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Agent Caitlen Rubino-Bradway: What Am I Looking For In An Author?

Monday, 7 March 2016  |  Posted by Heather Cashman

Guest Post by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway


One of the least fun calls I’ve had to make as an agent was to an author of mine.  His first project had received a warm response from editors, but no offers.  We were currently six or seven months into his second project.  And now I was calling to tell him that, in my opinion, we should put the second project aside and move onto the next.  There were a couple of reasons for that, but the biggest ones were that the third project, which we’d talked about several times, was something we both felt very strongly about, and it’s the sort of story I really thought would catch editor’s attention.

I wasn’t looking forward to essentially telling my author, look, I know you really like this story, I know you’ve put a lot of work into it, but I think you need to put it aside and start all over again with a new project.  To my relief, however, he was on board with it.  At one point, he said (paraphrasing), “I write because I like to write, but I really want to sell a book.”  And I thought – yes.  That is exactly what I want in an author.

But counterpoint?  Recently we (at the LKG Agency, Lauren and I both go over every story we’re seriously considering — two agents for the price of one!) were reviewing a wonderful story that was hitting all of our sweet spots.  The concept was fun and fresh, the writing was engaging, we both loved the main character.  However, it was clear the plot needed a lot of work — inconsistencies in the world-building, questions that were asked but not answered, and a climax that felt like it belonged to another story entirely.  When we had a call with the author to talk revisions, they shut us down.  They weren’t interested in revising, they didn’t think the manuscript needed any changes, we simply didn’t understand their story.

I’ve heard that more often than you might think.  And I’m not trying to say that I’m completely, 1000% right about every suggestion and revision I give to an author.  It is, after all, entirely possible that I’m not the super-brilliant amazing story-genius I think I am — or, more realistically, that this is a sign I’m just not the right agent for that story and that author.  But I will say that it’s not uncommon for an author become so invested in their story, after the hours and weeks and even years that they put into it, that they are not receptive to any changes.

It makes sense; you have to love your story, and be deeply invested in it, because that’s what’s going to keep you at the computer for all those hours and weeks.  But if it gets to the point where it puts up a wall, then it’s a problem.  Because while writing a book is a solitary endeavor, publishing a book is a collaborative one.

I say this not just as an agent, but an author who has the exact problem herself.  My new YA, Supernormal (available on Amazon, March 15th!), got one consistent reaction from all of my friends, beta readers, and editors.  They wanted to see the two main characters kiss — something that should be obvious in a YA with a strong romantic element, but something I kept resisting because I was too fixated on the ‘slow build’ idea.  Eventually I had to sit myself down and point out that if everyone was saying the same thing, then it is actually a problem, and wasn’t this going against the exact advice I give to people.  (It was, and I was, though it took me far too long to realize it.)

But as an agent?  An author’s ability to take a step back and take an objective look at a project they poured blood, sweat, and tears over can honestly be the difference between an offer and not.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but while writing is a passion, publishing is a business.  You can write a wonderful story that editors love, and that still doesn’t get a contract because of purely business reasons.  Or perhaps they love your story, but they think the focus is on the wrong character, or that the twist in the last third doesn’t work, and want you to do a major rewrite.  And what I really look for in an author — other than, obviously, the potential to be the next J.K. Rowling — is that while they love writing, they approach publishing like a professional.  Are they willing to put in the work?  Because publishing a book is a lot of work. Are they receptive to ideas and input?  Please don’t take this to mean I expect an author to agree to everything.  If they feel very strong about X, but I’m really concerned about it for Y reasons, I want us to be able to talk through it to find a middle ground.

It’s the authors who can look at things objectively while caring deeply about their project, who can see the forest and not just the trees, and who can take a step back as needed and think of it in terms of a writing career and not just a single project, that are going to make it in the very crowded and competitive bookshelves.  And those are the authors I cannot wait to work with.

Find Caitlen:  LKG Agency


Caitlen–thanks for your post! We will be featuring her next novel, Supernormal, when it releases on March 15th! Come check it out!

Filed: Misc

  • Sharon Constantino says:

    Thank you, Caitlen for a look at what you, and I’m sure other agents want to see in an author. Sometimes as an author, I’m so passionate and focused on my story that it’s not easy to be objective. I would welcome advice from a professional! Thanks Heather for sharing.

    • Caitlen says:

      Thanks, Sharon. I know it can be really tough to take a step back, and you should be passionate about your story! It helps me to remember that any suggestions or advice the agent/editor give come because they want to make it the best story possible.

  • S.T. Ranscht says:

    Great advice! That’s something my writing partner and I have experienced many times when we review each other’s writing. It was kind of a shock at the beginning, but I’m pleased to say we have arrived at the same back-and-forth process you engage in with your ideal authors. There must be hope for us in the publishing world. 🙂

    • Caitlen says:

      There’s definitely hope! I’m a huge fan of writing partners — if you find one that really understands your story and what you’re trying to accomplish, they can give you some great perspective.

  • Julie Dorsey says:

    Thanks for your blog. I started my debut novel three years ago and am now working with a new editor to take it to the next level. I did have input from an agent to do two things: 1) cut to the chase more quickly, i.e. cut the backstory and 2) change the voice to 3rd person. I am cutting backstory but my new editor and every professional who has seen the manuscript agrees that the voice is strong. So I won’t give that up. And probably won’t query the same agent again.

    • Caitlen says:

      If you really don’t agree with an editor or suggestion, that’s a sign that they’re not the right editor or agent for you. Honestly, the need for objectivity goes both ways, and there is a fair amount of personal taste that comes into it with agents and editors.

  • Robert P. Beus says:

    Maybe it’s my years in theater as a performer and then on the production teams, but this advice works exactly how I approach all things I do. You can work your butt off but sometimes you aren’t right for the role. (Or someone else is just plain better). And on the production side, it’s collaborative. You need to be able to have a vision but also listen to others on how to improve the vision. After all, there is always the same shared goal: successful and moving art that illicits a positive response from your audience. Glad to know my background will help me in this field as well.

  • DJ Siciliano says:

    Thank you for your honesty. You’re right about there being many fine lines in this world from what sells to individual tastes per agent. No one will ever be 1000% correct and sometimes I believe a little magic happens to make a book go out into the world. Massive snack for my thoughts as I go into the querying stage again.

    • Caitlen says:

      You’re welcome! I hope this helped, and you’re right that with all the factors going into publishing a book, it is a kind of magic. And you don’t have to agree with everything the agent/editor says — as you say, no one is 1000% right always — but it’s important that you share the same vision for your story.

  • Mike Crowl says:

    Insights from agents are wonderful, because the different perspectives help clarify what’s for me one of the muddiest parts of the submission process. Thank you for the glimpse into your review and revision process.

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