Not only does a debut need to be well-written, it also needs to have a stand-out premise that will entice readers to try a new author and the visibility and promotion to get it on people’s radars in the first place.

Patricia Nelson was always a voracious reader and went to graduate school to be an English professor before realizing her dream job was to become a literary agent. In this insightful interview she fills us in on what authors can do to stand out in a crowded market, her advice for authors seeking representation and when it’s the best time for authors to begin querying.

Please give us a brief overview of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency 

I’ve been an agent with Marsal Lyon Literary Agency since 2014, representing young adult and middle grade fiction, women’s fiction, and select romance and literary fiction. Marsal Lyon is a San Diego-based agency that represents bestselling and award-winning authors across genres. Our goal is to help find homes for books that engage, entertain, and make a difference. From conception, through a collaborative and engaged editorial process, to finding a publisher and beyond, we partner with our authors to ensure success in finding the right publisher and long-term success on the market. We want to work with authors not just for a book but for a career. We are dedicated to building long-term relationships with our authors and publishing partners.

What made you want to become a literary agent?

As a voracious reader, I always knew that I wanted to work with books in some capacity. Growing up, though, I didn’t know anyone who worked in publishing – I had no idea how to go about getting a job in the field, or what other jobs might be involved behind-the-scenes in making a book besides an editor. Instead, I went to graduate school to be an English professor. But after several years in academia, I realized my dream job really was to be a part of getting great new fiction onto shelves. Once I got serious about researching the publishing industry, it was clear that agenting was the right fit.

First up, the question all writers want to know, what makes a manuscript/author stand out?

I’m always keeping an eye out for a fresh, unique premise, but above all - and I know writers hate this answer because it’s tough to pin down—the most important thing is voice. I’m looking for manuscripts with a strong, singular perspective, stellar writing, and characters that demand to be listened to. I request the first 10 pages to be included with a query for this reason – usually it only takes a few pages of a manuscript to see if the author’s voice has that spark that makes me need to read more.

Is having an established author platform (and a following) an important factor in taking on an author?

Since I only represent fiction, platform isn’t crucial at the querying stage for me. I do like to see that writers have started the process of building a presence online with a website or active social media accounts, since that will become more important as a published author, but I’m not worried about follower counts.

For writers of nonfiction, on the other hand, demonstrating an established platform and wide reach is much more important upfront.  

When, in the writing process, should authors start querying agents?

This is a great question because I think that many authors start querying too early! The time to query is when you have a complete, polished manuscript that is the best you can possibly make it. Ideally that manuscript would have been through a critique group and several rounds of revisions before going out to agents. Publishing is an incredibly competitive industry, and you want to make sure you’re giving yourself the best possible chance of success.

Many authors are now turning to self-publishing. Why should an author still hire an agent?

 For authors who are interested exclusively in self-publishing, an agent might not be necessary, because the agent role is built to help authors navigate the world of traditional publishing.

 That said, for indie authors who are interested in a hybrid career (publishing both traditionally and independently), an agent is a great person to have in your corner to help strategize that balance and handle the traditional side. And for authors with flourishing self-publishing careers who want to sell what we call subsidiary rights—translation, film, and audio—an agent is generally necessary. It’s all a matter of what you’re looking for out of your publishing experience!

When you sign an author with a traditional publisher what should they expect in terms of marketing their work?

The reality of the publishing business right now is that no matter how an author chooses to publish, they should plan to be proactive in marketing. The advantage of the traditional path is that established publishers have access to avenues that are more difficult for self-published books to access: trade reviews that booksellers and librarians consult when deciding what to stock, school and library marketing channels, existing relationships to magazines and blogs whose coverage can help a book break out, etc.

With thousands upon thousands of novels published every year, it’s difficult to rise above the noise, and this gatekeeping role can make a big difference. But anything an author can do to help matters too, and even traditionally published authors should expect to maintain an active social media presence, be available for interviews and events, and attend school visits (for children’s authors). 

The publishing industry continues to change rapidly. What trends excite you?

I wouldn’t call it a “trend”—hopefully it’s more of a sea change—but I’ve been very glad to see the push for more diverse books and for creating more opportunities for marginalized authors. Publishing still has a long way to go in making space for voices that have long been shut out or pushed to the side in our industry, but through the hard work of organizations like We Need Diverse Books and POC in Publishing we’re now having the conversation. It’s a crucial one.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for new authors?

It’s tough to get noticed in an ever-more crowded market. Not only does a debut need to be well-written, it also needs to have a stand-out premise that will entice readers to try a new author and the visibility and promotion to get it on people’s radars in the first place. And then, ideally, the author will have a new project in progress so that they can stay on the radar for fickle readers. The work doesn’t stop when the book is written, or even when it’s sold! It’s a bit of a cliché to say that “publishing is a marathon, not a sprint”—but it’s also true.

Are there any particular characteristics that you believe help to make an author successful? 

Persistence. Patience. Professionalism. And kindness. The most successful authors put in the work, don’t give up, lift up other writers when they can, and make their readers and their team feel appreciated. Being an author is a creative pursuit, but it’s also a job—and as in any job, being the kind of person that people enjoy working with goes a long way.

What advice do you have for authors seeking representation?  

Keep trying! Send out your queries in small batches, see what response you get, and be willing to revise in between query rounds. And when in doubt: try more agents. If you really believe in a book, I generally advise querying a hundred agents before setting that project aside. (To make your “to-query” list, the agent database and the website are great starting points.) And while you’re querying, work on the next project! Many successful authors queried multiple manuscripts before landing representation.

Finally, how can authors get in touch with you and submit their work?

The best place to find me is on Twitter at @patricianels. You can find the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency query guidelines and more details about our clients on the website and a longer description of the kinds of books I’m looking for at Manuscript Wishlist.