November is National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo)—an international event where aspiring novelists are encouraged to write an entire novel in 30 days. As a literary agent looking for strong works of fiction, this is a great time to share with up-and-coming authors some insight into what editors look for when acquiring works of fiction.

I asked Todd Hunter who acquires African American contemporary fiction (Atria Books), Mercedes Fernandez who acquires romance, urban fiction, women’s fiction and young adult fiction (Kensington/Dafina), Cassandra Pelham who acquires and edits YA, middle grade, and children’s books (Scholastic) and Latoya C. Smith who acquires a great deal of romance (Grand Central Publishing) to share their take on writing styles, storytelling, scouting, trends and the importance of an author’s platform.

EBONY: What do you look for in a story?

Latoya: I love getting pulled into the characters’ lives to the point of displaying emotion, i.e. laughing out loud, getting angry, yelling at the book pages, and sometimes even crying. Language and dialogue should be realistic and easy to follow.  I love damaged heroes, feisty heroines and stories with equally compelling secondary characters. 

Cassandra: I’m looking for something that’s going to grab me right away, whether it’s a story that’s starting in the middle of an action-packed scene, or a unique character voice that I haven’t read before. I tend to like plot-driven stories that develop the character and setting along the way—I don’t need a lot of elaborate description and scene-setting up front. Good writing subtly builds that imagery during the course of the story.

EBONY: How do you find new authors to publish?

Mercedes: I check out Amazon all the time. It’s a great way to see what is trending on the self-published side of books—both in print and in ebooks—and it’s also an opportunity to find new authors who already have established a loyal fan base.   I always look for the total package—an author who can write a dynamic, engaging story, delivered in a timely fashion, and is marketable with an existing platform already built-in.

Latoya: As an editor of both print and digital titles, I have to stay abreast of bestsellers in all formats.  Every week I compile bestsellers’ lists from Amazon, B&, Sony, iBooks, and Smashwords.  And of course, the New York Times and USA Today lists. I check to see what people are buzzing about on Goodreads. I do open calls for submissions via Facebook and Twitter and would love to see some romantic suspense submissions come my way. Our Forever Yours imprint has an email address that anyone can submit to: [email protected] .  We’ve had great success finding authors for our digital list here. Todd: I proudly visit entertainment/gossip blogs on a regular basis. News websites. You name it.  My biggest resource, however, is simply being accessible. You can find me on the major social networks. I think it’s important that people know who I am and what I’m doing here at Atria.

EBONY: What trends are you seeing from new authors?

Cassandra: I attend Comic-Con annually, and when I’m there I always see a lot of adventure, a lot of stories centering on the “chosen-one” concept. I’m also starting to see more horror, more comics with creepy premises. Finding solid, kid-friendly stuff takes some patience, as Comic-Con is largely for adults. Cleopatra in Space by Mike Maihack, is an example of a series we came across at a Comic-Con and are publishing in April 2014.

Todd: I have learned that there is a really strong market for contemporary Christian books coming from the Washington, D.C. area. Thus, I meet Kim Brooks, who’d published two books with Kimani some years ago. I truly appreciated her brand.  May 2014, Atria will release her latest novel, She That Findeth​. 

Latoya: I am excited to see that romantic suspense is making a splash once again in the marketplace.  New Adult of course is still popular as well as various sub genres of contemporary romantic fiction, e.g. cowboys, erotic romance, and small-town romance.  We’ve had great success with Rochelle Alers’s Cavanaugh Island series, which is a small-town contemporary romance series that takes place on a fictitious island off the coast of South Carolina. 

EBONY: When should authors-in-progress start building their brand? 

Cassandra:  It can be interesting when a writer has a blog that expands on the subject matter they’ve written about, and when you can really see how they’ve immersed themselves in that world.

Todd:  I think it’s wise for debut authors to begin building the audience for their book as they’re writing it and later shopping it. Authors should bring their friends, family, and strangers in on the process.  Demonstrate to the publisher an ability to self-promote. Be shameless.

Mercedes: I look to see if an author is involved with any writing groups or any organizations with strong local or national ties. Having a website or blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account should be mandatory for any author at this point.

EBONY: What advice do you have for new authors?

Todd: My big thing with fiction is that the author has a voice and perspective which I believe translates well with audiences. Charisma on the page is invaluable.

Cassandra: Writers should participate in some sort of writing community, whether it be online or in person. Read each other’s writing, guest blog for each other, promote each other’s work. Having that sort of peer support can be really valuable.

Mercedes: Frequent your local bookstore and see what kind of books are on the shelves—see what is trending and what isn’t. Also, really read the genre you are writing for—be an active consumer. It will help you familiarize yourself with what is already out there so that you can work on setting yourself apart from what is available.

Latoya:  For romance, specifically, I would suggest grabbing a copy of Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies by Leslie Wainger.