Steps for Approaching an Agent

So, I happened across some kind of website/chatroom/message board for writers and there was a discussion about finding an agent. This is one of those sites where people ask each other questions and help each other on the road to publication.

One of the writers mentioned that an agent to whom she’d submitted had requested a book proposal.

Her question for her friends and fellow aspiring authors was:

What is a book proposal?

I have to admit that FREAKED ME OUT. These are the basics. How can you be already approaching agents when you don’t have any idea how this whole getting-published process works?

An agent can’t sell your book to a publisher without a book proposal. You’ve got to have one, and it’s got to be good. These days, you even need one for fiction.

Let me put it to you straight: If you don’t know what a book proposal is, you’re not quite ready to approach an agent. Just because you’ve finished a manuscript doesn’t mean it’s time.

You’re ready for an agent when you’re ready to approach publishing as a business, even if it’s not your “day job.” Spend some time learning how it works. If you’ve already spent a lot of time and energy writing your blockbuster bestseller, take a little more time to brush up on the business of publishing, craft a killer query and a knock-your-socks-off book proposal. THEN come knocking.

In fact, one of the most common reasons for agent rejections is that the writer simply isn’t ready: they haven’t spent quite enough time mastering the craft of writing or learning about the business or both. If you’re seeking publication, here are the steps, although this list isn’t necessarily in order, and it’s not exhaustive:

8 Have a great idea, research the market and make sure there’s a desire or need for your idea, and write your book.

8 Sometime during that process, attend a writers’ conference or two so you can start learning about the business as well as meeting editors and agents.

8 Edit, rewrite and polish your book. Get critiques and feedback. Trade manuscripts with writing friends and get some good advice. Read books about writing and make sure you’ve done everything humanly possible to make your book the best it can be. You may even consider hiring a freelance editor.

8 Write a book proposal. There are books about that, too.

8 Research the marketplace and decide what kind of publisher is right for you, and by extension, what kind of agent will be right for you. Gather a list of names, your “target” list of agents and editors to whom you will submit. One way to do this is to spend some time in a bookstore, find books similar to yours, and find out who published them and who agented them. You can also use the Christian Writer’s Market Guide.

8 Spend time creating a winning query letter. Then begin sending your queries. Send a whole bunch at once if you want, making sure to state it’s a simultaneous submission. Fairly soon, you’ll get an idea of whether anyone is finding your query interesting.

But of course, you know all this. That’s why you’re reading my blog. Congratulations! You’re on the right track.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us what steps YOU’VE found necessary so far on your road to publication. Maybe I’ll learn something.

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  • Richard Mabry

    >Wise words, oh sage one. I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to writing than just writing. I thought that my first novel was a sure-fire winner. Now, three years later, I read it with pride that I completed it and embarrassment at the elementary nature of the writing.
    Conferences are mandatory. Input from others is essential. Reading books on writing is a must, but it’s not enough to read–commit the principles to memory and practice them until they’re second nature. Revise, revise, revise. I was surprised to find that most of the accomplished, published authors I know revise from half a dozen times to “too many to count.”
    And yet, there’s more. You’re exactly right, the would-be author has to learn the business. That means knowing the stuff that you’re telling us here. Thanks so much for putting this together for all of us, reminding some and educating others for the first time. I still think there’s a book there–if you can find the time to write it. And if you do, I know a great agent you can approach.

  • LurkerMonkey

    >Everything you said, and Dr. Mabry said, plus … hang out with other writers. Seek out published writers who are more experienced than yourself, and practice willful osmosis. Make friends and contacts within the industry because, like all businesses, this one is an insider’s game. Surround yourself with people who have already done the thing you seek to do.

    And (just because it bears repeating), write every day and revise, revise, revise, revise, revise. I didn’t write a winner until my fifth completed novel (gasp), and I worked it over obsessively until I could offer up a reason why every sentence was in its place. And even then (meaning today), it still isn’t quite perfect.

  • Katy McKenna

    >While I’m learning, attending conferences, networking with others in the industry, and WRITING, I’m also attempting to build a readership for my work. Whether it’s through blogging, offering free opt-in e-letters, joining groups on facebook, or developing a speaking ministry, I can do a LOT today to strengthen the marketing section of my proposal and deliver a built-in audience to my eventual publisher.

    Thanks, Rachelle! You’re posts are always challenging and thought-provoking….

    Katy McKenna http://www.fallible.com

  • Cathy West

    >Don’t ever think you’re above learning anything further about your craft. Pride is a dangerous emotion. Sure you can be proud of what you’ve accomplished, especially if you have completed a novel. Apparently a lot of would-be writers never even get that far. I’m proud of what I’ve written, but I wouldn’t ever say it’s perfect. Every time I sit down to write, I realize how much I still have to learn. I’ve been blessed enough to get advice and help from some published authors whom I really respect. Those connections are invaluable. Sometimes they come as gifts from God, other times you have to go after them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t be a pest either. Especially if you’re asking for something from someone who’s got rewrites and deadlines to deal with. Be humble, be gracious, be teachable.
    And be persistent. Writing is hard work, getting published is even harder. But if you know you’re called to it, don’t give up. It’ll happen in God’s time.
    Oh, and please don’t jump off a cliff when those rejections come in. It’s all part of the process. Not a fun part, but nevertheless, a necessary part. Look at it as another chance to go back and do some more revisions…uh, yeah. Speaking of which…I’m going back to work now. :0)

  • Pam Halter

    >Ditto to what everyone has said so far.

    And I would like to add that authors must now learn about marketing and publicity and add that plan to their proposal.

    The most helpful thing for me has been my mentor. Right up there with her is my writing partner. Without these two women, I would have given up long ago.

  • Nancy I. Sanders

    >Thanks, Rachelle, for your timely words of wisdom! Yesterday I was hosting a mini-goal workshop at my local SCBWI Schmooze and a newcomer asked, “So should I get an agent?”

    I basically said what you stated on your blog today. Write. Get to know the business. Start acquiring published credits. Then ask that question again. An amazing fact that many writers don’t know is that there are A LOT of publishers who actually prefer NOT to work through an agent. They are either too small to afford paying an author AND and agent, or just prefer the more hands-on relationship working directly with an author.

    I’ve written a book that among other things discusses the “agent” issue as well as practical steps to get published. It’s called ANYONE CAN GET PUBLISHED–YOU CAN, TOO! PRACTICAL STRATEGY FOR THE CHRISTIAN WHO WRITES. I take the readers step-by-step through the process of getting published. And to answer your question about the steps I’ve found necessary on my road to publication:
    I always advise writers to walk down 2 trail at once. Being a Two-Trails Traveler is what my book is all about. How do you do this? Always be working on 2 manuscripts at the same time. One manuscript is that project that is near and dear to your heart. This keeps your writer’s passion alive, but can sadly end up in an overwhelming pile of rejections. The second project is to write a brand new manuscript specifically targeted for publication:
    Research a publiher.
    Find a hole in their list that you’d like to write for.
    Write a manuscript that zeroes in on that target.
    That’s how I’ve gotten all my books published so far.
    -Nancy I. Sanders

  • Gina Conroy

    >Great advice! Not much to add from my experience that hasn’t already been covered.

    Thanks for participating in the Carnival of Christian Writers!

  • Gemgirl

    >One thing a Christian writer (or any other) needs on this journey – friends who tell you the TRUTH. I figure if you can't take critique from those nearest and dearest to you then you are probably not ready to take rejection from a publisher or agent. Remember, they are telling you the mistakes or changes needed because they want to help you. Much like you, Rachelle. Thanks again.

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