Before I get to this field guide to the rare and colorful species Literarius Agentia, known popularly as “literary agents,” allow me first to address some of the yelps that tend to arise whenever I start spelling out some of the customs and norms of the publishing industry.
No one is going to reject you solely because of a mild faux pas.
Don’t let these guides to etiquette result in crippling paranoia. Try to get things right, do your best to know what’s customary, but don’t sweat it too much. If you’re generally ethical, well-intentioned, and diligent, you’ll be fine.
These aren’t hard and fast rules, just what is customary from one veteran’s perspective.
It increases your odds to know the customs of the business and act professionally.
Think of a literary agent like a venture capitalist and you’re pitching a business plan. You’re asking someone to invest their time and money in your book in the hopes that it’s an eventual success. (Remember: the agent doesn’t get paid until you get paid).
Would you honestly go into a pitch meeting with a V.C. with no idea whatsoever how those normally work and a shoddy business plan? (Well. Maybe you would. But don’t.)
In this post I’ll cover:
Following submission guidelines
Querying multiple agents at the same agency
When to tell an agent about different nubby situations
When to call agents or drop in
When to follow up with agents
How to handle an offer of representation
Following submission guidelines
No matter what you see in this post or elsewhere around the Internet, an agent’s submission guidelines trump everything.
Unless otherwise specified in the submission guidelines, it’s fine to query different agents at the same agency, provided they represent your genre.
However, in order to avoid conflicts, I’d highly recommend only querying one agent at a particular agency at a given time, and waiting a bit after receiving a rejection before trying another agent. Sometimes agents share assistants who do the first pass reading queries, and it’s best if they’re not seeing the query again first thing after they just sent a rejection.
When to tell a literary agent about X
When you’re writing a query letter, it can be tricky to know when the appropriate time might be to discuss manuscripts in the drawer, other offers, your absolutely true alien encounters.
Here’s a rough guide:
You had a previous agent – I’d mention this in the query — it shows that someone had invested in your work, even if it didn’t work out for whatever reason.
You’re writing under a pen name – Query as your real name, but feel free to mention the pen name if you want to.
Editor(s) at a publisher are considering your manuscript – Mention this in the query.
You received a manuscript request from another agent – No need to mention this to the other agents.
You are previously published or self-published – Mention this in the query.
Your age – If you’re under 18, mention this in the query. Otherwise no need to mention.
Your other book projects – Wait until you receive an offer of representation, then discuss how the agent would like to approach those.
A good rule of thumb for anything I didn’t cover above: If the information is relevant to the particular project you’re querying about, mention it in the query. If it’s a general question about your career, wait until the agent is interested.
When should you cold call a literary agent or swing by to drop off an unsolicited submission?
There are two powerful and enduring myths out there about book marketing that, spoiler alert, are both wrong:
There was once a mystical era of book publishing where writers just wrote and magical book marketing elves took care of the rest.
Writers need to do everything under the sun in order to market their books and make it a second full time job.
Writers have always needed to find ways to market themselves and their writing, and that was as true for Lord Byron as it is for you, the modern author. Everyone from Oscar Wilde to Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Ayn Rand were among the best networkers and self-promoters of their day.
But you don’t have to do it all. In this post I’ll cover the one thing you really need to do and how to think about the rest of your approach.
The one must-have in book marketing
There is only one thing an author must do to market a book:
Every author, published or unpublished, should have some sort of Googlable web presence so that when someone sees your work or hears about you they have a way to contact you.
This is preferably a website, but could also be a blog or even a Facebook page… something, anything so that opportunity knows where to knock. (Thought it does help to be active on social media).
Beyond that, as I alluded to in the opening, there’s sort of been a new expectation/conventional wisdom creeping up that the key to being a Good Hardworking Promoting Author is to blow out your blog, your Facebook page, your website, your Twitter feed, your Goodreads network, and better yet, all of the above and by the way you need to set up your own author tour and try to get some media appearances going we’d love it if you placed some articles and stories and where’s your book trailer oh also don’t quit your day job and don’t forget about your manuscript deadline and make sure the next book is incredible and amazing and could you spend some time with your family please?
The diminishing returns of trying to do it all
Needless to say: unless you were born with more hours in the day than the rest of us, doing everything is not possible.
