What Do Agents Look For? Great Writers, Great Professionals

Nonfiction writers looking for traditional book publishing contracts—wanting to sell their manuscripts to small, medium or large traditional publishing houses, need to find themselves literary representation. While finding an agent may not be necessary for many small publishing houses that accept unagented work, most mid-sized and large publishing houses, indeed, only accept agented book proposals. Occasionally an unagented proposal is “discovered” in the “slush pile” and purchased, but this occurrence doesn’t happen often.

For this reason, serious nonfiction writers set on the traditional publishing route, rather than self-publishing, must find agents to represent their work. Agents seem like an illusive bunch, hard to reach and hard to know. That makes it hard for writers to know how to present themselves and their work to an agent in a way that will result in that coveted literary representation contract, which hopefully leads to a publishing contract. So, I asked my agent, Verna Dreisbach, to tell WNFiN readers what she looks for in a client. She not only mentions what she looks for in a nonfiction writing client but in a fiction client as well, thus offering some helpful insight for all writers.

What do Agents Look For?  Great Writers, Great Professionals
By Verna Dreisbach

My idea of a great client can be summed up in one sentence: Professionalism is just as important as good writing.  I choose authors that I connect with both professionally and personally. I believe we have to like each other and respect one another as with any type of friendship or personal acquaintance. Unfortunately, I’ve had prospective clients change my mind as to representation based upon incessant emails, telephone calls, unrealistic expectations, and just plain rudeness.  I prefer to represent true writers—those who will continue to write regardless of whether or not they ever see their book on a bookstore self.

I am looking for well written books with a distinctive voice.  I want books that a writer has poured their heart and soul into with each and every word—that they didn’t rush through when writing their manuscript, that they took the time to create and master with the art of storytelling.  Most manuscripts are rejected because they are beginning drafts.  They contain the idea, but the language to tell the story has not been developed.  Or, it is apparent that the author hurried through their story without stopping and getting to know their characters.  Fiction writing is an intimate experience and the more in touch the writer is with their characters, the more real they will become to the reader.  I want to feel what I read. Writing fiction is an art and should be treated as such.

Let’s talk specifically about nonfiction. I am open to representing just about any type of non-fiction for an author who has an expertise in their field and a solid platform.  To the non-fiction author, the idea of a book should be only a minor part of their work, not the end goal.  The book only will aid them in achieving whatever purpose they have in their profession, and book sales and promotion will follow naturally.  They write a book and promote it with, or without a publisher’s help, and there is no doubt as to its potential success.  Their only concern should be with which agent they want to represent them.

Non-fiction needs to be presented to agents with a detailed and professional book proposal.  This is no easy undertaking, and I don’t think I’ve signed on a client that has attempted this alone.  Nonfiction book publishing is a business, and the book proposal is a detailed and precise business plan.  Most proposals run at least a dozen pages, and that does not include the sample material from the book.  If I get a half-hearted attempt at a book proposal, then I figure I’m getting a half-hearted attempt at a book.


  1. This is a business; treat it as such.
  2. You are a professional, and act accordingly.
  3. Writing is an art, so take the time to develop your talent and learn the craft.
  4. Agents don’t get paid until the work sells.  We have to really, really, really like what we sign on.  Really.
  5. You are a writer and your first love is writing.  Enjoy it!

About the Author

Verna Dreisbach, of Dreisbach Literary Management, is an agent, author and educator. She is currently finishing her MA degree in creative writing and her Seal Press anthology, Why We Ride, is due for publication spring 2010.  Verna is the founder and president of Capitol City Young Writers, a national non-profit organization that supports and encourages creative writing in aspiring youth and co-founder of The Writers Police Academy, which will take place in North Carolina next September.   Verna represents both fiction and non-fiction authors with a particular interest in books with a political, economic or social context.  She represents a variety of fiction including commercial and literary.  With over 13 years as a police officer, Verna also has a genuine interest and expertise in the genres of mystery, thriller and true crime. No fantasy, sci-fi or children’s books.



  1. I am a publsher and I am looking for non-fiction submissions that will make a difference – see

    http://fabooks.wordpress.com/ for my thoughts on this

  2. Sometimes I wonder if my agent and my wife chose me for the same reason; I just wouldn’t go away.


Speak Your Mind