How NOT to Get an Agent

It’s a classic writer’s conference anecdote—even funnier because it is true. It didn’t happen to me, but to a friend of mine, who was not only followed into the restroom at a writer’s conference by an avid aspiring writer but was also slipped a book proposal. While in a stall. Free reading material, don’t you know.

That’s no way to pitch a book or get an agent. And, though I don’t have nearly the battle scars that my Steve Laube Agency colleagues do, I can draw a few lessons from my experience as a literary agent. So here are seven ways NOT to get an agent:

  1. Don’t follow instructions

I’ve blogged before (here) about aspiring writers who don’t take the time and effort to read and follow the guidelines for submission offered by agents. It never ceases to amaze me. For example, the Steve Laube Agency guidelines clearly state, “do not paste the proposal into the body of your e-mail.” So, of course, one fellow pasted his 11,000-word book proposal into the email message field, a decision that actually made my job a wee bit easier because I was able to say “no, thank you” almost instantly.

  1. Don’t put your best foot forward

The first line of one email I received allowed, “I realize it needs some work but I’m not usually one to write.” Well, okay, then. I’m not usually one to acquire clients who aren’t much given to writing.

Another email admitted that “I am a mediocre wordsmith” and “I am a terrible self-promoter,” followed by the statement, “I believe that my strengths and weaknesses in the publishing world are well-matched to what I know about you.” I don’t think I was supposed to be insulted, but it was a close call. Interestingly, I have since learned that this person is a capable writer of considerable promise—who obviously needs to learn how to put her best foot forward.

  1. Don’t choose your words wisely

I kid you not, one writer sent me a proposal (for a Christian book, mind you) that began, “The sh—in this book is heavy.” The proposal went on to use more and worse profanity, which is not a strong selling point for most Christian publishers.

  1. Don’t lead with your best stuff.

Yet another proposal pasted into the email message field—this one running 10,600 words—began with a variation on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal opening line. Bulwer-Lytton is famous for beginning his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night,” a sentence that has spawned the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a tongue-in-cheek competition to compose the worst opening sentence to a bad novel. My correspondent started his novel more succinctly: “It was dark.”

  1. Ignore genre and word counts

 I don’t represent fantasy or science fiction, but I never said I didn’t want submissions for “superhero novels.” So far I have only received one such submission, but it was for “a mixture of normal superhero stories” that was also “very violent, vulgar, [and] has many brutal killing scenes.” Again, not a strong selling point with most Christian publishers. But it was the word count that still makes me chuckle: 1,048,849 words. That’s million. With an M.

  1. Lose touch with reality

I review only full book proposals, not queries or manuscripts. But I’m so glad I kept reading to the fourth paragraph of one emailed fiction query, because otherwise I would have missed this spectacular line: “The three books comparing to this novel are ‘Oliver Twist,’ ‘Don Quixote,’ and ‘Crime and Punishment.’”

  1. Don’t think things through before committing them to paper

It does take a lot of thought and effort to compose a book proposal, let alone write a complete book manuscript. Nonetheless, one writer found it advisable to include a line in his proposal that makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. I find it so rich a source of enjoyment, that I leave it with you, until my next blog post: “I can’t explain why I wrote this book.”


33 Responses to How NOT to Get an Agent

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott February 14, 2018 at 3:30 am #

    Dear Agent,
    I can’t explain why I wrote this book.
    God made me do it.
    You won’t be able to explain why you decided to represent me.
    God will make you do it.
    I await your call.

  2. Avatar
    Brennan McPherson February 14, 2018 at 5:16 am #

    The sheer volume of bad proposal pitching techniques seems bizarre, but it makes me imagine that we’re all a bunch of 4-year olds at recess trying to impress each other.

    I’ve read so many of these proposal pitching horror stories that now I’m ruined. I’m constantly paranoid I’m committing a laughable pitching sin. It’s like when you watch Napoleon Dynamite and suddenly forget how to socialize normally.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler February 14, 2018 at 7:13 am #

      Your Napoleon Dynamite reference reminds me: dancing is not usually a path to getting an agent. But ya never know.

  3. Avatar
    Janine Rosche February 14, 2018 at 5:40 am #

    Warning: The opinions expressed are by a still-unagented writer.

