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The Book Deal

Market sizzles for debut authors

“Editors still love a chance at debut fiction,” says Manhattan literary agent Michelle Brower.

“If the book is unique and meaningful, the debut author doesn’t yet have a bad sales track record so we can look at their book with all of the rosiness of potential rather than reality”

Good news

That’s some of the good news for first-time authors from agents out there on the front lines.

The news is backed up by recent deals with major publishers for first novels, like Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven, an immigrant tale of two women, two cultures, family secrets and the fight to find a new life in America, sold to NAL this year by veteran agent Jill Marsal.

Two top dealmakers in debut fiction

I recently interviewed Brower and Marsal, both on the list of top dealmakers for debut fiction at Publisher’s Marketplace. They’re two hardworking agents, eager to go to bat for exciting new authors in an evolving market, and they agreed to share some of their insights and advice for writers here at The Book Deal. First, their details:

Michelle Brower is with Folio Literary Management in NYC, a major player among agencies. Her track record with emerging authors is impressive: She sold Believers, a first novel by Andrew Roe, in a preemptive deal to Algonquin Books, Cementville, a debut novel by Paulette Livers, to Counterpoint Press, and the upcoming Soy Sauce for Beginners by new novelist Kirsten Chen to Amazon Publishing. Brower says she loves working with authors “who aren’t afraid to get out there and promote their book once it is published. You’re always your own best publicity tool!”

Jill Marsal, an attorney and founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Agency in Solana Beach, CA, was for eight years an agent with the industry heavyweight Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She represents a range of nonfiction as well as women’s fiction, mysteries, cozies, suspense, and thrillers “that keep the pages turning and have an original hook.” Marsal sold the forthcoming The Wedding Favor, a new contemporary romance series by debut author Lisa Connelly to Avon, and The Vanishing Thief, a new mystery series by first-timer Kate Parker, to Berkley Books.

What stood out about the books you’ve sold lately that helped seal the deal with publishers?

Michelle Brower: My most recent sales have had a story that immediately makes you want to find out more. But that’s not enough. Authors have to actually deliver on the premise with good writing that keeps a reader turning pages. In the books that sell, the core principles are heightened: You have to have a good story, and it has to be well told.

Jill Marsal: The books that sold had something that made them stand out from the pack: a unique voice, a compelling story hook that grabbed the reader and felt different from what’s already out there, or just really incredible writing. On the non-fiction side, I’ve had some great projects that sold from authors who have interesting topics, strong platforms, and engaging writing.

What do you think has changed in publishing — and what really hasn’t?

Michelle Brower: Authors have to be seen as “bigger” now. Gone are the days when the plan was to grow someone over the course of many books. The books that sell move toward either end of the spectrum — they are either small books that sell for a modest amount, or hotly buzzed books that sell for a lot. The middle is increasingly hard to find.

It’s also harder to sell as many print copies or make as much money off of e-book copies, so advances don’t tend be as high as they once were.

One of the things that hasn’t changed is that editors still love a chance at debut fiction.

Jill Marsal: What’s changed? There are a lot more opportunities for writers then there were five or ten years ago. E-publishing has opened up a lot of doors. Many traditional publishers are starting their own e-publishing lines. Some terrific traditional publishing opportunities have also been created for authors who have successfully self-published.

In marketing and promotion, the growth of social media means there are a lot more opportunities for writers to become more active partners in promoting their books and reaching their readership. And this has also helped to extend the life of many books. Since you are no longer dependent on just the two-to-four-week period that your books are “on shelves” in the bookstores, books continue to sell for longer periods.

What hasn’t changed is the need for a great book. The same basics should still be there: strong voice, great story, compelling characters, interesting plot that grabs readers, strong setting. These are the elements that will help a book succeed in any market.

What’s your opinion about self-publishing? Is there a role for agents?

Michelle Brower: Agents can give self-published authors advice on growing their careers across all the available platforms, from print rights to foreign translation to film rights. Any time you are faced with a contract, you should get either an agent or a lawyer on board to negotiate it on your behalf.