Nor is doing everything productive! If you don’t have a passion for blogging it’s going to show. Readers will notice and your blog will remain obscure. Not a newsflash: obscure blogs don’t sell books.
No one should be blogging (or Tweeting or Facebooking or etc.) for the sake of blogging (or Tweeting or Facebooking or etc.).
It takes time to make a good blog, a good Twitter feed, a good Facebook page, a good book trailer, etc., and if you dilute your time and try to do everything, you might end up without a good anything.
Book marketing at its best
Instead: do what you’re best at. Don’t make yourself miserable doing what you think you should be doing, do what you enjoy doing. Utilize your time where it’s best spent:
If you have a talent and passion for blogging: do that.
If you enjoy Twitter and know the ins and outs: do that.
If you like getting into the weeds of Facebook ads and A/B testing the best messaging: do that.
If you are a great public speaker and love attending writers conferences: do that.
If you are a terrific hobnobber and networker and are adept at weaving your way into influential circles: do that.
If you have media connections and can utilize them: do that.
If you love pounding the pavement and meeting with local bookstores to arrange signings and events: do that.
If you are an amateur filmmaker on the side and have an idea for a killer book trailer: do that.
If you think creatively and enjoy thinking of wacky events: do that.
If you are fabulously wealthy and you want to drop books from an airplane with $100 bills attached: do that, and please make sure to stop by Brooklyn.
Mix and match as appropriate.
There’s no one way to promote a book, and if there were a surefire way to get a book to take off and become a bestseller I would patent it and sell it to you for seven trillion dollars. Know your strengths, utilize your time well, and remember that at the end of the day the whims of fate and word of mouth are more powerful than any marketer.
Do what you can in the time you have. Just be smart about it.
Here are some posts that might give you some ideas:
Building a website may not exactly feel like it’s something that feels like it belongs in the ole “writer skills toolkit,” but I’m of the belief that it’s extremely important.
Opportunity can’t knock if it can’t find your door.
Your website doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be wildly inventive, and if you have a unique name you might be able to get away with just having a Twitter account or some other means of being identifiable on the Internet. (It could also just be a blog).
And yes, this post goes for both the published and the unpublished. Everyone seeking publication or planning to self-publish needs one.
In this post, I’ll cover:
Why you need one
The “must haves” that belong on your site
How to make a good one
Examples of good author websites
What I’m not going to cover is how to literally go about building a website (there are other, better resources out there on that), but rather what authors should think about as they build one.
Why you need one
If you’re already convinced, feel free to skip ahead to the other sections of this post, but if you’re still on the verge of throwing a “why can’t I just write my books” tantrum, let me take a step back and make the case.
First, let me be clear: you don’t HAVE to have a website. Website-less authors are not summarily rounded up and disqualified from seeking publication. I’m sure you can name a bestselling author who is happily website-less.
But it helps.
On the broader point of “Why can’t authors just write,” people often harken back to apocryphal golden eras of yore where authors could just be authors, often pointing to authors like Hemingway… who were actually wildly good self-promoters for their time.
You’re a writer. You want people to read your book. Why would you cede the responsibility to market it to someone else?
You don’t have to do everything yourself (including ahem building your website) and writing a great book is still the most important factor in your eventual success. But you do need to take responsibility for marketing.
A website is a bare-minimum way of putting yourself out there.
Author website must-haves
Are you ready for the list of author website absolute must-haves?
A biography (doesn’t have to be elaborate)
A way to contact you
It can literally just be one static page on the Internet. All you’re really doing is giving people a means of learning more about you and getting in touch with you if, say, someone comes across something you’ve written or just wants more background and they Google your name.
That said, while this is the minimum it’s better to try to include just a bit more in order to convey a sense of professionalism.
How to make a good author website
A good website can do more than just exist on the Internet. It’s really an opportunity to connect with people you may want to work with or people who may want to read your books.
To me there are two main elements of a good website:
Take some time to consider the design of your site. And if this isn’t your strong suit, find someone to help you. Even if you can’t afford a designer, think of who you might be able to barter with or how you can get creative about asking for help.
Style provides an important first impression. Good design inspires a sense of professionalism and prompts curiosity.
