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Amie here first: Hello! Before I left Pub(lishing) Crawl back in July, I asked Melanie Crowder (who you may remember from such earlier hits as the Parched cover reveal) to write us a post, and she’s obliged with a heap of wisdom. Today, she’s talking about the difference between going on submission with a proposal vs a full manuscript. Read on!
Ask most writers what kind of sale they’d like next, and they’ll answer: any kind. The sold kind. The I have another book coming out kind.
But the different kinds of sales play out very…well, differently.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of both options.
The Proposal: Pros
You don’t have to write the whole book before making a sale!
The money comes in while you’re working on the book. Fantastic!
You can write without the stress of wondering if the book you’re working on will ever turn into an actual book.
The Proposal: Cons
You don’t have to write the whole book before making a sale.
Why, exactly, is this a bad thing? (cue pesky inner voices…) What if I run out of inspiration halfway through? What if the plot, which seemed like it would work perfectly in outline form, stops working? What if it isn’t any good?
Stress. Doubt. Angst. Not the best environment for creative work.
Also? Synopses and summaries and pitches are really tough to get right.
Hmmmmm. Let’s have a look at the other option.
The Full Manuscript: Pros
You have time to run the story by your beta readers.
You have time to get everything working thematically and structurally before an editor ever sees it.
By the time it’s good enough to send to your editor, you’re probably at least halfway done!
You get the chance to fall truly, madly, deeply in love with your story without looming deadlines.
The Full Manuscript: Cons
You may work for months or even years on a story that isn’t what your editor is looking for.
You may write a story that you love, and your editor loves, but that can’t make it past the acquisition process.
It’s tricky knowing when to send a manuscript to your editor. You don’t want to hold on to it too long and overwork the poor thing. But you also don’t want to send it in before it’s really ready, before it’s the quality of book a whole team can get behind.
So if I had my choice, which would I pick?
Well, my first two books, Parched and Audacity were sold as full manuscripts. I loved being able to shape each story into a book I was really proud of before anyone ever laid eyes on it. But I’ll admit, there were some anxiety-filled moments while we were waiting for a sale!
My 3rd book, A Nearer Moon, and my 5th book, an untitled Middle Grade, were both submitted via proposal. That vote of confidence from your publishing house from the start of a project is really great. But there’s some stress there too. You can’t ever really get away from it, you just learn how to tune it out while you’re working.
I suppose the submission sweet spot for me came with my 4th book, a super-secret project I’m not yet divulging the details of. It was the second part of Audacity’s two book deal. It sold as an unspecified YA, with a far-away deadline that gave me security and freedom, motivation and time. Yep, if the literary gods let us pick, that would be my choice.
What about you? What are you hoping for, or what have you discovered works best for you? Whatever your preference, here’s to many submission success stories in your future!
MELANIE CROWDER holds an MFA from VCFA and is the author of three books for children and teens: Parched, Audacity, and A Nearer Moon. Her books have received honors such as Junior Library Guild selection, Parent’s Choice Silver Medal, Bank Street College’s Best Books of the Year and a collective eight starred reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, PW, BCCB, and SLC. She lives in beautiful Colorado; catch up with her online at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or her website.
Above is Doppo the Arctic fox, one of my favorite characters to draw. I probably sketched it in under a minute.
Just got home from the city. I live right on the outskirts and need to travel downtown to get art supplies. I took the GoTrain which is part of Toronto's mass transit system. It goes from here (Etobicoke) to downtown Toronto in about 15 minutes. On the way it winds through all these industrial backlots and crumbling Victorian brick factories. I love that trip. After the train drops me off it keeps going west to Aldershot, which is known for it's military base. I am always tempted to stay on the train and keep going. I almost get overwhelmed with curiosity every time. I've never been that far west and I wonder what's out there.
I went in town to buy pencils. I bought a huge pile of 3Bs which is currently my hardness of choice. Just soft enough to give a rich dark line but not so soft that it disappears in one drawing session, eaten up by the electric pencil sharpener. I also bought jogging pants. This has been one unhealthy winter.
