New Girl on the Book(s)

An Internship Experience in a Literary Agency

Category: Resources

The Synopsis: What It’s All About

It’s been a busy month reading through queries and manuscripts, writing reader reports and pitch letters, updating logs, and so much more. I realized today that the internship passed the halfway mark a few weeks ago, which is hard to believe. I have learned so much about the publishing industry so far, and I imagine I’m going to learn even more the last four weeks.

This is a day in my life at the office! Here I am checking out the subsidiary rights for a publication.

This is a day in my life at the office! Here I am checking out the subsidiary rights for a publication.

My favorite job responsibility so far has been reading manuscripts and writing reader reports (which is lucky, because that makes up the biggest part of my tasks). There are many reasons I love this the most, but there’s one specific moment that places it at the top of my list. Reading through so many manuscripts both good and bad, it’s very easy to lose sight of what you (or Paige in this case) wants in a project.

Different agents search for different qualities in a book that they consider important, but sometimes there’s one submission that simply stands out above the rest. Whether it’s the writing, the characters, or the plot, some manuscripts just feel special and you fall in love with them. And those books–the books that you become excited about even in this earliest form–are the ones that make all the work worthwhile. These moments that I have been lucky to experience one or two times this summer, are the reason I want to go into book publishing in the first place.

The majority of the time though, manuscripts don’t stand out this much. Making the decision whether to say yes or no to a manuscript can sometimes be tricky, just like with query letters I talked about in a previous post. I have found that when I’m having trouble deciding on whether I should recommend that Paige pursue a book or not, I often go back to the synopsis for help.

After the initial query letter, an author will send the agent his or her biography, the novel synopsis, and the first three chapters of the book (this does vary depending on the agent). Understandably, you would think that it would be the first three chapters that make or break the decision. Often, the first three chapters will be the most polished and developed part of the novel in the beginning, because it’s what the agent sees first. But, you have to remember that it is only three of many chapters in the book. So, it’s in the synopsis that you’re going to get the big picture.

The Breakdown of the Synopsis: The Five W’s

These are the basic components of what a synopsis should include:

  • Who: 

    The important characters, such as the protagonist and antagonist. An agent looks for the names of the main characters, the ones he or she will get attached to or despise. It will get confusing if an author includes names of supporting characters without background of follow-up information. So, only if a character is important for the plot progression should they be included in the synopsis.

  • What: 

    The conflict. Of course, without a plot the book doesn’t exist. For an agent, they want to see a main story line that is new and unique. If the plot seems predictable without any unexpected twists or turns, then it’s just another rendition of a reused story line. Basically, what an agent is looking for is the main plot, not all of the secondary story lines.

  • When: 

    The basic plot time frame. With this an agent can determine if the plot is linear and progresses forward at a good pace.

  • Where: 

    The setting. You simply can’t have a story without a setting. World-building is a huge feature that a lot of agents consider one of the most important aspects. If an agent can’t picture the setting of the book, then it’s going to be hard to imagine readers will be able to either.

  • Why (How): 

    The motivation/reason. The story will not make sense if a reason for both the internal and external conflict is not apparent. There’s a rhyme and reason for every action whether it’s the character’s emotional and spiritual journey or the physical quest. Either way, the cause and effect needs to be clear.

When it comes down to it, a manuscript may be well-written and have great characters, a strong narrative voice, and a great beginning. But, an author may very well end up losing sight of the plot direction or development. As Jane Friedman says in her article (linked below),

“A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. A synopsis also can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or unique, your manuscript may not get read.”

All in all, the synopsis is truly “what it’s all about.”

Additional Resources:

My post barely touched the surface of the synopsis. Here are some handy links written by real pros in the business, some of which I used to supplement what all I’ve learned about the synopsis:

And here is a resource from Paige on CMA’s website to help polish up the first three chapters for submission:

Lunching for a Living: Networking as an Agent

Breakfasts, lunches, coffees, parties, and more–I bet you didn’t know that the life of a literary agent can sometimes become very social. Sure, as an agent you spend a majority of your time reading through submissions, pitching books, working with clients, etc. But there’s more that happens outside of the office.

You’ve taken on a project, you’ve edited the manuscript, and you’ve written pitch letters. But, now what? The process doesn’t end there. Now, the defining role of a literary agent comes into play: Networking and maintaining relationships.

The agent places a decisive role at this point in the publishing process. Pitching a project to editors and finding the right fit for both the author and the book could make it or break it. This crucial step in the process demonstrates why networking with editors and other agents through social events, such as meeting for lunches or coffee, is so important. So, here’s what I learned in Intern Academy this week:

Knowing your editors- “Who would I send this to?”

