Book Proposals

Why Don’t Agents/Editors Give You More Guidance?

Proposals are hard work. C’mon, be honest. All the research and writing and preparation that goes into them? Admit it, that sometimes feels like you’re being punished for wanting to write a book. And then, when you’ve poured your heart and time and effort into making that dreaded proposal as perfect as you can, what happens? You send it to the agent or editor, and wait.

And wait. And wait. And wait.

And…well, you get the idea.

Then, FINALLY, a reply wings its way to you:

“Thank you for your submission, but it’s been determined your project, Field Dressing a Beaver in 30 Seconds, doesn’t meet our needs. Best wishes as you seek to serve God in your writing.”

What? That’s it? That’s all you get? No, “here’s why it doesn’t meet our needs,” or “this is what you need to fix to make this proposal stronger”? C’mon! Why can’t these people just give writers a little help?

Fair question. And I’m going to spend the next few blogs giving you some fair answers. Not excuses, friends. Answers. Because there are very good reasons editors and agents don’t send more than form rejections for proposals.

First, let’s talk about some misconceptions (every single one of which have been expressed to me, about me and others, over the years):

Agents & Editors don’t give writers more direction on proposals because:

1.      They don’t want to help writers.

Um…wrong. That’s exactly what they do want to do. Which is why you can meet so many of them face-to-face at writers’ conferences. When agents/editors/published writers take time away from packed schedules to teach at conferences and meet with conferees, it’s exactly because they care about writers and helping them do what they do better. Doing so always costs them, big time. Because the work, including proposals, continues to pile up when they’re out of the office. But they do it. Because they care.

2.      They’re too lazy to do more.

Uh huh. Those people who spend hours upon hours working to serve their clients and writers are lazy. Those folks who take work home, spend weekends at the office, work on the plane when traveling, burn the midnight oil more times than they can count…those lazy people?

Yeah. Nuff said.

3.      All they care about is making money, and if they can’t make money off of you, you’re not worth their time.

Okay, let me just say this: We care about a lot more than making money. Otherwise, we’d be doing something else. I mean, seriously. You know how hard it is to make money in publishing!

But there’s something we all need to keep in mind: this is a business, folks. Those making a living at the work of publishing have to put the preponderance of our time and energy into those projects and writers that will help our businesses survive. And grow. It’s called being fiscally responsible. And you know what? That’s biblical.

And let’s be honest. How would you feel if your agent didn’t have time to work on your project because he’s using his time and energy critiquing proposals from people who aren’t clients? And not just that, but people who aren’t even close to being ready to be clients? It’s not a case of some being worth our time. It’s a case of us being wise and responsible professionals.

4.      They’re sitting there doling out contracts to friends and best-sellers, and I just don’t happen to hold the golden ticket or know the right names to drop.

Yeah…no. Reality check: I did editorial acquisitions for four publishers over the course of 30+ years. I’m still doing acquisitions as an agent when I accept new clients based on their proposals. Not having a certain name or connections isn’t what makes me reject a proposal. Plain and simple, it’s about craft. And skill. And whether or not you’ve done your homework.

Okay, then, let’s get on to some of the real reasons/answers to the question: “Why don’t agents/editors give us more guidance when they reject our proposals?

Answer #1 (and I’ll warn you right now, you’re not going to like this one):
Time Constraints

Yup, Time Constraints. That’s the first answer. And that’s the reason few of your proposals will actually make it to an editor’s or agent’s desk.

“Not fair!” you cry. “You mean they reject my proposal without even seeing it?”

In a word, Yes.

With the number of proposals editors/agents receive a month, let alone a year, there’s simply no way we can read/review them all and get our work done. Our first priority has to be the people we’ve contracted as writers or clients. And that’s a huge time commitment for one person, let alone the dozens of writers most agents and editors serve. And yet, none of us wants to risk missing out on something wonderful that may come in over the transom. So how do to it all?

Well, I’ll share that in my next blog!

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Five Reasons Why You May Never Get Published

by Steve Laube


There are many factors that go into the acquisition, development, and sale of a new book. But the majority of ideas never get to that point. I thought it might be helpful to review some of the most common issues we’ve run into.

