The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make

…In Pitching Their Books to Agents

By Greg Johnson

(*Rachelle here: I keep asking my illustrious colleague [read: boss] if he wants to contribute to the blog; but he is SO illustrious he’s swamped from dawn till dark and has not had time yet. Never fear, I pulled this out of something he wrote in response to an agent survey.)

The biggest mistakes writers make, in my opinion, are…

a They don’t research the agency they want to pitch.

a They pitch their product long before it is actually ready. They are so anxious to get published that they don’t rewrite and edit well.

a They don’t do a good job with the competition section in their proposal. They think their book is the only one of its kind. When we see that, we reject the proposal 99% of the time, or at least send it back asking for revision. Authors must do their homework in the competition area. (This applies more heavily to non-fiction writers.)

a They underestimate the importance of the author platform, and don’t understand the author’s role in marketing.

a They think that by including everyone in their target market, their book is somehow more valuable. If you have a message for Christians, keep this in mind. Narrow it down to a specific section of the audience. If your message is for those outside the church, you’re in for a very tough time in getting anyone to pay attention. General market houses typically don’t care all that much about spreading the message, so writing “for the crossover market” typically leaves your book in no-man’s land.

a They think that because their message is important (which it often is) it must also deserve to be published. Writers need to understand that almost everyone has something important to say, but that doesn’t translate into having a publishable book.

So, whaddaya think? Agree or disagree? Have you made any of these mistakes?

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  • Anonymous

    >Writing, submitting and getting published – each is difficult and they all involve a lot of hard work. Add researching the competition to the list and I feel somewhat overwhelmed. I’m not even sure how to research the competition effectively. Of course, I can make a couple of trips to Borders and/or Powell’s Books, and Google some titles or scan Amazon’s site. But, I don’t even know if that’s what I should be doing, as far as research. Rachelle can you give us some guidance here?

    And as far as building a platform for fiction, would that just mean having a website or blogging or ???

    Thanks for any help you can offer here.

  • JC

    >I see the point made about the crossover book — the unsaved are not running to the CF sectin to scope out the newest release. Is Dekker considered crossover? I see him in the front of the store (heard that costs 10K, is that true?)

    This is actually a bit discouraging. If you’re book is meant to get people saved, you have less chance at getting published?

    Somewhat relavant to all this, I was on an athiest site many months ago, and they were discussing the Left Behind series. None of them had gotten saved, BUT they had read every single book (and were discussing the “lame” end and questioning why Jesus killed horses.) But the point is, they read it. The seeds were planted. The next big Christian book/series might be the one that germinates. I’ve heard that on average a person has to hear the gospel 7 times before it clicks/they get saved. Makes sense, as Paul warned that the gospel would seem like foolishness to the unsaved.

    OK, I am sorry. I will go rant on my own blog now.

  • Anonymous

    >Question about the competition section. You are suppossed to compare your plot to another already, good sales record book. Yet, we are hounded at to be original. To me, it seems like if you wrote up a really good competition section, the agent would think to themselves, there is no reason to publish this, its already been done.

    I am confused.

    Let’s say your book is a love story where the lovers haven’t met except online and in real life they hate each other. OK, you could spin off in an “original” way, but if I saw that, I would think “You Got Mail copycat”. I wouldn’t be interested.

  • Anonymous

    >To the last poster,

    I think it’s about originality, in terms of that type of story line. Meeting people online these days seem normal…especially considering we see lots of advertisement for it very often- not to mention myspace, facebook… etc. I guess it’s how you make the twist to your story more unique!

    About this blog.

    I took am definitely a little confused and am praying for guidance on the issue. I’ve done some research…went to Mardel’s and searched at Barnes and Nobels online under the Christian romance section and so far I haven’t found anything “exactly” like what I’m writing but definitely close to it.

    I’m one of the brand new aspiring authors and am learning a lot through this process. It’s very challenging though. I mean, is there a way people like me can have professional help from an experienced author, without it seeming like a hassle to get? If that makes sense…

    Signed,
    A Tired and Almost Stressed Writer!

  • God’s Servant, Kellus’ Wife

    >Yes. I’m sure I’ve made some of these mistakes.