As an agent, when you’re reading and evaluating a manuscript, you should always be thinking along the lines of “What editor would I send this to?” Time is of the essence in the publishing world and from the very beginning of a project, you should have an idea of which editor you could sell it to. Inevitably, you’ll come across projects that you’ll love and be excited about. But, if you can’t think of a single editor you would send it to, then it will likely be hard to sell and may not be a smart decision to take on. So, how do you know who all the editors are in the publishing world?

Network, Network, Network

Above all, networking is possibly the best resource for meeting editors and finding a great fit for an author. Agents are always going to breakfasts, lunches, coffees, cocktail parties, office visits, and other events–getting to know the editors.  When you go to these lunches or coffees, yes, you talk about the projects you’re working on, but you also talk about each others’ lives. You’re getting to know him or her in a social way, which also helps you figure out what books may seem appealing. When you learn the personal details about an editor, you know what types of books he or she will enjoy.Publishers Weekly Logo

Moreover, you may pitch a project to an editor over lunch or through email and it may not be exactly the type of book he or she is looking to take on. However, he or she may know of another editor who is looking for a project similar, so you then have an instant connection. You can also ask other agents (who you have a good relationship with) for editor suggestions, yet another networking connection.

Also, checking sites like Publishers Marketplace, Publishers Weekly, or publisher catalogs is another way of familiarizing yourself with the types of projects that editors are taking on.

Publishers Marketplace

Wide submission vs. target submission

So, you’ve found the imprints and editors that you think would be a good fit for the book and author.  Now, you have to decide how you want to submit the book. You only get to submit to an editor and a publishing house once, so do you want to do a wide submission or a target submission?

First of all, here’s the difference between the two ways:

  • Wide Submission: Submitting to every, single editor at once that you think would like a project.
  • Target Submission: Submitting to a few editors at once, wait for feedback, then submit to another few editors until you have a taker.

The benefits of a targeted submission lies in the feedback. If all of the editors have an issue with a certain feature of the book, you can return to the author and fix the problem before submitting to the next round of editors. With a wide submission, you submit the project once and if all the editors have the same issue and no one wants to take it on, then that’s it–you can’t submit again.

Although it seems like target submission is the “no-brainer” way to submit, but the choice truly depends on the agent and the confidence in the material. Different agents have his or her preferred method of how to submit, so there’s not one tried and true way.

I learned so much from this week’s Intern Academy! There is so much more I could have included about networking and submitting, but this was the basics! Being a literary agent is definitely turning out to be more dynamic and interesting than I ever thought! I mean, who doesn’t love to have lunch for a living?

The Art of Letter Writing

It’s been two weeks since I posted last, but I definitely have kept busy in that time. Filled with letters both written and received, this is what I have been up to the last two weeks:

Pitch Letters:

Up until now, I’ve written only editorial letters. But, I got to write my first pitch letter this past week! After the manuscript is finished, the pitch letter is the next step in the process. The agent writes this 1-page letter to a publishing house that would be a good fit for the author and his or her book. Including marketing information for the book and author, the pitch letter serves to get an editor excited about the book. When writing the letter, there are a few things that you want to make sure you cover/watch out for:

  • Overselling- It’s easy to be excited about an author’s book, but it will also be easy for editors to tell whenever you’re trying too hard to sell it. Staying true to the manuscript and pointing out what truthfully stands out as the book’s strength will win an editor over more than over-glorifying it.
  • Comparisons- For editors to get a general idea about the book in terms of genre, audience, and voice, comparisons are key! However, comparisons should always be with bestselling books, because these are the ones that everyone knows and placing a book in the realm of popularity is best. Also, don’t compare a fiction book to a non-fiction book, and vice versa; this comparison just doesn’t work and will leave the editor scratching his or her head.
  • Fiction vs. Non-fiction- You have to pitch these two genres differently. With fiction, you want the pitch to interest the editor so much that she puts down what she is working on and picks up the book that very moment. One way you can do this is by pointing out what makes the book special compared to others (which is where comparisons come in handy). On the other hand, a non-fiction pitch should focus on the platform. You have to sell both the book AND the author. Do they have a social platform (i.e. a blog, website, or social media presence)? If so, make sure you include that information, too. With non-fiction, also focus on the target audience as much as you do the author and book topic.

Client Press Kits:

I’ve also been working on the client press kits with the rest of my team. Press kits, or publicity packages, essentially serve as a marketing tool for Paige when selling the subsidiary rights (such as the film, foreign, audio, and digital rights) to the author’s work. The kits include a few basic details about the author:

  • A biography
  • Author’s website, social media accounts, etc.
  • Most recent and notable works
  • Press clips, such as book reviews, of the most recent and notable works
  • Awards received
  • Bestseller lists a work has hit
  • Sub rights that are already licensed to a work
  • A listing of all other works, including series
  • Organizations the author belongs to

Compiling and updating these kits wasn’t too difficult once we found the information. The tricky part was researching and finding all of the details to put together. With a little team work (also dividing and conquering) we got them all completed and ready for use!