1. You Won’t Do the Work
Writing a novel, a non-fiction work, or even a short article isn’t a casual enterprise. It takes hard work to do it well. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, has made popular the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of work before finding success. While it isn’t an exact formula there is truth to this assertion. Do the math.

If you work at your writing craft for 2o hours a week for 50 weeks it will equal one thousand (1,000) hours x 10 and the calculation reveals nearly ten years of hard work to feel like you have a chance.

Unfortunately we run into writers who have dashed off something during a lunch break and think it is worth millions.

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Covering the Cover Letter

This is the last installment of my proposal series. You may think it strange to write about the cover letter last, but usually, it’s the last part of the proposal an author writes. Our own Steve Laube has already written about the cover letter here.

His tips are so wonderful that I asked him if I should even attempt this post, but he encouraged me to write from my perspective. So here are key points I like to see in a cover letter:


1.) Title and genre of book: I can immediately discount horror and erotica. Saves everyone time.

2.) Target market and word count: While part of an agent’s job is to identify markets for your work, you still should do enough research to understand where your book might fit. A 250,000 word novel aimed at Love Inspired Historical shows you have no idea about today’s CBA marketplace.

3.) Story summary highlighting primary conflict. For example: “Set in Chicago in 1905, Party Time is the story of a political party boss who must fight his attraction to a suffragette.”

This is enough to tell me that I’d have to hesitate since the title is questionable for CBA and for the Christian market, a Chicago party boss is not a sympathetic hero.

4.) Past Sales: But, if you mention that your last CBA romance novel sold over 100,000 copies, I’d ask to see Party Time anyway. Those sales tell me you may possess enough talent to make the party boss the most dashing romantic hero ever.

On the other hand, if you are a new author, it’s fine not to belabor the point. I will figure this out since you didn’t mention sales history. (And this early in your career, I recommend writing about the type of heroine and hero everyone agrees deserve true romance).

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Read All About It! – The Back Cover Copy

When you consider purchasing a book, either in a store or online, what do you notice first? The front cover grabs your attention. Right? After that, you might flip inside to read the first few sentences of the book, and then venture to the back cover (online the back cover is displayed as the “Description”). Or you may go to the back cover before opening the book. Regardless, the back cover copy is a critical element to selling your book once it’s available for purchase. But first, you can use it to your advantage in your proposal to sell your work to an agent or editor.

An aside: when an author is well-known, the name sells the book. Then you may see endorsements or praise (called blurbs) on both the front and back covers. Endorsements may abound on debut authors’ books, too. But I’m not writing here about endorsements. What I mean in this post is the summary of the book that will turn browsers into buyers.

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Singing the Slushpile Blues

by Steve Laube

The unsolicited pile of proposals in my office (aka “the slushpile) taunts me every day.

“Come over here!” it says, tantalizing me with immanent possibilities. I say to myself, “Maybe it will be the next one I look at. That will be ‘The One.'”

I’ve been told that many of you enjoy hearing some of the offbeat letters or intriguing proposals I see. Here is a sampling from the past few months [typos included but some info is deleted to protect the writer’s identity]:

“I am seeking representation for my First book: … I have 17 more. This book could very well Save the World.”

“… is a polyphonic composition in which anti-hero…inner conflicts are given voice, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and developed into an intricate narrative marked by a stunning climax.”

“Maggot … my inspirational Christian Literature fiction book”

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High Concept: Catching Readers One at a Time

Not every fiction proposal needs something called a High Concept, but I like to see one. A High Concept shows that the author can hone in on the story and has thought about what it says and how it can be positioned in the marketplace. It helps the publisher know in a snap of the fingers the unique and compelling nature of your story. One popular way to create a High Concept is to compare your work to two books or movies. You can choose extremely famous titles or venture into lesser known works with self-explanatory titles. I will make up a couple of examples:

Star Wars meets Across Five Aprils in this alternative history novel in which a spaceship lands in the middle of the battle of First Manassas.

The Wheel of Fortune meets Missing in this thriller about a Las Vegas kidnapping ring.

High Concepts like these are capsules that help orient an editor or marketing director to your work. They lend excitement and anticipation to the proposal.