A reason to visit
If you want people to return to your site and build a relationship with you, think about why someone might visit and what you want them to do when they arrive.
Are you giving great information via a blog or resources?
Is it a fun experience?
Does someone who visits your site know what to do and where to find things?
What belongs in a good site
Here’s a checklist of things to include in a well-developed site:
Giving up on finding publication for a book project is a difficult but nearly universal experience in the writing life. It’s often referred to as putting a manuscript “in the drawer.”
The first novel I wrote crashed and burned before I eventually found publication with Jacob Wonderbar. Some now-published writers I know have about as many manuscripts in the drawer as they have fingers and toes.
So. How many manuscripts do you have in the drawer?
If you’re seeking traditional publication for a nonfiction book, you’re most likely going to need to write a nonfiction book proposal.
The art of writing a nonfiction book proposal is sort of like cooking lasagna. There are a thousand ways of making it, everyone has their own recipe, but most every lasagna will have a few basic ingredients and chances are it’s going to taste good in the end. The below recipe, if you will, applies to just about every kind of nonfiction, from history to self-help to narrative nonfiction.
Why a proposal for nonfiction? A literary agent can often sell nonfiction projects on proposal, meaning you write the proposal first, then sell the project, then write the book. It mostly depends on the quality of the idea and its marketability, your platform (a combination of your credentials and ability to promote the book), and your writing ability.
There are definitely exceptions to this — it really depends on the project, and sometimes it pays to write the whole thing, especially memoir.
Here are the basic sections of a nonfiction book proposal:
The overview is typically a page or two that gives, well, an overview of the book you plan to write. You’re getting across the meat of the story that you are writing about, in the case of narrative nonfiction, and the challenge you’re telling people to solve with self-help. It’s really a sales pitch.
In essence, a good overview will give the agent/editor a great sense of the subject, the scope, the heart, and the need for the book. It will get them excited about the project.
Although the overview isn’t an excerpt from the book, as you’re writing it try to infuse it with the writing style you plan to employ in the book. Agents and editors should have a sense of what it would be like to read the book. It should have a cohesive and authoritative voice.
If you’re stuck, check out the jacket copy for books that are similar to yours and see the way the books are framed. An overview won’t be exactly like jacket copy (remember you’re pitching an agent/editor, not a reader), but it’s a good starting place for setting out the scope of your book.
Platform, platform, platform.
There are two primary things agents and editors are looking for in your bio:
Do you have the credibility to write this book? Are you among the world’s foremost experts in your field? (Because if you’re not, you can bet those people are writing books too). Have you published articles in national publications on your topic that generated substantial interest?
Do you have an audience you can draw upon to promote the book and a plan for activating it? Do you have an existing audience base, can you be booked on television shows, do you have a social media following or a substantial mailing list, do you have connections in your field that could be helpful to draw upon?
As you craft your bio, make sure to include blurbs from prominent people if you have them (or if they’ve already agreed) and anything that could give a sense of your ability to help market the book.
Note that you don’t necessarily have to previous publishing credits, but they can certainly be helpful in order to give agents and editors a sense of your writing style and your ability to engage readers.
Competing Titles/Market Analysis
Competing titles are a list of other books that are similar to yours or could be viewed as competitive. The goal with this section is to establish that there’s a market for your book and that your book addresses a gap in that market and is unlike the other books out there.
For each competitive title you’ll need a quick summary that includes:
Brief summary of the book
How well it sold (if you’re able to determine this)
How your book is different
Of these three items, how well it performed is the least important to include, and at the stage where you’re trying to find an agent you don’t really need much beyond including whether it was a bestseller or not. An agent will likely have access to Bookscan and can help flesh this out if they feel it’s important to be specific before the proposal goes out to publishers.
Outline/List of Chapters
Sometimes people include an outline or a list of chapters to give a sense of the scope of the project, along with descriptions of what the chapters cover. It’s another way of helping an agent or editor envision what the finished book would be like.
Personally I feel like this part is a little overrated for something like narrative nonfiction because the finished product is probably going to change, but this section is very important for any sort of self-help-ish or business-ish proposal since you’ll already have a pretty good idea of where the project is going and can summarize it here.
