Literary Agents Panel by Natalie Cannon

Hello, all! This is the final set of notes from Natalie’s visit to the Ventura County Writer’s Weekend. I apologize that it’s taken us so very long to send it your way, but life has this way of doing things. Like getting in the way of desired productivity. Nevertheless, we have finished it, so here it is, with only minor edits done by myself! Enjoy, and check out the other works in this series if you’re just joining us and want to glean more of her insightful commentary!




Happy June! So remember like 5,000 years ago when I attended the Ventura County Writer’s Weekend and promised to write up my notes? Well, it’s about to end! This is the final installment, and it’s all about what literary agents want.

The panel was compromised of agents, including Toni Lopopolo of Toni Lopopolo Literary Management and Dana Newman of Dana Newman Literary, and both spent most of their time talking about the ever elusive what-do-agents-even-look-for question before telling general advice. But before we get to that have some general rules of thumb:

  • With the internet, Google, and regular old networking, there are a half million ways to find agents and agencies. Any books or products connected to Writer’s Market or Publisher’s Marketplace are generally reliable.
  • Submit your query in the format and manner an agent wants.
  • Agents have fewer buyers because of the Big Six/Big Five, but e-books have ensured that more and more content is needed.

On a more personal note, if you want more information on how to approach agents and such, Chuck Sambuchino is like a god. Or even just read his “Secrets to Querying Literary Agents: 10 More Questions Answered” and you’ll already feel more confident.

And now:


What Agents Want From Nonfiction Writers: The big thing that was repeated over and over was that agents are looking for issue-based texts with an easily identifiable audience that will specifically buy this book. The more literary your prose (read: academic), the narrower your audience will be. Agents want to know what gap are you filling or problems you are solving with your book. Why are you qualified to write on this topic? Do you have a social media presence and are you engaged with your potential audience’s community? Trends take hold of cultural consciousness and run with it: does your topic contribute to a trend in a unique way? “Crossovers” or books that intersect two separate topics are also popular: think of those books that can be shelved in two different places in a library, like a cookbook that also discusses the history behind the recipes. On the flip side, the market is saturated with “recovery” stories. Overall, authors that have a strong platform, ability to contact/connect with their audience, and a marketing plan will be preferred. As far as you choosing an agent, keep your mind open to agents that focus on smaller publishers: they often have contacts with the specific markets your audience inhabits.

What Agents Want From Fiction Writers: The most prominent advice here was to have a good story that grabs a reader in the beginning; one where the characters, their emotion, their development, and the dialogue tap into the natural narrative instinct of the human brain. Use active verbs and keep up the pace. Make sure your grammar shines—though don’t use your old English teacher as your editor, but rather someone who works in publishing. Basically, agents want writers who know their craft. It was repeated over and over in this panel, for both fiction and nonfiction. The popular trends right now are paranormal, chick lit, and romance, but you must know your stuff no matter what genre you’re writing in. An online presence is a requirement. And, like with the nonfiction writers, keep your mind open to smaller publishers, who give more personal attention to their writers and are generally less overworked than their big publisher counterparts.

The rest of their advice goes to all types of authors, mostly about the legal and contractual aspect of writing. I put these in bullet points for ease of reading:

  • If you’re going to work with anyone involving money, make sure to get a contract, including with your co-author, ghost writer, or any other freelancers. A professional will have one on hand, or you can write your own.
  • If you have a really good idea for a book, but have trouble actually writing the thing, consider setting up shop with a co-author or hiring a ghost writer.
  • Always get your work copyrighted. Make it a priority.
  • A publisher should offer you an author contract when they sign you on. This is a written agreement between you and the publisher. Part of the contract grants the publishing rights to the publisher, and for this bit, make sure there is a time limit. Sometimes publishers buy the rights to a work, but then sit on it forever, particularly with e-rights—a time limit will ensure they do something before it runs out, as then the rights revert back to you, the author.
  • When you go to a publisher, set an advance. An advance is essentially a loan—a publisher pays you $XX,XXX, trusts that your book sales will make at least this much, and you pay them back through your royalties. If you don’t make that much, you have to give it back, unfortunately, but fairly. Large publishing companies usually take 25% of the net profits.
  • If you use quotes, photos, or other materials not created by you or featuring someone’s face, you may need to seek legal permission to use that other creative work/image. Gaining permission can be very tricky, but if the publishing company asks you to, please please please do your utmost to gain it. Speaking from personal experience in a real live Editorial Department, permissions is one of the most maddening and tedious parts of an Editorial Assistant’s job, and they love the author who helps them. If you want to avoid the process altogether, only use works and images already in the public domain and free photo websites.

Aaaaaaaaaand that was the end of the panel! Thank you for sticking with this series—I can’t believe it took more than year to finish!


About Charlotte Blackwood

Charlotte Blackwood is a self-employed aspiring author working on perfecting her first novella/ first novel. She is a current student at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, CA. If you're looking for a reading list (someday she'll add her own works to the list), she's currently supporting Anna Karenina, anything by Dickens, anything by Tolkien, anything by JK Rowling, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Hunger Games.

2 thoughts on “Literary Agents Panel by Natalie Cannon

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Check it out, ya’ll!

  2. Thanks for sharing this great advice, Charlotte! I’m glad you enjoyed our post as well — Chuck has so much great advice to share.

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