by Karen Ball
Last week I left you with a question: How do editors/agents get through all the proposals they receive. For me, as an editor and now as an agent, the answer was to hire someone to be my first-pass reader. In my case, this person is someone I’ve worked with now for over fifteen years. She knows me and my tastes well, and, as an avid reader and a skilled writer herself, she knows quality writing. She reviews my proposals and, based on a list of criteria I’ve given her, determines if said proposals are at a level that I should review them.
Here’s a hard truth about proposals: roughly 95% of the proposals my first-pass reader reviews, she rejects. And that percentage is fairly common for many editors and agents. When my reader determines the manuscript isn’t ready for me to review, she sends the writers something very similar to the noncommittal response most writers dislike. Honestly, I’m not that crazy about it when I receive it from editors! But I understand and accept it, because I know it isn’t the editors’ jobs to to critique the proposals I—or others, be they agents or writers–send them. Just as it isn’t my reader’s job to do so. What she’s supposed to do is determine whether or not the proposals meet my clear criteria.
So what, you ask, are my criteria?
#1: The manuscript has to have a strong Christian message/theme.
I love powerful, passionate writing, but that’s not enough for me as an agent. I want to work with writers who are driven by the passion to share God’s truth with a hurting world.
#2: The writing has to take your breath away.
There are a lot of proposals out there that are good. But good isn’t good enough. I want the proposals, fiction or nonfiction, that my reader can’t put down. Something that captures her heart and mind and won’t let go. Because if it captures her, odds are good it will do the same for me. And for editors and readers.
If the proposal is for fiction, meeting these first two is enough for my reader to send it on to me. If the proposal is for nonfiction, my reader moves on to:
#3: The writer has have, or be in the process of developing, a solid platform.
Yes, the dreaded “platform.” As much as I’d love to tell writers they can just write a great book and leave the rest to the publisher, that’s no longer the case. Those who’ve been in publishing for awhile know that’s so. This whole gig is harder than ever these days, and publishers are looking for authors who have done, or are doing, the work of building a readership for—and getting said readership excited about—their book long before the book is released. An existing following/fan base/readership translates to sales, folks. And having that makes any agent’s or editor’s little heart sing.
#3: Nonfiction writers need to have some kind of credentials that qualify them to write on the topic they’ve chosen.
Those credentials can be professional (a family psychologist writing about working with troubled teens), or they can be some remarkable life experience that will draw readers to the book (think Carol Kent and When I Lay My Isaac Down). If the writer doesn’t have the credentials themselves, they at least need to have endorsements from those who do have them. And I’m not talking about “I believe I can get endorsements from <insert list of best-selling authors here>.” I’m talking about already having the endorsements, or already having agreement from those qualified folks that they’ll endorse.
I will say, though, if the writing and the message are amazing, my reader knows I want to see the proposal even if criteria 2 & 3 aren’t met. Because I can always work with writers, helping them build a platform and secure endorsements. But the writing has to be powerful for my reader to pass it on to me without a platform.
There is another reason I want to share with you as to why editors and agents don’t offer more than form rejections. A reason that few will mention. In fact, it’s called by some “The Great Unspoken.” But I’m planning to speak it…next week.