Book Broker – an interview with Patricia Nelson

Book Broker—an interview with lit agent Patricia Nelson from Marsal Lyon Literary Agency—query letter advice and #mswl manuscript wish list suggestions

Literary agent interview series featuring Patricia Nelson, Marsal Lyon Agency—querying advice and #mswl manuscript wishlist tips

Agent: Patricia Nelson


Preferred genres: On the children’s side, Patricia is open to a wide range of genres of YA and MG, with particular interest in contemporary/realistic, magical realism, mystery, science fiction and fantasy. On the adult side, she is seeking women’s fiction both upmarket and commercial, historical fiction set in the 20th century, and sexy, smart adult contemporary and historical single-title romance. 

Bio: Patricia Nelson joined Marsal Lyon Literary Agency in 2014. She represents adult, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and is actively looking to add to her list. She is always especially interested in seeing novels by BIPOC, queer, and disabled authors in all genres that she represents. Patricia holds a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to becoming an agent, she spent four years teaching literature and writing at the college level.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @patricianels

1) What stands out in a good submission? ​

The first thing I look for is premise: does this feel like a story that hasn't been told before, or that hasn't been told in this specific way? Is there an interesting protagonist and are there clear stakes? There needs to be something about the idea that readers will be able to latch onto enough from just a one sentence description that they would be willing to spend their hard-earned money to try out a new author when this book hits shelves. If the premise is exciting, then I look to the sample pages: does this feel like an author with a singular voice and a strong grasp of writing craft? All of these pieces need to be in place to grab my interest.​​

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

It's always a red flag if a manuscript is far longer or far shorter than the standard word-count range for the genre (e.g. a 40K or 200K YA fantasy). I also keep an eye out for wordy or unpolished prose in the first pages—every sentence should be as tight as you can make it by the time you're sending out queries.

3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?

Above all, ​I'm always looking for a stunning voice and a gripping plot in YA, middle grade, or women's fiction—but beyond that, I love to be surprised! You can find more detail on some specific things I tend to love here. The last two clients I signed from queries sent me novels that were generally in my MSWL wheelhouse with a fresh angle that I wouldn't have thought to ask for, so I always suggest that writers just try me if you think we might be a fit! ​

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

​Without question, my favorite part is working with and supporting my clients. I feel so grateful to be able to champion writers that I really believe in, and to be in their corner throughout their careers, all the way from their first book to their tenth. The most challenging part is the amount of disappointment that runs through any creative industry. Of course, it's tough to absorb disappointments for my own clients' books that I love, but it's also tough to be in a gatekeeper position where I have to be the source of disappointment for many talented authors who query me, just because there's a limit to how many people I can have on my list and still maintain the hands-on approach to agenting that's so important to me.

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

​Once I've been hooked by the voice, what keeps me reading is a story that moves and a character that I can root for. If I get to page fifty and there still hasn't been an inciting incident, or the main character is being pushed along by the events of the plot rather than making choices that drive the action, the novel is likely to lose my attention.

6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why? ​

This is such an excellent question! I sincerely wish publishers would hire more editors and devote more energy to supporting and retaining them. Everyone on that side of the industry is extremely overloaded and burned out, especially since COVID started, and among other problems that this causes, it has a real impact on their enthusiasm for acquisitions, which can make it harder than ever for debut authors to break in.

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

​I adored MAGIC FOR LIARS by Sarah Gailey, a detective mystery set in a magical boarding school that grabbed my attention with a fun, hooky premise (essentially "Jessica Jones solves a murder at Hogwarts") and kept it with a captivating, prickly protagonist and a fantastic voice. I can't recommend it enough!

The Summer of Bitter and Sweet by Jen Ferguson (represented by book agent Patricia Nelson)

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

I never turn down an opportunity to hype up my clients! I would love to highlight two YA contemporaries coming out in the first half of 2022 by incredibly talented debut authors:

1) THE SUMMER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jen Ferguson—Heartdrum/HarperCollins, releasing May 10.

The Black Girls Left Standing by Juliana Goodman (represented by book agent Patricia Nelson)

2) THE BLACK GIRLS LEFT STANDING by Juliana Goodman—Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, releasing June 28.

Both of these novels came to me through the query slush pile and grabbed my attention right away with an irresistible protagonist who felt like she could walk right off the page. It's so thrilling to see them make their way out into the world so that readers can fall in love with them too.

Interview with literary agent Patricia Nelson, Marsal Lyon Agency—querying advice and #mswl manuscript wishlist tips

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