Agents & Editors Recommend

In this online exclusive we ask publishing professionals to share advice, anecdotes, insights, and suggestions for books, movies, music, and more. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for new ways of thinking about their writing and the business of books.

Sara Nelson of Harper


No matter what job I’ve had in publishing—I’ve been a magazine editor, a critic, a bookseller, and now an acquiring editor—I am regularly asked the same questions: What’s going to be the next trend in books? What should I write to fit that trend? And my answer, from all of my perspectives, is always the same: If I could tell you what the next trend is going to be, I’d be a wealthy retired person living on a magical island.

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Judy Clain of Little, Brown


I reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life every five years or so, but my Bird by Bird advice has to do with reading, not writing. I’m always surprised when aspiring writers blithely proclaim that they don’t read much contemporary fiction! I remember years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference when a show of hands with a group of short stories writers revealed that about two people had bought a short story collection in years and that the writers didn’t really read short stories! So my advice is read. Read voraciously.

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Kirby Kim of Janklow and Nesbit


I think we all get hung up on certain metrics, and for a lot of us it’s sales. For a writer, that’s a really hard one to use to determine success. After all, sales aren’t just elusive—as a writer they’re also mostly outside of your control. Publishing a book is typically a years-long process and most of the time it’s spent writing, revising, and interacting with agents, editors, and other publishing professionals.

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Sally Kim of Putnam


Be able to say, in a sentence, what your book is about. By that I don’t mean the elevator pitch (giant man-eating shark attacks beach town) but rather the soul of the story. Then make sure this beating heart is on every page of your manuscript, whether it’s a twist-revealing moment or simple dialogue between two characters passing a shaker of salt back and forth.

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Jeff Shotts of Graywolf Press


There are many voices across the publishing industry and the wider culture telling writers to prepare themselves to be rejected. It is more important and more useful to tell writers to prepare themselves to be accepted. Understandably, there is a great deal of focus on just getting through the eye of the needle, but it is true that on the other side there awaits the real work of publishing the book. Two essential components of that work that can sometimes take writers by surprise are, first, how a publisher talks about and presents the book, and second, how an editor goes about editing it.

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Renée Zuckerbrot of Massie and McQuilkin


“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: It is the continuous thread of revelation.” —Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (Harvard University Press, 1984)

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Megan Lynch of Ecco


Follow the rules, but know when to break them. When you enter the world of studying, teaching, or editing and publishing creative writing, you quickly see patterns, and these patterns suggest rules. We’ve all read prologues that feel unnecessary to the story that follows, like throat-clearing: Prologues should be cut! Many successful novels have short chapters: Let’s make all chapters short! And so on. But the truth is there is nothing more exhilarating than reading a submission that defies a rule of thumb in a way that truly earns the dispensation.

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