I Just Deleted Your Proposal without Reading It

A caveat: I realize those of you who read our blog on a regular basis likely don’t need the following information. You guys do it right. But if nothing else, now you have a place to direct all those folks who ask you, “How do I put together a professional proposal?” Okay, on with the blog.

A month or so ago I sat down to tackle a gargantuan number of proposals that had been awaiting review. I hadn’t had time for so long to just sit and read, so I was actually looking forward to it. Yes, I should have just waited for my first-pass readers to dig in, but hey, I felt like reading.

Silly me.

The good news: there were a few that captured me, whose words transported me, whose topics were right on the mark. The bad news: on the whole, what I found were submissions that weren’t even close. Many of which should never have been sent out. To anyone. Some just shouldn’t have been sent to me. Some were on topics that were totally inappropriate for the market in which I work (no, I really don’t have any desire to represent your novel on the sexcapades of a young woman running amok in Thailand). Some were for categories I don’t represent (no, you do NOT want me to represent your children’s book or screenplay. I know nothing about those markets. Zilch. Zippo.) Others were peppered with “real” language. Translation: obscenities. (What the–?? Ahem…). Still others sported rampant craft errors or misspellings (gotta say it, “dear ageant” just doesn’t inspire my belief in your study of the craft). After several hours of reading, I was discouraged and my delete key was exhausted.

So I’ve learned my lesson. Let the first-pass readers do their job, which is to cull through the proposals and send on to me only those that meet my established criteria. But it did get me wondering…

Am I the only agent who receives proposals like this? Proposals where writers don’t even take the time to learn what you represent before hitting “send”? I did an informal survey, and guess what? I’m not alone. (I’m not sure if I’m relieved or even more depressed.) Which means, thanks to our first-pass readers, many of the proposals coming our way just…go on by. Without ever reaching our in-boxes. And while that’s good news for me, because I’m not taking time away from my current clients to read things that have no chance of being accepted, it’s bad news for the writers who sent their proposals—and perhaps their hopes–flying.

So let’s make a deal. We, the agents, will give your proposals thoughtful, serious consideration. And you, the writers, will only send the kinds of proposals we request. To help you with that, let me cue you in on the guidelines I’ve given my first-pass readers. And while other agents have their own do’s and don’t’s, I’m guessing several of these things will get your proposal sidelined elsewhere.

