If you’ve finished your book proposal, and you’re getting ready to pitch to literary agents, this is a must-read. For many first-time authors, the literary agent matchmaking process can be a mine field, with lots of spots where you can inadvertently “step in it” and blow up your chances of getting signed.
Here are some of the worst I’ve heard that you must NEVER say to an agent:
“I know you don’t represent this kind of work, but…”
Agents often get as many as 1500 unsolicited proposals a month or more, depending on how well-known the agent is. They tend to be explicit on their website about the types of books they represent and the kinds of projects they’re interested in.
If your work does not match their interests, they are not going to change their mind—no matter how awesome you think your proposal is. The best thing you can do, before you reach out to an agent, is to research them. Only contact agents that have already stated that they represent your kind of work.
“I think the way I did it is good enough!”
Yeah, this one is bad.
If you are fortunate enough to get feedback from a literary agent, the only appropriate response is to be gracious and open to their suggestions.
There are a couple reasons for this. First, if they actually took the time to give you feedback, it probably means they’re interested. If you just discard their feedback out of hand because your ego can’t handle the criticism, any interest they had in you and your book will immediately evaporate.
Second, agents are in the trenches of the publishing industry. They speak to publishing house editors every day and have their finger on the pulse of the current trends in publishing. They know what editors are looking for today. You do not.
So, if an agent has a suggestion for you to make a change in positioning your concept, or how you unpack your ideas, incorporate their feedback. The only time I say don’t do it is if their suggestion pulls your message off brand. Then, you know to keep looking.
If you take an agent’s feedback graciously, they will view you as someone they might want to work with. You’ll have opened the door to what could become a mutually rewarding relationship.
“There’s a lot of other agents who want this.”
Agents don’t respond well to being hard-balled or manipulated into signing with a client quickly.
When they look at a potential client, agents are thinking long-term relationship. They’re not looking at it as a one-night stand or quick fling, it’s more like is this someone I want to marry?
Think about it, you wouldn’t reach out to a romantic interest and say, “I’ve got lots of other people who want dates with me.”
I’ve had clients who have been with the same agent for years. My mentor, David Wise, had the same agent from around 1962 until his death in 2018.
Agents are looking for clients to represent for multiple books. They want to develop an on-going relationship and help you sell not just one book, but a catalog if possible. So, the worst thing you can do is treat the agent like they’re just one of many. It’s not going to motivate them towards the aim that you seek. In fact, it will have the opposite effect.
During the literary agent matchmaking process, have a positive attitude and let them know what about them specifically made you reach out in the first place. Then, you’ll have a much better shot.
“My friends say I write like Hemingway.”
I wish I could say I made this one up, but someone actually said this to me when he was trying to convince me to help him get an agent for his novel.
My response? I told him to never, ever say that to anyone ever again, especially not a literary agent or a publishing house editor. The reason is that it makes you sound arrogant and frankly, delusional, which are two traits no agent wants in an author. Especially not combined!
Further, a declaration like that sets the bar so enormously high that there’s no way to live up to it. So, don’t ever equate yourself to iconic authors, living or dead. Ever. Leave that to the literary critics.
“I don’t have a platform now, but here’s what I’m going to do…”
During your research on how to get a book deal, you’ve probably come across the term “author platform.” And you’ve seen it’s a huge factor in not only getting a book deal, but also how much you’ll get paid.
An author platform is about how you reach people. The bigger the audience, and the more engaged they are, the more publishers are willing to gamble on your book’s success.
This is vital to the agent, as a legitimate literary agent only gets paid a percentage of what the publisher pays you.
To say you’re going to do certain things to grow your platform when you have little to show for your efforts thus far is unconvincing. You don’t have to be in the publishing business very long to know that most wannabe authors say they’re going to do all kinds of things and never do any of it. Thus, agents take the law of averages and assume that you probably won’t.
When choosing clients to represent, agents are looking for proposals that both generate excitement and remove doubt. Your platform carries much of the weight in accomplishing the former.
Even if you are the outlier who will do what’s necessary to beef up your platform, my best advice is to do it now, before you submit your book proposal to anyone. Get some evidence that you can and will promote the book, because you’re already at it.
“Why is it taking so long?”
If you get an agent, keep an empathetic point of view towards their efforts and exercise patience. The publishing industry is not known for lightning speed, and sometimes it can take a long time for a book to sell. It could take several weeks or even months for an agent to be able to sell your book. Most of the factors are beyond an agent’s control.
Trust that your agent has every motivation in the world to sell your book. Literary agents earn nothing until they do. And your agent most likely has done hundreds, if not thousands, of book deals in their career. They know what they’re doing.
Your agent will likely pitch your book to 25 to 30 different editors at various houses and imprints at once. Then, they wait for editors to respond. The “no’s” always come faster than yeses. When you’re waiting to hear, it doesn’t mean that your book’s been rejected. It means that it’s being considered.
Books today are bought by committee. One editor gets the proposal and gives it the first review. But an entire committee has to sign off on the book for the publisher to make an offer. This often includes not just editorial, but sales and marketing departments as well.
If your agent hasn’t sent out your proposal yet, you might ask them gently what they need from you so they can. Chances are, they’ve already asked for something and are waiting for you to supply it.
Once an agent has sent your proposal out for bids, if you haven’t heard anything from them for a couple of weeks, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out and politely checking in, but make sure that you use a respectful, inquisitive tone. Never come across as blaming them for the process taking longer than you want it to.
The Bottom Line is This:
Always treat literary agents with respect. Only approach ones who are interested in your kind of book. Be courteous and receptive to their feedback. If you do, you can have a long and happy relationship with a fierce advocate for you and your work.