When does an agent want to see a book proposal?
March 4, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor
I’ve been trying to answer a backlog of questions writers have sent my way, so we’re doing some short-answer blog posts for a while. For example, one person asked, “At what point in the process does an agent want to see a book proposal? After the book is completed?”
Most agents will look at a nonfiction book proposal before the book is completed, but after the author has figured out what he or she wants to say. That is, the author has figured out the question and the answer, and has tried to put some structure (in terms of an outline or table of contents) to the material. With a fiction proposal, most agents want to see a synopsis or overview, just to know what the basic story is, then the first ten to fifty pages, to see if the author can write. If the agent reads a portion and likes it, he or she will probably ask for the rest of the manuscript.
Someone else asked, “I’ve been told the internet has killed nonfiction… Is nonfiction really dead? It seems like most of the questions you get have to do with fiction.”
My wife was cooking an East Indian dish the other day, and needed a recipe. Where did she go? To a cookbook? Nope, she went online. I was looking for the answer to a port wine question yesterday. Did I look at one of my wine books? Nope, I went to the web. The internet has made basic information available on every topic to anyone with a computer. That puts the core of nonfiction at risk. I think this points to a major shift we’re seeing in publishing — away from much nonfiction in traditional print form. There will still be plenty of nonfiction that sees print (history, memoir, and much of the “literary” side of writing), but a lot of the how-to side is quickly shifting to an electronic format. People still love and buy nonfiction books, but only when they NEED to, or they see it as having literary quality, or the material is not readily available in a digital format.
One author wanted to know, “Is it the agent’s job to tell the publisher they’re being too slow, or to withdraw a project from a house, or is that the author’s job?”
If the agent sent a project to a publishing house, it’s the agent’s responsibility to follow up on that project. That said, I don’t often tell a publisher they’re being “too slow.” Publishing is a slow business. I will often check on a project, to make sure it’s being reviewed and hasn’t fallen through the cracks, but I don’t often push them to make a decision. (Why? Because when pushed, the easiest answer is “no.”)
Another asked this: “If I regularly read an agent’s blog, should I mention that when I query them?”
I would. It establishes a connection.
A friend wrote to say, “You’ve often encouraged authors to promote themselves, yet you do a lot of inspirational books. How do you reconcile self-promotion with the Christian teachings on pride and being self-effacing?”
I was just asked this question on another website recently, so let me share the response I gave to them: “Promotion” and “pride” are two separate things. The church tells people to beware of pride — not to have too high an opinion of oneself, or to take all the credit for something, lord your success over others, or brag about how wonderful you are. When we do that, we lose our perspective as to where our talent comes from. But “promotion” is different than “pride.” It simply means we are encouraging or advancing something — and with a clear conscience, it’s promoting something we actually believe in. Move this out of the realm of books for a moment… If you were selling vacuum cleaners, would your faith keep you from advertising them? (“I can’t tell anyone about my vacuum cleaners — they’re really good, but it would look like I’m too proud of them.”) That’s crazy. If you work hard, have confidence in your work, and feel your product is helpful to others, should you feel awkward about telling others about it? I don’t think so. An author is creating art, so would we ask a singer not to sing in public, or a painter not hang her art in a gallery for fear others will notice their gifts? Of course not. Similarly, I think authors can promote the books they create in good conscience. Sure, that could cross over into the realm of an unhealthy, overweening arrogance — but any business where people are publicly successful holds that trap. So I think an individual take steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. I see nothing in my religious faith that tells me not to share the art I believe in with others.
One author sent this: “Will self-publishing my novel help me or hurt me when I approach a traditional publisher?”
Most likely, the answer is “neither.” Self-publishing probably won’t help you land a deal with a traditional publisher unless you sell a bajillion copies. Yeah, yeah… The Shack did exactly that, but that’s news because it’s so rare. For every Shack there are ten thousand other self-pubbed novels that did nothing. And then, if you sell a bajillion copies, you may not need that traditional publisher. But I certainly don’t think self-publishing will actually HURT you, unless your book is so horrendously bad that it becomes an insider joke.
I got this interesting question a couple weeks ago: “I wrote a story that is being produced as a play. A friend suggested I invite an agent to come see it. Is that common? Would it help me in any way?”
It may not be common, but I don’t see how it could hurt (assuming the play is good, of course). My suggestion: contact the agent, introduce yourself, explain the situation, invite him or her, then leave two good tickets at the door. I’ve known authors who have done that.
And I had several versions of this question: “How difficult is it for an author to break into more than one genre?”
If you’re a genre writer in fiction (that is, you’re basically writing romances, or historicals, or mysteries, or westerns, or thrillers, etc), then each time you switch genres, you have to start over. If you’re a literary fiction writer, it’s a bit easier, since you don’t have a genre-specific readership. However, be aware that if you have a loyal following in one genre, your readers might view your move to another genre as breaking your promise (“You ALWAYS write legal thrillers! And now you’re writing boring novels about poor people painting their house?!”). As I’ve stated earlier, moving from fiction to nonfiction is exceedingly, abundantly difficult. Fiction readers won’t cross over to read your nonfiction, and the skills used in the genres are very different.