What to Send to An Agent

The magazine Poets & Writers has been running a series (up to #9 now) of interviews with literary agents. You can read all the interviews at PW.org/magazine. In the most recent issue, the editor, Jofie Ferrari-Adler, asks three agents about what they read from writers: the outline? the synopses? the pages of the book?

All of them agreed that they never read synopses.

  • Jim Rutman, an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic:  “It’s hard to write a synopsis well. And when we’re talking about literary fiction, it will probably not make or break an agent’s interest going into page one.”
  • Peter Steinberg who has his own agency (with clients like Alicia Erian, Keith Donohue, and John Matteson): “I think it’s important to stress the synopsis and the cover letter and all of those things are not really important. It’s the work, the work, the work. You have to focus on the work. I think sometimes writers get lost in getting the cover letter and the synopsis and those kinds of professional things right because they’re afraid of focusing on the work.”
  • Anna Stein, who worked for three agencies before joining the Irene Skolnick Literary Agency, puts it this way, “I don’t read synopses. I hate synopses. They’re terrible.”

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  • I notice how much serendipity seems to play in whether or not a writer finds an agent or publisher. Your interview with Matt Davis (the Mongolia PCV) indicated that he was working on some project that had a literary agent on board and he showed him his stuff. The guy didn’t want it but gave it to another agent who did and he was off and running. That reminds me of how I found Bess Press. The first edition of my textbook was published by my employer, Guam Community College. But the College wasn’t set up as a publisher and I had to do almost everything myself. When it came time to do a second edition, I sent a copy of the book and a query to the University of Hawaii Press. I got a letter from them explaining that they weren’t interested but they knew of a Hawaii publisher that might be and they took the unusual step of passing my materials along to Bess Press. They’ve been publishing it ever since. Now I may have found Bess Press eventually, but I was really blown away by UH sending my materials to someone they thought might be interested. I wish more would do that.

    I’ve also noticed that a lot of the PC writers got their start after enrolling in university MFA programs in creative writing. And one of the China writers said he got started because he received a positive response from a query he sent. Wonder of wonders, I guess sometimes that actually works.

    Final thought: I followed one of your links to a Poets and Writers online magazine article that had four agents discussing their work. What struck me is they were all very critical of writers who seemed to be overly concerned about how to draft an effective cover letter. Whenever they gave talks to groups of writers, they were constantly barraged with questions about cover letters. Derisively, they wondered why the writers were so concerned about cover letters when those don’t matter, only the quality of the work really counts. I found that very strange. Don’t those agents realize that in most cases, without an effective cover letter, the agent/editor/publisher won’t even look at the work? In fact, many places say query first before sending anything from the work. I was left wondering what writing planet those agents lived on.

    Reilly Ridgell

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