“I don’t need an agent…”

November 25, 2013

“…because the publishing companies I’m querying don’t require agents.”

Hear me roar. Loudly.

It doesn’t matter whether the publishers you’re querying are open to anyone or not. If they offer you a contract, you need an agent.

Let me say that again.


We allow authors to query us directly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hope and pray that an author I offer a contract to will rush out and get representation. There is nothing worse than trying to negotiate a contract with an inexperienced author. Plain and simple, you simply don’t know what points are negotiable, and what points are hands off.

I’ve seen more deals go south because the inexperienced author screwed the pooch, and the acquiring editor decided drinking poison was preferable to trying to convince an author why she couldn’t have 2,000 free copies.

Don’t make us drink poison. If a publisher offers you a contract, get yourself a good agent…A GOOD AGENT…who can negotiate on your behalf. It is literally the difference between being published, and being told to go forth and multiply with the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Is Your Agent an Asset?

February 12, 2013

book deal

In a perfect world, your agent is your bestest buddy and knight in shining armor. She is the one who gets the lovely book deal(s) that propel you to a hungry marketplace. And most of the time, it works. Unless it doesn’t.

Your introduction to editors is The Query Letter, and your agent should know how to write mouthwatery query letters that have editors leapfrogging over one another just to get their ink-stained little paws on your manuscript. If your agent can’t write a mouthwatery query letter, then I hope they have other assets that will work to your advantage.


It should go without saying that your agent should write a query letter that’s free of spelling errors, but I just read one that contained some glaring spelling errors, and had me wincing a la fingernails on a chalkboard. If your agent writes “letter’s” when she means “letters,” or “hand writing” when she means “handwriting,” then I’m gonna notice ‘cos that’s sorta what I do.

OK, maybe it’s not fair to judge a query on a couple misspellings, but come on, this is a job interview that someone is doing on your behalf. If she can’t spell, then what does that say about her judgement of quality books? Do spelling errors beget inability to judge a good book? Beats me, but I do have dozens of other queries whose spelling is perfect.

A query letter’s job is to provide information, so editors can decide whether they’d like to see more. If there is very little info, then this forces the editor to either hunt down the information, or simply reject it.

Word count

It’s useful to know the word count. It may not seem like a big deal, but I had a query from an agent that sounded really great. I neglected to ask about a word count. She sent me the first few chapters, which I loved, then I asked for the whole manuscript…and asked for the word count. Come to find out, it was only 36,000 words. Yikes.

Same thing happened, only the book was 200k words. Double yikes. And really, a good agent should know better.


Does your agent include your intended audience? It may seem elementary, but editors can be confused by a query. I remember reading a fabulous query and the author’s first chapter. Loved, loved, loved it. But I rejected it because we don’t do YA. Oh no, the author wrote back, this isn’t a YA work; it’s meant for adults.

Ah, the lights turn on, the angels sing. And she was absolutely correct. The War of the Rosens is definitely an adult novel, and fabo, fabo, fabo. Anyone who loved Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season would adore Janice Eidus’ book, and want to take little Emma into their hearts. Makes me wish I still accepted fiction.

But the takeaway is that since I didn’t know the intended audience, I nearly lost a fabulous book. Wouldn’t it be awful if you were rejected because you or your agent didn’t discuss the intended audience in the query letter? Most editors will send a form rejection letter, so you’ll never know why it was rejected.

Why is the book important? 

Obviously, this isn’t a necessary tool for fiction, but it’s very important for nonfiction. Remember, I don’t know your book inside out the way you and your agent do, so it’s near impossible for me to connect the dots. I gotta be told. If your book reveals who really killed JFK, then it would be nice to know why this particular book is important, considering that many of these books already exist. What’s different about yours? If your agent doesn’t tell me, then I tend to question the book’s viability.


And keeping on that theme of who really killed JFK, your agent needs to include your platform. Again, this is for you nonfiction writers. Are you an investigative reporter who has uncovered more information through your many-year’s-long sleuthing? Are you someone who was close to those involved with the JFK administration, and have access to someone’s dying confession? Or are you just someone who’s always been fascinated with the JFK assassination and believe you found proof through your own independent investigation?

