What Makes an Agent Say Wow?

As part of an interview for the upcoming Blue Ridge Writers conference in Ridgecrest, NC, May 22-26, Tamela was asked a series of questions by Al Gansky. (Be sure to check out the new conference web site.)

1) When you review proposals what stops you in your tracks?

Tamela: Since this question is aimed at writers attending a major conference, I’m answering as though you’re an author I’ve met at this conference rather than an author submitting over the transom.* At conference, you’ve made a great impression and I think we can work well together. So I’ve asked to see your proposal. I’m now thrilled that you’ve followed up. Thank you for that! So many authors never follow up after a conference. Now, I want to see that you’ve given me as much information as you can that will take your proposal to the top of the stack: a super project; great social media presence, etc. Our proposal guidelines are here: https://stevelaube2.wpengine.com/guidelines/

*Al: “Over the transom” is an old publishing term. In the old days, office buildings didn’t have air-conditioning. To keep the offices cool, builders put narrow windows over interior doors. In warm weather, employees would open an exterior window and that transom window to provide air flow. Would-be authors would often stop by after business hours and push unsolicited manuscripts “over the transom.” Editors would show up at work the next day with manuscripts on the floor of their office.

2) What makes you want to dig deeper into the proposal?

Tamela: The writer submitting after a large conference such as Blue Ridge may face a different yet happy dilemma than the writer submitting cold and hoping for the best. For instance, at conferences, many writers find that more than one agent will ask to see a proposal.* That’s great! And I do want to know if other agents are looking. But believe it or not, that fact doesn’t make me want your proposal more.** Yes, it’s flattering for an author to have several agents express interest in a manuscript, and I believe this interest is sincere. Sometimes it’s obvious that the manuscript won’t work for me (for example, there are some genres I don’t handle) and I have to pass on the proposal. Giving a manuscript the evaluation it deserves in fifteen minutes at any conference doesn’t do either the writer or myself justice. So I usually ask to see many manuscripts at conference. I want to go home and give everyone’s work careful evaluation before choosing between several worthy manuscripts and charming authors. And I also want the authors to go home and think about working with me. I realize CBA is blessed with many talented literary agents. I want both partners to have the best fit, and of course, it is my desire that we try to make decisions according to what we both believe is God’s plan for our individual careers. So the decision to work together is important for both of us.

That said, authors also learn much from workshops at conferences. Often they can apply what they learn as they revise their proposals. As you revise, think about these things:

  • Who do you know in the industry who’ll vouch for you?
  • What are you doing on social media to reach out to existing and potential fans?
  • What is your publishing history, if applicable? Please provide sales figures. This includes indie published works.
  • Where will your book fit in with the rest of the books on the market today?

I must consider all of these factors as I review your work, in addition to how wonderful you are at your craft.

*Al: Over the years I’ve noticed that many conferees fail to send a full proposal to an agent when asked for. Perhaps it’s a fear of rejection. Muster up the courage and send the proposal as requested.
**It’s a good idea to mention in your proposal that other agents have shown an interest. Agents do a lot of conferences and they know that several agents might request a proposal from the same person. Be upfront with such information. 

3) Do you recall the best proposal you’ve ever seen? What made it a stand out from the others?

Tamela: The best proposal is a thorough proposal. Cover all the bases. Consider that you are preparing a document for the editor to take into a meeting to convince the committee to publish your book. All questions must be answered based on that document.

4) Do you have a mental checklist of things you look for in a proposal?

Tamela: For fiction: A fantastic first page. Make me want to read more. Then more. Then more. If I’m flying through a manuscript and suddenly I’m well into it, you’ve got a great chance with me. Then I’ll look back and see how I think I can position your work with editors in the marketplace.

For nonfiction: A new way to present a timeless topic. We’ve all read books on having a better marriage/romance/friendship/parenthood/budget/younameit but how can you make this concept fresh and appealing? A great title will also help. Make sure you hit a target but that your target isn’t too small. For instance, a book on how parents can pray for their college students could work. A ten-day devotional book for left-handed Druid quilters living in Mexico–not so much. And don’t forget, you’ll need to show me your specific plan on how you are reaching your audience, ready to buy your book.

I can tell you that once I start digging, I’ll look for you on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ll look for your web site. An impressive Internet presence helps.

I suppose I’m more of a big picture person than a checklist person. But the picture must work. Again, our proposal guidelines are on our web site: https://stevelaube2.wpengine.com/guidelines/ *

*Al: Always check submissions guidelines of any agent you submit to. These vary some from agency to agency. It will show that you’re doing your homework.

Authors, I look forward to meeting you!

[The original interview ran in December 2015 and can be found here.]


