Recently we had someone write and say that forcing an author to follow our guidelines when submitting a proposal is the height of arrogance. An artist should be allowed artistic freedom of expression and cramming ideas into a pre-prescribed format is squelching that creativity.
While I understand the frustration and the amount of work involved in creating a proposal, there are reasons why we ask that writers follow the guidelines.
The Definition of “Guidelines”
We use the word “guidelines” instead of “rules” intentionally. They are designed, in part, as a help to writers who don’t know where to begin when putting together a proposal.
You could say that rules are meant to be broken but guidelines are meant to be followed. But even then, there are some who get caught up in the details of the guidelines and miss the point. We get questions about font size, preferred font, include author photo or not, how many pages equal a chapter, page margins, what sort of salutation to use, what to say in the cover letter, etc. They are all legitimate questions but accompanying the question is a fear that if the writer does it wrong they will be rejected.
When working through the considerable number of proposals it quickly becomes obvious which ones have taken the time to review our guidelines and try to follow them. It is also obvious those who are oblivious to the help that ours, other agencies, books, and online resources provide.
The advantage of a general format is that we can quickly find the parts of a proposal that help our review process. If I have to dig to find a half-page summary of the book or a section about the writer, I can get frustrated. I’ve seen proposals that lead with chapter one, page one and bury their cover letter in the end of the document. Please don’t do that.
Treat it Like a Job Application
It is like applying for a job in the technology sector. There are certain things that you know are going to attract Apple, Alphabet (aka Google), Yahoo, Facebook, or Evernote. Those are a “standard” part of every application. But if you are wise you will have gone to each one of those company’s web sites and followed their guidelines. If they want a one page resume you don’t send two. If they ask for two, you don’t send one. In other words, you are customizing your application to meet the interests of that particular company.
Try to stand out as a professional. Artistic rebels can still be professional about their rebellion!
Standing out as a “Grumpy Gus” or worse suggests that working together might be difficult.
The Underlying Reason for Guidelines
One thing to remember is that it isn’t anyone’s arrogance that requests following a guideline. Our guidelines are based on what the publishers ask from us. The publisher is wanting certain information because the stores (online and physical) ask for certain information when being presented a new book. And the store is wanting that information because they know that you, the consumer, is asking for that information when making a purchasing decision. It is ultimately your fault that we have guidelines! (See me smiling when I write that?)
The bottom line is that we all want to sell books…
The consumer wants to know what the book is about and why they should buy it.
The store wants to know what the book is about and why they should stock it.
The publisher wants to know what the book is about and why they should publish it.
And the literary agent wants to know what the book is about and why they should represent it.
Therefore the writer, if they want a reader to buy their book, needs to consider what the reader is looking for and put that in the proposal. That doesn’t change what you write in the book. It merely wraps the entire concept into a package that can ultimately be presented to a reader which says “Buy me. Read me.”
What has been your experience with Agency Guidelines?
What is your biggest challenge when putting together a proposal?
I’m thinking that the person who complained obviously doesn’t want to be successful. Whether they believe themselves to be right or not, there is always more to learn, and learning to play well with others is primo in this life. If you are always playing defensive strategies…how will you ever get to present your offensive? It is always interesting to see the arrogance of others…I wonder how it is working out for them?
Several months ago when I finished my first fiction ms, I decided it was time to look ahead to the next step, so I started googling. Wow…what a confusing, overwhelming, conflicting introduction to the journey of publishing! I was fortunate that I found your website early in my learning process. The blog and resources are invaluable…guidelines included. It was so helpful that you spent time clearly defining what should be included in each part of the proposal as well as providing some examples. I used the guidelines to write a “practice proposal” and was amazed how the process clarified my story for me. I remember thinking, “I wrote this story…how can I not know these things about my own story?” Writing the proposal was an act of discipline, but the guidelines helped me better understand my story, my writing, and even myself as an author. Maybe the more artistic types don’t need that experience, but for me it is invaluable. Thank you!
I have only written one proposal so far in my writing life, and I have to agree with you Karen, the process of writing the proposal itself was enlightening beyond anything that I could have ever imagined. There were questions that I simply didn’t know the answers too. The process taught me much about myself and my writing, as well as potential future manuscripts. I am always thankful for the experience of others!