In short, who you are gives legitimacy to the book you’ve written. On one hand, you have the credentials to entice an audience to perk up their ears and read what you have to say. On the other hand, you could be just another crackpot with yet another theory as to who killed JFK…and the world is filled with those.

Before your agent ever agrees to represent your nonfiction, she will look at your platform – who you are, and how many people know you. Or at least she should because she has to turn around and sell you to an editor. And trust me, no editor will go before a submission committee without the author having a huge platform in order to take on a tall order like the JFK assassination. She’ll get laughed out her zip code.

Ideas are great, but you must have the goods to back up whatever you’ve written about. It’s the cop who writes about the crimes he solves, the doc who writes about his life in the OR, the psychologist who writes about keeping your mental well-being while being unemployed. Their platforms compliment their books. They are a legitimate and unimpeachable source for what they’re writing about.

If you don’t have that, are you necessarily the best person to have written your book? What is it about you that will make reviewers and the media listen to what you have to say? If your agent doesn’t include that in the query letter, then I’m forced to either look it up, or simply reject it.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Like I said, a query letter is a job interview, and if your representative can’t write a good one, then what else can’t she do? I remember many years ago, our finance guy had to walk an agent through her author’s royalty statement. It was embarrassing because not only are our royalty statements achingly easy to read, the experience revealed the agent’s complete lack of basic math skills.

You always want to be proud of your agent. So how do you put your best foot forward? Ask to read the query letter they plan on sending out. I think many authors miss this step because they believe they’re in good hands, and don’t want to be bothered. The stuff I talked about here is why you should be bothered. These examples I have here really happened, and my heart ached for the authors.

Never forget that this is your book…the book you spent a long time writing, so you don’t want to blow it at the most critical time.

Check the query letter over:

  • Does it list the word count?
  • Does it talk about the intended audience?
  • Does it state why your book is necessary to the marketplace?
  • Are there any freaking misspellings?
  • Do they begin with the dreaded rhetorical questions (which many editors hate, hate, hate because it doesn’t say anything)?

I’ve often passed around the quote of how it’s better to remain unpublished than be published badly. Well, the same goes for poor representation. You’d rather be unrepresented than represented poorly. Reason being, they are doing a piss-poor job at trying to sell your manuscript. Should you change agents, your new agent won’t be able to re-query the editors your previous agent queried, so your selection pool is that much smaller.

The idea is to work smart, so you can increase your chances for a good book deal. Working smart is making sure your agent is an asset, not bug repellant.

Say Hallelujah

July 15, 2012

Agents are the Cosmic Muffin’s way of saying He loves writers and editors.

That is all.

“If I can query you, then why do I need an agent?”

May 25, 2012

I hear this a lot. We – and many other trade presses – have open submissions, meaning anyone may query. So the question is, if that’s the case, then why does an author need an agent?

Cool Factor

Ok, I just wrote that to get your attention. But it’s not too far off the mark because I’m more apt to reach into my inbox and open up the query from an agent than I am a query straight from the author. It doesn’t mean the unagented author isn’t cool – not at all the case – but the author hasn’t undergone any vetting. Because of that, I turn down far more unagented authors than I do agented ones.

Knowing How to Pitch

Another reason so many unagented authors are rejected is that they don’t really know how to create a good pitch. And really, there’s no excuse for it considering all the online help that’s available to writers on the elements that make up an effective pitch. The agented author has a leg up because agents do this for a living. I’m not saying that all agents do a bang up job, but the odds are in their favor.


If you’re offered a contract for publication, do you know how to successfully negotiate your contract? Agents do, and they know what is most open for negotiation and how hard to push. I’ve seen several offers go belly up because the authors were trying to negotiate their own contracts, and they were pushing all the wrong buttons. It’s frustrating because there are certain things we won’t won’t budge on and other things where we will. All publishers have their sticking points, and if an author continues to push them, the editor is going to walk away because it’s not in their best interest. An agent understands these things and look for compromises elsewhere within the contract.

I can’t drive home this point enough – contract negotiation is a fine art best left to those who know what they’re doing. Some will say get a lit attorney, but they don’t understand publishers’ breaking points, and there’s no skin off the attorney’s nose if the deal goes south – they get paid no matter how things turn out. It’s far less personal because they have zero investment in you other than to interpret the contract. Personally, I look forward to these kinds of negotiations as I would a root canal.