Also, today draws to a close what has become n annual search for an agent. I've had problems with this. It's funny but I have an easier time getting published than I do getting an agent. Whenever I've had a really good idea it never seems to take long to find a home for it. Agencies are different. I don't know why but I have some guesses. I think your relationship with a publisher is short term. You do a book and that's it, no real obligation after that. With agencies it's different, the relationship is meant to be a reciprocal one that ought to last for a long time, years. Another thing is marketing. An agent is as concerned with how well they can market you, maybe more so than how talented you are. And how well an agency can market you can depend on how well you fit into the overall style of artists they already represent. If you're too different than their other artists it can be hard to market you and if you're too close to their current artists it might create redundancy in their agency or even competitiveness.
In any case, this round of agent hunting is over. Now it's phase two. Which is a funny way of saying I'm putting together proposals to send to publishers. So far this has been the most effective thing I've done. I think my ideas are good and publishers like the idea of one person doing both the story and the art for picture books and comic books. I think the industry seems to be moving that way.
I’ve found that quite a few agents who are open to representing nonfiction self-help books request a query and the proposal in the same email. My query contains a brief description of the book, how it differs from competitive titles, and a little about me. The proposal contains the same information, although in more detail (as well as sample chapters, marketing plans, competitive titles, etc.). A friend (a published narrative nonfiction author) said there should be no repetition in the proposal of anything that was in the query, so if I’m sending the proposal and the query at the same time, I need to remove all repetition of information. Is my friend correct?
A reminder to everyone, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction: there are guidelines to submitting material and there’s advice on making your submissions stronger, but there are very, very few “rules” and, believe it or not, very, very few things that authors do to result in “instant rejection.” Why am I reminding you of this? Because ultimately the answer to your question has no right or wrong, and doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
Anytime you submit anything to anyone you are going to be required to write a query. I represent nonfiction self-help and my standard is that I want a query first. If I like the query then I’ll typically ask for the proposal to be sent as an email attachment with the query included, just as you describe. Having the query helps me refresh my memory and reminds me of who you are.
In my mind, there’s no way to write a query without including the same information. Your proposal should include everything about you and your book that you deem important to showing agents why your book is needed, how it’s different and what makes you the only author to write such a great and necessary work. Your query is what’s going to grab my attention and make me want to read more. To properly write that you’re going to have to condense what you’ve written in your proposal. In other words, it’s the best of the best of the proposal.
To make the answer short and sweet: there’s no way to write the query without repeating the same information that’s in your proposal. Hopefully, though, you’ll find a new way to write some of it.
And one last note, something I really feel the need to say . . . make sure you understand where your advice is coming from and how the advice giver knows. Querying, selling, and writing narrative nonfiction is extremely different from self-help nonfiction. While I’m not saying your friend doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I am saying that her experience will likely be very different from yours.
Sometimes Random Questions are my favorite posts. Quick and easy. Here’s another batch of questions that I think are important for readers to see, but not long enough to warrant a full blog post.
I have written a novel, but feel the best comparisons are narrative nonfiction. Is using narrative nonfiction to compare with a novel acceptable in a pitch, or is this a bad idea?
I think it’s fine. Comparing your book to another often means that you feel the same audience might be interested in your book.
I am working on a nonfiction humor book and when I looked around the web a few years ago I noticed everyone wanted a book proposal. Now that I renewed my interest in my book idea I noticed most agents are asking for queries. I thought queries were for fiction and proposals for nonfiction. Is it standard that agents are only accepting queries for nonfiction? Should I write a proposal and have it ready in case I get a response on my query?
Sadly there are no easy outs in publishing, for fiction or nonfiction. Queries are standard for any submission you want to make to an agent. It’s a way for us to evaluate if the book is even right for us before you send material. Should you have the proposal done? Yes, before you even think of the query. If you get a request, the proposal should be ready to send that night.
If your book is a memoir (creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction), written in the style of a novel, do you submit a fiction proposal or a nonfiction proposal package?
Is it just me or does it feel like I answer this question monthly. Just an fyi, the answer is on the FAQ of our web site. But to answer again, narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, whatever it is you want to call the book should be submitted as if it were a fiction proposal.
I am completely baffled on the correct system to employ to estimate word count on a completed manuscript.
I think this question is probably one of the most frequently asked questions I receive. Let’s do it this way. Just follow your word processing program’s word count. If you think that makes the count too high or too low, then count roughly 250 words per page. Honestly, when we get the manuscript we can tell whether it’s too long or too short just from holding the pages. Word count isn’t an exact science, especially since it’s about how the words translate to the published book. It’s rough. Just do what you’re comfortable with; as long as you're reasonably within a range, you should be fine.
