Tag s | Get Published

How an Agent Reads

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.



Leave a Comment

Author Says / Agent Hears

Many aspiring authors communicate things they think are positive, or at least in the spirit of honesty and transparency, but end up being understood entirely different than the intended message. In an attempt to show commitment, an aspiring author says, “I’ve been working on this book for ten years.” An …

Read More

The Wild Pitch

In honor of the upcoming baseball season I thought it would be fun to explore the art of pitching.

A couple years ago I was watching a Major League baseball game and the pitcher unleashed a horrific throw that sailed about eight feet behind the batter. It floated to the backstop without a bounce and everyone in the stadium wonder what had just happened. It looked like the pitcher lost his grip and could not stop his delivery. In baseball terms this is classified as a wild pitch.

Unfortunately many writers unleash a pitch on an agent or an editor before it is ready to deliver. Let me list a few actual letters I have received.

Read More

Five Ways Getting an Agent is Like Dating

At a recent writers’ conference, I enjoyed my first “speed dating” experience. Maybe I should clarify. “Yes, you should,” says my wife. These were “speed dating for writers” sessions, in which writers sat down for rapid-fire five-minute appointments with editors, agents, and authors (many conferences provide writers with the opportunity …

Read More

Two Kinds of Writers in the World

I often tell developing writers at conferences that there are two kinds of writers in the world: the “hobbyist” and the “professional.” Yes, it’s an oversimplification. It’s shorthand. But I think it gets the point across. Both the hobbyist and the professional may be good writers, even great. Both may …

Read More

Four Ways to Apprentice as a Writer

One of the things that struck me as I read Stephen King’s On Writing (besides his reliance on the “S” word!) was his depiction of some of his first steps as a writer. Back then, a fiction writer could cut his teeth, so to speak, writing for pulp magazines (Weird …

Read More

When the Market Is Too Tight

Previously I posted about sending rejections saying the market is too tight as a reason for the decline. Let’s take a closer look. Subjective? “The market is too tight,” sounds objective, doesn’t it? As in, “There isn’t enough room for your book because no one is buying this type of …

Read More

Editors: Friend or Foe?

Our guest blogger today is our friend Karen Ball! She runs Karen Ball Publishing Services, LLC and is an award-winning, best-selling author; a popular podcaster/ speaker; and the co-creator with Erin Taylor Young of From the Deep, LLC. She has also been executive editor for fiction at Tyndale, Multnomah, Zondervan, and …

Read More