Last week I posted a piece on this site called, “Why Agents Say No, An Author’s Perspective.” The list of 10 items came from my experience as a writer and writing teacher. I’ve rubbed elbows with many agents and know that no two are the same. Still, experience causes them to come to many of the same conclusions.
This week I take the opposite approach and talk about what makes an agent sit up and say, “Wow.” I didn’t want to speak for agents but let agents speak for themselves. So I contacted the literary agents who will be on faculty in 2016 and several were kind enough to reply.
The agents are Diana Flegal of Hartline Literary Agency, Steve Laube of the Steve Laube Agency, Les Stobbe of Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency, and Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, Inc. (Chip is my agent.)
QUESTION 1: When you review proposals what stops you in your tracks? What makes you want to dig deeper into the proposal?
[Diana Flegal] In the case of nonfiction: an expertise about the subject matter, a ready market for their topic, a stellar platform, a great outline and strong writing in the sample chapters. With fiction: A great story idea well sketched out in the synopsis, with an interesting plot and satisfactory ending, along with strong well written sample chapters.
[Steve Laube] Fiction = a great story that is well executed. Non-Fiction = a great title. a great topic, a great platform, a great writer. It all comes together with an instinct that says “this one will be a great book.”
[Les Stobbe] In Christian living non-fiction, I'm looking for a fresh voice, a fresh approach—and the size of the platform the writer already has. Not what she/he is promising to do in social media, but if she/he are actively interacting with a lot of people. “Not visible enough” is the most common rejection reason I see. In devotionals, I'm looking for both a fresh approach and a clearly targeted reader. Platform is important as well.
[Chip MacGregor] A great, salable idea is undoubtedly the first thing that makes me stop—I see it and go, “Wow—now THAT would sell.” And then, what really gets me excited is when I read the first page or two, and they are fabulous—great voice, sucks me right into the story, makes me want to keep turning pages.
[Al] Takeaway: The agents are looking for a fresh voice and perspective. They judge the potential value of the book based on the author’s ability to communicate well in the proposal. You’ll also notice that platform, especially for nonfiction, is crucial. Publishers are demanding evidence of a wide and healthy platform. Much of the marketing in publishing today is done by the author. Things have changed over the last decade.
QUESTION 2: Do you recall the best proposal you’ve ever seen? What made it stand out from the others?
[Diana Flegal] There have been several that come to mind. All of them were well put together showing me evidence that they had done their homework, paid attention to our agency's guidelines, and had very strong sample chapters written on a subject I knew the market was wanting.
[Steve Laube] Too many to name just one.
[Les Stobbe] One of the top ones was Kristen Feola’s for a three-week Daniel Fast. Not only was it well-written, it was accompanied by 100 photos of dishes she had prepared and photographed. I placed it with a major publisher within two weeks. And it has sold extremely well. I call what Kristen did added value” beyond the usual printed text. I am not impressed with elaborate title pages, book covers. Nor are editors.
[Al] Takeaway: The proposal is more important than ever before. Agents are making judgments on what Les Stobbe called “added value.” Agents receive proposals by the truck load so your proposal needs to look better, sound better, be better organized, and better emphasize the important and needed elements. You must do this better than other writers if you hope to make an agent fall in love with your idea.
QUESTION 3: Do you have a mental checklist of things you look for in a proposal?
[Diana Flegal] Yes, I look for all the elements we ask for in our submission guidelines posted on our website. Each element builds on the next point, aiding me in making an informed decision as to whether I feel I could successfully sell their book. Nonfiction: Strong platform on varied social media sites with healthy numbers with skilled writing. Fiction: Believable characters and a story that keeps me interested.
[Chip MacGregor] Sure: Big idea. Great writing. Significant and helpful platform. Sums up the idea briefly but clearly. Gives me a strong author bio that helps me see why this author is writing this book. Offers good comparable titles, so I can create a frame of reference. Tells me the word count and if the manuscript is complete, or how soon it can be completed. If it’s a nonfiction book, the proposal helps me to see what the question is that’s being explored, what the solution is that’s being offered, and gives some sense of the takeaway for the reader. If it’s a novel, what the genre and hook are. It’s concise, polite, professional looking, and clearly a salable idea.
[Steve Laube] Not really. It isn't that scientific. But if I'm intrigued in a proposal but some key information is missing it is noticed.
[Les Stobbe] Hook, synopsis (I want a "walk through the book," not a rationale for it), uniqueness, marketing platform.
[Al] Takeaway: Agents have different approaches. Diana has a check list; Steve doesn’t but does notice missing information. By this, I believe he refers to size and scope of the book, author bio, intended audience, etc. Les wants a guided tour of the book and that makes sense. Who knows the book better than the author? Remember, agents can’t read minds, but they can get a feel for an author by the way the author presents himself/herself and his/her book. Diana mentions posted guidelines. Before submitting to an agent, visit their website to see if they have guidelines for submission. Don’t be lazy. If you ignore the guidelines for a particular agent, then you run the risk of a quick rejection.
Well, that’s a start. I appreciate the time and effort these agents gave to answer these questions. I may receive a few more responses from agents and if I do, then I’ll post them right here in beautiful downtown BRMCWC.
Alton Gansky is an author who owes a lot of gratitude to literary agents. Oh, and he’s the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference too.