Agents & Editors Recommend

A dependable source of professional and creative advice, this weekly series features anecdotes, insights, tips, recommended reading and viewing for writers, and more from leading agents and editors.

Madeline Jones of Algonquin Books


I edit mostly narrative nonfiction, and I think in publishing and writing we tend to take that word “narrative” for granted—as if any text, just by being the length and shape of a book, is a narrative. Give me strong characters and vivid scenes: We say this in a way that can make those attributes feel like their own objects, separate from the author’s purpose. But the narrative-nonfiction story itself isn’t just a tool to baby the reader, to make the book “feel like fiction,” or to create an entertaining reading experience.

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Marcus Wicker of Southern Indiana Review


When I’m reading for pleasure or screening manuscripts for a book prize, I marvel at the many ways that a poetry collection’s images, themes, and conceits can work in concert with one another. But when I’m reading for Southern Indiana Review, with my editor hat on, I’m looking for a poem’s standalone excellence, freshness—the kind of work that announces itself within the first few lines.

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Ivy Givens of Mariner Books


The book-making process is, crucially, a conversation between author and editor, and openness and honesty at all stages of that conversation is essential to doing justice to your work. Hold fast to your convictions around what your book can be, of course; it’s important to work with an agent and an editor who make you feel heard on that score. I’ll say, too, that the authors of the books I’m most proud of are also equally receptive to unexpected reactions, and willing to engage with them meaningfully. Honesty with yourself is a prerequisite. 

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Maya Kanwal of Gulf Coast


At Gulf Coast, we’re excited to read and publish every type of story, from the traditional to the experimental. Here are some story-level questions I ask myself as I read submissions in my role as fiction editor: Does the author exhibit control of craft, the stamina to carry through the story’s conceit? Is the story multilayered, more than just its plot? What questions does this story raise? What are the stakes? Does the story open with characters or in a world that I want to follow right away? Does the narrative evolve or escalate in some way from page to page?

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Derek Krissoff of West Virginia University Press


When shopping for a publisher, university presses deserve a place on your radar. Consider their many advantages: They’re attached to universities with enormous creative and intellectual resources. They’re encouraged as nonprofits to respond to mission, embrace editorial independence, and to take risks. And they’re spread out geographically, helping to establish a more diverse publishing landscape for literary work.

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Jaclyn Gilbert of Drift(less) Literary


When writers begin looking for an agent, I think sometimes their focus on getting representation becomes all-consuming in ways that prevent them from most fully investigating what they need or are looking for in an agent. While an agent’s connections to a desirable list of publishers are important, I would argue that even more important is whether a particular agent understands what the writer is trying to do on the line level.

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Roberto Carlos Garcia of Get Fresh Books


I love reading books where it is immediately evident the author is at play. Play requires a kind of fearlessness. It pushes the boundaries of a poem or story in ways that can lead to wonder, and wonder can lead to discovery. When asked what drove him to write, James Baldwin replied: “Something that irritates you and won’t let go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book or die.” But anxiety can arise from this do-or-die feeling about writing. This is why, as editors and publishers, our sacred duty is to encourage play.

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Stephen Motika of Nightboat Books


I am a restless reader and am always looking for new ways of being entangled in poetry, text, art. I’m interested in how people are engaged with poetry, both contemporary and historical, and the art of poetry—not only in poems and books, but also in advertising, film photography, social media, and found text. How do the visual elements of the page operate? How does the poem sound when read aloud? Am I able to trace the sonic and rhythmic qualities in the work?

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Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio


Be a sponge and keep your antenna up, not just to books and literature but to other art forms and experiences. Many of the projects we’ve pursued at Two Dollar Radio have been more about community building than traditional publishing, and we find inspiration in varied sources, including films, record labels, roadside attractions, restaurants, and hikes. Don’t just stare at a computer screen, get out in the world and paw some actual books at your local bookstore. Read some of them.

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Tajja Isen of Catapult


Though I’m an editor who works primarily with personal essays, I’m most attracted to first-person writing that is not strictly “about” the self. So what, I wonder, when reading about even the most bizarre or unjust or relatable thing that happened to you—not because I’m callous, but because a story that ends with it happened to me is like deplaning when you’ve only taxied down the runway.

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