    If this was titled “How NOT to get an Agent RIGHT NOW” then I would agree with Don’t Put Your Best Foot Forward. But as you and others have said, meeting with an agent at a conference or making a connection with them through blogs or social media, is more likely to get your foot in the door than securing an immediate contract.

    As a matter of personal integrity, I cannot hide my shortcomings, especially when someone like an agent is counting on my success to put food on their table. I admittedly took this too far when I gave myself actual star rankings on my one-sheet at ACFW. (Writing Ability: 3/5. Social Media Platform 2/5, Engaging Storylines 5/5, Authentic Characters 5/5). Steve got a good laugh out of that. But then again, I was there to learn, not secure an agent immediately.

    I’ve made so many lovely connections over the past year, partly due to my unconventional approach and underdog status. If I do end up with an agent someday, it will likely come from these relationships. If not, well, I’ve made some wonderful friends.

    My hope is that humility continues to trumps pride and arrogance over the long haul of my writing career. Plus, keeping a realistic view of my abilities motivates me to become stronger in my areas of weakness.

    Maybe I’m transparent to a fault, but I would hope for the same honesty from an agent. I know folks who signed with agents, only to find they are 150th in line for the agent’s attention. I know writers who sold their manuscript to publishers only to find later than 100% of the marketing falls on their shoulders.

    Sure, it’s naive to expect 100% honesty in any industry, even Christian publishing. (Naïveté is another one of my weaknesses, fyi.)

    And yes, there is something to be said for being confident in the gift God has given me. But, when it comes to writing, this gift is like the Christmas present you unwrap, only to see the words “Assembly Required.” I’m happy to take on the task, if it means I get to enjoy it and share that joy with others.

    We will see in the coming years if this perspective pans out!

    By the way, my Writing Ability is now a 4/5 and my Social Media Platform is a Growing 3/5, all thanks to my Willingness to Learn and Grow 6/5 😉

  4. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson February 14, 2018 at 6:51 am #

    I’ve heard stories about aspiring writers doing these types of things, but the restroom scene blows me away. This blog or something similar would make an interesting brochure to place in every conference attendee’s welcome packet.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler February 14, 2018 at 7:14 am #

      Some conferences actually do feature a session like this. Always a hit.

  5. Avatar
    Vanessa Burton February 14, 2018 at 6:59 am #

    I was literally laughing out loud about the bathroom stall! I bet agents feel like celebrities with aspiring authors as crazy paparazzi! Thanks for these tips!

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler February 14, 2018 at 7:15 am #

      Well, I’ve never had paparazzi. I think it has something to do with my face.

      • Avatar
        Judith Robl February 14, 2018 at 1:23 pm #

        Don’t knock it, Bob. It’s a nice face.

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 14, 2018 at 7:42 am #

    Actually, I don’t know why I wrote any of my novels; I’d like to think that saved them from pedantry and artifice, but it’s not for me to say.

    Like so much of my life, they seemed like good idea at the time. But then, so did sliding the proposal into the next stall.

  7. Avatar
    Karen Porter February 14, 2018 at 7:55 am #

    Awsome post!

  8. Avatar
    Jay Payleitner February 14, 2018 at 8:10 am #

    After my first book was published on my very first radio interview, the host asked, “Why did you write the book?”

    A reasonable question, right?

    My reply: “Well, umm . . . I have always wanted to write a book. So I did.”

    It was a short interview.

    25 books and hundreds of interviews later, I give better answers.

  9. Avatar
    Katie Powner February 14, 2018 at 8:17 am #

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around actually writing over a MILLION words for one novel. It’s an agonizing process for me to hit 90K…I think a million would do me in.

  10. Avatar
    Carol Ashby February 14, 2018 at 8:52 am #

    So, Bob, did you tell the guy with the million pages to break it up into a series of 10 to 20 novels with 50K to 100K words each before submitting again? He did say it was a mixture of normal superheroes, which suggests it could be parceled out into smaller units.

    Which raises another question in my mind. What makes a superhero “normal?” That seems a bit oxymoronic to me.

  11. Avatar
    Joey Rudder February 14, 2018 at 9:28 am #

    The bathroom stall approach cracks me up. What other professionals do they approach the same way, handing things under the stall? Their dentist: “Excuse me, I have a cavity I need you to fix ASAP. Here’s my insurance card.” Their child’s grade school teacher: “Can’t you at least take another look at Bobby’s drawing? I think he’s got a lot of potential and you should reconsider his grade.” Or the prospective employer who just interviewed them: “I had a chance to think about it and I want you to know you’re wrong. I don’t think this Vivaldi font is hard to read on my resume. Look at it again.”

