Agent Advice: Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner

Jennifer Carlson

To submit a question for the next featured agent, e-mail or write to Editor, Poets & Writers Magazine, 90 Broad Street, Suite 2100, New York, NY 10004. Questions accepted for publication may be edited for clarity and length.

Areas of interest: Literary fiction and narrative nonfiction; also young-adult and middle-grade fiction

Representative clients: Kevin Brockmeier, Paula Chase-Hyman, Marisa de los Santos, David Lida, Robert Neuwirth, Mary Quattlebaum, Jon Raymond, Paul Reyes, and David Schickler

Looking for: Query letters; sample page for fiction is acceptable; unknown e-mail attachments will not be opened

Preferred contact: E-mail; postal mail

Agency contact:
Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, Inc.
27 West 20th Street, Suite 1107
New York, NY 10011
(212) 645-7606

What are you looking to see in a writing sample, specifically in the first five pages?
Wikidd from Meriden, Connecticut

I want to see that it works: characters, narrative voice, the opening strokes of plot—all grooving in unison like the opening to a great song, no matter what genre (though admittedly, heavy metal is not for me). Or, to put it another way, I’m looking for pretty much the same thing you’re looking for when you browse the bookstore, randomly picking up books and glancing over the first page. Do you keep going or do you put it down? Whereas you’re thinking, “Do I want to buy this?” I’m thinking, “Can I sell this?”

Do you think it’s a good idea for people who are not completely confident in their work to make an attempt at soliciting an agent? Is it worth the effort to try? Which raises the question: What evidence would one need to consider oneself worthy in the first place?
Jon from New York City

Think about it this way: If only supremely confident people attempted to put their work out there, then we’d hardly have any books. Is it worth the effort to try? As I once heard Andrei Codrescu, in an NPR commentary, quote Heraclitus: Who can stop the sea from rising? Which is to say, though sadly lacking his thick Romanian accent, this is a rhetorical question. So why not try? As for your last question, I fear it is too existential to take on in this brief format. I’m going to refer you to my colleague Betsy Lerner’s blog,, where you can see an agent who is also a writer deliver counsel to writers with humor and honesty.

I’m a self-published author who just completed his second novel. An agent once told me I shouldn’t state that I’m a self-published author in my query letter because it shows that no one has taken an interest in my writing and therefore I had to publish my own books. Apart from being rather insulting, does this agent have a point? 
Ammanuel from Baltimore 

Yes, it’s a little slighting. Am I guilty of countless acts of the same? Um, yes. This may change as the definition of self-publishing evolves, but we’re not all the way there yet. So unless you’ve sold a zillion copies of your self-published book, best not to bring it up too soon. 

For an unpublished writer, does it cost more to seek a literary agent abroad or would it be safer to self-publish first in the home country before seeking an agent in another country?
Daisy from Rustenburg, South Africa

I’m not sure about the words cost and safer that you have chosen to use here. Do you mean them literally, or metaphorically? If you have e-mail, it shouldn’t cost you much. And unless there is a terrific home country–based agent (they are less common where you are, no?) whose loving advances you are rejecting, I don’t see any cost to your career, either. The United States, of course, imports little in the way of books, though we do get serial crushes on various areas around the world (India, Africa, e.g.) and then suddenly there’s a lovely burst of publishing activity centered on works and writers from those regions. I’d advise doing some research to look for U.S. and U.K. agents to approach (for those writing in English, anyway) who have international client lists.