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.

 What have you always wanted to ask an agent?

Posted in Agents, Career, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing

  • http://therockstardevotional.blogspot.com/ Clint Hall

    No questions come to mind, but just for the record, these blogs are extremely helpful. Thanks for that.

    • chipmacgregor

      Glad you’re enjoying them, Clint. Thanks.

  • J

    Thanks for this, Chip. I do have a question…

    How long should it take for your agent to receive a yes/no from a publisher? My agent submitted my book to a handful of editors over four months ago and has only received two answers so far. I asked him if he’s heard back from the rest and he said no. Is this normal?

    • chipmacgregor

      We used to say that we’d hear in a couple weeks to a couple months, J. Now things seem to take longer. Though… if you think about it, if the publisher hasn’t responded in four months, they may not be all that enthusiastic about it. (I say that, even though I know some editors are going to wake up and see some proposal I sent them three months ago, realize it’s fab, and call me with an offer.)

  • Tina Bustamante

    Hi Chip, About that non-fiction question – you answered it really well. I would only add that platform usually justifies the book. Take The Pioneer Woman – her recipe books have sold really well – my mom stood in line at Third Place books for hours to get her to sign a copy to mail to my sister – and almost all of her recipes in the books are available online. People buy them, myself included, because we’ve bonded with someone and want their material in our hands, they have a brand that we can’t get enough of … and for non-fiction – platform is super important. Blogs, especially for women, are part of their lives now. Women read blogs – and if they bond with the blogger, they’ll buy the book.

    Do you agree?

    Tina

    • chipmacgregor

      I very much agree, Tina. I think the notion of a brand is important — it makes us think we somehow have a relationship with the person, feel emotionally connected in a way, and are willing to pay more and buy more often because of that perceived relationship. (For those who don’t know, Tina is a wonderful writer — check out her blog some day.)

  • http://twitter.com/jaime_wright Jaime Wright

    I’m drinking my java and musing on your answers. I was thinking on the jumping genre thing, and your answer confirmed my suspicions. :) Which is good–cause I didn’t really want to be encouraged to jump genres to make myself more marketable ;)

    • chipmacgregor

      But if you got yourself a TV show, or became a singing superstar, Jaime, you’d be MUCH more marketable… :o)

  • http://www.facebook.com/robin.patchen.3 Robin Patchen

    That’s a great answer on the promotion question. When my novella was published in December, I found myself telling people about it, and then making self-effacing comments. “It’s just a little thing.” “No big deal.” Sort of stupid–I’m going to have to learn to say, “I published a book. Here’s the bookmark, if you’d like to buy a copy.” and then shut up.

    I’ve never been so good at the “shut up” thing. :)

    • michelle grover

      I had an editor friend help me with this along the same lines as the encouragement Chip gave above. She said it was about believing in the message you have to share and promoting that message. Best wishes on your novella! Congrats on publication! :)

      • chipmacgregor

        Amen, Michelle. Congrats to Robin on her novel!

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah, I hear you, Robin. That’s a problem MANY authors face. But if you believe in your book (and you must, since you took all that time to write it), you’re promoting a product you believe in — and you’re promoting the BOOK and not YOURSELF. I think most adults can recognize the difference.

  • Elizabeth Kitchens

    I really like your answer to the pride vs self-promotion question. I always made good grades in school but was warned by my mother not to let it go to my head. So, while other kids were rejoicing in their 85′s and 90′s, I had to keep quiet about my 100′s lest mentioning it be considered bragging. It’s so nice to be reminded we can acknowledge and rejoice in our strengths so long as we remember from whom our talents come.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Elizabeth. That’s why I rarely talk about HOW FABULOUS I AM IN REAL LIFE, and THAT I’M TALL AND GOOD LOOKING AND LOOK REMARKABLE LIKE BRAD PITT, so long you stand far enough away and squint. And are blind.

  • michelle grover

    Loving these SA posts, Chip. :) One question I’ve had is, what is the true allowance of an already published author in querying an agent or editor? It seems more clear-cut for first-timers, but somewhat ambiguous for already published writers.

    For me, specifically, my first two books (Girl in the Mirror, and No Matter What) were published through the University Press of my alma mater without needing an agent. I’d like to expand my platform/audience with a larger publishing house, but I believe I need to establish a relationship with an agent that can be long-term.

    My third book (WT Voice of a Servant) is complete, thoroughly edited, and ready to market. In short, it’s a fast-paced dramatization of the biblical account of Naaman told from 3 servant POVs (Cassia, the little maid from Israel; Marcus, Naaman’s attendant; and Gehazi, Elisha’s servant). Target audience: MG with definite cross-over into YA/adult biblical fiction.