    Hopefully I’ll be a tad bit more professional in my approach. At least wait until they wash their hands! 🙂

    Thanks for the smiles, Bob!

  12. Avatar
    Rebekah Love Dorris February 14, 2018 at 9:49 am #

    Thank you, oh thank you THANK YOU, for not featuring my timid pseudo-pitch in this article! (At least not so’s anybody could recognize it:)

  13. Avatar
    Mary Albers Felkins February 14, 2018 at 10:12 am #

    It astounds me what arrives in your inbox. While many submissions you received didn’t make the cut (understandably), they do make for a good laugh. So thanks for sharing.

  14. Avatar
    Sy Garte February 14, 2018 at 10:19 am #

    Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I was able to quickly find out that the King James Version of the Holy Bible has 783,137 words. Much less than the superhero masterpiece. Makes one think….

  15. Avatar
    J Otis Ledbetter February 14, 2018 at 10:41 am #

    Awesome post! : )

  16. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh February 14, 2018 at 12:01 pm #

    Which just goes to show, inexperienced writers have a steep learning curve ahead of them, need to do their homework, and need to mature in the process–from amateur status to professional writer. It’s an awesome journey. Thank you.

  17. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D February 14, 2018 at 12:39 pm #

    Bob, thank you for the laughs! I always learn so much from your postings, even in the midst of hysterical laughter… that is a true gift that you have!

  18. Avatar
    Jennifer Haynie February 14, 2018 at 1:30 pm #

    I loved it! I remember going to Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference and the bathroom scene being a favorite. The funny thing is when you happen to run into the agent all of the time without even trying. This happened with Steve Laube. I think we simply crossed paths when we were both “off duty,” though thankfully NOT in the restroom. LOL!

    Keep up the good writing. You brighten my day.

  19. Avatar
    Cortney Whiting February 14, 2018 at 8:09 pm #

    I know a book I would like to read…Confessions of the Stall Stalker: How I Survived After Tanking My My Reputation.

  20. Avatar
    Faith McDonald February 15, 2018 at 6:44 am #

    Funny post, but it is hard to be an author with a complete, well-written manuscript on a current topic in search of an agent, trying to get the approach just right. I’ve been looking for two years and received comments like “great project but not a fit for us” and “you need more social media followers” times twenty. Yesterday, I received a rejection from an agent–and I was really hopeful about the fit–that included detailed comments, but they were clearly not about the manuscript I had sent him which made me want to write a column on how NOT to encourage a writer.

    Anyway, my question is: if an author has pitched a project to an agent via email and received no response or a rejection is it wise or unwise to approach that agent at a conference (with the same project).

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler February 15, 2018 at 7:41 pm #

      Faith, my two cents worth: if it has been rejected and is unchanged, then I wouldn’t pitch it to that same agent. But if I haven’t received a response, then I would go ahead and show it, with a polite, “I sent this to you but don’t know if you’ve had a chance to give it a look.” There’s always a chance it got lost in the pile, and sometimes the personal touch or providential timing works wonders.

  21. Avatar
    Nancy Lohr February 15, 2018 at 2:15 pm #

    #8. Don’t use your real name. Make it difficult for the agent/editor to know with whom they are communicating. I once rejected “the Bishop of the Universe.” I never knew if that was a joke or a pseudonym or something else.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler February 15, 2018 at 7:42 pm #

      I will never know how you resisted the Bishop of the Universe, Nancy. Unbelievable.

  22. Avatar
    Cathy Mayfield February 16, 2018 at 12:57 pm #

    Hello, Bob. I left a comment recently on your post from July 19, 2017, one you wrote concerning what you are looking for in manuscripts and in writers. It may be too old for it to alert you to the newer comments, so I figured I’d mention it here … since I’m not sure how to comment on this post except that it reminds me of the excuses and things my students have tried over the years in writing classes. I’ve been attending Montrose since 1996 and have heard and seen much about agents, and after reading both the July post and this one, I think it’s time … at least to do some serious praying about the possibilities. Blessings!

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