Would there be any benefit to starting a blog and posting short stories on a regular basis to try and generate a "reader base,” or am I better served to spend that time working on another book and querying agents?
I’m not convinced that blogs are necessarily the best way to build a writing career. I know they are suggested and I do think that getting out and participating in a blog, on occasion, once you’re published, can help with publicity. That being said, I think it’s rare that the unpublished author gets picked up for a book deal because of a blog. If you really want to write short stories and publish them on a blog, go ahead. Otherwise, work to get your shorts published in literary magazines and spend your time on your next book. If a novel is what you want to write then you should be writing novels.
I have a quick question after reading your post on word count. I am not sure my manuscript is long enough. Several people at Absolute Write told me 56K is fine for my YA urban fantasy. I thought I should ask an agent whose advice I can count on. Do you think that is too short?
I think that you’re a little short, probably not dangerously short though. The problem is that you’re writing YA Urban Fantasy, which tends to be a tad longer. If it’s easy for you to bring it up closer to 70k words, I would try to do that. If it’s a stretch then you s
I’ve read where at least some agents accept queries on proposal for an unfinished manuscript when the author’s previous books are printed in the traditional print-run process. I did not see this addressed on your website and would appreciate knowing if this is something your agency ever considers.
Typically, if an author has been previously published from one of the bigger houses it is quite possible to sell the next work on proposal, without a full manuscript. In those cases the author will not need to finish the book before querying an agent. A proposal should be enough.
Now, that being said, of course there are exceptions to the “rule.” This will depend on the agent and agency. Everyone is different. It will also depend on the genre you were published under and the genre you are now writing in. For example, if you were previously published in category romance and now want to write women’s fiction, it is quite possible you’ll need to finish the manuscript before seeking publication.
To answer your question specifically, when querying BookEnds, if you are previously published, a proposal should be enough.
With the economy tanking and all eyes focused on the election, do you believe non-genre, fiction writers might be wise to delay trying to peddle their wares until early next year? I ask because I have read that this is a dreadful time for fiction writers seeking to enter the marketplace for the first time. I’m considering shelving my medical thriller for the time being and concentrating my efforts on a new writing project. What do you think?
This is an interesting question. First let me tell you that at this point the election is going to have absolutely no impact on whether or not you sell a book. Publishers usually schedule their books a year ahead of time. In fact, in a recent conversation with an editor we were discussing what year it was and she said to me, “I’m already in 2009.” Editors buying books right now are buying for 2009. Some might have spots to fill with books in early 2009, but no one is concerned with the election when it comes to publishing; those books were bought in 2007 at the very latest and are now well into the pipeline. They are being edited or are even done with the editing process and the covers are even done or almost done.
As for the economy, well, it stinks. And yes, like everything else book publishing is being impacted. Costs are going up everywhere and that includes the cost of book production. Everyone is spending less money and books are not usually a need like food or fuel, so they are one of the first things to go when it comes to budgeting. In other words, not as many people are buying books. Does this mean you should sit back and wait until things clear out to start submitting? Absolutely not. Not, that is, unless you’re a seer and you know the economy is going to take an upswing in August. If that’s the case, though, could you give me a buzz and let me know what you know?
From an author’s point of view it’s always a “dreadful time for fiction writers to enter the marketplace.” I’ve never, in my 15 years in publishing, heard people talk about what a great time it is for beginning authors to launch their careers. At least I’ve never heard authors say that. Editors and agents will say that all the time. It is a tough economy and it is difficult for beginning writers to break out and find readers, but that’s not going to change that much when the economy hits an upswing. So my advice to you, as always, is to write the absolute best book you can write and proudly and confidently send it out to agents. If it doesn’t sell, get that next book out there. Don’t worry about the economy, the election, or anything else. Just write a good book (with a great hook).
I know I’ve vented about this before, but it’s happened again so I get to vent again. Lucky you!
I realize I’m behind on proposals, but I’m not that behind. So I had a nonfiction proposal that was a few weeks old. I liked the idea a lot, but was unsure whether or not it was the right direction to go in, so I brought the proposal up in our weekly meeting to discuss it with others here. We discussed the proposal as it was and everyone had varying opinions. I really liked it though.
