Q&A with Literary Agent Sandra O’Donnell, Co-founder of RO Literary

January 18, 2017 | By | Reply More

In their own words –

RO Literary is a boutique agency founded by Laura Rothschild and Sandra O’ Donnell. It specializes in adult literary and commercial fiction, and a wide range of non-fiction including memoir, biography, history and narrative. We believe that collaboration turns good books into great published work. We have a passion for helping writers become authors. RO is actively seeking writers interested in developing long-term creative relationships. We realize each project is unique. We have a team of book coaches, copy-editors, story-developers and platform consultants who ensure our authors, and their projects, are well positioned within today’s dynamic publishing environment.

Many agencies start with projects rather than the authors who create them. And while your query, proposals, synopsis and sample pages are a good starting point, we also want to know you, your publishing goals, and most importantly, are we the right agents to get you there.

As agents, we believe our job is to help you grow your work and find the best publisher for you and your book. As writers ourselves, we understand books can take months, even years to move beyond signing to published. Getting to that final stage is much easier if you are working with people who believe in your project and champion you as a writer.

Sandra O’Donnell is a founding partner of RO Literary. She has been involved in the writing community and the business of books for over twenty years. She studied writing at the graduate level at the University of Utah while working on her master’s. While there, she taught writing in the Writing Program and learned as much from teaching as she did from her classes. After her Master’s Sandra went on to ghostwrite, edit and co-author a number of books for the academic market.

She also earned her Ph.D. in History from Arizona State. In 1996, she and a partner formed Snowgoose Cove a boutique publishing company.  As a publisher, Sandra learned what it takes to make a title successful by guiding authors through the editing, launch, and marketing of their books.  For Food Talk: A Man’s Guide to Cooking and Conversation Sandra and her team arranged a 12 state book/PR tour, selling out of the first edition of the book within six months.

For the next few years, Sandra worked with authors to take them from draft to polished manuscript.  Many of the authors she’s worked with have gone on to find excellent agents, editors, and publishers. However, many projects have languished once they have left her charge. Frustrated authors asked her time and again why she couldn’t be their agent. Why Sandra couldn’t guide them through the next stage with the love and care she’d used shown during the development phase of their books. After much consideration and discussion with her partner Laura Rothschild, RO Literary was formed.

Thank you, Sandra, for joining us here at WomenWritersWomen[s]Books and taking the time to answer our readers’ questions. We’re thrilled to have you.


What is on your manuscript wish list right now?

We are looking for captivating commercial fiction with relatable characters and stories that trace relationships across situations or time. Multi-generational or woven and integrated stories like those by Liane Moriarty, Robert Hicks, and Sue Monk Kidd. Best selling authors understand that at the core of great stories are relationships both between the characters in a story and between the writer and the reader.

What common mistakes do you see in query letters? Do you have any querying pet peeves? Anything that will make you stop reading all together?

The biggest querying mistake we see is going out to agents before a book is ready. Every week we turn down books because writers have submitted a first draft or the manuscript is not long enough. Don’t querying with a first, second, or even third draft.  Six to eight drafts seems to be the magic number. If you are still on draft three, trust us, you still have work to do before you query!

Another big issue is no knowing the standard word count for the type of book you are writing. We recently received a submission for a “novella” that was 58,000 words. A novella is typically less than 40,000 words and a novel is generally 80,000 to 100,000 words.  At 58,000 words, the manuscript was too long for a novella, but not nearly long enough for a novel. We liked the concept for the manuscript but unless you are Hemingway or have the tenacity and luck of JK Rowling, trying to go against the standard word count for your first novel will make for a very difficult sell to agents.

And finally, please only send one book at a time!  Send your best work. If we love it, we will ask if you have other manuscripts. Submitting one manuscript after another seems desperate and unfocused. We have a ton of information on querying on our blog at RO. We spend time putting together blogs and doing podcasts because we want writers to be successful. Other agents have blogs too. Read everything you can before you submit. Make sure your manuscript is the best it can possibly be before you send it out.

Is it appropriate for a writer to nudge an agent who requested a full manuscript? How long should he or she wait and what should he or she say?

I can only speak for RO but I would say if we have had your manuscript for longer than 8 weeks, absolutely! Give us a nudge. We do our best to turn manuscript reads around in 6-8 weeks. But if we are working on a big project or a proposal, it might take a bit longer.