Buffer Zone

There are times (sadly) when there’s a breakdown or personality clash between author and editor. And yes, it happens to every editor at some point. The agent can be an author’s savior because they serve as the buffer zone between the author and editor in order to sustain the publishing relationship. If an author is on their own, things can go south very quickly. I had one such case, and after nearly a year of his verbal abuse, I dumped his ass. No one gets paid enough to take that kind of crap.

You certainly can act as your own agent; a few of my friends do, however, they’ve been publishing books for a long time and know how to negotiate their own contracts. In short, the old adage of “he who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client” isn’t just a cute little ditty. It’s the difference between a pleasant publishing experience and a nightmare.

New Agents: “I’m Hungry” vs. “I’m With Waldo”

April 9, 2012

The topic of signing with a new agent comes up a lot at writer’s conferences. There are plenty times when new is just as good as experienced, but it depends on the circumstances. In my years of meeting and dealing with agents, I’ve come to realize there exists two kinds of new agents – the “I’m Hungry” agent, and the “I’m With Waldo.”

“I’m With Waldo”

This is the new agent who got her start with a literary agency as an intern or assistant. She spent time learning the ropes until deciding to step up to the plate and swing away as an agent. During her formative years with the agency, she’s had conversations with editors (they are usually the go-between when a manuscript is out on query), she’s learned what a quality query letter looks like, and she understands how to query editors. Most important, she has begun to establish herself with editors and knows who they are and what they are looking for.

In a word, she has soaked up the entire agenting-ju-ju by osmosis and hard work.

When she decides to become an agent, she retains all the lovely resources of the agency, including the ability to pick her fellow agents’ brains. Now, does this guarantee success? Nope. HOWEVER, she is wrapped up in the agency’s cocoon, and that means a lot when it comes to querying her own clients because she can introduce herself and happily state that she’s “With Waldo.” Agency name recognition is a lovely thing.

I may not know her, but I am familiar with her agency, and that gets my attention. I’m far more likely to shove stuff aside to read the query of an agency who has a good reputation.

“I’m Hungry”

The flip side is the agent who has never interned or trained with a literary agency. They might be former editors, bookstore owners, lawyers, authors, marketing folks, and publicists. For whatever reason, they decide to become agents. These are people whose path to agenting has a circuitous route. The thing to consider is whether that experience translates over to agenting. And since they may not have formal training, do they know enough about the business to offer an author solid representation?

I see lots of queries from the “I’m Hungry” agent. Of course I read their queries, but I have no frame of reference as to what kind of agent they are, how well they edit, or how well they’ve prepared their author.

Research the Publisher

I’ve seen more misfires with the “I’m Hungry” agent when it comes to doing proper research. They haven’t bothered to read our submission guidelines, nor have they even researched who we are. I find that alarming. Why would anyone do business with a publisher without knowing exactly what that they can provide for their author?

It shows me that they aren’t prepared, so my respect for them dwindles a bit. If they don’t even know who I am, then why are they querying me? And most importantly, how is this putting their authors’ interests first? This is something I haven’t seen with the “I’m With Waldo” agents. They do their homework first. I’ve had times when they simply emailed me to introduce themselves, which I think is very cool.


Negotiating contracts is a fine art, and shouldn’t be placed in the hands of novices. An agent’s job is to protect their author and get the best deal for them, and it doesn’t always translate to money – but to other concessions like royalty rates, territory rights, the list goes on and on. Depending on the “I’m Hungry” agent’s prior job – say they were a bookseller – they could be less likely to know a good contract from a crummy one. They may lack the experience to know what elements to pound on during negotiations, and how hard to push.

This is where I see the advantage goes to the “I’m With Waldo” agent. She can discuss points with colleagues in order to negotiate smartly and effectively.


Again, depending on the “I’m Hungry” agent’s previous experience, they have a harder time opening doors with editors. I’ve seen “I’m Hungry” agents who knew some editors, but they were the wrong editors. I know that sounds silly, but not all editors are created equally when you’re talking about the large publishers. For example, some editors only consider the blockbuster books. The “I”m Hungry” agent may not realize this and send them a query that meets none of the editor’s criteria. The result is never making a sale.

“I’m With Waldo” has already learned this and knows exactly what editor is right for a particular book.