In the end I decided to pass, but sent the author some of my detailed thoughts on why I was passing. I also offered to take a look again or at other work. The response . . . she had already signed with another agent and was sorry she didn’t tell me.
Aaaaah! This lack of professionalism kills me every single time. Are you kidding me?! If you’ve sent a query that’s one thing, but a proposal? Why wouldn’t you at least have the courtesy to let me know. I know, I know. I rejected it so why do I care? I care because of all of the time I wasted. It took up about 10 to 15 minutes of time at our meeting. I know Jacky went and did some research on the book on her own after the meeting and I did a great deal on my own both before and after the meeting. Not to mention the time spent reading, emailing my detailed letter, and simply thinking about. All of that time could have been spent reading your proposals—the other proposals that I’m really behind on.
The funny thing about this is now if this person does come back to me at some point I’m really going to have to think twice. After all, the professionalism just isn’t there.
I’m always asked if I actually read for pleasure given that my job entails doing a whole heck of a lot of reading, and I’m actually surprised that others are surprised when I say yes. However, one of the things I’m not sure I’ve ever explained to anyone is I read differently for each thing I read. For example . . .
To clarify, these are the one-page equeries that I receive each day (by the way, we’re now up to about 25 to 30 a day in my inbox alone). When I read queries I often skim through the introductory material, title, and even genre, because I’m looking for the meat of the query. I want to know what the book is about and I want to be excited about it. In other words, I’m reading through the query to be stopped. I want to get to the point where I think, “Wait a minute. I need to read that again.” When I get to that point it’s very likely that unless there are any real bumps in the road (a word count of 7,000, for example) I will be requesting more material. Queries take a lot longer to read than one would think, and even if I can read one query every two minutes, I certainly can’t read 50 queries in a row. Which is why I now have nearly 200 queries sitting in my query folder.
This is almost always material I’ve requested from a query letter. Typically a proposal should include the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis. Now here’s the big one . . . never do I read the synopsis first, and I always wonder why people put the synopsis on the top of the chapters since the chapters are what you really want me to read, but that’s a post for another time. When reading proposals the first thing I do is read the attached letter (attached because my assistant probably clipped the entire packet together). Proposals that either don’t include letters or don’t include letters that give me any information about the book (usually the same information that was in the query is best) usually get put back down to be read at a later date. When I finally have time to sit and read proposals I want to pick up proposals that I know I’ll be excited to read. So I go through and read all the letters first. Which proposals do I remember requesting and which grab me just as much the second time around as they did the first? Those are the proposals that are likely to go home with me first. From that point I flip through until I get to the first chapter and then I sit down to read. Often when reading proposals I’m distracted. I’m reading at home, at night, and dinner is on, or the TV is on, or there is just chaos. A good three chapters is going to make that chaos disappear. Like most readers I don’t have the opportunity for a peaceful few hours to sit quietly and read. Instead I’m counting on the book to take me to that peaceful place. Okay, full disclosure time: When reading proposals I’m looking for that first reason to reject. I get 25 queries a day and probably 25 or so proposal packets a week. I can’t possibly take on that many new clients, and in my years of experience I know that there are not going to be that many winners in there. So I’m skeptical (as are all agents and editors), but I want to be wowed. Because there’s nothing more exciting than finding something amazing when you least expect it.
I don’t request many full manuscripts, so when I do I usually remember it and watch for it. However, the true test of the full manuscript for me is whether or not it holds up. I’ve already read the first three chapters, so when the full crosses my desk, do I have to read those first three chapters again or do I remember them so clearly that all I need to do is skim through anxiously awaiting the material I haven’t yet read? If I have to read them again to remind myself about the book and if I feel weighted down by the time I get to chapter five, I can easily reject the book. If, however, chapter four grabs me as well as chapter three and the next thing I know dinner is burning and infomercials are playing, I know I have a winner. Requested manuscripts are something that often hang over my head. I’ve got three client manuscripts right now I need to read (and I’m excited about reading) as well as numerous proposals and other things, so while I’m always excited to find a new client, the thought of finding time to read another 400 pages is intimidating. So again, I’m looking for a reason to reject and get this task off my desk.
