A huge Homeland fan, I recently read an article about how people are recruited as spies. Reviewing the TV depiction of spy-spotting, a CIA agent shared the mnemonic MICE for what they look for and how agency recruiters assess new potential spies to become assets.
The mnemonic MICE hits on the four main motivations people have for agreeing to become spies. And this is a great way to understand the agent (er, the other kind) evaluation process. When it comes to pitching nonfiction to literary agents, it provides an easy method to understand how a literary agent sees your nonfiction readiness.
In this somewhat oversimplified explanation, MICE represents these motivations:
M = money
I = ideology
C = compromise
E = ego
Users of MICE include far more than CIA operatives; in “spying,” MICE is used by companies seeking business opportunities, new clients and to influence consumers. Now you can apply MICE to your book projects and career. These are the four gateways for spies—operatives—to use to enter into the world of their target. And yours for finding an agent.
MICE for Authors
Does your book overview show what agents, editors and readers want to see? Will they find it in the first two or three paragraphs of your query letter? Does your proposal’s “About the Author” section show what makes you uniquely qualified to write and promote this book?
You want to relate the key points of your project in a way that agents see precisely what is offered to your core audience, the most likely readers—purchasers—of this book. Does the title/subtitle match the target audience, and what makes your message and brand crystal clear? More than that, can you prove enough people will purchase your book so a publisher feels the project is a good financial investment?
Gone are the days when talented writers can smith words as a calling, assured that publishers and booksellers will respond. The vehicle through which you gain attention is your platform—your community. It defines who will buy your work and provides a roadmap for getting to those people.
Editors love a perfect one-line pitch or title that sums up a work. It makes everyone’s job easier. However, your query also must explain how you plan to sell books. Agent Rachel Ekstrom, Irene Goodman Literary Agency says:
“As an agent, I’m looking for authors who can clearly explain the content and necessity of their books, and who know what audience (potential readers) their messages serve. Who needs this book? Who is most likely to buy it, and what are some ways to reach those people? I don’t expect prospective writers to know the ins and outs of publishing industry—that’s my job—but it’s important for me to have a clear understanding of their experience and point of view within the subject matter they’ve chosen to write about. I don’t expect authors to have fully-formed marketing plans at the query stage, but I am looking for authors who are willing to learn and work at the all-important element of promotion as well as at the creation of their books.”
You need the ability to get to people interested by tapping into their deepest passions, enlisting allies, galvanizing others using social technologies, and creating online discoverability. Which organizations, associations, producers, reviewers, buyers, and internet sites are likely to support you and your book promotion efforts? As a nonfiction author, you must spread the word about your book yourself through targeted campaigns to people with personal or family needs, who share the challenge or who are fellow enthusiasts of what you are writing about. The promotion effort involves speaking engagements, book-signings and tremendous word-of-mouth to an audience passionate about the nonfiction topic.
Think about where your reader can encounter your book. Go beyond just bookstores, and consider festivals, museums, round-tables, places of worship, and community centers that feature works of interest. You need to approach booksellers of every stripe and independent bookstores, facilitate special sales through your access to databases, Internet chat, reviews, interviews, and anything that gets bloggers talking.
Is there a social problem or life challenge you feel passionate about—and would your book help fix it? Can you offer a transformational philosophy or practice? Could your ideas or experience have impact on a social problem or issue by promoting dialogue or creating awareness?
For non-fiction or memoir: How is yours an unusual and intriguing premise? Are you mining true-life events? Do you have any personal experiences that make your book important? Do not forget to set us up for the pay-off when it does. Something must be at stake so that your tale engages and engrosses us. Animate how your story or your activism (and attendant insights) are immersive and affecting.
For memoir (femoir/himoir), your meaningful experiences are what we will follow. How your interior journey and exterior journey take place can be punched up in the query. This too has a story arc. What is uplifting? What makes me want to cheer the author (meaning you) on?
Agent Claire Gerus, Claire Gerus Literary Agency, says:
“I always look for book concepts with the potential to enhance readers’ lives, whether by broadening their tolerance, learning a new approach to healing, picking up tips on caring for one’s pet, or recognizing a talent or ability they weren’t aware they possessed. I see book publishing as an opportunity for us to add other people’s experiences to our own, and to discover what we can learn from them. I always look for book concepts with the potential to illuminate and broaden the reader’s perspective. Whether it’s a shocking tell-all by a PETA whistleblower on using animals for research, an innovative approach to finally losing those last 10 pounds, an executive success plan adopted from a 20-year-old business bestseller, or a book about Julia Childs’ love of cats—the reader will come away with new ideas and some wonderful information to share.”
How can you make your idea better than the competition? Are you willing to be influenced by what is on the market already, to adjust, alter, revise so you create the best product possible? Can you show how you will produce something totally new and unique?
When using MICE, compromise means the potential spy recruit is subject to being coerced. As shown in movies or television shows, MICE helps identify someone who can be compromised or blackmailed. Writers may not be coerced by danger or threat but are vulnerable to data—the way information is interpreted from competitive books.
