A week of journalism: Seven ways to get an agent’s attention

This list is from my agent, Susan Rabiner.

I love Susan because she just sold my second book proposal to the same editor who bought Barack Obama’s book. Susan also represents the author who just won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. So you can be certain that following Susan’s advice is a good idea if you want to sell a book.

Here’s her list of seven things to do to improve your chances of getting an agent’s attention for our book proposal:

1. Think in terms of genre.
To you, it’s a novel. To an agent, it’s a thriller, a mystery, chick lit, woman’s commercial fiction or a literary novel.

The same is true for nonfiction. You’d be surprised how often I read a cover letter that gives me no clue as to whether you are pitching a memoir or a self-help book on the topic.

Why do agents think in terms of genre? First, because most of us specialize. More important, the rules change as genres change, and we can’t make any decision until we know what standards to apply.

So before you go on and on about what’s in your book, either identify its genre, or tell us who you are writing this book for, or modestly suggest the title of a recently published successful book that you’d like your book to sit next to in the bookstore. Nothing makes a would-be author seem more like a rube than going on and on about a book that is ill-defined

2. Tell me who you are.
I want to know something about you in the first paragraph. Why? To eliminate you if I don’t think there is a good enough match between you and the book you want to write. If you are a lawyer who tells me you have always wanted to write about quantum physics, you are heading for the reject pile. There are certain topics where credentials are all important and physics is one of them. But you don’t necessarily have to be a Harvard-trained historian to write a book about a historical event, or a psychiatrist to write about the experience of depression, provided there is some other meaningful connection between the book you want to write and you as the author.

So what to do if you have no tight connection to the topic? Don’t go for a book proposal quite yet. Start a blog on the topic. Prove that you can attract a devoted readership with your commentary. Interview known experts on the topic. They’ll come in handy as outside validation later on. If you really have something to say, your blog will get buzz and then agents will find you and ask you if you might have a book in you.

3. Show outside validation.
The key to self-praise is to have others say it for you. So, for instance, if someone else has called you a gifted writer and that someone is not your wife or your mother, do tell us. Outside recognition could be that your blog gets a gazillion hits a day or was just cited in Time Magazine. This is what we want to hear. There’s an art to bragging and it involves finding someone else who will do it for you.

4. Have a story to tell
Good proposals don’t just communicate facts. They tell the story of how you found this topic and why you became convinced that with all we know about this topic, the most important questions have still not been addressed; the story of how you came to realize the deeper meaning of an experience, the story of an idea that has changed as we as humans have changed. The best proposals read like good mysteries, then they throw out tantalizing tidbits as partial answers so we salivate for more.

5. Check your competition.
Agents can Google. So can editors. If either of us finds most of what you are saying by spending five minutes on the web, we know that we are working with an aggregator not an author. Especially today the question editors ask is: What value does this author add?

6. Tell me why I should care.
Why will readers find what you have written irresistible? How will reading this book change them for the better? Will it make them happier, richer, more at peace with themselves? Will it give them insight into a topic of great interest? Will it teach them about something they have already been curious about but could never quite master? Remember these words. Agents and editors are advocates for the reader, not the author. Impress upon them the payoff for the reader and they will be interested.

7. Answer the question, Why now?
The typical publishing contract gives the author 12 to 18 months to write the book and gives the publisher 8 to 12 months to publish the book. So how do you, as an author, answer the question: Why now, when now is likely to be two to three years from today? By telling agents and editors why the topic is not going to go away and exactly what you will say that will be of interest to people two or three years from today.

So, take use these seven tips to guide you as you write your proposal. And then send it out. How do you know if your idea is good or bad? By the responses. If you haven’t heard back from an agent in 30 days, consider it a no and move on. If you do get a response, take a look at that letter. Agents will only spend time writing something specific when they were truly impressed with what you wrote and want to acknowledge that fact. If all you are getting are form rejections, there is a message in those one sentence letters: Time to rethink that proposal.

Other posts from “A Week in Journalism” series:

Why journalists misquote everyone (and how I met my husband)

How to be a freelance writer without starving

How to move from print journalism to online journalism

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6 comments on “A week of journalism: Seven ways to get an agent’s attention
  1. Kathleen "Kathy" Werstein says:

    Penelope:

    I thank you for posting Susan’s tips, and I thank Susan for her tips!

    I had read several web pages on the “how-to’s” related to this topic, but your article was right to the point; offering highly professional, valuable information.

    Am looking forward to anything else you may have to offer to assist, in the near future.

  2. Mary says:

    Susan–

    Thank you for your tips. But, thank you even more for your book Thinking Like Your Editor. It is a pleasure to read, not only because it is extremely helpful in crafting a terrific book proposal, but you provide a very insightful view of the world of publishing.

    Congratulations on agenting the Pulitzer Prize winning book about Beecher. Note to readers: Ms. Rabiner uses the Beecher book proposal as an example, providing a full book summary and sample chapter. It’s a little intimidating, because it is so well written, but also very interesting and helpful.

    My only criticism is it would have been great to see a sample table of contents. Other than that, a fantastic guide for anyone developing a non-fiction book.

    * * * * * *

    Hi, Mary. Here’s a response from from Susan:

    Never be intimidated by someone else’s proposal. Of course it seems amazing, because you don’t know how many times the author thought and rethought what worked and what didn’t.  The most important advice we can give you is don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s final product.  But thanks for the nice comments.”

  3. Manchild says:

    Hello Susan,

    Insightful. Cogent. As a sign of respect, I tip my hat to you for sharing this invaluable information.

  4. Kim says:

    Hello Susan,

    I am working on some book ideas for the Canadian market, could you suggest some contacts in the Toronto area? Or the best way for me to find an agent?

    Thank you!

    Hi. Susan is probably not going to see this question. You should email her directy at susan@rabiner.net

    Penelope

  5. E. Dan Jordan says:

    I have written a memoir. I am a retired Sheriffs captain who in 1967 arrested Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his brother, Rev. A.D. King, and placed both in the Birmingham County Jail.

    I am the exact same age as Dr. King. He and I were born January 15th 1929. I did not know this until I had arrested him. I was then amazed!

    sincerely,
    E.Dan Jordan, Capt. Retired

  6. Lynn says:

    Hi Susan,

    Thank you for sharing the list, it’s a tremendously useful guiding light for the draft that I’ve been working on!

    I’d love to be able to share with you any good news that might come out of this pet project of mine in time to come.

    Till then,
    Lynn

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