23 Responses to What Makes an Agent Say Wow?

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton April 14, 2016 at 3:39 am #

    I love the image of authors pushing their completed manuscripts ‘over the transom.’ I wonder how many were read using this approach.

  2. Avatar
    Shulamit April 14, 2016 at 5:27 am #

    Tamela, I Facebook and Twitter a necessity? What if someone is on LinkedIn and Quora.com, instead?

    Facebook and Twitter are such time sinks.

    • Avatar
      Shulamit April 14, 2016 at 5:28 am #

      *is, not I. How embarrassing.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 15, 2016 at 7:09 am #

      Shulamit, the idea is to show that you can reach YOUR audience. If you are doing this using those formats, then I see no issue.

  3. Avatar
    rochellino April 14, 2016 at 9:55 am #

    Tamela, very salient post, as usual. How often does the elation of spectacular writing meet the dejection of unsatisfactory platform? It seems this could be a major heartbreaker for a caring agent. Thank you, God Bless!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 15, 2016 at 7:10 am #

      Rochellino, if a writer has a great project, platform can be built. It just takes time and effort.

  4. Avatar
    Georgiana Daniels April 14, 2016 at 10:39 am #

    Such great points, Tamela! Writing a great book is only the beginning…

  5. Avatar
    Pamela Gossiaux April 14, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Great interview. I like what you said about the proposal being something the agent will take into a meeting. It gives me a bigger understanding of how to prepare the document. And thank you for sharing where “over the transom” came from. Fun to know!

  6. Avatar
    Tammy April 14, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    Loved the historical background on the term “over the transom”. So interesting. Hmm, wish my transom windows opened but with screens!

  7. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield April 14, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

    Thanks for describing the 15-minute-pitch from the other side of the table–or chair arm, as the case may be! I related to that, and in addition, I live and write in a house built in 1892 that has 9 transoms, including two in my office. I can launch a manuscript over a transom anytime my aim is good enough! 🙂

    I’m one of those writers who did not respond to all the invitations I received at a conference to submit a full proposal, so I wanted to share reasons in addition to fear that I, and probably others, might have for that. (1) Two publisher reps invited me to submit a proposal for a fully-developed Bible Study I had already taught to a group. It included Teacher’s Notes, a participants’ workbook, in-class supplemental pages, and well-researched, attractive, informative PowerPoint presentations for 12 one-hour classes. Both reps asked me to combine all those elements into one book before submitting the proposal. So if they chose to publish it, would I need to design a whole new set of teaching/learning aids for it? That made no sense to me at all, but would take a huge time investment, and I haven’t done it. (2) Two agents who enthusiastically invited me to send proposals never acknowledged their receipt. I don’t know if they didn’t like the proposal, or if they never saw it and think I didn’t follow through. (3) One agent’s agency and personal web pages were so poorly designed–one even had a misspelling, that I decided if the agency didn’t pay any attention to public image details like that, I might not like their level of attention to representation details, either; and additionally, I would be embarrassed to send readers to it.

    And that’s the rest of the story–or at least an addendum! ;-D

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 15, 2016 at 7:22 am #

      Linda, keep looking for an agent who can help you discern how to approach the interested publishers with your large project. A good agent can also help determine if indeed, undertaking the editing of these materials is worth your time, or if you would be better off pursuing a different project.

      As for following up, I understand that not every author will follow up with me. Authors meet many editors and agents at most conferences and sometimes decide to go elsewhere. Some authors decide to go directly to publishers, or to self-publish. Still other authors decide their work isn’t ready to be submitted. But if I do have your work on my desk, please let me know if you do plan to go elsewhere, and perhaps give me a chance to render a quick decision if you’re still open to working with me.

      I feel very confident about our web site. In fact, we just learned that our site has been selected as a 101 Best Website for Writers as honored by Writer’s Digest.

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield April 15, 2016 at 9:55 am #

        I continue to wish I wrote in your genres and could pitch to you! 🙂 I’m glad to keep learning from you on this blog: I hadn’t thought of the possibility that an agent would offer me guidance on whether or not to rewrite the Bible study. The Laube agency web site is definitely worthy of the honor it received (and your personal one is pretty impressive, too!). Now I’m wondering if it would be the kind thing to do to gently let someone know at that agency with the typo on the face page of their web site, instead of just crossing them off. Maybe they’re putting 100% trust in a web designer with great credentials who had a momentary lapse and never caught the mistake. If they don’t know, they can’t fix it. Hmm.