  • No Queries. I can’t make a decision based on a query. I have to see the writing. And I have to see the information in the full proposal as well, so just sample chapters aren’t enough. (Now, this one differs for different agents, so check each agency’s guidelines to see if they do want queries. But for me, no. Send me a full proposal right out the gate.)
  • No proposals where the writer hasn’t done his homework. This applies to a number of aspects:
  • Is the subject or genre wrong for me as an agent? How do you know what an agent wants? Well, many of us list exactly that on our agency websites, under our guidelines. In addition, a number of agents, me included, have written blogs about what we do and don’t want. Each of us at the Steve Laube Agency has done so, and our blogs are linked on our Guidelines page on the website. (I’ve included my link at the end of this blog.) But for expediency’s sake, let me reiterate that I, personally, do not represent: Children’s or middle-grade books of any kind, poetry, screenplays, children’s books, personal stories or biographies (which are vastly different from memoirs, which I do want to represent), any book not written from a Christian world view or that lacks a spiritual thread or impact…oh, and did I mention children’s books? (Sorry, but I’ve made it clear over and over that I don’t work with children’s books and every month my assistant tells me I received several proposals for, yeppers, children’s books.).
  • Is the craft where it needs to be? Do not, under any circumstances, send an agent a first draft. Or a second draft. Send your best writing. One agent received a proposal with the following comment from the writer: “I know my writing isn’t strong enough to be published, but I was hoping that you’d see the potential in what I’m sending you.” Let me just put that idea to rest right now. No. I won’t see it. Nor will most agents. And I mean that literally. Because a proposal without strong writing won’t make it past the first readers. Same thing for proposals pasted into an email. We make it clear your proposal needs to be in a Word file, attached to your email.
  • Are there careless errors? Okay, so spelling my name wrong or using which and that incorrectly isn’t going to make the publishing world collapse. But seriously, when push comes to shove, if I like another proposal as much as yours, and I like that writer’s potential as much as yours, and you spelled my name wrong (I mean, it’s BALL, folks! Not Bale, Bald, Balle, Boll, Bull—no comments from the cheap seats–or any of the countless options I’ve seen over the years), I’m going with the person who cared enough to find out how I spell my name. As a fellow agent put it: “I won’t disregard an excellent proposal if I spy an honest mistake, but overall carelessness and sloppiness suggest that the writer doesn’t pay close attention to detail. I’ll move on to the next excellent, clean proposal instead. And you can trust me that there will be one.”
  • Does the proposal follow our website guidelines (link to that is also below)? I need all that information to make an informed decision because I’m not just considering your book or your craft, I’m considering you and your long-term potential and how we can best work together.
  • No proposals where I’m one in a long list of recipients. Yes, it takes more time, but really. Send a separate email to each agent. I’ve been included in emails sent out to 20 or 30 agents, all of whom are in the to: field. Generally, those emails won’t receive any responses. But once in awhile someone will reply by hitting “reply all,” which means we all get to read the exchange. Um…no thanks. Another agent commented, “If I see my name in the email next to the bcc: it shows the author is shot-gunning the proposal and doesn’t care who gets it. I am simply a name on a mailing list.” Finally, do not, at least with our agency, send your proposal to all three of us. Pick one.
  • No debut authors unless the proposal says the manuscript is finished. Strong sample chapters are good, but equally important is a writer’s ability to not only hook a reader, but keep him through the book and provide an ending that will have said reader looking for said writer’s next book.
  • No proposals that tell me to go to this website or that link to review the author’s writing. With all the craziness online nowadays, I don’t follow links from folks I don’t know. Nor do I want my assistant to do so.
  • No proposals that make amateur or outlandish claims. Another agent had this to share: “Saying something like ‘There are 300 million people who make up the potential market for this book’ tells me you have no idea who your real audience is.” Likewise, you writing in your proposal that I’ll make a million dollars if I represent your book tells me your expectations aren’t exactly anchored in reality (unless, of course, your first name is Stephen and your last name is King).

So there you have it. Do with it what you will. But I hope it does help you or someone you know to put together a more effective, more powerful proposal.

Location of our guidelines: http://www.stevelaube.com/guidelines/

Blog regarding what I do and don’t want to represent: http://www.stevelaube.com/still-wanted-writing-that-sings/


48 Responses to I Just Deleted Your Proposal without Reading It

  1. Avatar
    Becky Smith July 22, 2015 at 5:04 am #

    Karen, thank you for giving writers a view fr

    • Avatar
      Name* July 22, 2015 at 5:21 am #

      The first-readers should delete this incomplete post. Ha!

      • Avatar
        Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

        Hey, we’ve all hit buttons wrong and had things fly off to cyberspace before we were ready. Right?

        Oh…I’m the only one who does that? Well, okey dokey then. 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Becky Smith July 22, 2015 at 5:11 am #

    Karen, thank you for giving writers insight into your world. Anyone who reads this post has no excuse for submitting incorrectly.

  3. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 22, 2015 at 6:06 am #

    Interesting that you want a full proposal straight away…and heartening.

    Writing an effective query is an art in itself, and seems more germane to expertise in advertising than it does to the craft of narrative prose. I always questioned the use of stand-alone queries…maybe because I ‘m terrible at writing them.

    I do have a question, speaking of this sort of ‘carryover’ – since I assume you do see proposals from regular commenters on this blog, do you find that there is a correlation between the quality of their comments, and the skill displayed in their proposals? (I ask this because I think that ‘blog commentary’ is also something of specialized form of the craft…and would love to hear a professional opinion!)