    Thanks for posting this Rachelle. I find that I go through and edit things just about everyday…something is being added or subtracted from what I have so far. Very interesting- but always for the better; at least I think so.

    I think it’s important to research agency’s… and to see what competition is out there.

    :) Great tips. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    >My take on the competition section is that you’re supposed to list novels or books similar to yours in plot, setting, etc; but be able to explain concisely why yours is more appealing.

    For example, I am writing a contemporary romance for which I can find no similar plot line/setting. The only novels comparable are historicals, where the topic is looked at through the “frosted glass of time”. My novel has no frosting: hard questions are asked but maybe not completely answered. So, while there are similaries, there are definitely differences between my WIP and what I have found “out there”.

    Yes, says the Greek chorus, but you, dear scribe–you are unpublished.

    Too true, too true. **sigh**

  • Timothy Fish

    >I have just a couple of thoughts. If I thought that what I was writing was like what someone else has already written, I wouldn’t bother, but every story has some similarity to other stories.

    I think the point about the “crossover market” is a very good one. Readers choose what they want to read. We have to be careful that we don’t become so focused on what we believe people need to read that we fail to provide them with what they will actually read.

  • Rachelle

    >Regarding COMPETITION… Okay, clearly I need to write a post on this someday soon. Meanwhile, what Greg wrote in this post applies to fiction somewhat, but MOSTLY applies to non-fiction, which is mostly what our agency represented before my coming on. So everyone take a deep breath and relax about competition, since you’re obviously talking about fiction writing.

    I will blog more about this later, but in a fiction proposal, instead of a “competition” section, I prefer to have a section called “comparable titles.” This gives you an opportunity to point out other books that somehow have the same flavor, theme, literary quality or other characteristic as yours. Who do you compare yourself to in your own mind, or when explaining your book to your friends? You can use those books in your proposal.

    Most of the commenters here seem to be looking for competitive books with a similar PLOT but that’s only one of many similarities you might look for when you’re trying to help an edtitor capture a vision for your book.

    On another topic… “If your book is meant to get people saved, you have less chance at getting published?”

    Correct. Write for the Christian market. People who “get saved” partially by reading books are reading books aimed at the Christian market. Left Behind was written for the Christian market.

    BTW, you’re correct that plenty of books have “crossed over.” But note from your own examples, these are huge bestsellers by well-known authors. A new author with no appreciable platform isn’t going to sell a book on the basis of its crossover potential.

    That’s all I have time for now… I’ll try to address all the questions and concerns in a future post!

  • Pam Halter

    >My understanding of having a list of titles to compare your book to is one way the marketing people know where to place your book on the shelf it it’s published.

    I’m writing middle grade fantasy right now, so I have to not only indicate that in my query/proposal letter, I must also research other middle grade fantasies that have similar characteristics as mine.

    Then I can show how mine has a fresh twist.

    That not only helps the publisher, but it also shows me if I really do have something different.

  • Rachelle

    >YES. Pam has it exactly right. And it’s not just the marketing people. Sales, editorial, and art departments all need to be given direction in helping them get a vision for your book.

  • Matthew C Jones

    >Great topic. Something that really helped me in my understanding of fiction queries was Nicholas Sparks’ explanation and example. On his website, he goes into some very helpful detail about query letters, especially on the topic of comparison. His sample query letter is a good example (I think) of what to do. He compares two well-known novels with his own, citing their similarities to his but then explains the merits of his book, not necessarily as superior to the others, but simply as unique.

    He actually has his query letter from The Notebook on his site. It’s worth taking a look at.

    - Matt Jones

  • LurkerMonkey

    >Guilty of #2 … sending out my first two books LONG before they were ready. I think, actually, this is somewhat related to the competition/similar titles issue in fiction. I tend to believe a highly polished, really well-written and cohesive book will attract attention, even if it’s similar to other books out there. Anyway, I also believe the book becomes MORE original through the editing process, as you dig into your message, story and characters, it begins to less resemble your original model and take on a character and mood of its own. In fiction, originality is voice and character, not necessarily plot points.