When an author has split with his or her agent and is querying for another, should he or she mention this in the query letter? How?

Yes! You really need to disclose this information to a potential agent. Splits happen more frequently than you can imagine. And for a variety of reasons. Be honest, explain what happened and we will take it from there. Two of the authors we represent, were represented by other agents before we signed them. We made sure that all the proper steps had been taken before we signed them. At the end of the query statement, give us one or two sentences that explain the situation. If we are interested in your work, we will reach out. The decision is always about the work first!


How much a part of taking on a client is chemistry? Do agents have t0 love the prospective client as much as his or her work?

Such an interesting question.  For us the answer is yes!  We do at least two Skype calls and often three or four before deciding to represent a client. Because we are a small boutique agency, we sign fewer clients each year than larger agencies do. We are involved in every aspect of a writer’s career. We help our clients create their brand, we work with them on social media, we read and edit every manuscript, and we develop proposals. When we are working that closely with a client it really helps if we like the people we are working with.

How much do agents care about presence or absence of certain elements in a prospective client’s bios: short story or flash fiction credits? MFAs? Blogs? Winning contests? Genre association memberships?

First and foremost, for Laura and I, it is about the STORY!  I can’t tell you how many MFA, Pushcart Prize winners we have passed with love on because the manuscript was boring, self-absorbed, or lacking in relationships, character, or other elements that are essential to good story-telling.  Write us a good story that grips us from the beginning and keeps us reading and honestly, we don’t care if you’ve ever won an award or gotten a degree.

Not all writers are able to attend conference that host agents and offer pitch sessions, critiques, etc.  What do you suggest for these writers? What other ways are there for them to make an impression or gain access to agents?

We have mixed feelings about pitch sessions at conferences. I was at a conference last summer and spoke to a number of authors who were devastated by their encounter with a few of the agents they pitched to. One agent had her intern read for her and simply handed out the notes and thanked the writers for coming.

Rather than fight for the time and limited attention of agents at conferences, sign up for workshops with agented writers and show that author you are willing to do the work. If the writing you do is good and worth promoting, many writers will go out of their way to promote other writers, especially those they’ve worked with, often introducing them personally to their agent or other agents they know.  Not only might you get a great introduction, your work will grow exponentially by working with other writers.

There is a lot of talk about the need for diversity in literature. What does ‘diversity in literature’ mean to you? Diversity of character? Diversity of author? Diversity of setting? Sexual, racial, other diversity? Is diversity of their authors/books something agents consider when evaluating their lists? 

Diversity includes all of the above. And it includes women’s voices, which were missing for far too long, until recently. But, diversity simply for diversity sake doesn’t mean a good story. When I was in grad school, I took a class from a well-known writer who was considered “edgy.”  Everyone wanted to impress him with their own brand of edginess.

One of the students turned in a story about a milk truck driving lesbian. Might have been interesting but that was it. There was no context, no relationships, no conflict, just a milk truck driving lesbian.  So, being edgy or diverse for the sake of being edgy or diverse doesn’t serve the work.  riting an authentic story with real people and situations that includes diversity or opens a dialogue – Wow!  Now you have something.

The Underground Railroad by Carlson Whitehead, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, these are examples of diverse stories and writers. I don’t think any of these writers started out saying “I’m going to write a story about diversity.”  They were seized by a story they couldn’t not write and they had to tell it.

Should authors write characters of different races or sexualities? If so, how is it done well? When is it done poorly?

I think the answer above addresses this.  Should you write characters of different races or sexualities?  Only if they fit within the story.  Forcing diversity for diversity’s sack never works.  Trying to be edgy comes off as trying.

For non-fiction, the concept of platform is more clear-cut. For novelists, what is their platform? Do you expect your fiction clients to be active on social media? Does the number of followers a prospective client has impact your choice to sign them or not? Are all social media equal – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.?

This is a big question and a topic we are constantly discussing with our clients. The answer is when it comes to platform, no one knows what works and what doesn’t. I had a friend, not a writer I agent, who took a non-fiction book out last year. She had a fabulous platform, she had over 300,000 followers and she couldn’t get a publisher interested. The book proposal was solid, the idea fantastic, and she had followers but no bites from publishers. It was heartbreaking.

For fiction we require our clients to have social media in place before we go out to publishers. We work with our clients to design their social media. It’s great if a writer has followers before their book comes out, but it is more important that fans have a way to interact with an author once it does. We recommend picking two social media platforms and working them. Don’t try to do Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever new platform that comes out next week.