Query Letter

We all know there is no magic bullet to writing an effective query letter. It comes down to smarts and preparation, and agents – be they “I’m With Waldo” or “I’m Hungry. Query letters are the great equalizer. Kristin Nelson wrote a blog post on how she goes about writing her query letter. As you can see, her method is quite involved. She also makes great sales, so I’d wager her method works just great.

I see a lot of really great query letters from agents, and a lot that leave me scratching my head. And they come from “I’m Hungry” and “I’m With Waldo” agents. If they stick to the classic WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHY, WHERE, then I’m at least halfway home.

I appreciate it when an agent pays attention to a publisher’s particular focus and tailors her query letter to those needs. To that end, I feel it’s advantageous to authors to see the query letter their agent sends out…just to feel confident about how they’re showcasing your book.


Editing is also the great equalizer because there is no litmus for excellence. What I find amazing may strike another editor as bantha fodder. However, there is no excuse for poorly executed narratives that lack good transitions, crummy character development, a lack of knowledge in comma usage, misspelling, pacing problems, or a fondness for exclamation points.

If I read a manuscript that’s a mess, then my respect for the agent pales because they should never send anything but the author’s finest. And that takes the talent of the agent to know how to refine a manuscript.

Yes, I’ve heard the complaints about agents’ lack of time, but I would counter that by asking if they’re looking to make a sale or not. If I’m reading slop, then I wonder why the agent allowed me to read it. I also worry whether the author has the chops to turn this into wine. If she doesn’t, that means I’ll have to have to work extra hard to get it into publishable shape. So I have to consider how much I love the story – knowing it’s going to take up a huge chunk of time.

An agent sending me slop also puts out two subliminal messages:  lack of respect, or she doesn’t know any better. Either one is distasteful, and damaging an author’s literary future.

What Looked Good Then May Not Look Good Now

This is my own version of the Hunger Games. More than anything, all new agents are starving and looking to build their clientele. The more experience an agent gains and the more sales she makes (hopefully), the choosier she’ll be about whom to represent. It’s a guarantee. You’re hungry when you gots nothin’. But when you begin to build a reputation and gather more author queries, you can afford to be more selective.

The difference I’ve noticed with the “I’m With Waldo” agents is that they seem to have a more discerning palate when choosing authors to represent by the merits of being surrounded by an experienced bunch.This means that the authors they may have chosen early in their agenting career are authors they would still choose after becoming more experienced.

The “I’m Hungry” agent has less to rely on when making client decisions. I’ve seen quite a few of these agents drastically refine their lineup, oftentimes releasing their initial authors in favor of better manuscripts. They may decide to stop repping a genre due to lack of sales, thereby orphaning those authors. They are still feeling the lay of the publishing land, and only you can decide whether you want to be part of an agent’s learning curve.


There are no guarantees in this business. There are many “I’m Hungry” agents who really kick it, and plenty “I’m With Waldo” who should consider a different line of work. The best advice I can offer is this:

Clients:  See how many authors a new agent has signed. If she’s signing 25 new clients in a month, then I would wager she’s looking to stack her client list. OTOH, if she’s signing one or two every few months, then she might have a good eye for talent and isn’t looking to stack her deck, but to sell books.

Sales:  Check to see how many sales she has made, and to whom she’s sold. If she’s made no sales, then ask yourself what they’ve done to  deserve your  confidence she can do a good job for you…and it’s not because she’s nice and is enthused about your book. There should be verifiable proof she have the chops to get the job done.

Know who you’re dealing with:  If you’re going with a brand new agent, then it’s a good idea research what kind of agent they are: “I’m With Waldo” or “I’m Hungry.”

In short, carefully weigh the evidence you’ve gathered, and let that be your guide. It’s better to be un-agented than poorly agented.

I have a three-part discussion about agents and whether they have the spit to sell you.  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Can Your Agent Sell You? – Part 3: Specifics

March 23, 2012

So my first post in this series focused on the fact that not all agents are created equally, and the importance for authors to know the difference between DESCRIPTION and SPECIFICS when writing a query/synopsis. Is your agent doing a good job of selling you?

Yesterday’s post focused on DESCRIPTION via an example query/synopsis and how this kills any chance of capturing an editor’s attention.

Today’s example provides the counter punch – SPECIFICS.

