Any aspiring author who has ever wanted to become a traditionally published author asks two important questions: How do I find a literary agent and how do I attract a literary agent and publisher to my work? It’s not enough to just get a list of agents and start contacting them. You need to find an agent appropriate for the types of books you write and with whom you can develop a good working relationship. Even if you randomly select a few to query–or you do so in a more selective manner–and a few contact you in return, you must have a project they find interesting and the necessary elements to make them want to take you on as a client. An agent needs a writer to be a good business partner, as does a publisher. Since agents work on a commission basis and make no money unless a book gets sold, you must have a convincing argument that you not only have more than one great book idea in your head but that you can write it and help sell it.
The place to go to find an agent continues to be the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents. Edited by Chuck Sambuchino, it provides not only a listing of agents but invaluable information about what you need to gain literary representation. Once again this year, Chuck has turned out a new edition I would call THE resource for every aspiring author wanting a traditional publishing deal. Not only does it offer an updated list of agents, it also highlights new agents eager to have writers contact them. Plus, this edition offers information on how to assess the credibility of an agent (an issue for many writers with no frame of reference for agents they contact), what an agent can do for you (as told by actual authors), how to get your foot in an agency door, how to contact agents (with great examples of queries and proposals), conferences to attend, the memoir market, and creating an author platform. I loved the easily digestible and large number of FAQs provided and the stories of debut authors and their agents. You also get access to an online agent data base. Overall, I’d call the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents, not just a how-to-find-an-agent guide but a how-to-get-published guide.
Having said that, I’m pleased today to have Chuck answer a few questions about the role of literary agents and how to find and attract an agent and a publisher. This interview contains great information not necessarily found in his book .
As the publishing industry continues to change, how do you see the role of literary agents changing?
A few things come to mind.
In the last 5 years, we’ve seen advances toward debut and midlist authors trending down. The first reaction of agents was to do everything they could to maximize any subsidiary rights — be those foreign language sales or audio rights or film rights, etc. So agents are trying to continue to make a living even though the book advance money being offered is not as good as it was a decade ago.
Also, since a lot of editors were laid off in the past few years, those that remain have less time to edit. That means we’ve seen some agents take on a more editorial role with their clients, because submissions and proposals, now more than ever, have to be pretty darn awesome before you send them for consideration.
Lastly, I’d say that agents are taking a close look at a writer’s platform when considering them as a client. Platform is your visibility as a writer and your ability to effectively self-market yourself and sell books. In other words, platform = money. If a writer has platform, that makes them more valuable, and agents want valuable clients so they can sell books. For years now, nonfiction authors have needed platform to get agents’ and editors’ attention. Now more than ever, a writer’s platform is under intense scrutiny.
Have any changes in the industry affected how aspiring authors need to approach agents? If so, what advice would you offer on how to do so?
This kind of touches on my last answer: Writers need an excellent proposal submission. In your proposal, you must quickly explain what the reader will get out of your book and why it is important, unique and timely. None of this is easy to do. Then after you’ve talked a bit about how your book is great and needed, you have to make an outstanding, airtight case as to why you can sell lots of books.
What 1-2 things does a writer need to do in a query or include that will increase the chances of an agent asking to see a book proposal?
- Professionalism. Especially when considering a nonfiction author, the agent wants to quickly be assured that they’re dealing with a professional, competent business pro.
Hit all the major beats. Essentially, when you want to write a nonfiction book, you will end up discussing many elements about it (concept, layout, comparative titles, marketing, etc.) through a book proposal, which will run you 10-25 pages, not including the sample chapters. Then your next challenge is to boil down the best parts of the proposal into the proposal’s overview, which is 2-3 pages. But then you have to boil down the very best beats into the one-page query. So even though the query is only one page, it still has to touch upon all the major beats — concept, timeliness, endorsements, comparable titles, platform, etc.
What tips do you have for those aspiring authors pitching agents in person? (Do you have a proven formula for pitching?)
I could speak for 90 minutes on the topic of the in-person pitching and sometimes do at writers’ conferences around the country. But let me just say this: When you’re pitching an agent in person, you’re essentially just reading your query letter out loud in a conversational manner. So the principles of pitching and query writing are very much the same. That said, let me give one tip concerning pitching nonfiction in person. Since platform is so important, I’d suggest starting the pitch by telling a little about yourself (“I have a local radio show”) and THEN delving into what the book is about, before returning to expound on your platform once more.
And since platform is such a specific matter, with so many statistics and bullet points, feel free to bring a one-sheet about yourself that you place in front of the agent that they can review as you talk. People always ask me, “Can I give materials to the agent to take with them?” The answer is no. But you can certainly put something in front of them for their visual review as they talk. They may even take it with them, but don’t expect that, and remove it from the table when you leave unless the agent really takes it.
Can nonfiction authors land deals with agents (or publishers) if they don’t have author platform? If so, how?
This is an interesting question, and one I tried to tackle a bit in my upcoming book, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM (Writer’s Digest Books, Nov. 2012), because I understand that people are looking for side doors to getting published. This is because most effective platforms take years to develop.
If your book subject is very timely, there is a chance that an editor would buy it, because sales are almost guaranteed. Also, if a writer has a great topic but no platform, why not try to co-write the book with someone who does have platform? The first writer does almost all of the writing, and the second does almost all of the promotion. That works. Lastly, a simple way to see your book sell is to have friends in the right places — i.e., the media. I’ve seen many journalists that don’t even have a Twitter account let alone a comprehensive platform. This is because they have lots of journalist and reviewer friends in the media who will give the book nice press upon its release. Lucky skunks.
What 3-5 things should aspiring authors focus on to build the kind of platform that will impress an agent or publisher? And how big does that platform need to be?
If I had to pick three, I’d say 1) a blog or website as a home base of operations where people can come for content, 2) a Twitter account to help spread the word and connect with new readers through social media, and 3) some sort of other large way that you can connect with readers. This third way can be writing a newspaper column, being a contributor to a radio or TV show, or public speaking. So with #1, you have a home base for content and book selling; with #2, you reach out to people using the Internet; and with #3, you reach out to people in a way different from the usual social media tactics.
And concerning the question of “How much is enough?”, this is difficult to answer because it depends on your niche and what kind of book you’re writing. So the answer is different for everyone. But here is a general tip: If you think your platform may not be good enough, that’s a sign that you are not only 1 step away from where you want to be, but actually 2-4. When you finally submit, you should have no doubt that your platform is good and you can sell 1,000-3,000 copies of your book through the channels you currently have in place.
About the Author
Chuck Sambuchino (chucksambuchino.com, @chucksambuchino) is a writer and editor. He helps people get published at Writer’s Digest Books and edits the Guide to Literary Agents, which has sold more than 300,000 copies since its first edition. The accompanying GLA Blog (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) is one of the largest blogs in publishing. Chuck also writes humor books and other writing guides, and freelance edits queries and manuscripts. Connect with him online to learn more.
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