    I’ve also used movies to describe the “flavor” of a book. I pitched one book as having elements of The DaVinci Code, National Treasure and Time Bandits. This pitch resonated with an editor, who later quoted the pitch line back to me and added a few movies/titles of her own to the mix.

  • heather

    >Since you brought the subject up…
    Ach! I’m currently reading a novel with some of the worst writing ever! I would not have made it past the first few pages if I hadn’t told a friend I’d read it.
    Once you get to the heart of it (about 2/3 in it), it has some good theology. Clearly a case of the writer having something to say.
    But having no clue as to how to say it well!
    I will say this for it: it inspires me to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, listen to my crit group, rewrite some more, read fiction and craft books, and rewrite again.

  • Ariel Allison Lawhon

    >On researching competition:

    This is just what works for me, so take it or leave it. Hopefully it will help.

    I have neither the time nor the money to read every book that could potentially compare to mine. So I do the majority of my research online using Amazon and Publishers Marketplace. (Although I do try to read well known titles or best sellers that I include in my proposals)

    On Amazon I research similar novels, and read the sample chapters provided. I also make a point to read the reviews that have been posted. After getting a general feel for what other titles are out there, I start researching sales figures for these books – how many copies they sold etc.

    On Publishers Marketplace I research how many books in my genre are being sold and the publishers that are buying them. This gives me a good idea what my competition will look like over the next few years because I can research other books months or years before they hit the shelves.

    Knowing your competition is so beneficial because it enables you to clearly communicate to the publisher who is buying books in your genre and how they are being received in the marketplace. I typically spend a great deal of time on this section of my proposals and it often takes up a page or more.

    Just my two cents for the day!

  • Katy McKenna

    >Ariel’s comment is very helpful. I did not know about Publisher’s Marketplace providing numbers on how many books are sold (and to whom) in my genre. Thanks for this!!

    I do handle my comps with other works of fiction in the manner explained by Pam. The point is not to show that your book is better than those in its genre, but to show both the similarities (where they are impressive in a good way…) and the differences (where yours will provide something a bit unique to the marketplace).

    Knowing the sales numbers for the books you are using in your comparison list is important. It probably does not serve you well to say, “My book shares blah-blah-blah with so-and-so’s,” only to discover so-and-so has poor numbers.

    If your porposal has been shopped around for a while, it’s also important to be continually revising this list of comparable titles. Stay current with what’s selling in today’s market! It’s not a plan to look as if you haven’t read a good book in ten years! ;)

    Katy McKenna http://www.fallible.com

  • LoveMakeda

    >It always helps to see common mistakes listed like this. I won’t mention how many I’ve personally committed :o)

    But, back when I was very green (I’m still green, just not as green), I queried an agency in the UK. I found their info in the Writer’s Market back when I intended to blanket the world with my queries.

    The UK agency politely responded that I would first have to get a US publisher on board before even thinking about British market.

    I’m pleased to say I’m much more knowledgeable of the publishing industry these days.

    Live, Laugh, Learn, and RESEARCH ;o)

  • Heather@Mommymonk

    >Guilty on a few counts…

    Still working on building a platform. Rachelle, would you comment on the place blogging has in a platform? I’m just not sure if it’s working the way I thought it might. I just read something recently at another agent’s site and he made a big point to downplay the importance of blogging. (Sorry if I’m off-topic…)

    I’m really enjoying reading your insights regularly here. Thanks for the help!

  • Rachelle

    >Heather, I will talk about this more on my blog later. But basically, I think blogging is the minimum every author should be doing towards marketing and platform. A long-running blog with decent hit counts and comments shows that you can successfully engage an audience and interact with them.

    Strictly my opinion. More later…

  • Susan

    >I narrowly avoided presenting my novel to an agent before it was ready. After attending a workshop at a writers’ conference, I quickly cancelled my appointment so another writer would have an opportunity to meet him.

    My WIP is soon going to reach the stage EWIP (endless work in progress). As I learn more about the craft of writing, I keep revising and polishing it.

    This sounds like a crazy question, but how do you know when your manuscript is ready to fly?

    P.S. Thanks, Rachelle, for this
    informative blog.

  • Tiffany Stuart

    >Love the buzz on this post. Excellent once again.

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