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 9:26 am #

      Andrew, I do notice when someone writes well in any context. But, as you know, maintaining the quality of writing for a book-length work takes different skills than writing a great blog post. Sometimes I agree with those wh say the great blog post is harder.

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 22, 2015 at 7:04 am #

    Deer Agaean Brawl,

    I am offering you my book because I believe you are the best choice to resent me; this is my first visit to your web sight. I believe we are Kindle Spirits; I now this because my Grammy said I know things about people.

    This is a soul submission, and I am sending it to a number of other aegeans to foster a spirit of hole some competition. Let the race begin!!!

    Ny book will change the world. There are seven billion folks who don’t have it yet!!!

    It is called “One Flew Over The Cowbird’s Nest”, and is the inspirational story of how people are succored into doing War Crimes. Like Patton slapping the solder in Cecily.

    It is my first book, and I have completed the outline of the first chapter. Please send me my advance and I will finish the job.

    Your humbly obedient savant,

    F. Scott Shakespeare-Hemingway

    (this is my real name! I changed to it last week!)

    • Avatar
      Deanna July 22, 2015 at 7:23 am #

      A fine example of what NOT to do.

    • Avatar
      Jeanne Takenaka July 22, 2015 at 7:29 am #

      Ha-ha, Andrew! You have a gift for written humor. 🙂 Loved this.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 9:28 am #

      I’m dyin’ here! Thanks for the guffaw.

    • Avatar
      Patrick July 24, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

      Ha ha, Andrew, this was the funniest thing I’ve read all day. Thanks for putting a smile on my face.

  5. Avatar
    Deanna July 22, 2015 at 7:27 am #

    Here’s my question, I’m not sure if I’m going to be submitting my work to primarily the Christian market or the secular market as well.
    I’m new to the world of publishing, and for some reason I was thinking a proposal was the same thing as a query. Are they different?
    Seems to me that Christian agents are asking for proposals and secular agents are asking for query’s. Can someone explain how they differ?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 10:01 am #

      I’ve found it works best to choose one audience and write the most powerful book you can for them.

      We have a number of blogs on this site dealing with queries and proposals, so just do a search for those topics. Or check writers digest.com. .

      • Avatar
        Deanna July 22, 2015 at 10:31 am #

        Thank you! I appreciate it.

  6. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka July 22, 2015 at 7:36 am #

    I always appreciate seeing an agent’s perspective on aspects of the industry. And I love the insights you offer here . . . what you do/don’t want personally as an agent. Your tips for writing a top-notch proposal make a lot of sense. Thanks for the tips!

  7. Avatar
    TammyJo Eckhart, PhD July 22, 2015 at 8:21 am #

    I think this “Others were peppered with “real” language. Translation: obscenities. (What the–?? Ahem…)” is not a very valid reason to stop reading a book. Sometimes there are very good reasons for using particular language or particular grammar. For example, a character who is low class, poorly educated, or in a very stressful situation may seem ridiculous using euphemisms or polite language all of the time. Some readers prefer clarity over purple prose that hides what is actually in stories — body parts are not flowers or animals.

    If you stop reading because you don’t like “X” word, you are not submerged in the story. That might be the fault of the author or it might be the reader’s close-mindedness.

    If an agent or a publisher has personal reasons for simply rejecting based on “obscenities” you need to make that very clear in your guidelines.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 22, 2015 at 8:41 am #

      I’m not sure I agree. Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” came out at a time during which obscenities would not be tolerated, and he was able to create dramatic tension on a destroyer in the Pacific during WW2 quite well…and he made it a point to include characters whose language would have been expected to be quite foul.

      He didn’t use euphemisms, and didn’t use alternate words in dialogue; instead, he used narrative action to create the moment’s stress, and give the reader the flavor of the characters’ emotions.