Query Letter Team:

This past week, Paige and Ana-Marie decided to form query letter teams within our already established reading groups in order to sort through the endless amount of unsolicited submission letters in the office. They asked for volunteers to read through the queries and make a decision on whether Paige should request the first three chapters or not. While reading through the submissions, I found myself torn a lot of times. Similar to when writing the reader reports, I wanted to say yes to every idea.  Unfortunately, that’s not realistic though and I had to rely on a few criteria that helped me make a decision. Here are a few things that have helped me in the deciding process (some that I found on CMA’s website here!):

  • Is the idea new and fresh? Would you want to buy this book in a store?  Sure, the concept of a book may sound interesting and exciting, but if it is the exact same as every other book on the shelf, then it will not make a reader buy it over any of the others. The book should have some unique feature, whether it be a fresh voice, independent and strong main character, or a compelling story line. Whatever it may be, there should be some aspect that makes it marketable.
  • Fiction or nonfiction? What is the genre? Manuscript length? This one goes back to one of my previous posts when I talked about the word counts for the different genres. For example, if the author proposes a Young Adult book that he advertises to be 100,000 words, you know that it’s too long and will probably take a lot of work and time to trim down and streamline. And in most cases, it will take more time and funds than what it will be worth.
  • How compelling is the proposal? Does the author have a sense of what he/she is writing? If the author describes his or her book and wins you over with the characters, plot, or general concept, then it will likely be easy to sell to an editor. Even though the author may seem excited and have what seems like a clear and developed plot, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the reader will have a good understanding of the plot. If the author knows what direction he or she is going with the story, then the reader will, too.
  • Does the proposal letter flow and make sense?  The query letter is the vital step in kick-starting the publishing process for an author. So, the letter should be neat, polished, and clear. Not only will an agent get a sense of the book from the letter, he or she will get a sample of an author’s writing style. So, if the letter doesn’t flow or make sense, the manuscript likely won’t either.
  • How experienced is the author? Does he/she have an interesting biography or credentials?  An author with writing  experience or a fascinating biography will simply be more appealing to an agent and editor. The more professional or serious writing experience under your belt the better!

With all of the letters in my week, for the first time I am finding myself saying I’m glad old-fashioned snail mail is a thing of the past. (Could you imagine how much more time and resources it would take for this all?) That’s all I have for now! Until next time at least!

Let’s Get Down to Business

Since I’ve now got the hang of the processes for all of my tasks, this week was a lot more relaxed and less jam-packed. We still got our normal tasks of manuscripts, contact assignments, and updating client press kits, but this time around, I knew the drill. Now, let’s talk business.

This week, I had my first day as an in-office intern! Throughout the summer, I will be going into the office once a week to experience more of the business side of publishing. This past Wednesday, I did a few office task, such as filing royalty statements, organizing the filing cabinets, and making lists of clients in the cabinets to make it easier to access. So, no stereotypical coffee runs for this intern (possibly because we have a Keurig in house)! It’s all business while we’re there.

However, since I got to see in-person a little bit of what Paige and Ana-Maria do on a daily basis (believe me, I’m sure I only see a slight glimpse of what ALL they do), I thought it would be good to fully clarify something I mentioned last time: What exactly is the role of a literary agent?

It is defined by as “a person who manages the business affairs of an author.” But, an agent is so much more than that. 

A literary agent in the basic sense is the same as an agent for an actor or actress, except instead for books. He or she is essentially the middle-man between the author and the publishing house. After a writer finishes a manuscript, the literary agent is the first step moving forward in the process. Authors propose their raw manuscripts to agents in the form of query letters and decide to either enthusiastically pursue the book or respectfully decline the query. From there, an agent will make suggestions about an author’s book to refine it before proposing it to editors.


This is the step in the process the agent comes in.

An agent also serves as a cheerleader and promoter for an author’s book. He or she has to be excited and attempt to sell the book to editors from varying different publishing houses and get them to take it on as a project. Once the literary agent finds an editor that is perfect for the manuscript, he or she will negotiate the contract and work on promoting the book to get it circulating.

So, you would think that a literary agent sits at a desk and reads submitted manuscripts all day long, right? Well, in actuality, an agent’s typical workday consists of administrative business and responsibilities. Only after these tasks are finished does an agent sit down to go through the piles of submissions.

An agent wears many hats, but possibly (in my opinion) the most important hat that a literary agent will wear is in building the personal relationship with an author. (More on the agent-author relationship later!)

For a more detailed idea of the steps it takes to get from a raw manuscript to a published book, check out Paige’s full guide: The Publishing Process. On the CMA website, there are also several other resources from interviews Paige has done, authors represented in the news, and just general information about the industry.

We have our second conference call for Intern Academy this week, so more on that next time!