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Submitting to Literary Agents: Danielle Zigner

In this interview, Danielle Zigner, literary agent at LBA Books, discusses the role of an agent and what she looks for in her submissions.

After reading Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University Danielle spent a year working with a number of publishers and agencies. In 2014 she joined the team at LBA as a Junior Agent, and has since been actively building her list. She’s on the lookout for a broad range of fiction and non-fiction. Her heartland lies with Young Adult literature, and she’s open to all genres within that. She’d love to find some quirky YA, as well as some YA romance and fantasy. She also loves adult fantasy and science-fiction, as well as historical thrillers, and is keen to take on clients in these areas. For middle graders she’s after adventure stories and mysteries that capture the imagination. And of course, books that make her laugh. On the non-fiction side she looks for feminist literature that has something new to add to the dialogue. She also represents a couple of health and cookery titles, and is excited to find new stars in this area.

So Danielle, can you talk us through a typical working day?

My days tend to vary depending on which meetings I have throughout the week – some will be fully booked and have me travelling around London, while others are quieter with only one or two meetings with editors from publishing houses. 

On a day when I have nothing scheduled I get into the office at around 9am, and start checking through any emails that have arrived since the previous evening. Many of them will have questions I need to answer, meetings I need to book, manuscripts I need to read/edit or administrative tasks for me to do throughout the day. So depending on the morning this can take anything from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.

After I’ve finished with the quick-response emails I write up a to-do list of the tasks that will take me longer throughout the day. This always includes some editorial work, and often a lot of admin.

I then skim through the day’s papers to see if anything jumps out at me. We’re always looking for interesting stories or personalities who might translate well into books, so I have to keep an eye on what’s making the news. If anything is of particular interest then I’ll spend some time researching to see if it’s already been done, and if not then I’ll compose an email and approach the person in question.  

After that the remainder of my morning will be spent getting through the tasks on my to-do list. I prefer to leave any reading and editing until the afternoon, so this time is usually spent dealing with contract-related tasks, writing up notes from meetings the previous day, and chasing various people for various things. 

For my sins, I usually spend lunchtimes at my desk reading through submissions. If anything jumps out at me I’ll mark it so that I know to prioritise it. I then try to dedicate my afternoons to editing and preparing submissions, although this rarely goes to plan as more emails will inevitably arrive throughout the day calling for prompt responses. Evenings are left for networking events during which I get to catch up with editors and other agents over drinks and talk about all of the amazing books that are being published.

Roughly how many submissions land in your inbox each week?

To my personal submissions inbox I receive about 50 a week.

What’s important for you to see in a submission from a writer?

The million dollar question! The first thing I notice in a query letter is whether a plot appeals to me. If it sounds too similar to something that’s already on the bookshelves, or it’s not immediately intriguing then I won’t mark it as a priority. The elevator pitch needs to be spot on to grab my attention. I then need to see competent writing. Even if a manuscript has the best plot I’ve ever come across, if it’s poorly written I won’t be able to take it on. 

So to put it briefly, an interesting story and good writing.

A covering letter should… 

Be concise and informative. I want to know the title, word count, genre and (very brief!) blurb of the book. I also want to know a little about the author – what do they do? 

At best, a covering letter can be an extremely useful resource for me to quickly get an idea of what I’m about to read. At worst, it can often be a self-indulgent manifesto that’s far too long to capture my full attention.

A synopsis should… 

Give an overview of the whole plot, ideally in one page, although two would be acceptable. It should explain the ending (spoilers and all), and if the book is the first in a series then it should include a couple of sentences explaining the story arc for the following books. My key tip for writing a synopsis would be not to overwrite it. I'm assessing the plot here, not how beautifully constructed your sentences are.

The opening chapters of a manuscript should… 

Completely draw me in. I'm not picky about how they do this – all I want is to pick up a submission and not want to put it down again. Obviously the opening chapters should be well written, and should set the tone for the rest of the book, but there are no hard and fast rules about how they do this.

In your opinion, what is key to a successful elevator pitch?

An elevator pitch should be snappy and intriguing. I should want to know more at the end of it, so it shouldn't be too detailed. An ideal pitch would introduce the protagonist and give the agent an idea of what challenges they will face throughout the book, in only three or four sentences.

If stuck, a good exercise is to look at book blurbs. Some will be too long but the shorter ones will offer a great template to be inspired by.

On the LBA website, it states that you are interested in writers of ‘quirky YA’. What exactly does that constitute for you? What themes are important for you to see in YA fiction? 

For me ‘quirky YA’ simply means anything a bit different to what we’re used to seeing. We’ve read beautiful YA protagonists overcoming impossible odds to fulfil heroic destinies countless times – I’d love something that strays from this norm.

I think coming-of-age themes will always be the important signifier of a YA book, but I’d love to see more variety in how we tell these stories. There’s definitely space within the YA genre for books which are more inclusive, which have diverse casts of characters and which tell stories that subvert the tropes we’re used to reading.

You represent non-fiction titles also. Should writers in these areas approach the submission process in a different manner?

Yes. For non-fiction submissions agents are usually happy to see a proposal rather than the first three chapters the book. So the full text doesn’t have to be written, as long as they’ve got a killer proposal setting out what the book will be about.

We do, however, pay more attention to who the author is with non-fiction, since we need to know that they’re qualified to write on their chosen topic. So this should be detailed. Also, if the author already has an existing platform (on social media, for example), then they should let us know as this may make the proposal more attractive to publishers. 

Taking all of the above into account and thinking about the submissions you’ve read over your career, what are some of the most common mistakes authors make when submitting? 

I see a lot of authors who try to make an impact with their covering letters rather than their writing. I’d warn against authors trying to ‘stand out’ when querying agents. If their manuscript is strong, we’ll notice it, and if it’s not then no amount of jokes or capital letters in their query is going to be able to hide that. More often than not, when a covering letter deviates from the norm the result is off-putting rather than positive.

I also see a lot of covering letters which are far too long, and many authors fail to follow our submission guidelines correctly. If the website asks for the first three chapters of a book, make sure this is what you provide, even if you really love Chapter 5. 

What is the best part of your job? 

Working with incredibly talented authors.

If you could offer one piece of advice for debut authors looking to get published, what would it be?

Keep trying!

You can take a look at Danielle's profile on LBA Books or follow her on Twitter.

For more interviews talking submissions with literary agents, you might be interested in the following: 

Submitting to a Literary Agent: Juliet Pickering

Submitting to a Literary Agent: Clare Wallace