Client Manuscript for Revisions
When reading client material, whether a full or partial, for revisions I need to be in a completely different mind-set. I need to be able to focus, which means I need to have my desk as cleared off as possible with no other projects hanging over my head. The phone can’t be ringing and I can’t be checking email. The best thing for me to do when reading for revisions is sequester myself (wouldn’t that be nice). When reading for revisions I always have pen in hand and a notebook at my side and I make notes. Notes to myself and notes I will share with the author. I am reading with an incredibly critical eye. Not skeptical, but critical. I need to concentrate and follow the story carefully and I need to be willing to be judgmental. To tell my client what is or isn’t working and to give suggestions. I need to have my editor’s hat on, which means a creative hat as well as critical. Reading for revisions is actually very tiring for me. It’s not like sitting down to read queries or to simply read an already published book. Instead it involves carefully thinking about every word and phrase.
Reading for Pleasure
Which, let’s face it, is the best reading of all. There is nothing better for me than being able to just sit down and read a book. I’m not going to be asked for my opinion and I’m not going to be asked to judge the book. All I need to do is lose myself in the story and read. I can put it down and never pick it up again if I don’t want to or I can pick it up weeks later when I have the time.
I'm trying to put together a proposal for a non-fiction idea. This is a first for me. I've only been at it for half an hour here, and forty-five minutes there in between painting the store floor and moving my camp office to the house (Yes, I'm still moving it . . . there's a lot of paperwork!) Still, I thought it'd be easier to get my vision on paper, for some reason.
This is an idea I've had for over a year . . . it's been rolled and kneaded again and again. I've let it rise, only to punch it back down. I've polled some teachers, and they all agree it's needed. One even told me it'd be a hit with homeschooling parents.
It's time to send it out.
If only I could get it to sound as good on paper as it does in my head!
Once you’ve mastered the query letter it’s time to move on to the book proposal. For fiction writers a proposal if fairly easy compared to what nonfiction writers have to do. And keep in mind, if you are writing narrative nonfiction, like a memoir, you should think of your work as fiction. In other words, editors and agents will expect the work to be completed before you even start to query.
Because fiction writers have the book written, polished, and edited before they even start to query, putting the proposal together is really about collecting materials, but since you can never have too much information, I thought you too would like to know what goes into your proposal (sometimes called a partial).
Query Letter. Yes, you’ve already submitted the query, but don’t forget to do it again. Every bit of material you submit to agents and editors should include a reminder of what they are getting. So in the letter you are sending with the proposal mention that you’ve received a request, that this is requested material, include the blurb that first grabbed the agent’s interest and include everything else in the query that grabbed the agent’s interest.
Chapters. Unless you are told otherwise, include the first three chapters (and yes, a prologue is a chapter), but no more than 50 pages of your book. Yes, make sure the chapters are full chapters, make sure they are the first chapters, and yes, if the chapter ends at page 51 send 51 pages. If chapter three ends at page 80 then you only send two chapters. Just use good judgment. Agents really like authors with good judgment.
A Synopsis. I’m not picky. Whatever you have on hand works for me, but do make sure your synopsis is complete and strong. In other words, the synopsis should tell the ending, it should include all key plot points, and it should read in the tone of your book. In other words, if you’re writing suspense, I should get a sense of suspense from your synopsis. If you’re writing erotic romance, I should get a sense of the sex.
Other tidbits to consider:
Page numbers. Everything should be numbered.
Order. Place the synopsis at the end of the package. Do you really want people to read this first or do you want to wow them with your chapters first.
Have others proofread your synopsis to make sure it makes sense.
I will try to post more about the synopsis later, but this is it. When requesting a proposal, this is all we ask for.
It’s probably one of the most dreaded words in publishing. Any time I tell any author she has to submit or write a synopsis, I invariably get a loud groan. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and I know of very few authors who like writing them.
But what makes a good synopsis and how much do they really matter?
A synopsis can matter not at all and it can matter greatly depending on the editor and on the situation. To make things easier on you, I think you should always assume that a synopsis matters a great deal. If you’re submitting a full manuscript with a synopsis, the synopsis probably won’t matter as much (most of us would prefer just to read the manuscript). However, if you have reached the stage in your career where you are selling on proposal and no longer need to write a full manuscript before sending to editors, a synopsis is crucial. In this case, it’s the only thing an editor has to judge the rest of your book by. The synopsis is used as a guide to see if the plot and characterization follows through as strongly as it did in your chapters.
