agent would be ecstatic to discover a unique query or manuscript that is anywhere near the genres they represent if it knocks them off their feet.

    There's little doubt that they would choose to pass it up.

  33. Nathalie on September 13, 2010 at 7:11 AM

    >As was mentioned above, if agents were more genre-specific, that would narrow the market, which I'm not sure I want! I research agents, search their clients, their client's work, the agencies representations, etc. and make an educated guess as to whether or not we would make a great match. When I get the dreaded 'form rejection', I know it's not because I queried someone who was unfamiliar with the genre, more because our styles didn't mesh. And maybe that's a good thing?

  34. Em-Musing on September 13, 2010 at 7:10 AM

    >I like blurry lines. I get to query more agents. I've heard some agents say that sometimes they'll get a query in a genre they weren't looking for but liked the story so much they requested more and went on to sign the author.

  35. Sharon A. Lavy on September 13, 2010 at 6:58 AM

    >Yep. Reminds me of when I go shopping. I may not know what I'm looking for, but I'll know it when I find it.

    And the merchandisers just have to keep putting things on the shelf to tempt me and catch me in a weak moment.

  36. Jessica Nelson on September 13, 2010 at 5:41 AM

    >I love agent nonspecifity. Gives me so much more room! LOL Anyway, a writer can check out an agent's books idea to get an idea of the agent's taste.
    Janet Reid once did a fabulous, writer-friendly, agent-not-so-friendly post about how we should query everyone, regardless. LOL Not sure I'll do that, but I loved daydreaming about it!

  37. A3Writer on September 13, 2010 at 5:05 AM

    >Wow. I was mentioned in a post. Hold on a moment, feeling a little giddy. Right.

    Thanks for this, Rachelle, it really does help with the query process. I guess I should have paid more attention to what The Janet Reid mentions for her queriers "When in doubt, query me. I'd rather see something that's not right for me than miss something fabulous."

  38. Donna Hole on September 13, 2010 at 2:43 AM

    >So, this is not a complaint; I really get where you are coming from Rachelle.

    I recently queried one of your associated agents, convinced, off her bio, that I had exactly what she stated she was looing for. To me, her "what I'm looking for" was direct and to the point.

    I got a standard rejection; "I'm not the best agent to represent your novel."


    One of my blogging friends was picked up by this agent. Yes, I'm pleased for both. But, now I know what this agent was looking for.
    Well, at least at that particular moment. I certainly don't write like my friend, though we'd be classified in the same genre.

    Of course I was disappointed in the rejection.

    But I also know how hard it is to pin down exactly what you like, or think you could be passionate about selling.

    Because I'm a book reader. I read lots of genre's. But some books just don't thrill me, even though they're in my favorite genre (uhm, fantasy, though you didn't ask).

    So I get what you're saying here: defining what you like is not a precise, measureable concept.

    I've been researching Agents for a long time now, and I think they're as specific as anyone else.



  39. Shayda Bakhshi on September 13, 2010 at 1:38 AM

    >Really fantastic points. And I actually just like the fact that agents aren't *too* specific, because if gives me some leeway if they haven't said they're *specifically* looking for what I write, but are open to similar genres and styles.

    Really insightful, though–thanks!

  40. Aimee L Salter on September 13, 2010 at 1:21 AM

    >Fair enough. Thanks for pulling back the veil. Again.