Jill Marsal: Our most recent big success in this area was J. Lynn, who self-published through our agency and hit #1 on the New York Times e-books bestseller list for her book Wait for You. Self-publishing can be a great way for writers to get their books out there, especially if the writer is well-connected and able to help promote the book. Agents can offer editorial input on manuscripts, help format the manuscript for the different e-platforms, help with uploading, strategize about pricing, and so on.

Is your agency expanding its services to authors, beyond trying to place books with publishers?

Michelle Brower: I’m a very editorial agent, but I don’t really look at it as a separate service: it’s just what I do in order to make a book better so that it will sell for more money. I generally advise my clients on a variety of issues — editing, publicity, help designing a website, getting started with blogs and social networking. But I see my one true purpose as being an advocate for an author: financially, emotionally, and editorially.

Jill Marsal: We really look at the author-agent relationship as a long-term partnership where we would like to help grow and develop an author’s career rather than just sell a book.

So, yes, we do offer services beyond selling a book. We offer editorial feedback to help writers make their manuscripts or proposals as strong as possible. It is a very interactive process to get a manuscript “ready for market.” Then, once a book has sold, we help authors think about marketing, branding, future books and strategize about what next to help grow their careers.

What advice would you give writers who are having trouble getting an agent?

Michelle Brower: Keep writing. If you are getting consistent critical feedback, go back to your manuscript and revise. If the feedback you’re getting isn’t very helpful or you’re just not getting any, start another project. It’ll take your mind off of the waiting, and it will force you to keep honing your craft and learning about yourself as an author. Published authors often have a manuscript (or two, or four) in the drawer.

Jill Marsal: If you’re not getting agents asking for your manuscript, then something in your query letter probably needs to be reworked. If you are getting manuscript requests but then not getting an agent, take a look at the opening 50 pages of your manuscript and really rework them. Set aside a week or two so you can reedit with fresh eyes, and ask a critique partner to give you feedback. Ask for specifics of what the reader thinks is NOT working so you have some guidance on areas to focus on for revisions.

Revisions are an important part of the writing process and can be key to taking a manuscript to the next level. Recently, an author and I went back and forth on probably four or five different ideas before landing on the one we took to market. And we sold that novel in just a few weeks.

Remember, even some of the bestsellers received many, many rejections before they found the right home. Don’t get discouraged.


More debut deals

Other recent examples of debut works literary agents have sold to traditional publishers:

We Are Not Ourselves, a novel by New York high school teacher Matthew Thomas, was sold at auction to editor Marysue Rucci at Simon & Schuster in a “major deal” by agent Bill Clegg at William Morris Endeavor.

The Wives of Los Alamos, a non-fiction history by Tarashea Nesbit was sold to editor Nancy Miller at Bloomsbury by agent Julie Barer of Barer Literary.

White Ginger, a mystery thriller by Thatcher Robinson, former CEO of an internet security firm, was sold in a two-book deal to editor Dan Mayer of Seventh Street Books by agent Kimberley Cameron at Kimberley Cameron & Associates.

Snapper, a first novel and winner of the first Janklow & Nesbit Bath Spa prize by Brian Kimberling, was sold to Pantheon by agent Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit Associates. The book is a series of dark and funny tales about the disastrous love affair between a man, a place, and its people, narrated by a freelance birdwatcher in the backwaters of Indiana.

What about you?

Are you a first-time author in search of an agent? What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?

If you’re a debut author with a published novel, we’d love to hear about the role your agent played in the process. And if you’ve decided to self-publish, tell us what went into your decision.

I’ll watch for any questions here in comments.


  1. says

    I tried sending my first adult novel to agents and never got a request for a full read. I sent it to an ebook publisher – Soulmates Publishing and got a request for the full manuscript. They then requested a rewrite on one of the two story lines. I believe their suggestions made it better and stronger. Second Chances then won second prize in an RWA query contest. I took the judges comments and did further rewrites. I haven’t yet sent it back to Soulmate.
    Recently on my my blog I interview two self published authors and vas very impressed with their experience. (Of course I loved both books. They were very well written.)
    I know that because of the time factor (two women in their sixties travelling back to 1969, this has to be an ebook. My dilemma: Do I send it back to Soulmate? Try (I loved the editor at Soulmate but I cannot firgure out if they are selling many books)another epublisher? or publish it myself? This last is way scary cause I would have to hire my own editor and a cover artist.

