The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine has a great interview with Algonquin editor Chuck Adams (along with many projects in a long career at Simon & Schuster, he acquired for Algonquin the best-selling Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen). You can read the whole interview (plus some that isn’t in the print magazine) here. For now, here are some comments I found especially helpful:
Let's talk about agents. There are a lot of them, and I'm curious about the factors that you would look at if you were a writer, knowing what you know, and had your pick of a few.
I would want them to ask certain questions. "Who do you think the audience for my book will be?" "How do you think my career should progress?" I think writers should be asking about career, not just about selling this particular book. "What do you think I should be working on now to follow-up this book?" I would want a very careful reading of the book in order to make sure that they did read it and really understood it and weren't just hyping me up. I would do as much research as I could. I'd want to know who their other clients are and how their careers are advancing. I'd want to talk to some of their authors, if possible. I'd look at how well the books that this agent has sold are being published.
You want an agent who is both incredibly easy to get along with and incredibly determined to get the best they can for their authors. The best agents are the ones who keep after me and don't leave me alone. You know, "What are you doing? What's going to happen next?" They want to keep on top of things. The ones I'm leery of are the ones I hear from only once or twice a year. Marly Rusoff, for example, is a great agent. She works so hard for her writers. Well, she was an editor, too. I think some of the best agents used to be editors—because they know the business. And so many editors are now agents, of course, because you can make more money.
What are you looking for in a piece of writing?
The first thing is the voice. If it's got a strong voice, I'm going to keep reading. And if a story sneaks in there, I'm going to keep reading. To me, those are the two most important things. I want a voice and I want to be hooked into a story. I believe very strongly that books are not about writers, and they're definitely not about editors—they're about readers. You've got to grab the reader right away with your voice and with the story you're telling. You can't just write down words that sound pretty. It's all about the reader. You've got to bring the reader into it right away. If the writing is poetic and so forth, that's nice. I'm reading something right now that has an amazing voice, and I'm only fifty-six pages into it, but I'm already getting a little tired because it's so nice, if you know what I mean. It's so pretty. It's like every page is a bon bon, and I want a little break somewhere. It's become self-conscious, in a way. I want the author to surprise me and excite me, and so far he hasn't. He's just made me think, "Oh, that's nice." I even called somebody and read them half a page because I thought it was so nice. I don't know. I'll give it another fifty pages and see.