Book Broker – An interview with Noah Ballard

Interview with literary agent Noah Ballard – query letter tips for querying writers


Agent: Noah Ballard


Preferred genres:

Creative non-fiction (including memoir, true crime, and pop culture) and voice-driven literary fiction with elements of thriller, mystery, or SFF.


Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. He studied creative writing at the University of Nebraska and began his career in publishing at Emma Sweeney Agency. He has appeared at graduate writing programs and writers conferences across the country speaking about query letters, building non-fiction platforms, and creating compelling narratives. Noah also hosts “Be Reel,” a biweekly film podcast on The Playlist. A New Jersey native, Noah currently lives in Brooklyn.

1) What stands out in a good submission?

An interesting idea. Many queries I see are for books that have already been written. When you’re writing your synopsis, tell me what’s fresh about your book. If it’s a procedural police thriller, what’s new about this crime, this police officer, this setting, this time period, this prose style?

2) What is the most common error or flaw you see in query letters?

Don’t start a query letter with “Dear Sir/Madam,” spell my name right, and at least pretend that you know what kinds of books I represent. You want to be both personal and business savvy, so be polite, be specific, and be patient.

3) What's a typical early warning sign that a manuscript isn't structurally sound?

If the beginning of a book isn’t very good, chances are the middle and the end won’t be any better. If I can’t immediately picture where (and when) we are and hear a clear, authentic voice speaking to me while I’m reading, I’m not likely to read very much.

4) Are you currently open to submissions, and is there anything in particular you are looking for right now?

Yes, selectively. I’m mostly looking for compelling narrative non-fiction and smart fiction for adults.

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

Go slowly, take your time. If you’re a fiction writer, simultaneously send stories or pitches for book reviews out. For non-fiction, pitch essays on your topic to online magazines. Keep busy. Pitch selectively. Take silence as a sign there’s something not working. Believe agents when they say they’re snowed under with reading. Follow up when it’s been a few weeks or if other agents request your work.

6) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?

I have really positive relationships with all my clients. Keep in mind that I’m not just selling individual books, I’m cultivating a list of talented writers, so this is about a productive relationship. But a big part of putting their work into the world is hearing a lot of smart editors tell me, “No.” Sometimes I think what they’re actually saying is, “No, Noah, you idiot.” But then I get over it.

7) If you disliked a submitted manuscript but thought it could be a bestseller, would you take it on? (A question from one of our Twitter followers.)

No. What I’m gauging when I review a submitted manuscript is if it could possibly get published. But knowing what’s going to be a huge hit is totally impossible to predict and totally out of my hands anyway. I’m not selling books to readers, I’m selling books to publishers. But no, if I don’t like it, it’s best not to mess with it. God forbid it’s a wild success—would I want my calling card to be a book I didn’t like?

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

War girls by Tochi Onyebuchi who is represented by literary agent Noah Ballard

I’m thrilled for Josh Gondelman, whose debut essay collection is forthcoming from HarperCollins. His book cover was recently revealed on BuzzFeed, along with an excerpt:

The 2 Best Times I've Fainted as a Grown Man

Tochi Onyebuchi has his new series WAR GIRLS coming from Penguin this fall, and I just saw a cover for Cinelle Barnes’s new book MALAYA, which is a follow-up to her acclaimed memoir MONSOON MANSION. It’s going to be an exciting year!


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