Literary Agents in Profile
with Brian Mercer
Tell me about your path to becoming a literary agent.
I always wanted to work with writers. Books brought me enormous
pleasure as a kid. I think many people who come to publishing have a
huge respect for authors and the people who create the books that
give us so much joy growing up. It was the same for me. For a while,
before I knew the kinds of jobs available in publishing, I thought I
wanted to be a writer. I took some creative writing classes in
college but quickly realized I preferred offering notes and edits to
the other students. Eventually, I became an editor for Fodor's
Travel at Random House where I worked for seven years. Then, when I
was looking for a change, I chose agenting in order to work with
writers closely on all aspects of their careers. I've been an agent
for four years. That first year I was an assistant. I learned
everything about the business and by my second year I was selling a
book a month.
When we as authors are preparing and sending out query letters,
we're trying to get a mental image of what it's like for the agent
when they receive it. Would you describe one of your typical query
letter reading sessions?
I receive about 25 email queries a day, which are filtered into a
folder that I can dip into when I have time. I read every query in
the order that I receive it, usually within 12 weeks of receipt,
though it can be a little more or less, depending on how busy it is.
I don’t have a set time of the week when I review them; it could be
a couple of hours in the morning, at 11pm at night, or on a Sunday
afternoon. Sometimes I take my laptop to a café, or to the couch at
home, and go through a hundred at a time. I tend to go through them
What elements of query letters get your attention and get you
excited to see more and what mistakes do you see in query letters
that you'd counsel people to avoid?
I'm looking for something that won't let me go or something that
hits just the right note.
Let's look at what came in today.
Frigid Autumn Rain. The
title is in the subject line; that's always good. It starts out,
"Dear Ms. Morgen." She got the name and the gender right; that’s
nice. It's a "completed historical novel, the first in a saga
trilogy." I don't think you need the word "saga" there. "I am now
actively seeking representation." Whoa, it's 125,000 words. My first
thought is that's really long, because debut novels should in
general be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Or close to that. But
there can be exceptions if everything else about the novel is
superb. "Frigid Autumn Rain
is a novel about struggle, the value of freedom, family, love,
friendship, and hope. It is decisions made, consequences developed,
and the people of this first book in the trilogy and how they affect
people in books two and three." I'm probably going to pass on this
one based on that opening because it sounds very vague and that
second sentence doesn't make a lot of sense. It's a bit awkward and
clunky and that doesn't bode well for rest. But just in case the
writer is phenomenal at fiction and not to great at business
letters, I’ll skip down and notice that it's a Civil War-era story
and I'll also read some of the sample material.
So, you've been doing this long enough that you can figure out if
it's a pass almost immediately.
I can generally tell if it’s a pass fairly quickly as many queries
are for books in genres I don’t represent. A good percentage are not
well formed or thought out, as though written hurriedly and on a
whim. Quite a few, however, have potential and in those cases I keep
reading, and sometimes request additional material.
Can you describe the components of a good query letter?
I really like it when queries get right into the story and include a
tagline that isn't too generic but instead gives a sense of what the
specific conflict of the story. I have an agent friend—the
inimitable Barbara Poelle—who gives query workshops and I like to
adopt her tagline, which is that writers should remember, "the hook,
the book, and the cook." That would be three paragraphs as the basic
format of a query letter. The first paragraph should include the
title and a sentence or two that gets us interested in the story.
The second paragraph goes into more detail about the characters and
plot, and the last paragraph describes the author's relevant
experience. I also like to see comparisons to contemporary authors
or books. Now, if it's a four-paragraph query letter, that's fine.
These are just basic guidelines; after that you have to writer the
query that works for you and your book.
Judith Ehrlich Literary Management
So, if someone met you at a conference, they don't have to say that
in the first paragraph? They should just go right into the story?
If you met me at a conference, that's a little bit different because
it's not a blind, unsolicited query. There is more of a connection.
If they've met me personally, it's definitely something to mention
up front. I actually signed a women's fiction author I met at a
conference. "Dear Ms. Morgan, I met you at a conference in Texas a
couple of years ago and my novel is finally ready and I would like
to share it with you." And she goes on to say what it's about. It's
a quick intro about our connection quickly followed by the gist the
Is there anything about a query letter that instantly kills any
chance of it being accepted?
Oh, just the obvious things. For example, if the letter is addressed
to “Mr. Morgan” or if it's a children's picture book or a play or a
diet book, as I don’t represent those categories. Also, if the query
has been blind blasted to numerous agents at once. I realize writers
want to reach out to as many agents as possible, but a blind blast
is not the way to do it. You spent a year or more on your
manuscript, you might as well spend some time making the querying
process worthwhile by treating it in a professional manner. I
certainly wouldn't blind blast a bunch of editors with the
Most of your job isn't looking at query letters. As an agent, you're
not just handing a writer's manuscript over to editors. Can you
speak to the process and what you bring to it?
Most of my job is working for my existing clients, either in the
development and preparation of new material or in post-sale
management. In a typical week, I’m negotiating a contract for a
recent sale, writing the pitch letter for a new submission, calling
editors to let them know about an exciting new property, checking in
with editors and publicists on books in production, and generally
making sure the publishing process is running smoothly for each
Do you do some editing yourself and offer suggestions on how a
manuscript might be improved?
I do and the amount depends on what the manuscript needs. I
generally look for manuscripts that are 90% there and saleable
already but to which some additional work would improve the value.
For example, I signed up a YA manuscript in September, worked with
the author on some changes to the plot, and it will go on submission
in January or February.
What material are you especially attracted to these days? What are
you presently acquiring?
My list is made up of about seventy percent fiction and, of that,
about half is romance and the other half is distributed evenly
between adult women's fiction, historical fiction, YA and other
types of fiction. I love all those categories and also urban fantasy
and certain kinds of thrillers. On the nonfiction side, I look for
narrative nonfiction about a topic relevant to society today, and
generally with a psychological or sociological theme, as well as
Brian Mercer is the author of
Mastering Astral Projection (Llewellyn, 2004) and The
Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007).
He is a board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.