What exactly makes a good book?
Darling, what you need is a plot!
Like most people, I first met the figure of the literary agent via Hollywood. He or she was always dramatically dressed — a sharp suit or a tweed jacket, plus glasses. The agent sat behind her desk, gesturing to some upset writer, saying: “Darling, what you need is a plot!” or “Have you considered adding a love story?”
Ideally, the writer gets a call from their agent. The news is life-changing: “Big-name Publisher would like to offer Unheard-of Amount of Money to publish your book!”
But what exactly makes a book good? Agents tend to specialize, and what is “good” will vary according to the genre. Fiction intended to reach a wide audience needs an empathetic protagonist and a dynamic plot. Add something that’s in the headlines and cultural conversations, and you’re cooking with grease, as my mother likes to say.
For literary fiction, more attention is paid to style and prose. Most agents would kill for an author who can do both, like Kazuo Ishiguro or Donna Tartt. For nonfiction, the message is important. Books that offer a new framework for understanding a topic are something I especially love, whether they are about the brain, business, parenting, technology or the last 30,000 years of civilization.
Predicting which books will sell well in 2019 is a tricky business, particularly in countries with a lot of political unrest like the U.S. Books that explain or try to help make sense of the present moment are much sought after, but like so much in business and in life, publishing is an art as much as it is a science. And it’s always a gamble.
is a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates in Manhattan (www.janklowandnesbit.com/agency). Their authors include Joan Didion, James Patterson, Whoopi Goldberg, Xiaolu Guo and Amartya Sen. She lives in Brooklyn; follow her on Twitter @melflashmanInterview: Eamonn Fitzgerald