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Get Attention with the Right Title

 When an agent or her assistant tackles the email slush pile, she sees one subject line after another written by authors vying for attention. Some lines describe the book category, while others make a claim about the author himself. But most include the book’s title. I tell authors not to get attached to titles because all too often, they are changed somewhere between the time the editor takes the proposal to Committee and when the book goes to press. However, putting thought into the title at the proposal stage will help orient us to the book and a really catchy title might excite us enough to open your email proposal right away. Who wants to read a boring book?

Consider these fiction titles:

Rodeo Sweetheart by Besty St. Amant

The Guy I’m Not Dating by Trish Perry

Sketchy Behavior by Erynn Mangum

These titles made me smile and want to learn more.

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Ebook-Originals, the Next Step in Traditional Publishing Strategy

Guest Post by Sue Brower

Our guest today is Sue Brower. She is Executive Editor at Zondervan in charge of fiction and thinks she has the best job in the world…she gets paid to read all day!  Zondervan is currently looking for completed manuscripts to fill the Zondervan First fiction eBook platform.  The ideal stories will primarily have romance-driven plots and vivid, realistic characters.  We are also looking for proposals in the Contemporary, Historical, Suspense, and Romance categories for our print program.  Sue lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband Todd, dogs Pepper and Ollie, and cat, Shep.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much the book market has changed in just a few short years.  Some bad, but mostly good because of all the new opportunities for innovation and creativity in publishing. Traditional publishing (print books sold through retail stores) is holding its own, but now there are so many more vehicles for authors to get published: print, epub-only, self-pub, etc.

A diehard fiction fan, I swore I would never give up my printed books and I didn’t believe that there would come a day when I wouldn’t be able to spend hours in a bookstore just browsing.  I love the way books smell; I love the way they feel.  Then the company I work for, Zondervan, gave me an IPad so that I could get comfortable with the format and so I could experience books electronically.  For a while everything I read was on my IPad; current books, as well as manuscripts I was considering for publication.  I thought it was so cool…for at first.  Then, a book was being released by my favorite author and I just had to have it in hardcover.  It wasn’t enough to have it loaded in perpetuity on my IPad, I wanted to be able to hold the story in my hands.  I enjoyed it more, become involved in the fantasy just as the writer intended.

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A Few Tips on Social Media

This may seem like an interruption to my series on writing proposals, but it is not. I plan to address the Marketing section of a proposal in the near future. However, before writers can think about marketing in general, they need to understand social media because an author who has mastered social media will be more attractive to a publisher. They want to partner with savvy authors. Thomas Umstattd addressed some of these in a blog in February called “Seven Ways Agents Measure Social Media.”  So the tips below may be a quick review for many, but it bears repeating since it has become such an important piece of the marketing puzzle.


Find out how you look on Google. Do a Google search on your name on a regular basis to see what appears. You won’t be able to control everything that comes up under your name, but work with your webmaster to be sure your web site appears at the top. This is especially helpful if you had to purchase a domain that’s not entirely obvious such as, “ImaWriterWrites” because your name alone was already taken. A regular search will also help you identify anything slanderous, libelous, or (more likely) just plain inaccurate so you can take action to have those links removed. Searching your name should also reveal if there is another author with a name similar to yours. If you find this is true, I recommend simply mentioning the fact in your proposal to make the agent aware so the two of you can decide whether or not to choose a pen name.

It’s a good idea to set up Google Alerts on your name (instructions here). Google will send you an email anytime a new page on the Internet mentions you or your books.

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Who Am I? – About the Author

The author biography section in a book proposal seems to be one of the least anxiety-provoking sections, yet I often see areas that could be improved. Here are a few ideas on how to make your author bio section the best it can be.

Include a portrait

When I was an intern on Capitol Hill, one of my duties was to open the mail. On one occasion, we received a resume that included a portrait, which was not the common practice at that time. The portrait wasn’t large, and if you looked like this man, you would put your picture on everything, too. But the office manager said, “I would never hire him. He’s an egomaniac.” Now, maybe my office manager was jealous. (And no, I don’t think he’s reading this). But I thought including a picture was a great idea. On proposals, Steve Laube recommends including a portrait in the author bio. And no, no one will think you are an egomaniac. I have put together many proposals under our banner, and I can tell you that including the visual is helpful. We like portraits that are about the size of a postage stamp.

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