Monday, March 3, 2014

What Literary Agents Do to Help Authors

Laura Biagi, literary agent with Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, previews her workshop session, “What an Agency Brings to the Table” for the Fifty Shades of Writing Conference

Laura Biagi is an agent with the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. She specializes in adult literary fiction and young readers' books. She also handles the sale rights for Australia and New Zealand for the agency. In addition, she’s an author and the recipient of a Kentucky Emerging Artist Award for fiction writing.

Biagi will listen to individual pitches and will lead two breakout sessions.

In the workshop, “What an Agency Brings to the Table,” Biagi will present exactly what a literary agency does. Additional topics covered will be on agent negotiation and contracts, editing a manuscript before submitting, as well as communications between author and editor.

Attendees in her second workshop, “How to Write a Stand-Out Query”  will learn to shape their plot description and the elements for a stand-out query, so that their writing changes from “ho-hum” to “WOW!

For more on both workshops, check out the conference website here.

Throughout the day on Saturday, Biagi will also be available for one-on-one agent pitch sessions. These are on a first come, first serve basis, so sign up sooner rather than later!

Brian: Ms. Biagi, thank you so much for joining our faculty at our upcoming ‘Fifty Shades of Writing’ conference.

So I’ve got this great book, I know it’s going to be a best seller. I want to send it straight to a publisher. They’ll love it. So why should I bother with an agent? I mean, won’t you just take 15% of my royalties? What’s in it for me? What do agents do, exactly?

Laura Biagi: The better question is “what do agents not do?” 

First of all, it's our business to know which publishers and editors to send your books to so you're being paired with the best potential matches for publication. We network frequently with editors and intimately understand their literary tastes. We use this knowledge to secure deals with publishing houses, and then we negotiate those deals and contracts so they're as strong as possible for you. 

But even that is only a small slice of what we do. We also edit manuscripts prior to submissions and read new drafts as you revise. We help you plan what to write next and how to build your career. We sell international, film, audio, and other subsidiary rights to your books. We're there for you when your editor gets back to you with a cover you may hate or flap copy that isn't right or marketing and publicity plans that are less than inspiring. We'll fight in your corner for you so your opinions are heard and so your book can get the best cover, flap copy, marketing and publicity plans, etc. possible. 

I'll be talking more about this topic at my break-out session, “What an Agency Brings to the Table.”  So for more specifics and insider details, be sure to sign up! 

Brian: So, with regard to the infamous query letter, could you give us one or two pointers as how to write a query that will 100% guarantee that an agent will be interested? No pressure, here, of course!

Laura: Well, the unfortunate truth is there's really no 100% guarantee. Every agent has his/her own tastes. Certain manuscripts are better suited to certain agents and not to others. 

For me, though, the three things that help garner my interest are 1) writing that is strong and vivid and reveals an authoritative command of prose; 2) characters who intrigue me and whose emotional complexity is readily apparent in your description; and 3) a plot that I can tell is going to go somewhere interesting, unexpected, and un-cliched. 

To learn more specifically about what my tastes are, visit my agency's submission guidelines here and click through to my name:

Brian: Speaking as someone who is very familiar with the agent rejection letter, could you provide a brief walk through of the submission process at JVNLA—from query letter to the slush pile (or acceptance)? And, what is the usual time frame authors should expect a response from an agency after submitting a manuscript?

Laura: Each agency varies a little, but for us, we request that all queries come through our website at Unfortunately we can only respond to those queries that interest us, but we do read every query. If we are interested, we will contact the author directly via email to request the first three chapters of his/her manuscript. Typically, we try to respond to queries within 6-8 weeks, but sometimes we are faster than this or a little behind.

Chapters typically take about 3 weeks for us to respond to. If I love what I've seen, I'll then request the full manuscript. Full manuscripts typically take about 8 weeks for us to respond to.  After that point, I may get back to the author with revision feedback, or I may go ahead and take the author on!

Brian: I always have to ask this: What’s the craziest/most cringe-worthy query you’ve ever received? Is there anything that author could have/should have done prior to submitting the query?

Laura: Well, one particularly memorable query was for a picture book meant to be read to dogs.  It was written from the dog's perspective and primed with words that dogs would supposedly recognize. Essentially, the story (because of course I read it!) was of a dog going for a walk in the park and going to the bathroom everywhere. I don't know that anything could have helped prior to that submission! But I would say it could make for a very fun book if the author were to revise it so it was written for kids instead of dogs!