If you are submitting a proposal first (as many agents will ask you to do) you better have a strong synopsis. In that case, we often use the synopsis as a guide to see if we should be requesting the rest of the manuscript or not. We might love the chapters, but I’ve read some really screwy synopses (in which the plot took a dramatic turn in the wrong direction) that have pushed me to reject the book rather than ask for more.
How long should a synopsis be?
Well, for the most part that depends on the requirements of the house, the line, or the agent or editor. For me, my answer is to always tell you to send whatever you have. However, that being said, I prefer something shorter and more succinct (if you have it). I think the perfect length of a synopsis is 3 to 5 pages. That should be enough for you to give all of the important details of the story. To reiterate here, it doesn’t matter how long your synopsis is as long as it is strong and tells the story: 10 pages is fine too.
What do agents/editors look for in a synopsis?
And this is what you’re really here to read. Because believe it or not, a synopsis can make or break your ability to get a book deal. Numerous times I’ve received rejection letters from editors who were basing their feedback on the synopsis, because quite simply what they were commenting on wasn’t even in the chapters we submitted. When trying to sell on proposal (and yes, it is possible to sell fiction on proposal), an editor is going to place a great deal of emphasis on the synopsis. It’s the only way for her to figure out how the book plays out.
So how can you be sure your synopsis sings?
The writing. Like your book, your chapters, and your query, your synopsis needs to be well-written and strong. A weak, hastily written synopsis is going to give the editor the impression that you’re a weak writer who doesn’t or won’t take the time necessary to really make sure that what you’re turning in is the best it can be.
The voice. It’s not as easy to make your voice come through in a synopsis, but it should still be evident, at least to a small degree. The synopsis should not be a dull, dry play-by-play (or even chapter breakdown) of your book. It should never say something like, “Chapter three begins with . . .” Instead it should be your retelling of the story, in your voice. It should be a short narrative of your story.
Showing, not telling. Like the writing in your manuscript, the synopsis should show the highlights of what is important to your book, what scenes move the story forward and show how the characters grow. We don’t need to know about every single secondary character and we don’t need to be told what happens every step of the way. We do however need to know how the core of the story plays out, the heart of the story.
Conflict. This is a bit of a repeat of what I said above, but sometimes people hear things different, so let me reiterate, the synopsis should show the conflicts and challenges faced by your characters and in your plot. What is keeping your characters apart or bringing them together? What challenges does your sleuth face or your warrior? How is the crime solved, what are the red herrings?
Genre. If you are writing a paranormal romance, for example, make sure that your synopsis has an equal balance of showing how both the paranormal and the romance come into play. Editors are buying your book partly based on hook, which is the paranormal element, but also want to make sure that the romance is strong enough to place this on the the romance list. If you’re writing a mystery or suspense, you want to show how the characters solve the crime, and in suspense, you want to show the suspense. If you’re writing fantasy you want to show the world building, but you also want to make sure the plot is equally strong.
I have to admit, I hate a synopsis as much as you do, but they are a necessary evil of the business, especially when you reach the point in your career where you get to sell on proposal, and because many of my clients are now at that stage I’m working more and more with them on creating a synopsis that’s as strong as the chapters they’ve written.
As with everything else you’re doing besides writing the book, make sure you take the time to write a strong synopsis, but throw all the rules out the window. Write a synopsis that sounds like you and that works with your book and for your story. That’s the synopsis we want to see.
While I did not participate in #queryfail, a few weeks ago I did follow some of the feedback/fallout in the aftermath. Much of which can be read here in Nathan Bransford’s comment section. I am not going to get in the middle of the discussion of whether or not those who participated in #queryfail were wrong or what their intentions were. What I do want to address is something that’s stuck in my head since first reading the many discussions on the topic, and that’s that writers are people too.
What seemed to resonate most with me from those who objected to #queryfail was the feeling that agents were not considering the feelings of writers. Now let’s take this fully out of the context of #queryfail, please, because again, I refuse to discuss that. So when looking at the idea that agents don’t think of writers as people, you are, to some degree, entirely correct. When reading queries, proposals, or submissions of any kind I cannot think of the face behind the page. That’s not my job and can’t be my job. It’s my job to think of the words on the page and what they do for me and to me and whether or not I think they translate into sales.
When I first started out as a young editor and later as an agent I remember being touched and confused about how to handle the vast number of queries I received (and still receive) from authors looking to write a memoir based on their own experiences of sexual abuse, cancer, or death of a loved one. For me the toughest ones are always those writing about the death of a spouse or child. But the truth is that I can’t treat those people any differently than I treat the author who has written a romance novel, SF, or business book simply because I know their past.