This example comes from a very talented author we just signed a few weeks ago. I’ve known his agent, Claire Gerus, for years, and we’ve always joked about how fun it would be to work together. Our joking became reality when we signed two of her other clients last year (and who are achingly talented), and Scott Damian’s book, V-V-Voice: A Stutterer’s Odyssey.

Claire is the example of what agents do right. She knows how to make my mouth water AND provide me with SPECIFICS, so I have a clear idea of the story’s main points. The set up of this is a bit different because Claire wrote a proposal, which is common in nonfiction. I love them because it provides all the information I need at some point, and it’s all under one pinky-white cocktail umbrella.

(All authors should write a book proposal, whether you need one or not, because it forces authors to step outside themselves and consider their books as a commodity and not just the thing they love and sweated over. For more info about writing a book proposal, click here.)


V-V-Voice…the word sticks in the back of your throat. Your mouth shudders as your teeth grit together. You push, trying to get the word out. A jarring, jackhammer sound gurgles out of your mouth. Your face contorts and your body shakes as judging eyes stare at you. A shameful feeling washes over you. Your soul is forever crushed.

These are the wounding, humiliating trials that 60 million stutterers worldwide endure each and everyday…and Scott Damian is one of them.

In this gritty, raw memoir, Damian details the stirring battles he endured while searching for a solution to his inability to speak without stuttering.

From his haunting blue-collar childhood in New Orleans to the physical and psychological scars that led Damian down a path of self-destructive behavior that was as crippling as the stuttering itself, “V-V-Voice: A Stutterer’s Odyssey” chronicles the struggles of one stutterer to do the unimaginable; to use his voice as an actor and a writer, and help others find their own.

This grabbed me immediately because I was shown how it feels to have words trapped in my mouth (something that has never been an issue for me, gah). I’m instantly transported into the author’s shoes. My immediate reaction is to open the book proposal and continue reading.


Imagine you’re a child who longs to be heard. You try with all your might to speak, yet you can’t enunciate that first word, that first letter, even that first sound. You are shoved around, thrashed, and punched by many of your peers because they think of you as different. Being called “stutter bird,” “freak,” and “retard” becomes the norm. Instead of having faith in yourself, you have more faith in how others perceive you.  A deep sense of fear and insecurity build up inside of you, and you have convinced yourself that you will never talk again. For you, there is no hope. No future. No salvation. All you can depend upon is your silence, for you know you will be a stutterer forever.

The first paragraph is always designed to grab, and I was grabbed by this. For those of us for whom speech isn’t an issue, this paragraph shows us what it’s like to fight daily to communicate without fear. This is the set up para, so I’m expecting the next paragraph will provide further detail.

Fast-forward to thirty years later. You have become a stutter-free adult. You have forged ahead through years of discouragement, disasters, and victories to become a successful actor and writer. Every day you speak the written word with clarity and precision. You now write the words others believe in. You utter phrases that move hearts and arouse emotion.

This is short and sweet, and outlines where the book is headed. The author goes from fearful, humiliated child to successful actor who is stutter-free. I’m still engaged because the first thing I’m asking myself is, “How did he get from there to here? That’s a story I want to read.”

How this stuttering boy became an articulate artist, and his unrelenting journey to find his true voice, is the heart and soul of the memoir, “V-V-Voice: A Stutterer’s Odyssey.”

And here is the log line, the ta-da.

This memoir is aimed to inspire the 60 million people world-wide who stutter, as well as to reassure and inform those who witness their loved ones trying to deal with a similar dysfunction. Most important, “V-V-Voice” will help readers understand what it means to be a stutterer, and bring comfort to millions who may be experiencing their own agonizing challenges and personal fears.

This is the marketplace paragraph, the info that tells me there are a lot of people who are in the same boat as the author.

This book will also speak to the dyslexic teenager out there who agonizes over reading aloud in his 8th grade class, but wants to one day become a playwright; or the kid with a lisp who longs to recite Shakespeare on a grand stage, or the shy office worker who yearns to ask out the one sweet girl who smiles at him every day.

Here are some specifics about what the author goes through during his childhood in order to give me a taste of where this book is headed and how deeply emotional and personal this book is. The true ah-ha moment.