More seriously, though, sometimes authors write about plot in their queries but give no sense of their characters. Or vice versa. Both are critical in a good book, though, so authors should make sure their queries includes both. 

Brian: There’s nothing more hopeful or exciting for a new writer (or any writer, for that matter) with a book to pitch. Unfortunately, there are disreputable people in the publishing industry who’d be glad to take advantage of them. What are some red flags aspiring authors should take notice of when dealing with agents, editors, and publishers? Are there sources to assist writers in finding out about who or what to stay away from when searching for a book publisher?

Laura: One major red flag would be agents who charge you a fee. Agents should only take the standard commission on sales as payment for their services. Members of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR) are held to certain ethical standards like this. You can search the AAR's website ( to learn more about those standards. If you find that an agent is a member of the AAR, then you'll know for sure he/she is in good standing—though there are plenty of good agents who aren't AAR members. I'm sure associations like the Missouri Writers' Guild help members identify read flags, too.

Brian: I notice that you’re not only an agent, but a writer. Please tell us a little about your own work, and how you went from a writer to an agent?

Laura: My love for reading and writing prompted me to major in creative writing in college. Once there, I enjoyed workshopping fiction pieces so much that I set out to find a career where I could do something like that for a living. As an agent I love that I'm able to help my authors edit their manuscripts. I always try to think of a manuscript from the writers' perspective, and I enjoy helping my authors brainstorm solutions to their characters, plots, themes, and anything and everything else.

I personally like to write adult literary fiction on all topics, especially involving magical realism, absurdism, and/or social issues. This also means that adult literary fiction involving these is right up my alley, so I'm always looking for submissions involving them!

Brian: You are in charge of procuring Australian and New Zealand rights for your agency. What exactly does this entail when procuring foreign rights for an author? How important are these rights to an author and why?

Laura: First off, we try to retain foreign rights when we make a deal because we have a very active foreign rights department and we can make quite strong deals in this arena. If we have foreign rights for a book, we will try to sell it into as many countries as possible. Selling these rights are important because we want to get your book read by as many people as possible! We have co-agents in most countries who work with us to get these foreign rights sold. Jennifer Weltz at JVNLA coordinates with them and spearheads those efforts. 

I focus on Australia and New Zealand, where I submit directly to the publishing houses and editors who would be best suited to a particular project. It's very fun to learn about the types of books that are of particular interest in these countries! Books we've recently sold here include Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche; Otis Dooda: Strange but True by Ellen Potter; and a forthcoming, hilarious spoof on the urban farming movement by Antonia Murphy.

Brian: If the beginning pages of a manuscript don’t hook you right away, do you keep reading further in hopes it will get better? Or does it go straight to the slush pile?

Laura: I do look very closely at the beginning pages of a manuscript. I can tell a lot from the first pages, and so I use that information to make informed decisions. Given agents' limited time to review the hundreds of queries that come in each week, we have to do this. Ultimately, if you're a strong writer, your writing will be just as strong on page 1 as it is on page 200.  What I see more often than a manuscript that doesn't intrigue me initially but becomes better is a manuscript where it's clear a lot of time was spent workshopping the first pages and, in exchange, the rest of the book was neglected. After the first pages, the rest of the manuscript falls flat. You need a good balance.

Brian: Thank you very much for your time, Ms. Biagi. We look forward to seeing you in person at the conference.

If you would like to pitch Ms. Biagi in person or attend her workshop sessions, be sure to sign up soon. Agent pitch assignments are assigned on a first come, first served basis.

Click here to register for the Fifty Shades of Writing Conference. Regular registration ends March 31 at 9 p.m. CST.

Interviewed by Brian Katcher, author of Playing with Matches, winner of the 2010-2011 North Carolina Young Adult Book Award; and Almost Perfect, winner of the 2011 Stonewall Young Adult Book Award. His newest book, Everyone Dies in the End: A Romantic Comedy will be out March 2014. Visit him on the web at


  1. I realize it is difficult to respond to every query, but we appreciate an automated response to confirm the letter is received.

    The Ethernet is a voracious beast and we never know when it is hungry.
    Author of Wilder Mage at Spirit Called
    Facebook Wilder Mage

    1. Huntress, that is so true. I know when I send a query and a receive the automate reply it really makes me feel better, especially when it takes 2 weeks longer than the agent said to respond.