    Bold moment: May I query you?

    • chipmacgregor

      An already published author will doubtless gain the attention of any agent who is looking through submissions, Michelle.

  • Jan Thompson

    Thank you for the points on crossing genres. Might you be referring to Grisham who started out with legal thrillers, then suddenly wrote A Painted House? As a reader of legal thrillers, I had no choice but to move on when he wrote Bleachers.

    I see why a writer should focus on her strength rather than traipsing through multiple genres. I hadn’t thought about losing readers. That made me sit up and listen. Thanks.

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah, that’s who I was referencing, Jan. I respect Mr Grisham as a writer and artist, but let’s face it — he damaged his brand and broke his promise to readers when he stepped away from legal thrillers to write A PAINTED HOUSE. (Which is his prerogative, of course. He’d had plenty of success already, didn’t need the money, and just wanted to tell that story.) But that was the start of his fall as America’s #1 novelist.

  • Peter DeHaan

    If you have a completed non-fiction book (memoir), will agents still expect a proposal or (assuming they’re interested) will they bypass asking for a proposal and request the completed work instead?

    • chipmacgregor

      They’ll want a proposal to give it context, Peter — a quick overview, the audience, the tone, the comparable titles, etc. All of that will help them figure out how they might market and sell your book.

  • http://twitter.com/soulsupply Soul Supply

    You have addressed a question that has longed burned in me Chip. The issue of self-promotion glares almost blindingly from the publishing industry (as in other industries) and as a regular reader and Jesus follower I still feel dis-ease. You made a good point about pride but may I push you just a bit more please? John 3:30 has been long seeded deep within my soul. John the Baptist surely has this right (he had even pointed his own disciples to Jesus). John was neither proud nor interested in any promotion. I guess he could have imagined that the more followers he could gain to hear him speak in the desert about Jesus was really doing Jesus a favor, yet John clearly did not think this way. Any further thoughts? Thanks Chip.

    • chipmacgregor

      An interesting question, Soul Supply, and worth it’s own discussion sometime. I suppose one could argue that the Christian life is to be quiet, and that means no marketing or promotion. But I don’t subscribe to that perspective, since I think Christ himself, who was a carpenter by trade, must have at times talked about his skills or his final products. (I could be wrong. I certainly don’t have a shred of evidence to support that thought.)

      • http://twitter.com/soulsupply Soul Supply

        Thanks Chip, somehow I would like to pursue the discussion (for a host or personal and I trust spiritual reasons). I would love to unpack ‘worth it’s own discussion’ unless that is a courteous sleight of a dismissing hand, for which I will say thanks to anyway. … So here goes, arguments from silence are just that… In Jn 5:19 Jesus spoke of only doing what He saw the Father doing hence given that verse at least (and I know how fraudulent it is to build a doctrine on one verse) this carpenter had no cause to speak of his terrific gopher wood kitchen table that he’d constructed from tired and damp timber he discovered on a recent solitary trip up Mt Ararat. Over to you Chip.

        • chipmacgregor

          Well, I really don’t agree with you premise, Soul Supply, which seems to suggest that either (1) we have a complete record of all that was said and done by Jesus, or (2) if something doesn’t appear in the Bible it is somehow now worthwhile, or (3) the Savior never pitched a product made out of terrific gopher wood. (I have it on good authority He was participating in a gopher wood bonanza in his mid-twenties.)

  • Teresa

    You said, “moving from fiction to nonfiction is exceedingly, abundantly difficult” because of the different skills required. Do you ever see success with someone who wants to go the other direction?

    • chipmacgregor

      Good question, Teresa. I see more success with authors going from fiction to nonfiction that for those going from nonfiction to fiction. I think that’s almost universally true.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stevie.rey.3 Stevie Rey

    Thanks Chip. I will most likely finish out The Beale Street Oracle and send you a proposal.

  • Sarah Varland

    I’m finding these blog posts to be very helpful as I prepare for this year’s ACFW conference. Thank you! =)

    • Sarah Varland

      Also, I don’t know if you’ll even see these comments since I know this post is older, but with the crossing genres issue–I completely understand the points you’ve made. Here’s my specific question. If a writer was writing category romantic suspense 55-60k, would it only be acceptable to write full-length romantic suspense? Or would contemporary romance work as well? I understand that in full-length novels you have to choose. I just haven’t managed to figure out yet if writing shorter novels in one genre and full-length ones in another is acceptable. If you have thoughts, I’d be interested to hear.