You will end up hating social media and your engagement will be lousy. Pick two. If you love photography and your story is one that lends itself to pictures, use Instagram and Facebook. If you are the king or queen of snappy one-liners, go with Twitter and Snap Chat. And create a professional website before you query. We want to rep professional writers, editors want to publish writers who want to be professional authors. Having a website is part of looking professional. Look at other writers in your genre, writers you admire and do what they are doing.  We recommend Wix to our writers. It is easy to use, has great templates, and cost very little.

What do you think about female protagonists over the age of 40? Is there a market for this? Does it work better in one fiction genre over another?

I don’t think about the age of characters when I read. I think about how well-drawn the character is. Is he or she plausible? Does the character make sense within the context of the story? Does the character have the depth to carry their weight within the story. Look at the novels by Liane Moriarty. Many of her characters are women over 30. Her novels are successful because her characters are incredibly interesting and help move the story along. They read like real people because she has spent time figuring out who her characters are – what their quirks and eccentricities are, what they are afraid of, what they want, what they wear, their mannerisms.

Characters aren’t just window dressing to the story, they drive your story. Spend time getting to know them before you write word one of your story.  If you know your characters, you know your story.

What do you say to a writer who is concerned about jumping right into the story on page one before introducing the reader to the character first? Why would the reader care that the character is in a bad situation if she or she doesn’t know anything about them yet?

Opening are the hardest part of a novel to write. I know a successful writer who rewrote the opening scene of his novel 16 times. He just kept writing and rewriting until he felt it was right. One of my favorite novels of last year had a terrible opening chapter. I almost didn’t read on because the first chapter didn’t have anything to do with what I’d been promised as a reader. I’m so glad I stuck with it, but I wish the editors had simply cut that first chapter, because too many readers may not have read on.

One of my favorite opening scenes is from A Short History of a Small Place by TR Pearson. The book is over twenty years old, and it still hangs with me. Here are the first few lines, Daddy said it was a bedsheet, a fitted bedsheet, and he said she was wearing it on her shoulders like a cape with two of the corners knotted around her neck. She was standing barefoot on an oak stump, he said, standing on the one nearest the front walk where there was a ordinarily a clay pot of geraniums, and he said her hair was mostly braided and bunned up in the back but for some squirrel-colored strands of it that had worked  their way loose and hung wild and scraggy down across her forehead and almost to her nose. She was talking he said. Then he stopped himself and creased the newspaper twice and put it in his lap, and he changed it to ranting, full-fledged bad-planking-in-the-attic ranting. It was something about Creon, he said, something about Creon and the stink of corpses. 

Here’s what I love about this paragraph. We have the relationship between father and son. We know that Daddy is a storyteller. Words, details and language are important to him. And we know that one of the characters has gone round the bend. We don’t know if she is a child or an adult, but we want to know more. Who are these people? Where do they live? And more importantly what is this story about?

The details in this first paragraph are amazing.  It wasn’t merely a cape, it was a bedsheet, and not just a bedsheet a fitted bedsheet. Her hair wasn’t unkempt or disheveled it was a messy mix of squirrel colored bun and braid hanging wild and scraggly in her face. Daddy was reading the paper which he folded carefully as he worked through his telling of the event. This is 6, 7, maybe even 12 or 13 draft level writing. The flower pot from the second or third draft has become a clay pot of geraniums. She isn’t just standing on a stump. She is standing barefoot on a stump. We as the reader have gone from a myopic view of the story to having 20/20 vision for the scene. We are drawn in and ready to read more. That’s what a powerful opening should do.

What are too many authors focused on that they shouldn’t be? What should they be focusing on instead?

Story!  It all comes back to story. Stop focusing on what you shouldn’t be doing or writing and write the story.


What was your professional journey to where you are now?

I began as a writer. I’ve done all the things writers do. I’ve written draft after draft of my stories, I’ve queried, I’ve been rejected, I’ve taken classes with phenomenal writers and learn more from them than I can recount, I’ve cultivated a tribe of writers I trust to read my work. And most importantly, I’ve read constantly and widely. I get it. I’ve also been an editor, a small publisher, a book coach, a consultant, and now an agent. Everything I’ve done has prepared me for being an agent. And it has shaped the agent that I am.

