Book Broker: an interview with Betsy Lerner

Interview with literary agent Betsy Lerner of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency


Betsy Lerner worked as an editor for sixteen years before becoming an agent. She mostly works with non-fiction writers in the areas of science, psychology, history, cultural studies, biography, current events, and memoir. Lerner was the recipient of the Tony Godwin Publishing Prize. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and is the author of Food & Loathing, The Bridge Ladies, and The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers. Her blog on publishing and writing can be found on


1) What stands out in a good submission?

Something that is well written, boring as that sounds. A great title. A command of the subject. The intangibles. Why are you attracted to a specific person or like a movie?

2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation? 

Writing that sinks on the page. A certain naivete. Lack of professionalism.

3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?  

Research, research, research. Make your submission effective by sending it to an appropriate agent. Scour their website for insights into their vibe, follow their submission guidelines. Workshop your manuscript, get feedback, revise. I would say most writers try too soon. They may have something great, it’s just not great yet. 

4) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?

What draws me in is tone, language, a brilliant simile. Command of the page. Again, intangibles. What makes any reader stick with any book? Intelligence and literary chops. Humor.

5)  Approximately how many query letters do you receive per year? Of those, how many will you respond to with a request for a full manuscript? And of those, how many are likely to receive an offer of representation?

Maybe ten a week. We ask the writers to attach ten pages, so I get a sense if it’s for me pretty quickly. The title and author’s credentials are also a factor. I mostly handle non-fiction, so I tend to pursue writers, journalists, scientists, pop culture people. I don’t take on many, but I do read every submission. 

6) What is your strategy for a client whose manuscript isn't selling?


7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?

Furious Hours by Casey Cep. I love literary true crime, the writing was elegant and deeply researched, and it was about Harper Lee. Home run.

8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?

Kathleen Hale. Fierce, funny, pushes herself in a way that’s exciting (as opposed to neurotic).

Her essay collection recently published by Grove, Kathleen Hale is a Crazy Stalker, is about predators of all kinds. Her narrative non-fiction book brings together brilliant reporting with a deep connection to the material. 

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