Steve, great post. Thanks for your thoughts.
Like Karen, I found your your guidelines to be clear. And as you mentioned in your post, if the author can’t follow instructions, how well will she/he cooperate in the journey.
I would be lost without guidelines to follow. I appreciate not only that your agency has guidelines, but some examples to help clarify what you want.
I admit that writing my first proposal was a painful experience. Very painful. However, since then I have grown in my appreciation of the proposal, and keeping the proposal in mind has helped me stay focused as I write my next book.
The biggest challenge for me, when trying to follow “Agency Guidelines,” is honestly just being humble enough to submit to what another person thinks is best instead of what I think is best. I like to do things my own way, you know!
Brennan S. McPherson
Biggest challenge when putting together a proposal: I had the most difficulty writing the short plot summary. Though writing a bio is definitely difficult, too. To make a plot summary that truly carries as much of the essence of the story as possible is very difficult. And to make it show some of your unique voice without getting bloated? It took quite some time for me to get close.
As far as guidelines go, I heard my dad say once, “What’s a picture without borders? Or a song without a beginning and an end? Art isn’t art without boundaries.”
“An artist should be allowed artistic freedom of expression.” I absolutely agree, as does the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States (speaking of guidelines). But as soon as one takes the first step into the world of publishing (that first step being to secure the services of an agent), one steps out of the world of art and into the world of business. And in that world, freedom of expression runs headlong into freedom of the market, which means others are free to buy or not buy what one is selling. Turns out the buyers in the world of publishing have lots of options and limited coins to spend. So they naturally incline toward products they can quickly understand, meet the needs they wish to have satisfied, and conform (at least in the business sense of that term) to the conventions of doing business. Bottom line (to use a term from the word of business): you can exercise as much artistic freedom as you wish, but if you want to play the game of publishing, you play by the established rules. Or you can stay home. (BTW, even Jasper Johns and John Cage have agents.)
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Bravo! Well said!
Nothing is more valuable when preparing a proposal for business or research than having clear guidelines. How can you write a winning proposal when you don’t know the content and format that the funding organization or potential customer wants to help them make the decision? If you want to win at any sport, of course you follow the rules. Why would anyone expect the publishing business to be different? Your agency guidelines are very clear, and I plan to be following them in a few months when my web platform is in place and growing well.
The hardest part for me is knowing what to include in the bio. I’ve been quite successful for many years in a field totally unrelated to writing fiction. Although I’ve published a lot in my profession, I don’t have any formal credentials in the literary arena. The formal writing style of scientific publishing is nothing like the relaxed, fluid style of a good story. I can flip back and forth between the two, but nothing in my bio would suggest that I can. Just how does someone write an appropriate bio as an author of romantic historical fiction when your past is more suited to a curriculum vitae than a warm introduction to you as a person? What would an agent think might make me “qualified” to write fiction? Or, for that matter, make anyone from any background qualified to write fiction?
Brennan S. McPherson
From conversations I’ve had with publishers, they seem to be quite excited by a debut fiction author’s success with non-fiction. There’s no better proof that you can write fiction than a direct excerpt from the work you’re trying to sell, and if you can back up your work with previous success in non-fiction, that only makes you more attractive to a publisher because that tells them you’re diligent, intelligent, and professional, and that you understand publishing.
Also, if you’re doing historical fiction, previous work in non-fiction may be viewed as experience developing the research skills that are necessary for convincingly evoking a particular period/background.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Brennan. They are definitely encouraging.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Carol, I always eagerly anticipate your posts. We are very often on the same page and struggling with the same dilemmas, and I totally relate to this post. I, too, have experienced a level of professional success than included publication in a completely different field from writing fiction, and that has impacted my fledgling attempts at building a platform for my fiction. I already have an online presence and”platform” in academia, and a long history as a speaker there. I never promoted a reputation in my field–it evolved over the years through publishing, networking, and consulting. Now that I need to intentionally build a platform as a writer of fiction that will reach strangers, I’m really struggling with it, and asking the same questions you are.
Kindred spirits, that us! It’s so nice to find one!
Carol, I, like Linda, greatly enjoy your posts. Your candid honesty is quite refreshing. Although you may not have intended such your comment today made me smile widely and warmly. My dear wife belongs to Mensa, (this alone places her in the top 2% I.Q.) as well as having multiple degrees and wide experience and is one humbly of the most intelligent people one may be likely to meet. One of her many endearing qualities is her propensity to calculate EVERY BIT and nuance of available information into the decision making process.