In your query or proposal, summarize what has recently come onto the bookshelf, as well as classic titles, and explain why yours has a point of difference from each. Stand out from the pack, but build on the success of what is current, complimentary or has come before.
“With nonfiction, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sell many subjects because readers are willing to research online to learn what they need to about a topic. So what I’m finding most appealing right now in nonfiction is original research and big, juicy explorations of history, science, psychology and culture. The author’s strong viewpoint and compelling voice really make the project for me, and these should be apparent in the query. A recent example of this was an Iraq War memoir I took on under the working title SURGE OF CANDOR by Captain Daniel Sjursen, that explored not only the history of the author’s platoon during the 2007-2009 surge in Iraq but also the history of Iraq and of the sectarian violence barely held in check until the US invasion destabilized the region. The author’s story is personal, intense and at times, heartwrenching, and clarifies so much of what is currently in the news“ shared Gina Panettieri, President of Talcott Notch Literary Agency.
Do you know who to focus upon when you pitch? Should your query be about you and your great idea? How do you serve your topic and your target readers?
Get your ego out of the way. Focus on your readers—starting with your shelf, not your self.
The way you build your career is separate from your writing dreams. Share the most engaging, seductive, powerful messages you want to get across. This is always the way to approach your pitch. It is a showcase of you, the author-to-be, but must hone the book idea for identifiable readers.
“When pitching non-fiction, it’s important to remember that, for agents and editors, the book is more about the audience than the author. We want to see how you will be able to access specific communities of readers. This differs from fiction (and story driven non-fiction) where we’re not as heavily focused on the specific reader because a great story and voice will pull from numerous quadrants. So when you hear people discussing your platform, what they really want to know is how you will reach your target audience. A good agent for your book will see ways to bolster that immediately. And, in the case of memoir…remember: just because everyone has a story to tell doesn’t mean that there are people out there who will want to read it,” relates Paul Lucas, an agent with Janklow & Nesbit Associates.
Nonfiction comes in many kinds. Agents represent an eclectic mix. Each agency will select books based on varied interests, but all share a willingness to be seduced by wonderful books. Certain necessary qualities, however, must be immediately present, readily identifiable and inform all choices.
Write to agents with professionalism, stresses agent Ann Collette, Rees Literary Agency:
“No attachments, no links, no tricks, no gimmicks (such as ‘QUERY YOU GOTTA READ!!!’). Show me you’re serious about your work and that it’s not just a hobby. Research who I am and what I’m looking for. Don’t waste my time by pitching me categories I don’t rep. Address me by name. Show me you targeted me and aren’t just throwing your query out there and seeing if it’ll stick. Follow the guidelines on the agency’s website and of course, write the best query you can.”
Apply MICE to help agents understand your book. Use it to accomplish two things by the end of the three paragraphs that comprise a query letter:
- Prove there is an audience who would buy your book.
- Show you can compel those readers—and others—to buy it.
MICE is a pithy blueprint, one that both captures a sense of what you are writing, and encapsulates the style, content and specialness of the book. Put it to use to recruit your most-valuable asset: an agent.
About the Author
A literary agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, Katharine Sands has worked with a varied list of authors who publish a diverse array of books. Highlights include Spiritual Pregnancy: Nine Months that Change Your Life Before You Give Birth by Dr. Shawn Tassone and Dr. Kathryn Landherr; Talk to Strangers: How Everyday Random Encounters Can Expand Your Business, Career, Income and Life by David Topus; The New Rules of Attraction: How to Get Him, Keep Him and Make Him Beg for More by Arden Leigh; Stand Up for Yourself: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards by Donna Ballman; Making Healthy EZ with Dr. Oz guest Dr. Julie Chen; Dating the Devil (producer: Vast Entertainment) by Lia Romeo; XTC: SongStories; Chasing Zebras: THE Unofficial Guide to House, MD by Barbara Barnett of Let’s Talk TV; CityTripping: a Guide for Foodies, Fashionistas and the Generally Style-Obsessed; Writers on Directors; Ford model Helen Lee’s The Tao of Beauty; Elvis and You: Your Guide to the Pleasures of Being an Elvis Fan; New York: Songs of the City; Taxpertise: Dirty Little Secrets the IRS Doesn’t Want You to Know; The SAT Word Slam, Divorce After 50; Trust Your Gut; Make Up, Don’t Break Up with Oprah guest Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil, to name a few.
She is the agent provocateur of Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye, a collection of pitching wisdom from leading literary agents. Recently contributed “Grey is the New Black” to Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, a nonfiction look at the cultural phenom of the bestselling novel.
Actively building her client list, she likes books that have a clear benefit for readers’ lives in categories of food, travel, lifestyle, home arts, beauty, wisdom, relationships, parenting, and fresh looks, which might be at issues, life challenges or popular culture. When reading fiction she wants to be compelled and propelled by urgent storytelling, and hooked by characters. For memoir and femoir, she likes to be transported to a world rarely or newly observed. firstname.lastname@example.org
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