One to Three Sample Chapter(s)
Other than perhaps the overview, the sample chapter(s) is(are) the most important part of the proposal. Some editors I know just get a gist of the overview and then turn straight to the sample chapters to see a sample of the author’s writing. So work very, very hard on these chapters to make them as good as possible.
You’ll want to include about 25-50 pages so the agent and editor can get a sense of your writing ability.
Other things that you might consider throwing in I mean including are copies of newspaper/magazine articles you wrote that apply to the subject (if the book is arising out of a published article), reviews of past nonfiction books you’ve published (not self-published), and anything else that will help convince the agent/editor that you’re super-awesome.
Like it or not, pitching your book is one of the most important things you’ll do as an author.
If you’re trying to find a literary agent, you’ll need to write a query letter. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to write good jacket copy (or at least know what good jacket copy looks like). When you’re telling acquaintances what your book is about, you’ll need to avoid making them fall asleep.
You get the idea.
Start thinking about your pitch early and spend time honing it through time. In this post, I’ll cover:
Starting with your basic one-sentence pitch
How to expand it into a brief description
Tips for pitching in person
The one sentence pitch
The one sentence pitch is at the heart of all of your other pitches. It’s the essence of your book, the line you’ll dash off when you just want to briefly tell people about your book but still make it sound awesome.
Now let’s get this out of the way: Yes, it’s painful to distill the entire, wondrous sprawling expanse of your novel into one sentence. A one sentence pitch is by no means easy to write.
You need to do it anyway.
There are three basic elements in a good one sentence pitch for a novel and memoirs:
The opening conflict that sets the protagonist on their journey
The quest can be a physical or interior journey, but it’s what happens to the character(s) between the moment when the plot begins and ends. The opening conflict is the first step in that quest. It’s how the journey begins. The obstacle is what stands in the way of that journey.
The resulting very basic pitch is: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST. There are lots different ways of structuring these basic elements, but they should be there.
With one paragraph and two paragraph pitches, you have a bit more latitude to add more detail to help illustrate more about your plot and the world of your novel (or, in the case of nonfiction, the scope of your project).
As you’re doing this, a good place to start is with the middle section of my patent pending (not really) Query Letter Template:
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].
This will give you a basic description that you can then expand upon. But in one paragraph and two paragraph pitches, it’s helpful if all of these elements are present.
As you’re fleshing out your pitch, I find that it’s far more successful to try as much as possible to stick to what literally happens in your book. Stay away from themes or the lessons your characters learn, which can sound trite and generic, and instead show us what happens in your novel with key details that bring your setting and characters to life.
While you should absolutely know your one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitches, pitching in person is a bit of a different beast. What works on the page doesn’t always work out loud.
Here are some tips for pitching your book to live humans:
Be conversational. There’s nothing worse than hearing a pitch that sounds like it was rehearsed in front of a mirror five thousand times. Don’t worry about being precise, worry about being engaging.
Don’t worry about your ideas being stolen. I personally am not particularly shy about talking about books I’m working on or brainstorming, and am not worried about people stealing my ideas. Execution is far more important than ideas. Instead, think of these conversations as an opportunity to see which elements of your pitch are landing with your audience and which might need some work.
Tailor the length of your pitch to the situation. An opportunity to pitch your novel is not an invitation to give a lengthy sermon. Be flexible with your verbal pitches and wrap things up when the pitch-ee’s eyes begin to glaze over.
Don’t be shy. If you seem excited about your book, the person who’s hearing about it will absorb that enthusiasm. Don’t apologize for being a writer, don’t downplay your book. Just be confident and engaging.
If you’re pitching a literary agent or editor, consider using the time to ask them questions. If you’re pitching an agent and an editor at a conference, there’s only so much they’re really going to be able to tell you after hearing your pitch. They haven’t read your writing and have no idea if it’s any good. So rather than taking up all of your allotted time telling them about a book they’re going to need to read separately, considering utilizing your remaining time to get answers to questions you may have or learn about the business.
Any veterans out there with tips for good pitches? Anything I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments!
Some writers architect and outline their novels like they’re building the Sistine Chapel. Some fly by the seat of their pants like they’re riding a bucking bronco. And some, of course, do both like they’re… um… riding a bucking bronco within the Sistine Chapel?
Do you outline?
And more importantly for those of you who do: how do you outline?