What Does a Literary Agent Look for in a Submission?

Agent Sarah N. Fisk from the Tobias Literary Agency.

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We’re so excited to have Sarah N. Fisk from the Tobias Literary Agency on our blog this week to discuss what a literary agent looks for in a submission! This week, Sarah will be judging our First Pages fiction contest as a part of Ready Chapter 1’s launch party. To participate, post the first 500 words of your current fiction project in our Peer Critique Forum for a chance to win a valuable critique from Sarah!

Sarah N. Fisk represents a wide variety of genres ranging from middle grade to adult genre fiction, and even some nonfiction. They have worked in numerous roles in the publishing industry and now host the podcast Queries, Qualms, and Quirks and are one of the founding members of Disability in Publishing.

And now, on to the interview!

How did you become a literary agent?

I started my career in publishing as a reader for a newer, but doing great things sort of press. At that time I was invited to be a Pitch Wars mentor. I bounced around small presses while continuing to mentor for Pitch Wars. As a mentor, I loved working with authors to take their books to the next level and started thinking that agenting might be right for me. I went to info sessions, took classes I thought would help, did a ton of informational interviews, and started applying for internships and assistant positions. I became an intern briefly at Fuse Literary before being offered a position at Tobias.

What is one thing you always look for when reading submissions?

Voice. That’s really the golden ticket. You can do almost anything in fiction if you have a fantastic voice or an engaging writing style.

Drawing on your experience as both an author and a literary agent, what do you think is the most difficult part of querying?

Probably the waiting. I think it’s also difficult to know if you’re on the right track. I remember thinking, when querying, “I just need someone to tell me if I have what it takes or if I should give up now.” But now I know that no one can tell you that. Even if your writing isn’t where it needs to be right now, that doesn’t mean you can’t study the craft and get to the point where you have what it takes. And if an agent had told me that they didn’t think I had what it took to be a writer at that time, I would’ve given up.

What is one thing authors can do to stand out during the querying process?

Be specific, but concise. Really study the market and understand what it is about your story that will make it stand out, and lean into that.

How important do you think it is to have good compatibility with your literary agent?

Artistic compatibility is extremely important. I think everything else can be solved with clear expectations and good communication.

Do you have any tips to help authors find the right literary agent for themselves?

Ditch the idea of a “dream” agent. I’ve known a lot of writers who’ve signed with someone many would consider a “dream” agent and it turned out to be a nightmare for that specific person. Then they took way too long leaving that agent because they thought they were the problem, since this person was so well respected. Everyone needs different things and an agent that may be great for some people will be terrible for others. Be open to all different kinds of agents so you can truly find one who will be a great match for you.

I see you used to be a Pitch Wars mentor, which is super cool. Do you have any tips on polishing an attention-grabbing pitch?

When it comes to short pitches, I used to have my mentees write their short pitch (~45 words) at least five different ways. I told them I wanted at least three of the pitches to sound like they were for different books. Short pitches can only focus on a very small portion of your story, so doing this helps you focus on different aspects. Then you can go from there to determine which aspects sound the most compelling (use your friends!) and you can combine and narrow down to the strongest pitch.

Sarah’s website can be found at this link.

For more author interviews with writing and publishing advice, click here.

To sign up for Ready Chapter 1’s Peer Critique Forum to get fast, actionable feedback on your writing, click here.

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