I don’t think any agent will deny that writers are people and each writer deserves respect and serious consideration, but submissions aren’t people. When considering submissions we don’t think of the people and, to some degree, don’t care about the people behind the page. All we care about, all editors care about, and all your readers are ever going to care about is whether or not you’ve written a good book. And yes, sometimes that blinds us a bit, but I suspect it also protects us from the depressing job of rejecting hundreds upon hundreds of people each week. Because we aren’t rejecting people, we’re rejecting the words on the page.
It seems that often enough an author makes the agent work so hard that it’s not worth the effort. For example, instead of a query letter, I simply get a one-sentence description and a link to a web site that really includes very little information about the book. For some reason I’m still interested, so I write the author back asking for more description. I’m still not really given any information and instead am sent to another place where I can read something. This something still doesn’t include the information I was requesting. At this point it’s just become too hard. Why am I chasing this book all over the Internet when I still don’t really know what the book is about? More important, though, I suspect that this particular author and I simply cannot communicate. No matter how many times I ask I’m not able to get the information I need, and that doesn’t bode well for future editorial feedback or requests from the publisher.
I have to say, situations like this happen almost weekly, and if I have to work this hard and it’s this difficult before I even know if it’s a book I want to represent, it’s only going to get worse. The reason there are so many guidelines out there on query letters, proposals, etc., is not because agents are looking to make your lives more difficult, but we’re looking for insight into your book and future working relationships. We don’t expect perfection, but we do hope it can go as smoothly as possible.
This post is really going to be a short vent, so bare with me.
Just recently I received a nonfiction proposal with an amazing title and a terrific new take on what’s been a fairly well published topic. But I really liked what this author had to say and she had the platform to back herself up. Before making a decision on representation, though, I needed to do some research. I studied Publisher’s Marketplace to see what had been recently sold in this area and how long it had been since books on this subject had been sold. I wanted to get a sense of when the real rise of this subject matter had been and whether or not publishers were currently feeling inundated or might be ready for a new title. I also reviewed the more popular and the most successful books on the subject to see how my proposal was different and how it would stand out in what is almost always a crowded market. And of course I discussed the project with my colleagues to see what they thought.
After doing all of this I decided that I was armed and dangerous and ready to make an offer. In fact, I was very excited about the proposal. The author had great credentials and the title and concept were absolutely brilliant. Most important, though, while I didn’t think it would be an easy sell, I knew that by doing some tweaking on the proposal and making some minor adjustments, the author and I could create something that would definitely be a hit.
So I picked up the phone and grabbed the proposal for the phone number. It wasn’t there. In fact, except for an SASE, there was nothing on the proposal to indicate how I should reach the author. No phone number, no email, no web site. Nothing. Now what? Do I send an SASE with an offer? Do I Google the author and try to hunt her down? Or is this a sign from someone that maybe this is going to be too much work and I should just use that SASE for a rejection? Do you know I actually debated this one? I don’t think of myself as a spiritual person or as someone who believes in signs, but I think I might be. I know when I told Kim and Jacky, they both had the same reaction I did. Both of them wondered too if maybe it was a sign.
But I persevered. I hunted through Google and 411.com and finally in some obscure article somewhere I found her email address. I sent off an email explaining that I loved the proposal and really hoped to talk further with her about it. No word. The entire day went by and I heard nothing. Okay . . . maybe it’s an old address, the article was about five years old. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a sign.
I own a Pit Bull, and many will tell you that dog owners are a lot like their dogs. When I get that bone I refuse to let go, so the next morning I did another quick Google search, and this time I came up with the phone number of her practice. Bingo! I called and left a message and finally, that afternoon, she called me back. Only to let me know that the book proposal had already been sent to about 40 publishers and rejected by almost everyone. Now she claimed to have interest from a publisher and didn’t need an agent. She didn’t think there was anything else I could do. Okay . . . so why, less than three weeks earlier, had she sent me her dang proposal?
I guess next time I’ll pay closer attention to the signs.
In the comments of our pitch critiques a few wondered how much mood might have to do with an agent’s decision. The truth is that no matter what an agent tells you, a lot goes into an agent’s decision that you have no control of.
