I wrote a post on this blog a while ago (here) about some embarrassing and even disqualifying mistakes writers had made in submissions to me. One reader commented on that post, expressing gratitude and then adding, “What would be helpful to me is to hear the subtle or inadvertent mistakes aspiring authors make when sending a proposal to you. Can you help us with that?”
Why, yes, Louise, since you asked so nicely, I think I can do that. Or at least give it a try.
Keep in mind as I mention some of the most common mistakes I see that “subtle or inadvertent mistakes” are seldom—if ever—disqualifying. They don’t help a writer’s pitch, by any means, but they may not trigger the red buzzer (if you’re an “America’s Got Talent” fan), unless they begin to proliferate. I’ll mention several that are, unfortunately, all too common.
I’m not sure how subtle this first “mistake” is because it never fails to leap out at me: inflated claims for the work at hand. I understand that a writer who has slaved over a manuscript for months or years probably couldn’t have seen it through to completion without believing in its value. But calling it one-of-a-kind, the best ever, a sure bestseller, or a guaranteed classic is counterproductive. (And lest you think, No one does that, let me just say, “You’d be surprised.”) And don’t call your writing “literary” unless you’re 100% sure that not only do you know what that means but that your writing fits the description. The other extreme, however, is also a mistake. Don’t tell me “I’m not one for writing,” “I’ve never published anything,” or (as one aspiring writer did recently) “No one has liked the first chapter until the reader begins reading the second and third chapters after which the reader realizes the first chapter is essential.” That may not be exactly subtle or inadvertent, but keep reading; this blog post gets a lot better in about 1,000 words.
Poor proofreading (or a lack of proofreading) is a frequent mistake I see in submissions to me. Sometimes I see signs that the document was spell-checked or proofread but not in the submission draft. Occasionally, I’ll see signs of a capable writer who wrote and submitted too quickly, deciding that proofreading is for lesser talents, perhaps, and that it’s not fair for the recipient to have to wait another day or two to see the product of a gifted writer’s efforts. As a result, however, misspellings or missing words or double words are left in a document that, if proofread, would be delivered from such errors. (And I vow to you that even such “subtle or inadvertent mistakes” leap out at an experienced editor or agent and make us wonder if the writer is careful enough in those and other areas.)
Another frequent problem I see is an inattention to book comparisons, or “comps,” in book proposals. This section of a book proposal is where the writer shows a little of his or her knowledge of the genre and presents a good case for why this book is different from others but likely to sell as well or better. This section is so important (as they all are) that an editor’s interest in and desire to contract a book sometimes succeeds or fails based on this information.
Another common but sometimes fixable mistake is not putting your best foot forward in the author section and/or marketing section. Or, as often happens, confusing the two. The author section answers the question, “Why is this person the perfect person to write this book?” The marketing (or platform) section answers the question, “What kind of reach and influence does this writer have?” (Not “once had,” or “will have,” or “hopes to have” but has.) Some writers are so intimidated by one or both of these sections that they neglect to apply their top-notch writing skills to these paragraphs, which is always a mistake.
Finally, I think a subtle but very common mistake is conceptual: answering questions no one is asking. It’s so important, when conceptualizing a book idea, to start, proceed, and finish from the already-felt-need of the target reader. The vast majority of the proposals I decline (often from capable writers) fail because they make me wonder, “Who cares?” The writer was obviously interested enough to pound out 60,000 words on “a biblical exploration of footwear,” but it’s not enough for the writer to be intrigued; the potential reader and book buyer must be immediately and thoroughly compelled by the personal value of the topic and how it’s presented.
So there you have it. As I said, none of these mistakes may immediately trigger my “no, thank you.” And some are sometimes fixable. But I hope that sharing these helps many who are otherwise producing publishable material.
Hello, my query is for new, aspiring authors who have never published, don’t have 25,000 followers on Twitter, don’t have a blog, are not on a speaking tour, are not tech suavely but just simple writers who have a good book and submit an error free submission letter. Maybe their book is not as great as a Grapes of Wrath type of book. I see many “average” books, especially fiction ones, that are published and in book stores and online. How do they do they secure an agent? How do they get published? Thank you for any suggestions and insights regarding this conundrum. Thank you
Question. Did you get a reply on your comments? If so, would consider forwarding them to me,? i would be an unpublished author trying to break through the ice surrounding agents. Thank you for your consideration.
