How do agents decide whether a book is right for their list? Some people tell me agents want books similar to those on their list, others tell me agents want books in the same genre but they should not be similar to any other books on their list. When querying, is it worth taking a look at an agent's list or should we be guided by genre alone?
Also, if I look through tweets with the #MSWL hash tag, I see rather specific requests with regard to plot, characters, setting and even the ethnic background of the writer. One could get the impression that agents look through the slush pile not just for good stories in the genre they represent, but for good stories containing specific traits. If that's true, where do they get the list of traits they want? Is it gut instinct? Opinion polls? Requests from editors and publishers? Has the market become so fractured that agents only represent books in certain genres possessing certain traits?
You can't even think about this right now.
This is a textbook recipe for driving yourself absolutely crazy.
One of the things that keeps us all from going nuts in this crazy world is imposing order on the chaos of life: establishing habits, organizing our lives, having routines. Entire shelves in bookstores are devoted to books about organizing your life to exert control. (I probably own them all, I love books about being organized.)
The trick is to know where you can impose habit, routine and order. Creating a checklist for what agents are seeking and selling is not one of them. How you query is.
What I'm looking for isn't a checklist. If I read something and like it (a lot!) I will consider whether I think I can sell it. I will consider how much I can sell it for. I will consider whether the author appears to be someone I can work with or if they are giving off the Nutso Vibe. I'll look at other books on my list and consider if this fits or overlaps with my current clients. (I'm unlikely to take on a book too close to what Laird Barron writes for example.)
But, that is MY process. It's not only not everyone's process, it's not anyone else's process.
There is no uniformity in how agents consider books.
That actually works in your favor; if you annoy the snot out of me (you don't) all you have to do is query someone else for a fresh opportunity. If I annoy the snot out of you (all too possible) well then, here's La Slitherina's email address and she's damn good at her job.
As to the #MSWL request list. A lot of those specific "things I'm looking for" are in fact responses to what we think will sell. There's been a surge in demand for books that specifically reflect diversity in race and ethnicity, rather than the characters simply being default white. Some of the requests reflect our knowledge of holes in the market. And some of it is just us yapping about what we like to read.
#MSWL is useful mostly for finding agents who are looking for things in categories you didn't know they were interested in. It's not a comprehensive list.
And just because we're looking for X, and you wrote X, doesn't mean it's a slam dunk that I'll sign you. (See paragraph "What I'm looking for isn't a checklist" above.) In other words, it's circular.
Like a damn rodent wheel. It's no wonder you guys are all nutso.
And one last thing: you wrote "Some people tell me" and I get the feeling you're listening to other writes yammering about what works and what doesn't. Beware of vesting too much confidence in these voices. Writers know their own experience. They aren't agents. They don't work in agencies.
One of the things that will trip you up hardest is listening to someone tell you how it is, and accepting it as gospel. There is no "how it is" for acquiring clients. Every single client had a different path.
A lot of publishing is luck.
All of publishing is subjective.
There's only one thing you can control: your novel.