Everyone has at least one trial in life to overcome. Everyone is looking for a glimmer of hope. These are the common threads that connect us all. During this time of recession, depression, foreclosure, natural disasters and war, readers are looking for inspiring stories. “V-V-Voice” not only brings inspiration to those who need it, it also confirms that by giving voice to our dreams, we will achieve greater rewards than we can possibly imagine.

This paragraph brings it home by bridging a common bond that unites everyone – the challenges that all humans face in some form or another. This gives the book universality.

A Word About Tailoring

No, I’m not talking about a ripped hem or missing button. I’m talking about tailoring your query, which is something Claire does, and makes me love her all the more. She knows we publish books that focus on everyday people facing extraordinary circumstances, so she appeals to that very element because she knows I’ll be looking for it. Too often, agents and authors don’t tailor their queries/synopses/proposals to those they query. So, in my case, if I don’t see the ordinary facing the extraordinary, and how they overcome and prosper, then it means I have to ask. Often, they don’t have the answer right away because they hadn’t considered those elements.

I understand agents or authors can’t possibly foresee every contingency, but if an agent or author is going to query someone, doesn’t it make sense to research the publisher and tailor their queries to whet that editor’s appetite? It may seem like a bother, but the idea is to sell the work, right?

I do this with cover letters I send with our media kits. I start with a template and tailor them accordingly. If one media contact has specific elements they’re looking for when deciding to offer an interview, I play those elements up so as to capture their attention. The smart agents, like Claire, do this. The trick is to decide whether your agent (or you!) are doing it as well.

After all, it’s all about the SPECIFICS.

I realize I’ve used nonfiction examples, which can offer leeway in the guise of a book proposal…which, as I said above, everyone should write – even you novelists. But I want to offer an example of a fiction query that hits the high points as well, so you may click here.

Go forth and be brilliant!

Making Sure Your Agent Can Sell You – Part 2: Description vs. Specifics

March 22, 2012

On the heels of yesterday’s post about description vs. specifics in a synopsis and/or query letter, I promised to show an example of both for comparison. Today’s example is DESCRIPTION…and akin to the type of synopsis I received last year – and something I still see quite a bit. Not just from authors, but agents.

To add a bit of reality to this synopsis below, I used an actual synop sent to me years ago and fluffed things around to protect the innocent.



I can’t believe my own reflection. I look okay, for a guy of twenty-seven…blond, blue eyes, just under six foot. But when I smile, holy crap. I look like I chiseled out Mt. Rushmore with my teeth. That’s what teeth grinding will get you. And my breath? Let’s just say that it melts my bathroom mirror. Nothing works, and I’ve tried them all. I’ve lost my job, my friends, my family, even my dog growls at me when I enter the room. What’s the point of going on?

I’m not a fan of starting a query letter or synopsis with actual text from the book. It means something to the author, but not to anyone else because it lacks context. It’s a throwaway, not a selling point.

Thus is the beginning of HOLY COW, I HAVE HALISTOSIS. The author, Max Mushmouth, is an Arizona-area dentist, minister, and part time ditch digger who grew up in a Southern working-class family that was afflicted with severe halitosis. In fact, halitosis pervaded Max’s formative years on every level.

This is an OK first paragraph. It intro’s the author, where he lives, his particular boggle, and how that boggle affected his life. At this point, I’m expecting specifics next…the WHAT, HOW, WHY.

Despite Max’s best efforts to break the circuitous heartbreak of halitosis that affected not only him, but his family members, Max found himself at the end bottom of the barrel—-alienated from his friends, unemployed, unloved, penniless, homeless and in the throes of halitosis so severe that it threatened to destroy his very life.

Unfortunately, this is description, scene setting. Not what I was expecting, but forgivable provided the next paragraphs lead directly into specifics.

HOLY COW, I HAVE HALISTOSIS begins as Max hits the skids.

Good lead in. However, as you’ll see in the next paragraph, this is a lost opportunity where the agent should have launched into the specifics of the author’s journey.

Then, in a blend of personal narrative, family history, and hard-hitting investigation, HOLY COW, I HAVE HALISTOSIS methodically weaves together all the strands of life, family, personal shortcomings, unfortunate genetics—and most of all, society’s fundamental misunderstanding of halitosis—which all combined into the near-lethal cataclysm that brought Max to his knees.