      Wouk made it a point to say that war did indeed induce the use of bad language, even to the point of grossly violating communications protocol; in “Caine”, the central character is described as listening to a Marine trapped in a fatal place during one of the island invasions, and how the man died in the middle of a string of obscenities.

      Wouk said it better than I can paraphrase it, but the point is this, that we didn’t need to hear the obscenities, to know the scene.

      I don’t think it’s really closed-mindedness; I used to go into Tourette Mode regularly, until I realized that I was losing the facility for description; obscenities were coarsening my speech, and my writing.

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby July 22, 2015 at 9:30 am #

      Writing free of obscenities is a characteristic of Christian fiction genres, so stating submissions should be obscenity-free would be as strange as stating they should include proper grammar and correct spelling. It is possible to write about real-world problems without degenerating into four-letter language. Christian authors try to convey reality while also focusing on what is true, noble, right, pure, etc. (Phil. 4:8). We also try to live in the real world that way. That’s not to say I don’t fail to meet that standard sometimes (especially after more than half an hour fighting with a computer problem when I’m on a deadline), but it is never something I’m proud of or even consider acceptable. It’s also not something I personally want to read in any book, Christian or otherwise. My high-school English teacher said that obscenities were a sign of deficient vocabulary. I have noticed that to be the case in obscenity-laced speech.

    • Avatar
      Deanna July 22, 2015 at 9:43 am #

      She’s a Christian agent, that goes without saying. Do you ever see obscenities in Christian novels? I didn’t think so.

    • Avatar
      m. rochellino, HsD (high school dropout) July 22, 2015 at 10:06 am #

      Dear Tammyjo, I am sure I disagree with the statement that “obscenities is not a very valid reason to stop reading a book.” To me it is a very valid reason. I find it wholly unnecessary, very weak and amateurish.

      I have at times in my life been considered “low class (living in extreme poverty as a child in the slum), poorly educated (having been expelled from all public schools in my urban city while in the 9th and 10th grade for continuously fighting) and in very stressful situations (particularly during my year in Vietnam with an army infantry company at age 18). I regularly use euphemisms and polite language until the situation demands otherwise. My credibility on the subject has come from actually living it, for years. I haven’t been afforded the luxury of being able to examine the “theory” of various aspects of life from a privileged seat in the hallowed halls of academia.

      You are absolutely right about “If you stop reading because you don’t like “X” word, you are not submerged in the story”.

      By the way, a talented author can write very obscenely without using a single “cuss’ word. One could reasonably expect a rejection for that as well depending on where they are submitting. Agents and publishers know what they want, it varies depending on their market. One publishers trash may be another publishers treasure.

      I don’t consider myself “close-minded”, I know what I like or don’t like and wholeheartedly reject someone else’s attempt to impose a label because I disagree with them. We are seeing way too much of that these days. Lastly, I respect your entitlement to your viewpoint and opinion. I hope you would do the same for others.

      Have a great day!

      • Avatar
        Carol Ashby July 22, 2015 at 10:30 am #

        I LOVE the HsD! We all know what B.S. stands for. Well, M.S. is “more of the same” and Ph.D. is “piled higher and deeper.” No offense meant to anyone. Andrew and I are both piled higher and deeper, and the letters after a name don’t mean (in my case, maybe not Andrew’s) that I’m any wiser than the HsD who walks wisely with God.

        • Avatar
          m. rochellino July 22, 2015 at 11:27 am #

          Thank you Carol. I have always enjoyed your voice and style of writing in your comments. To me, it is clear communication of concepts and images while entertaining. I have looked for your website but haven’t found one. You can definitely put me down for a preorder of your (hopefully fiction) book when you are ready.

          God Bless!