What I find endearing about this is that her time tested decision process usually goes into EVERY decision. I can only imagine how many mental calculations are being made to consider every potential combination of factors to arrive at the most probable correct answer. This sometimes includes seemingly life changing questions like “paper or plastic ma’am”. I routinely chuckle and tell her that she can exclude about 99% of the data that would usually go into THIS particular decision.
Could it be that you may be approaching this a bit too literally? By that I mean that it is not mandatory that you HAVE TO extrapolate or justify your remarkable achievements as a scientist into your future life as the “legendary writer of romantic historical fiction” that you may become.
Your question “What would an agent think might make me “qualified” to write fiction?” and since you already mentioned you are writing historical romantic fiction, urged me to yell into the monitor “YOU ARE A WOMAN AREN’T YOU? YOU KNOW WHAT LOVE IS DON’T YOU?” THIS IS WHAT QUALIFIES YOU TO WRITE ENRAPTURING HISTORICAL ROMANTIC FICTION.! This is what would qualify any woman in my opinion.
If asked the same questions you posed by my wife I would advise her to
a. Go ahead and put EVERYTHING (ACADEMICS AND ALL) into the bio, it gives very interesting “background”.
b. When writing your historical romantic fiction hold in abeyance your science background (unless it is contained in one of your characters info) and focus your experience as a full fledged, living, loving WOMAN. I will bet that you have a much longer experience as a woman than you do as a scientist. Its OK, let it shine, let it come through with brilliance in your writing voice and point of view. Let your readers relate to you as the romantic woman you are. I would respectfully ask her if she is writing for other scientists or readers interested in great romance.
People of the Kingdom are all kindred spirits in one way or another. Many of us seek to assist each another. My opinion is just one of many, my sincere desire is to shine light into the darkness when possible. Wishing you success!
Amen to all of us in the Kingdom being kindred spirits!
I am highly analytical, like your wife. I do serious online research before a major purchase, but I can also make snap decisions on unimportant things. (Wait, I forgot paper vs. plastic affects the planet for the next 6000 years. Aargh!) I can get in and out of a store as fast as any man when I’m pressed for time, but shopping can also be recreation.
Funny thing that you should say being a woman qualifies me for writing romantic novels. There are men who write suspense/thriller, historicals, and contemporary with sweet romantic subplots, too, but I can’t name any writing genre romance. But then I don’t write genre romance, either. My romance plot runs parallel to another plot line.
As I do POV analysis, I find that more than 70% of one of my novels is in the POV of a male character. (To avoid head-hopping, I make a notation of who the POV character is at the head of each section while I’m writing-there’s that analytical me again. It’s very instructive if you haven’t tried it.) Almost forty years in a career that is >85% male where I had to adopt the male communication style to really succeed lets me slide comfortably into the male persona I as I write. That’s probably a fairly distinctive thing about my fictional voice. My male beta reader and my husband assure me that I capture the male characteristics accurately. My men might chuckle, but they never giggle. Their hearts might palpitate, but they never flutter. They always minimize the number of words they speak. Writing the female parts is just as easy. As you point out, I am one of those.
By jove, I think you’re really onto something!. Waiting (im)patiently for your web platform!
Brennan S. McPherson
You should check out Charles Martin, author of Water From My Heart and Unwritten. Quite a spectacular male author who writes love stories. They’re more nuanced and complex than “genre romance,” usually with multiple plot devices, but at their core they are romance novels with serious spiritual and emotional depth. I would think he’d be right up your alley. He also started in non-fiction, though he was doing journalistic work rather than academic. He writes fiction only in first person, which is a bit odd. But it works. And I think his books are unusually good. The following is his website: http://charlesmartinbooks.com/
His novel, “Chasing Fireflies,” also won a Christy Award.
Many thanks, Brennan! I didn’t know about Charles Martin. I’m always looking for comps, and his work does sound just like the sort of thing I write. I’ve been reaching Christy winners to see how the best write, and now I have another to check out!
