Book Broker—an interview with Cecilia (CeCe) Lyra
Agent: Cecilia (CeCe) Lyra
Bio: Cecilia (“CeCe”) Lyra is an associate literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency representing adult fiction and non-fiction. CeCe prioritizes the creative reach and sustainable longevity of her authors’ careers, and she is especially looking for clients with whom she can build fruitful, lasting relationships. As a mixed race Latinx immigrant, CeCe understands the power of seeing oneself reflected in books, hence her passion for championing under or misrepresented voices and narratives that contribute to a larger cultural conversation. CeCe is also the co-host of the popular podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing. When she isn’t living inside a story, CeCe can be found drinking wine, munching on chocolate, and snuggling with her adorable English Bulldog.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
Firstly, a strong hook! A query letter’s main job is to make me want to read the full manuscript or proposal. I should be able to identity a book’s hook—a premise with an original angle that sets up the stage for specific stakes in a story and piques the reader’s story-forward curiosity—right away.
The next thing I look for are signs of a substantive and intriguing plot. In other words, is there enough in the pitch for a whole book? And does the story unfold with escalating tension and stakes? I know I’m reading a strong submission if at the end of the pitch I am curious about the major dramatic question.
Naturally, the most important aspect of any submission is the quality of the writing, especially in the sample pages. Learning the craft of storytelling requires significant time and effort, and I appreciate creators who make the investment as it is indicative of the sort of long-term ambitious, strategic mindset that I look for in a client.
I am mindful that querying can be a stressful process, and I am honored that writers trust me with their work. When I first became an agent, I made myself a promise: that I would never forget what it feels like to be on the other side. After years of agenting, reading submissions continues to be one of the best parts of my job. It’s a lot like browsing new releases at a bookstore—sneaking peeks into worlds crafted by gifted storytellers, hoping that one (or more!) will speak to me. Being a literary agent is the best job in the world, and it’s a role that wouldn’t exist without storytellers.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
A few of the most common signs include an underdeveloped character; weak interiority; all telling and no showing (or vice-versa); unearned or tepid emotionality; lack of tension; overreliance on flashbacks, especially in the first pages; storyline inconsistencies; plausibility issues; and sloppy writing.
In my opinion, the presence of these "mistakes" in a manuscript is usually not indicative of a lack of talent on the part of the writer. Rather, it typically suggests a lack of directed and strategic time and effort spent on that manuscript. Crafting a story isn’t just about working hard—it’s about working smart, too. I feel that writers have a lot to gain by joining critique groups, finding strong beta readers, and investing time to learn the craft of storytelling. That it takes a village is a cliché, but it’s one that’s also true.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
Contemporary fiction with a fresh take/twist on the social climber trope—that’s been at the top of my wish list for so long! Though, truth be told, I am hungry for any submission that features an intelligent protagonist facing a high-pressure situation—as long as the writing is excellent, of course. My taste in fiction is eclectic: I adore stories filled with levity and wit and dark novels that unsettle and disturb.
4) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
Voice: the authority and sharp perspective that transports me into another’s mind, making my brain forget that I am sitting in my armchair with my English bulldog snoring on my lap. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned: achieving this result comes down to the writing.
Crafting a story is akin to creating a world. Take a moment to think about all that goes into that, the myriad branches that grow off the trinity of character, setting, and plot. If you think about it, it’s kind of bananas that the only ingredient in creating something so rich and complex are words (movies have tools like soundtracks and special effects at their disposal!) but that’s how it works for novels (ok, audiobooks are the exception), which is why the quality of the writing must be stellar. As such, the most common snag is poor writing, which could mean unintentional repetition, weak verbs, generic description, homogenous dialogue, to list a few examples.
5) When you sign a new client, to what extent do you work through additional revisions together before their manuscript is ready for submission to publishers?
I am happy to work through additional revisions, as long as the foundation of the story is in place (this is true even if we decide to tear down the foundation and build and entirely new one, as it tells me that a writer is capable of creating a strong story frame). Usually, my clients and I will engage in one to three rounds of edits. The hard work of revising, rewriting, and polishing falls on the client, and I’m grateful for creators who take this stage seriously. It takes time, and rushing through edits is nearly always a bad idea.
As a general note, I find it’s important for writers to keep in mind that literary agents come in when it’s time to sell the work. This means that, for the most part, an agent will offer big-picture editorial notes after reading a manuscript, similar to how a real estate agent might offer notes on a house in order to increase its chances of attracting more buyers, e.g., "declutter this closet" or "paint this wall a different color" or "stage this room with neutral pieces." But it is not an agent’s job to help creators write the manuscript itself—again, similar to how a real estate agent would not help build a house. I love the editorial process (and the truth is that I know I’m a great editor) but if I were to build a house (write a manuscript) with someone, I would only be able to have a handful of clients as it is a very time-consuming process.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
In a nutshell, more money and more roles.
Here is an example: an acquisition’s editor job description involves so much more than acquiring or editing. Another example: an editorial assistant performs at minimum two full-time jobs, one as junior editor and another as executive assistant. This excessive workload leads to a trickle-down effect that eventually reaches—and unfairly burdens—the creator.
When I chat with junior industry professionals, they tell me they work from sunrise until midnight. But here’s the catch: they share the same is true of their bosses. And it’s not just in editorial, either. Publishing is a chronically low-pay industry with ever-expanding expectations and a normalized culture of under-investing in support infrastructure (e.g., rights or contracts department).
In my opinion, the reason this persists is because the industry relies on the passion of its people, and like with so many relationships, that can lead to those with more power taking advantage. To be clear, passion is a wonderful thing, and I very much appreciate connecting with fellow passionate publishing professionals who, like me, are fueled by purpose and enthusiasm. But performing meaningful work shouldn’t come at the expense of one’s financial and mental health, especially not when publishing houses are reporting record profits.
Ensuring that publishing houses are properly staffed, and that staff is properly compensated, would ultimately benefit creators, since a huge part of the reason why so much of the work falls on their backs is because the vast majority of publishing is underpaid and overworked. It would also allow more BIPOC professionals to pursue a career in publishing, since low salaries disproportionately affect people of color, which in turn would allow more BIPOC creators to feel seen and safe within a historically white and privileged industry.
Finally, it would go a long way in mitigating the current “winner takes all” ecosystem, in which most creators can’t even move five thousand copies of their books. As a literary agent, I am an author’s advocate, and I see my fellow publishing professionals—everyone from editors to publicists to contracts administrators—as allies who deserve to be fairly compensated and recognized for the amazing work they do so that we can all succeed.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
GUTTER CHILD by Jael Richardson. The atmospheric worldbuilding drew me in from the very first lines. In fact, I loved it so much that I chose it as the summer title of Books with Hooks Book Club—a book club for writers that I am proud to host. (Yes, it’s as nerdy as it sounds!)
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
THE WITCHES OF MOONSHYNE MANOR by Bianca Marais, which comes out on August 23rd. It’s a novel that explores the formidable power that can be discovered in aging, found family, and unlikely friendships. Told in beautiful lyrical prose that offers as much laughter as insight, this novel delves deeply into feminism, identity, and power dynamics while stirring up intrigue and drama through secrets, lies, and sex. Both heartbreaking and heart-mending, it will make you wonder: why were we taught to fear the witches, and not the men who burned them? Above all, it will make you grateful for the amazing women in your life.