      • Avatar
        Robert Burroughs July 24, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

        I really like your comment, and I agree wholeheartedly. I am currently working on a script based in the 1930’s which was a very racially charged period yet I will not use racial slurs just because it was the language of the day. I feel that a talented writer can bring enough conflict to a story without the need for obseinities. There are over a million words in the English language surely another word can be found.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 10:12 am #

      This isn’t about personal preferences. It’s about doing your homework as a writer. When authors send me proposals that they identify as being for the Christian market, and yet the sample chapters are peppered with foul language, that tells me those authors don’t know that market at all. My job is finding books I believe in and matching them with the best publisher. I can’t do that if the author doesn’t get the market.

  8. Avatar
    Robert Burroughs July 22, 2015 at 8:28 am #

    I loved reading this article. This could have been easily titled “Common Sense” which is something that is lacking in today’s world. It should be obvious that when you are looking for representation that you send your best work.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

      Thanks, Robert. But sometimes I think it’s more about just not understanding how things work rather than a lack of common sense. Which is why I’m so grateful for all the sites available to help writers navigate these issues.

  9. Avatar
    Donna July 22, 2015 at 8:51 am #

    And this arrogance is why publishing agents are headed the way of the buggy whip. Buh-bye.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 22, 2015 at 9:12 am #

      Enlighten me…why is this arrogance? Karen has the right to use whatever filters she pleases.

      And she should, because her first obligation (after God and family) is to her clients. Spending time reading every proposal that crosses her desk, as a matter of principle, may be a warm fuzzy for wannabe writers, but it makes it harder to meet the duties already incumbent upon her.

      I’m just glad that some agents still accept unsolicited proposals, and don’t solely acquire new writers to represent by recommendation.

  10. Avatar
    Donna July 22, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    WHAT she said was fine. HOW she said it was something else entirely.

    Self-publishing and direct-to-publisher submissions are the way of the future. The more agents’ backs are against the wall the more they will posture like tinpot dictators. It’s a sign of weakness.

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby July 22, 2015 at 9:43 am #

      I saw nothing but helpful, clear exposition of proposal expectations. Whether I end up publishing traditionally or indie, I still want my work to be of sufficiently high caliber that an agent would want to represent it and an editor would want to publish it. I’ve been in positions where I’ve been reviewing and deciding the funding for scientific and engineering research proposals, and no one who wants to get money for their work would dream of submitting a proposal that didn’t follow the specified proposal guidelines to the letter. I don’t plan to make that mistake with my literary submissions, either. Karen’s postings will help me achieve that goal.

      • Avatar
        Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

        Donna, sorry you felt dissed. Wasn’t my intent.

        Andrew and Carol, thanks for the kind words.

        Everyone, thanks for the great conversation! Loving the responses, even the irritated ones. Iron sharpening iron is a good thing.

  11. Avatar
    Sarah Bennett July 22, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    Thanks for the excellent information this morning, Karen. I adore your sense of humor.

  12. Avatar
    Nick Kording July 22, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    I agree about obscenities. A lot of the CBA market would be offended. I started writing with me as my only audience. As a result, I just didn’t consider this fact. I wouldn’t use some language because I find it offensive. An agent at a conference (I think you, Karen) read the first few pages of a non-fiction book I wrote, circled a word I never even considered as inappropriate for a Christian audience, then said you can’t say this. I am much more mindful of my word choices because of this – in my work and others’.

    As for the rest of the don’ts you get, I’m surprised. I always think of writers as researcher and writers. I wouldn’t consider submitting to an agent without researching his/her site and submission guidelines.

    So, on behalf of those who don’t, I am so sorry. Perhaps this will be the start of the education process.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

      The comments here about using language that’s evocative rather than explicit have done a great job of explaining this issue. You guys are terrific!

  13. Avatar
    Stacey Zink July 22, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

    I think I’ve enjoyed the comments just as much as the original article. I love following a good conversation. I completely agree that foul language does not have a place in Christian fiction.

    Karen, you are doing a great job!

