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Land a Literary Agent in 2020 With Three Fundamental Attributes


In 2020, I’ve collaborated on three nonfiction book proposals. All three have been picked up by leading literary agents within one week of submitting.

If you know anything about how the publishing industry works, you’ll know this is pretty remarkable. I usually counsel authors to put on their “patient pants” and be prepared for a few months to pass before they get a response from an agent, let alone sign a deal for representation.

Big wheels keep on turning, all right, but they be sloooow.

I’m a little shell-shocked myself. Beyond excited, too, of course. Last weekend I spent some time pondering just how these three very different book proposals all rang the right bells—and how they did it so quickly.

The projects included a memoir with an autism focus, a meditation book with a twist, and a travel essay collection. Varied, you might say.

Despite the variety in the subject matter, here are three attributes all three authors had in common.

1. Focused

Trying to please everyone is a serious trap for newbie authors. Literary agents and publishers want to know specifically who will buy your nonfiction book, and what it will do for them. Pleasure for the armchair traveler? Great.

New insights into ancient wisdom? Bring it on.

A young man with a message about thriving with autism? Send it my way.

Each of these book concepts was very clear and specific about what it was, and who it was for. Though let me tell you, it took some sweat and tears and time to achieve that level of clarity. (Wipes brow.)

2. Decisive

From the get-go, most book concepts contain way too much material. The author has so many ideas and doesn’t want to leave any of them out. The result? Sheer confusion.

All three authors I worked with had to prune their ideas, hard. We comforted ourselves with two thoughts: 1) the author clearly had more than one book in them (publishers love that), and 2) they now have plenty of fodder to use for social media, articles, speeches, and workshops.

All three authors were also quick to respond to my drafts. They selectively engaged trusted readers for a second opinion, but they didn’t ask 100,000 Instagram followers for their feedback. They were confident in making their decisions.

3. Willing to Listen

Paradoxical though it may seem, some authors who bring me in to work on their book proposals are reluctant to take my advice.

I tell them their author bio needs more personality: “But this is what I use on my website and everyone loves it.”

I recommend providing specific numbers for their conference audiences: “No one else has suggested including that.”

I suggest that it’s unwise to compare themselves to Deepak Chopra: “But of course publishers will want to sign up the next Deepak Chopra.”

If you go to see a brain surgeon, you don’t tell them where to make the first incision. I’m not always right, but book proposals are my specialty. I’ve been in the publishing game for more years than I care to admit, and my success rate speaks for itself. Please let me help you make your book concept shine like a diamond.

Undoubtedly there are more factors in the success of these three projects. Luck, for one. Good timing, perhaps. In publishing, nothing is certain. But a combination of clarity and flexibility will, I believe, get you far.

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

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© 2020 Sally Collings

The Book Proposal Expert

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