        • Avatar
          Tamela Hancock Murray April 15, 2016 at 11:13 am #

          Since I don’t know the agency in question (and of course we wouldn’t make it public here), I’m hard pressed to advise you. On the one hand, you’d be doing them a favor. On the other, since you’re not a client of theirs, the tip might feel embarrassing and/or intrusive. If someone told me I had an error on my site, I’d be embarrassed. But that emotion would soon pass and I’d feel grateful. That is my knee jerk reaction. Probably not too helpful. 🙁

          Perhaps others might step in with their advice.

  8. Avatar
    Natalie Monk April 14, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

    Excellent interview! So helpful and studded with wisdom-gems. I enjoyed reading this.

  9. Avatar
    Linda McKain April 14, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

    Tamela, I plan to attend the Nashville, TN conference in August. Today’s post has given me new insight.

    At one point a few weeks ago I decided not to go. But this post has encouraged me to continue with my plans.

    The next few months will be busy polishing and shining, praying and fasting, and lastly employing an editor.

    My wip falls within the parameters of genre you chose to work.

  10. Avatar
    Patti Jo Moore April 14, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

    Thank you, Tamela (and Al) – – this was great and very helpful.
    I’ve heard the expression “over the transom” for a while but never knew the origin – – so thank you for the explanation! 🙂
    And Tamela….I guess I’d better scrap my proposal for my “ten-day devotional book for left-handed Druid quilters living in Mexico” – – and it held such promise. 😉 LOL (couldn’t resist – – when I read that in your interview I laughed and laughed). 🙂

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 15, 2016 at 7:24 am #

      Patti Jo, maybe the market will be open to a book for right-handed Druids. Uhhhh, nah! 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Clarissa Ruth April 16, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

    Thank you for sharing all this–and your insights and expertise. Love the left-handed Druid line…

    A question has been niggling in my mind since picking Steve Laube’s brain at last year’s Realm Maker’s Conference, and it came to the forefront today when you used the exact same phrase: that we need an “Impressive web presence.” When he told me that was necessary, I got busy preparing the most impressive website I could muster.

    But lately I’ve been wondering and perhaps you could clarify for us: What, exactly, is an impressive web presence?

    I have begun to wonder if “impressive” speaks less of appearance and appeal, and more of the number of visitors/commenters. If you are looking at a website, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are you looking for a certain number of people already engaging with that author? If so, what encourages you that the author has a good following, and what makes you disregard their presence as “unimpressive?”

    Well, that turned into a mini, impromptu interview–whoops! Well, any insights would be most appreciated. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 18, 2016 at 7:52 am #

      Clarissa, that’s a great question and in my view, it doesn’t have a standard answer. When we review manuscripts, we take all the facts into consideration. Some authors come to us with a great idea and excellent writing but are a bit shy on platform. Sometimes the smaller platform can be overcome; sometimes it can’t.

      I like to see a fantastic web site, but at the same time, I understand a new author might not have the same level of funds and/or expertise, or even as much to share, as well-established author. I recommend exploring the sites of your favorite authors and of course, those writing similar books to yours, to see what they are doing. Use what you think works for them and make it your own.

      A popular blog is always a plus. Take us to your blog and show us you are consistent in posting, and that you continue to post as your work is marketed. Seeing engagement through comments is great, but since I write blog posts myself, I know how uneven reactions can be. Some posts are very popular while others just don’t seem to hit a nerve. Of course, the more often you can get your audience to engage, the better, because it illustrates you have a relationship with your potential audience. Do let us know how many people read your blog, because often, readers don’t comment.

      Yes, we all like to see numbers in the five figures, at least, for followers. But again, we also like to see engagement. I have many Twitter followers, for instance, but I couldn’t tell you that each follower would buy a book I’d write because the followers have too many varied interests and come from different market segments.

      Show me how many people you think would buy your book based on how you engage on social media. An author cultivating active engagements across social media outshines the author just gathering a big number of followers across the board. I want to see that you have an audience already excited about you and your book. They will care enough about you and what you are saying to make a purchase. The numbers help everyone see the audience potential for the book.

      I recommend focusing on one platform, then perhaps a second platform. Really build your engagements there rather than trying to go full force on every available platform.

      Platform is great and many engagements will increase your chances of success. However, the idea and its execution will ultimately make the day.

      • Avatar
        Clarissa Ruth April 18, 2016 at 11:52 am #

        Well, that makes me say “wow!” Thanks so much for the long reply 🙂 That helped clarify things considerably. I also read your other blog on social media, and all the comments, which was helpful as well.
        Thank you for taking the time to respond!


  1. Platform, Numbers, and Content - The Steve Laube Agency - April 21, 2016

    […] and excellent questions. Last week I responded in the comments section of the post “What Makes an Agent Say Wow!” and realized later that the answer constitutes its own blog post. This was not the first […]

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