George, I’m not sure if you’re asking how a good writer with a good book and error-free submission letter gets an agent/publisher, or if you’re asking how “average books” get published. My answer is, differing tastes aside, they don’t. “Good books” and “average books” don’t fare well in a fiercely competitive marketplace. Winning the attention of an agent or publishing house is such a high bar that, while perhaps EVERYTHING about an author or project may not be exceptional, MOST things must. Another way of saying that is that an amazing hook and amazing writing sometimes overcome a modest platform, or an amazing platform can recommend a less-than-amazing writer, and so on, but simple, good, and average wont get an offer. I hope that makes sense.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Thank you for the great tips, Bob! It reminds me that polishing the proposal is a vital step, even after a bit of initial editing has been done. It is so tempting to just throw up our hands and send the proposal out because we’ve been working on this manuscript for years and years and the end is in sight. That is why I work on my proposal as I write the book. If my brain is bogged down and the prose isn’t flowing like it should, I switch gears and work on the proposal for a few hours. That switch from narrative writing to non-fiction seems to give my mind a jump start. Plus, being on the lookout for comparable titles for the entire year that I’m working on the manuscript really helps. I know many writers who are terrified of this section, partially because it is so hard for us to know if something is selling well or not and we don’t want to use a lemon as a comparable. But if I keep my eyes peeled for that whole year, watching for books that are similar, it takes a bit of the pressure off.
Speaking of “not putting your best foot forward in the author section and/or marketing section,” at a conference a few years ago, I critiqued a romantic suspense manuscript from a newbie writer. She was an excellent writer but had no track record and was concerned how she would get her foot in the door. As our 15-minutes was coming to a close, she casually mentioned in passing, “…back when I worked for the CIA…” I’m sure I startled her with my drop-jawed “What!?” She made excuses: “Well, I was only a secretary, and I was only there for a couple of years, etc. etc.” I said, “I don’t CARE! THAT goes in your bio!”
Deb, I’ve had many similar experiences, when I’ve been shocked and dismayed by what a writer failed to mention…or emphasize.
This is your great chance, good feller,
and if you pass, it’s such a pity;
this will be a grand bestseller
and you’ll retire to Tahiti.
It’s literary, awfully,
and you will be held in thrall
as its comps are “Loves Comes Softly”
and “Valley of the Dolls”.
It has worldly grace and wild romance
and hints of cyberpunk;
and you’d never know at your first glance
that I’m a stylite monk,
whom to a cloistered life was driven
’cause I disdain to talk to women.
Love the comps, Andrew! Send me the proposal! 😉
Good info, no, change that to GREAT INFO. Maybe you should make this subject a conference presentation.
OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU
Thank you so much for this Bob! It is a great eyeopener for me and it helps me to understand better why proposals receive a ‘No’ and end in the slush pile!
Reading through, I see straightaway some of my short comings. God bless you.
Bob, you can imagine my delight when I read the title of today’s blog post. Thank you for following through on my request. It is clear that your team truly wants to help us succeed. These helpful tips give me fresh ideas on how to improve my submission to an agent. I am a grateful learner.
Louise, thank YOU for the request!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Superb information, Bob. Thanks so much!
In case anyone’s asking for a title to “a biblical exploration of footwear,” how about Journey of the Soul…
Really appreciate the perspective on “comps” and other marketing data.
Thank you to Bob and Deborah.
I have asked the Lord several times, “What will I have the skill to do when both what I do and what I teach keep changing?”
As I was finishing an early draft of my manuscript, He answered me. “Write this book that you’ve been working on these past few years!”
But I never thought to include those various ministries and jobs in my author bio.
I will be getting on it pronto. Thank you again.
Great tips! Thank you so much!
Carol R Nicolet Loewen
Thank you, Bob. These are helpful insights. It’s so easy to rush a project rather than waiting and fine-tuning it. And yet that is essential as we present our work to an agent. I appreciate the reminders!