Do you think book trailers are money well spent? How should authors prioritize their marketing dollars?

Good book trailers are worth every penny. Bad book trailers aren’t worth a dime. Invest in your website first. Spend time cultivating your following on the two social media platforms you choose, follow other writers and champion their work, then worry about a book trailer.

Are you interested in representing hybrid authors?

It depends on the individual, the type of books they do and how successful they’ve been.

We know that we shouldn’t write to trends, but it is still fascinating to know what is up-and-coming, hot, and out. What is your read on the market right now for fiction and non-fiction?

What isn’t on the horizon is more dystopian YA. The “girl” trend feels over too. Girl on a train, plane, or motorcycle seems to have played through. An editor told us last year that she feels we need stories that make us feel good and give us hope. The books I’m drawn to rarely follow a trend. They are strong stories, with deep relationships and unforgettable characters. Forget about catching the next wave. Tell your story.

What does the market for memoires look like right now?

Memoirs are tough! I wish I had better news. Memoirs are not your life story. They should be tightly constructed around a particular event, idea, or theme. They should tell us something about ourselves we didn’t know. To write a memoir you have to read memoirs. Read as many as you can. My favorite memoirists are Dani Shapiro, Mary Karr, Harrison Scott Key, Clair Bidwell Smith, Liz Gilbert, and Felicia Day.

What client-work is out now or coming soon that we should be on the look for?

We have a stunning memoir coming out in October called Life Detonated. It is a story of survival and resilience by Kathleen Moran an amazing writer.  And right after that Hour Glass by Michelle Rene is coming out.  Please look for them!

And finally…

Tea or Coffee?
Coffee first thing in the morning, tea in the afternoon. British style with a lump of sugar and a bit of milk.

Shabby chic or Modern edges?
Oh honey, I’m southern. My house is full of antiques and new, made to look old. I’m in the process of creating a chair for my workspace.  ’m recovering a wingback in oranges, pinks and sage. My work space has to be fun!

Heels or Flats?

Flats. One of my favorite moments was when Emma Thompson threw away her heels at the academy awards. I heart you Emma Thompson!

Mashed potatoes or Mac & Cheese?

As a southern girl, mash potatoes. But I do make a fabulous baked mac and cheese.

We can’t thank you enough, Sandra, for dropping in. Welcome to the WWWB family!


In their words –

We’re currently looking for…

Beautifully written, polished manuscripts or proposals for the following genres:


Women’s Fiction | Family-Sagas | Psychological Thrillers with Literary Undertones | Upmarket Fiction | Historical Fiction

Examples of some our favorite authors are Sue Monk Kidd, Geraldine Brooks, JoJo Moyes, T.R. Pearson, Barry Hannah, Meg Wolitzer, Cathie Pellerier, Steve Berry, John Irving, John Dunning, Adriana Trigiani, Michelle Gable, Bill Clegg, Bonnie Nadzam.


Spirituality | Memoir | Narrative | Biography | History

Examples of some of our favorite non-fiction authors are; Harrison Scott-Key, Felica Day, Dani Shapiro, John Demos, Jill Lepore, Laura Hillenbrand, Brene’ Brown, Martha Hodges, Erik Larson, Elizabeth Gilbert.

We are currently not accepting submissions for: Children’s books, art/illustrated books, poetry, gift books, science fiction, Horror, YA (Unless you’re John Greene-yep, we’d reconsider) science, sports, business, marketing, technology books, screenplays.

We want you to be successful when you submit!

Please upload a query letter that includes: Your name, your email address, your website, your social media information (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) the name of your book, the word count and the genre. The perfect query is a three paragraph structure. Provide a hook, tell us about your story, and then briefly tell us about you. If you are unsure about how to write a query, we have a lot of resources on our blog page. Please do your research on queries before you submit and put your best foot forward.  Good Luck!  We look forward to reading your submission!  Please make sure your upload is a .pdf or a Word document only.


Interviewed by –

MM Finck

MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and book reviewer. She oversees WWWB’s Interviews and Agents’ Corner segments. Her women’s fiction and is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association 2016 Rising Star writing contest for unpublished authors. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications, including skirt! magazine.

When she isn’t editing her novel, #LOVEIN140, you can find her belting out Broadway tunes (off key and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), building or fixing household things, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Litsy (@MMF). Say hi.  http://www.mmfinck.com


Category: Agents, Interviews

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