I’m seldom at a loss for words (though often at a loss for something of value to say), but the question took me aback for a moment. I was on an agents-and-editors panel at a writers’ conference within a few months of becoming an agent. I’d done this sort of panel before, both as a magazine editor and author, but this was the first time I’d been asked this particular question:
“How do you read a book proposal?”
I don’t recall if anyone else answered first, or if my awkward silence was noticed by anyone else. But I only then realized that I read almost every book proposal in the same way.
I start with the “hook,” whether it is labeled as such or not. The first words of a proposal are immensely important to me, as they reveal the writer’s knack for concision, forcefulness, drama, and grasp of his or her core message.
But I do not read chronologically from there. In both fiction and nonfiction proposals, I turn next to the “marketing” (or platform) section of the proposal. This is because (as I wrote on this blog soon after I became an agent), “Like every publisher and editor I know, I am looking for people who are already having an impact. They are writing blog posts that a lot of people read, share, and subscribe to. They are connecting and engaging with large numbers of people on social media. They are speaking at events large and small, far and wide. They are not waiting for readers, listeners, and followers to come to them, they are already engaging with people about their genre and topic.”
Next, I turn to the first page of the sample chapters. Even if the hook and the marketing section mostly discourage me from considering the writer as a potential client, there is still a chance that the concept and writing may be magnificent, that it will be impossible for me to stop reading until I’ve read all the way through the samples. If that is the case, I may be able to help the writer improve on the rest of the proposal. If it’s not, there is little I can do for him or her.
I always read those parts of a proposal, but to be honest (not that I’ve been lying up until now), I often stop reading if all three of those components—the hook, the “marketing” section, and the first page or two—don’t grab me, excite me, and fill me with hope. If they mostly do, then I will return to page one of the proposal and read it through, mainly to double-check my evaluation. But if they don’t, I don’t read any further.
Does that seem unfair? Perhaps. But I am not the only “unfair” agent (or editor) out there. And other agents—even my peers (oh, okay, my betters) within the agency—have thoroughly different processes. But most of us have puhlenty of reading to do, and the competition is fierce. So if it’s helpful to know how this agent reads, maybe it will help really good writers create great proposals. Those are the ones I most want to see.