A book proposal sent to an agent is like applying for a job as an author. Comparing how applying for a job and pitching an agent for your book proposal are similar is my task today. I think some authors believe that pitching an agent is a mysterious process involving passwords, magical keys or some sort of ceremonial sacrificial offering.
It couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sometimes a prospective employee is not hired by a company because they simply “did it wrong.” Similarly, an author might be declined by an agent because of a bad first impression. We might never read what you wrote because of it.
Pitching your book proposal is really not as complicated as it seems. Sure, there are some hoops to jump through, but they really are not that unique to publishing, but more common sense than anything else. By comparing it to a job application/interview process, maybe we can demystify it a bit.
Do’s and Don’ts of Applying for a Job
Prepare your resume – this is not something you do quickly or without taking great care. There are people who are experts in resume development. Talk to them. Spell things right and use an accepted format.
Follow Instructions – Some companies have forms you can fill out and submit online. Some are very specific. If they don’t want you to follow up for updates, then don’t. If they want you to include certain pieces of information, then do it.
Know your audience – Many HR directors have a common experience with an applicant who asks, “So what does this company do anyway?” For people in HR, that is translated, “Please don’t hire me.”
Be clear what you want – Just say it. “I am applying for the position of assistant bookkeeper.” A cover letter mentioning that you are “looking for a place to expand my horizons and find inner peace” will trigger a drug test, not an interview.
Don’t apply for jobs for which you are not qualified – “I know you said you are looking for a bookkeeper and I am not good with numbers, but I have a degree in history, and bookkeeping is sort of like history.”
Don’t burn bridges – sending a caustic note to the HR person if you don’t get the job will never work well. Ever. You just confirmed that they made the right decision in not hiring you. They will remember you and not in a good way.
Applying all this to the author/agent process
Prepare your proposal – this is not something you do quickly or without taking great care. There is no one format that works for every agency, so do your research and create something custom to each target. This takes time, but you took hundreds of hours to write your book, why not spend ten hours to do a great proposal.
Follow instructions – If the agency says, “Do not paste your proposal into the body of an email,” then don’t paste your proposal into the body of an email.
Know your audience – Get to know them. If they have a company blog, then subscribe to it and read it for a month or more before you pitch. Agents and agencies like to know you understand who they are. Find out who they represent and their work-personality.
Be clear what you want – Just say it. Save the creativity for the manuscript and the point in the proposal where it is necessary. Being too creative and obtuse will confuse everyone and probably get a quick decline. You are “….looking for an agent to represent my work,” not trying to “Engage a literary soul-mate to find fertile soil for my book seedlings.”
Don’t apply for jobs for which you are not qualified – Every agent announces what they are looking for and what they are not. “I know you said you are not looking for _______, but…” is a waste of everyone’s time.
Don’t burn bridges – After declining to represent an author or failing to get a publishing contract for an author, every agent has been told at least once that they will go to a very hot place after they die…and probably sooner rather than later. In the social media, text, and email world we live, the principle to remember is, “Don’t hit send,” when you are angry. They will remember you and not in a good way.
So, nothing too earth-shattering here. More common sense than anything. No secret handshakes, Vulcan mind-melds or coded communications required.
Not authors pitching agents, but people communicating with people.
I appreciate the content and guidance. And the morsels of humor didn’t hurt either. Thanks!!
Wise words and sound counsel. Thanks Dan. I so often coached my children to answer what and examiner was asking, not what they preferred to answer – it made a big difference. I even get them to underline operative words – if it says list, do a list, table, compare, if it say describe, do a paragraph, etc. Its estimated that 15-20% of lost exam marks are simply down to not answering the question.
I’m truly stunned that authors need to be told to not burn their bridges. I can only assume you put it in this blog *twice* because of how often it comes up.
My mind boggles, trying to imagine what kind of people would behave that way to the Steve Laube agency. I hope it is a rare event, but at least such folks allow you to never have to feel bad for not representing them!
Disappointment can make any of us do things we regret. Nothing is more permanent than an email written in anger!
Dan, you make it sound so simple!
Compared to buying a car or refinancing a mortgage? It is! 🙂
Peter, you typed the words from my fingers!
What I struggle with is my execution of my proposal. Did I communicate enough conflict in the plot in those 150-200 words allowed? Did I show my character’s motivation enough? Did I get the theme right in the tagline? And my synopsis…ack! I have a habit of over thinking and doubting myself when it comes to word choice. But this agency along with other writing sites have helped tremendously by offering exercises and solid advice. I’m much more confident now than I’ve ever been. Phew 🙂
Hey Jenelle, I identify. I have edited my seminal work a good few thousand times – I had version numbers going through the roof. I love the written word, really its my heartbeat, so I really labor to express it well in terms of audience, my position and the way the words hang together. I do find my quiet times are often disrupted by the real writer though as new thoughts flow and He so touches my soul that I just have to capture every nuance. I suspect David had a similar problem. My better half is as fastidious about music and I know artists who agonize over their craft. Maybe its becoming of writers to craft their writing with care. That said, my novels were written in a much freer style, but I so identify with you. Btw I did subscribe to higher purpose.
Peter, that is so great! All of what you said, but yeah for a Higher Purpose with Mick! Even though I don’t know you that well, the way you comment reminds me of him. Every time I read your comments, I nod my head because you get it. And it’s obvious you’re a wordsmith 😉 I don’t think I’m the only one here that can tell how passionate you are about words. You don’t just fling them about. God has gifted you and I’m excited to see what He does with your work!
I love this really: “Engage a literary soul-mate to find fertile soil for my book seedlings.” very creative….and funny! is that yours? I might just have to use that….JK!! Great post! although sometimes I like a bit of mystery 🙂
Made that up, but it might just work!! 😉
You literally made it up? Such license. My word. Sentence that man.
LOL! Love this and your sense of humor! Hope to get an interview with you at the Write to Publish conference this week.
Dan, your sense of humor always adds to your messages. Great post. Lots of common sense points. And as much as I may want to be remembered, being remembered for the wrong reason wouldn’t be so good. 🙂
I appreciate the time and lesson you shared. Bless you SIR.
Since I have found the Steve Laub Agency I get up earlier every morning.
#1. To find “inner peace” (loved that line).
#2. To be up before the grandbaby, so I can enjoy every bit of
info in the Steve Laub Agency Blog.
Dan, for me, this was a three chuckle post, job well done. It reminded me of the joke about the terrorists telling their prisoner, “Ha, Ha, you funny guy, we kill you last”.
Some day somebody will write a humorous expose` about agenting. I see a bestseller.
Mary E. Brown
Love the humor here.
This is practical advice and should be common sense to anyone aware of the world around them. Experience is the key here as in any job.
What advice do you give first time writers submitting a manuscript or looking for an agent?
I have down the “learn your trade advice” but you have to start somewhere…