Updated: May 27, 2020
Warning: this is the equivalent of a “happy dance” celebrating my clients’ achievements. If you don’t want to know about it, look away now.
Last week, two of my clients—that’s right, TWO!!—signed up with respected literary agents.
I know I get all nonchalant about writing book proposals that are irresistible to agents and editors, but even so. Two in a week, that’s something.
If you’ve never pitched your book idea to a literary agent, here’s how it works. If you are writing a nonfiction book, you start with a book proposal: a distillation of the creative and commercial promise of your book. Eau de livre, you might call it. Book proposals are hefty beasts, running to 60 pages or more, and taking months to get just right.
(For fiction, your main job is writing the manuscript, and crafting an accompanying query letter that whispers, “This is the Next Big Thing!” in literary agents’ ears.)
I recommend pitching your proposal to agents in concentric circles. Here’s what I mean: start with just a few agents where you have some kind of “in.” A personal introduction from an author they represent or meeting them at a writing conference are both good starting points. Check the submission guidelines on their website—almost every agent will have some preferences, and they are all different. Then reach out, starting with a query letter.
Most agents are inundated with queries. Literary agents are the gatekeepers to the major publishing houses, after all, so everyone wants a piece of them. It’s not uncommon to wait three months to hear back. A personal connection may reduce the waiting time.
Your second “circle” of pitches will go to a larger pool of agents, maybe six to ten. You might choose agents who represent your favorite authors in your genre, or agents who specialize in your kind of book. Again, study their websites carefully to analyze the type of book they tend to represent (high literary? Mass market? Mostly children’s and YA books?) and find out their requirements for author submissions.
By now, you may have received some feedback that leads you to tweak your proposal a little. Not always: if one agent out of a dozen says, “I didn’t love the writing style,” there’s no need to pull your proposal apart and start over. It may just be a personal preference. If two agents say, “your platform isn’t big enough,” take another look or get some solid advice on how you may strengthen that aspect.*
You might go on to a third round of agents, and a fourth. Consider every scrap of feedback an opportunity to strengthen your concept and the business case for your book. Even now, you haven’t failed. The literary world is awash with stories of famous authors who were rejected time and time again. Cheer yourself up with this list of the most-rejected books of all time (of the ones that were eventually published, that is).
It’s a tough game, and highly selective. You might have a better chance of playing piano at Carnegie Hall.
And yet, authors are breaking through all the time. Like my two clients. Did I mention them already? One landed a deal with an agent I met at the San Francisco Writers Conference, and the other has signed with an agent who represents a colleague of hers. Often it’s the personal connection that makes all the difference.
That, and a stellar book proposal.
I’m doing my happy dance here.
Have a great week!
* If you want to find out more about author platform—what it is and how to build or boost yours—check out my new online course here.