Literary agents are in on what is coming in the next few years, and that is something you don't know unless you're in publishing. In which case you have connections that will get you published, so you don't need to fret over who represents what.
For the rest of the non-published world, it's a shot in the absolute darkest dark. The agent might say they are looking for historical fiction, but the next thing you know your query is rejected and it isn't your writing but the era you write about. Sorry, no World War II sagas need apply. We only want regency, but it has to have romance, or they're done with romance but you don't know that because you're a few years behind the industry curve.
Literary agent Jessica Sinsheimer, along with other like-minded publishing types, has created an entire website dedicated to the mysterious Manuscript Wish List. What does an agent want? They are revealing their true desires.
|Manuscript Wish List: A gathering of the tweets into cohesive sentences|
The idea behind the expose of the collected desires of participating literary agents began with a twitter hashtag. Agents would pick a day and tweet out what they were looking for at that moment, and authors could then shoot off a query letter mentioning the unmet need. Twitter being what it is, the system was not perfect and the haphazard nature of the thing made it less effective than it needed to be.
Literary agents make their money by selling manuscripts, and they sell more manuscripts if they meet the wish list of the publishers. It makes sense to inform writers, who will then try to get their words under the nose of the gatekeeper, rather than plow through a slushpile that may or may not contain some nugget of profitable material.
It isn't about the art of writing. It's all about the business of publishing.
If all goes well, the Manuscript Wish List will be kept updated by the agents who have joined in the effort. Publishing changes, of course, as the industry attempts to meet the public's demand, and literary agents have to keep pace with a shift from YA to New Adult, for example. All those kids who loved Harry Potter are older, right? If the publishers want to keep selling them books, they have to change with the changing times and the characters of a novel have to reflect that aging process.
The list is a good starting point to find an agent who wants your genre. It beats querying someone who has no interest in magical realism, although they might have represented one in the past but that was a favor but you don't about that and the next thing you know, that rejection is stinging so painfully. Why set yourself up for another thrust of the literary knife?