Mood might be one of those things. If I’ve just taken on two new clients and my other clients have also been keeping me busy reading material and working with their editors, I might be feeling overwhelmed and really overworked. In that case a proposal is going to have to be even more eye-catching than normal. If, however, things have been going smoothly and I’m actually feeling caught up with my work, I might be willing to give proposals a chance that I might not otherwise. In other words, I might think the writing seems off, but the proposal is intriguing enough that I’m curious. That’s something I wouldn’t do if I was feeling inundated.
I also might be in the mood for a certain type of book or sick of seeing a certain type of book. If I’ve been inundated with Star Trek rip-offs it’s very unlikely a Star Trek rip-off is going to grab my attention. If, however, I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers in my spare time then it’s likely I’m looking for a thriller that week or that month and any “thrilling” query will catch my attention. If I’ve just sold three vampire books it’s unlikely I’m going to be interested in another vampire book for a while, but instead I might want to see a quiet historical romance.
Mood affects all of us and all of our reading. Think about it. If you’re feeling down in the dumps and want to be cheered up you might pick up a romantic comedy or light cozy mystery rather than a dark thriller. I know that I’ve gone through periods in my life when I can’t read anything depressing and other times when all I want is a good cry.
The truth is that you never know the mood of the agent you’re pitching to or what is happening in her personal life that might affect the choices she’s making. In fact, in a lot of ways you don’t know what’s happening in her professional life that affects the choices she’s making. An example of that is when I said that I see a lot of insurance adjustor mysteries and many of you commented that you’ve never seen one. Because what we sometimes see a lot of are not things that ever get published—ask Kim about books on cloning Jesus. I know, I know, many of you will say that good agents aren’t affected by mood. I disagree. I think a good agent doesn’t let her mood get in the way of her job, but she does allow her mood to get involved. And in the end, good writing fits any mood. And even better, a good book can change every mood.
I get a lot of questions from readers who have been working back and forth with an agent on revisions to a book or proposal, but have never been told whether or not they are actually working together. In other words, did this agent offer representation somewhere along the way and the author forgot?
While I’ve never been on the other side of an offer of representation, I think I can safely say that it’s not something you would forget. So what’s going on? If you’ve gone three rounds of revisions, or one or two, with an agent, at what point are you working exclusively and at what point should you still be querying other agents? This is an interesting conundrum for authors, but the answer is really simple. You need to ask. You simply need to say that you appreciate all of the work the agent is doing for you, but wonder the status of the relationship. You might even be so bold as to ask at what point representation might be offered. Take the bull by the horns and, honestly, put the agent on the spot a little. Remember, you’re the one hiring the agent and this is a great interview opportunity for you. When I work with an author on revisions I sincerely hope that the author will be giving me first shot at being her agent. But I know all too well from experience that that’s not always going to happen. It’s a risk I take, I know, but usually it’s a risk worth taking (although if you’ve been a longtime blog reader you’ll also know I have been burned by this in the past).
If the agent is vague about representation and the tweaking is almost done you need to consider what’s best for you and your career. If you feel that you need to keep submitting queries to other agents, do so. My feeling on the entire process is that if I offer revisions and the author comes incredibly close, but the proposal might still need some tweaks, it’s time to offer representation. Why would I want to lose such a gem? I know she can do the work so anything else that can be done we can do together. Other agents might feel the work is absolutely perfect before they’ll offer. You need to find out what kind of agent you’re working with.
I would say, though, that if you’re submitting around and get another offer, you want to make sure that the agent who is working with you knows that you’re planning to keep querying or are still getting requests from other agents, and you might want to consider the work she’s put into it when choosing your final agent.
Another reason to have the conversation about official representation sooner rather than later is what if this agent thinks you’re working together and you don’t? What if she starts submitting without your knowledge?Don’t get yourself locked into something you’ll be unhappy about. Communication is KEY to a good author-agent relationship. Start that communication as soon as you can.
I’ve also been asked at what point you should talk to said agent about other works you’re writing. My answer . . . at any point, but especially if you’ve stopped querying and are working with this agent exclusively. If she offers and you are no longer querying, will she be ready to represent everything you’re doing? You need to know that before you lock yourself into what you hope will be a permanent relationship.
Hiring an agent means trusting your gut and trusting your agent. If you don’t feel comfortable having frank discussions with a potential agent now, how is that going to change when the contract is signed?