Guidelines are there for a reason. I think they help winnow out the below average from the above average. Any organization that cultivates above average people has guidelines. For example, in Toastmasters, getting to be an Accredited Speaker is difficult (top 1% of 4 million) and most speakers don’t follow the guidelines to pass the first phase. So they don’t get a shot at the finals. As a United States Air Force Academy Liaison officer, I work with prospective students who want to be part of the elite group (top 5%) who is offered a 450K education. If they can’t follow the guidelines, then they don’t even get a chance to interview. The Steve Laube Agency is an agency that is in the top 5% in Christian publishing. Once again, in the real world scenario, if you can’t follow the guidelines, then you won’t get your shot. Excellence is required in all three of the aforementioned examples, and following guidelines is the easiest part of getting to be a part of an elite organization. Once you get past the guidelines, then you are in a position to be considered.
I have found that a person that won’t follow clear guidelines when beginning a relationship (whether business, social, military or other) generally doesn’t follow guidelines in many other important areas as well. To me, lacking self discipline brings into question many other areas of character such as dependability and honesty.
To me, your guidelines are VERY welcome and appreciated. They inform me as to what your expectations, likely well rooted in needs, are. To me, there is an implicit deal made here. It is that if I follow your guidelines you will most likely give me a fair hearing.
We have a quotient that we lovingly calculate when considering a new hire whether an individual or a company for contracted services. We call it the “aggravation factor”. Needless to say that if the “sensed” factor comes in too high the outcome won’t be positive.
Rochellino, I love that, the “Aggravation Factor!” If Steve had factored that in 12 years ago, when I became one of his first clients, I’m not sure I would have been selected! 🙂
After clicking on your name and reviewing your website I would bet that twelve years ago, even though you may have thought differently, you didn’t even move the needle on the “aggravation factor” scale. I am sure Steve could relate stories that would make one’s hair stand on end while being immensely informative and entertaining. I have suggested more than once in the past that he might consider writing a book about agenting, publishing, workshopping and related adventures. I am ready to enter my pre-publication copy as soon as available!
THANK YOU and Bob for your extended and valuable service to our country both in uniform and out. It is truly appreciated! After my tour in Vietnam I became a lifetime member of the U.S 25th Infantry Division and the Vietnam Helicopter Crewmembers Assoc. I receive Military.Com articles regularly. Thanks again, Ellie Kay!
Thank you for the kind words, Rochellino, and thank you for your service in the Army in Vietnam. Congrats on getting the distinction of lifetime member of the Association, I’m sure it is well deserved.
I agree with you on Steve publishing a book, even if he used pseudonyms to protect the guilty.
Best to you,
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Exactly! It may be difficult to quantify the aggravation factor, but any employer would ignore its existence only at a high risk; and it seems that the same thing would definitely apply to an agent/agency.
Gosh. Actually, I find it the height of arrogance for an author to demand an agent or publisher cater to his or her whims. I find it helpful to have guidelines. Yes, it means more work for the author, tweaking and formatting a proposal for different agencies, but that’s the cost of doing business.
That being said, once an agent asked to see my proposal. I used his requested template and put a lot of work into it. Three months after sending it, I sent a short email and asked if he’d received it because I’d had no response. His reply? “I got it.” That’s it, and then nothing. I guess there should be some mutual respect in this area.
Wow. I love the familial camaraderie of the posts above. Also makes me want to raise my hand and say ,”hi my name is Sam, and I’m a writer.”
To answer your question Steve, your agency as the first agency that I have seriously considered submitting my work to. I have a now self-published title, and the only effort I made to go through traditional means of publishing was pitiful. I had no idea how much work goes into a proposal. I am grateful for your clearly stated expectations. The amount of work is overwhelming, but I realize that the input is what separates people who get published from people who don’t, & I would really like to be in the former category. I’m really intimidated by the process. I would rather write a 120 k Word novel then an 11 p. proposal, but I’m determined to make forward progress. Just put one word in front of the other, right? It may take me three months to get it right, but eventually the Steve Laube Agency will have a proposal worth a second look. You’re on the edge of your seat, I know. But you must be patient.
K. No more voice-text comments. Sorry about that.
Any business relationship is based on good communication skills. Being able to answer questions is vital to working together, especially if you are a writer.
What has been my experience with Agency Guidelines? It’s a good place to demonstrate you can answer questions and concisely communicate your goals.