  14. Avatar
    Rebecca Burtram July 22, 2015 at 7:27 pm #


    I greatly appreciated this post. I was in the middle of preparing a proposal for you, and I came back to the website to make sure I have met expectations. Today’s post was a bonus as I continue to work through the process.

    I do have a couple of questions about debut authors.

    Your post says, “Strong sample chapters are good, but equally important is a writer’s ability to not only hook a reader, but keep him through the book and provide an ending that will have said reader looking for said writer’s next .”

    Does this mean you would like debut authors to attach the full manuscript to the proposal or simply a couple sample chapters and an acknowledgement of a completed manuscript?

    Also, could a proposal be sent if all that is lacking for a complete manuscript are the stories I am planning to include about others’ lives to further demonstrate and connect the reader to the main point of each section? (My book is a lyrical nonfiction piece.)

    Thank you for your blog post!!!

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball July 22, 2015 at 8:10 pm #

      The second option: attached the two or three sample chapters and state that the manuscript is finished.

      About the missing stories, it’s probably not what you want to hear, but if they’re missing, the manuscript isn’t complete. If you’re using other people’s stories as illustrations, we need to see how you do that. And If the stories are important to the book, you shouldn’t send it in without them.

      Hope that helps.

      • Avatar
        Rebecca Burtram July 22, 2015 at 8:53 pm #

        Thank you!

        Although it means I need to wait a little longer before submitting a proposal, I would rather hear how to do it correctly than believe I am ready to submit when I am not.

        I appreciate your feedback.

  15. Avatar
    Iola July 23, 2015 at 2:32 am #

    You mean you don’t want my almost-finished Camp Nanowrimo manuscript? I’m gutted. I was hoping you’d help me sell it to Publish America.

    Seriously, most agents are pretty specific about what they do or don’t want. Why do people find it so hard to follow instructions?

  16. Avatar
    Larry VanHoose July 23, 2015 at 5:20 am #

    Thanks Karen for helping keep the submissions relevant. I’ve often found that when I tell someone “no, a short email is not enough; you need to submit a complete proposal” that they have no idea what I’m talking about. To combat this, we sought out an established author and literary agent and had him write a booklet on how to write a proposal. It’s a great help in answering the questions we don’t have time to answer. Here’s the title if anyone is interested – it’s available in both paperback and Kindle formats “A Christian Writer’s Guide to The Book Proposal”

  17. Avatar
    Beverly Brooks July 23, 2015 at 6:25 am #

    You struck a nice balance of clear speaking without harshness. The information and insight from the “other side” is most valuable.

    I agree the comments were also entertaining and helpful.

  18. Avatar
    Patrick July 24, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

    Hi, Karen, I’ve read your blogs before, but I really haven’t commented before. I really like the way you write your blogs, and this one is no different. Thank you for the insight on what goes on behind the scenes, and hopefully, this should be a healthy reminder of what not to do when sending out a proposal. And I’m glad to report that I didn’t make any of these mistakes when I sent my proposal to your agency. 🙂 Thanks again.

  19. Avatar
    steroids April 13, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

    Hurrah, that’s what I was looking for, what
    a data! existing here at this webpage, thanks admin of this
    web page.

  20. Avatar
    Steve Cass September 26, 2019 at 2:10 pm #

    On the subject of obscenities used in writing:

    The guidelines are clear, and they seem to stem from knowing the agents and the markets, interspersed with personal morality standards.

    What’s not said, and what affects me when I read/hear obscenities is simple:

    It detracts from the story. It redirects my attention to the obscenity. It doesn’t augment my participation in the character or the scene. Now, incidental use is ok, but why oh why oh why oh why do people feel that the OVERuse of them is ‘modern’ when they often take on a life of their own and dominate the communication exchange???

    They detract from communication. Period. As well as my emotional involvement.

    (and by the way, I have my moments where my mouth flies … )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get New Posts by Email

Get New Posts by Email

Each article is packed with helpful info and encouragement for writers. You can unsubscribe at any time with one click. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!