  2. says


    The best-case scenario would be to publish it yourself. As you noted, you’d need to hire your own developmental editor to be sure the book is as good as it can be. Being a writer is indeed scary, so the best insurance for safety and confidence is the knowledge that you’ve done your very best with the most crucial part: the content. Search my blog for previous posts on how to find an excellent editor.

    Cover art is also important but Kindle and CreateSpace do have some templates you can try. Once again, though, you’ll have a much better jacket design if you hire a top quality professional.

    Good luck!

  3. says

    Hi Alan,

    I’m quite new to your site, but have found it a huge help. I’m currently nearing the end of my first edit on the first novel I hope to publish, but I have no clue where to go next. If I want to try traditional publishing, should I look for an agent first? Or an editor?

    Thank you in advance
    Kelly x

  4. says


    Since traditional publishers don’t look at manuscripts that aren’t sent by an agent, you’d better get a good developmental editor first.

    Agents won’t usually take on a draft manuscript that still needs work. They know that acquisition editors at the traditional houses want something ready for production.

    So my best advice is to bite the bullet and do what successful authors have always done, by working with the best editor you can find.

    Here’s a link to a previous post on how to evaluate and work with an independent developmental editor

  5. says

    Thank you so much Alan! I have been searching online for Australian editors, but did not know I was actually looking for a developmental editor. This has brought up a lot more names of people who seem more interested in novels instead of theses papers.

    I wasn’t sure if agents found you editors or not, and since all I’d managed to find on my own weren’t developmental editors I was feeling a bit lost.

    Fantastic post too, thanks for the links. x

  6. says

    My first book (non-fiction memoir) was signed by a mid sized publisher, and then I wrote my first fiction. I self pubbed the fiction while waiting for the first book to come out. I then signed second book idea to the publisher a am doing final revisions now. Still have a lot to learn, and do have another fiction book in the works. I’d love to have an agent, but I don’t know how to go about it and have a terrible time writing a synopsis!

    So I will probably self-pub the next fiction too. Not even sure what constitutes “good” sales, so who knows how good you are doing at any given moment? It’s a whole new world, and it’s fun, but so mysterious to someone like me, who is new to the whole scene.

  7. says

    Thanks Michelle and Jill for your insights. I’m encouraged to hear there’s still a lookout for debut fiction. After writing and revising four novels with a couple of others in the works, I’m still glad to possess what some writers may still covet: potential. It’s like 400,000 words of kinetic energy waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public … well, maybe that’s a little too dramatic! It’s also good to know you’re both on the same wavelength when it comes to the importance of a good story. I think if a writer is passionate, it doesn’t matter what medium he or she uses. Whether the tablet is electronic or cuneiform, a true writer will find a way to get the words going. Of course, writing on clay tablets would be harder to revise, but the point is the same: the writer will find a means to the end. Well, that’s enough rambling for now. I’ve been taking a break from making “cold calls” to agents in favor of posting replies like this. This way, I don’t have to worry about getting rejected! Well, good luck to both of you with your latest projects.

  8. says


    I recently had my first ebook cover designed by an individual graphic artist. I was pleasantly shocked by the quality and willingness to make countless edits to get it done right. She was also very affordable, roughly half the cost of many self publishing companies. She can be found at I wish you well!

  9. Elayna says

    Hi, I am a debut YA author who luckily has an agent who loves my voice and my manuscript. The manuscript is currently on submission at 4 big publishing houses. It has been almost 4 months now with no reply. (Got 2 rejections, from another 4 publishers that it didn’t fit their list.) I have read so many stories of debut authors getting offers within a month of submission. But I havnt heard of any debut authors who get offers after 4-5 months. My question is, does it happen? Can u get an offer after a 4-5 month wait, or is it just that they don’t have time to reply and reject you?
    Thank you for all your insight.

  10. says


    Yes, an agent should expect a clear response for your debut YA far earlier than 4 months. I’m surprised your agent is willing to be so patient since this seems like rejection, and with a lack of professional courtesy. Apologies, but I’m continually amazed at how rude publishers can be. I hope your agent will submit to other publishers with a deadline for responding.



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