This is where the agent veers completely off course by offering up only the vaguest of descriptions. The first thing I’m asking is HOW and WHAT brought Max to his knees. Those are specifics. It doesn’t matter what techniques were used in organizing the book…who cares? I’ll figure that out when/if I read the pages. This is a throwaway, not a selling point. A lost opportunity to grab me.

Max combines his own personal narrative with labor intense investigation that exposes just how poor a job the American dental system does of caring for those afflicted with halitosis, and explodes the crippling, destructive social stigmas that still drive U.S. perception, professional and personal bias, and society at large to discriminate against and penalize those who are breath-challenged.

I see what the agent is trying to do here – provide the “gotta have it” element…that millions are afflicted and MUST read this book. I like this because it helps me decide whether this is blatant puffery or whether there really is a market who would buy this book. The problem is that she hasn’t provided any specifics, so I can’t appreciate the quality, or lack thereof, of the US dental system, or the viability of this book because I still have no clue what it’s about. It’s all just buzz words that sound really cool, but provides no backup. This is a throwaway, not a selling point. A lost opportunity to grab me.

Via a dynamic mixture of poignant and emotional flashbacks, professional and social analysis, and investigative journalism, Max Mushmouth uses his experience as both a survivor of halitosis and a dental-healthcare critic to evaluate family dental health and dental healthcare in the United States. This powerful, passionate memoir will offer education and hope to the millions of American families who suffer the oppressive weight of halitosis.

And this is where I blow out the candle and put the cat outside (if I had a cat, that is). This is an epic failure because the agent blew an entire page on nothing but description. I’m no clearer to understanding what this book is about than when I first opened up the file. If I was truly interested, I would have to write the agent back and ask them to please tell me with what this book is about. The specifics.

The author, this agent’s client, will never know of the lost opportunity, and I fear it will be hard to sell this book. Would you be surprised to know that this kind of descriptive query from agents is far from unique? I’ve seen HUGE agents send queries that were bantha fodder, and I always secretly wonder if they believe they sell works based simply on their own fabulosity. If so, no one sent me the memo.

Of course, most agents are lovely, and I adore them with all my heart because they take their jobs seriously and want the best for everyone – and take the necessary steps to make our little editor mouths water. It’s a good idea to ask your agent to see the query letter/synopsis they’re sending out. After all, you’ve worked this out together, so you should feel confident that what’s going out is the very best.

The synop above is what not to do. Tomorrow, I’ll show a synopsis that I thought was so coolio that I signed the author – to the utter joy of a very delightful agent – after one of the briefest turnarounds in Behler history.

You’re agented? Cool! But can she sell you?

March 21, 2012

I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely agent last year at a conference in Florida. We chatted about our specialties and were happy to discover she may have something I’d find interesting. A couple weeks later, she sent me the query letter and attached a one-page synopsis and the manuscript.

Sadly, that’s where things fell apart.

The query letter mentioned our meeting and thanked me for offering to take a look at the book. Oddly, there was nothing about the book. A query letter is a sales pitch, designed to be all mouth-watery, so I’ll be excited to read more.This was Strike 1.

She attached the synopsis, so I opened it up…which was all description.This was a huge Strike 2.

Here’s the thing:

  • It’s not important to tell me how the narrative is organized because I’ll find that out when/if I read the book. It’s a throwaway, not a selling point.
  • It doesn’t matter how the author puts the story together, and the various techniques used because I’ll figure that out when/if I read the book. It’s a throwaway, not a selling point.
  • It doesn’t help to tell me the book is poignant and emotional…show me. It’s a throwaway, not a selling point.
  • It doesn’t help to tell me the book will help millions…show me. It’s a throwaway, not a selling point.

In short, the synopsis was a lot of wasted space and opportunity.

Description is lovely when you’re talking about the insidiously adorable Antonio Banderas, but it’s a deal-killer when trying to pitch a book.

A synopsis is defined as a brief or condensed summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play.

Description, on the other hand, is defined as a statement, picture in words, or account that describes.

See how the two are different? So let’s use Antonio as an example (yes please). We can have a grand time describing Antonio ’til the cows come home – his exquisitosity (totally made that up), how his singing can melt buttah, and how his flamingo dancing weakens my knees. However, those descriptions don’t show me squat about who he is, his acting abilities, his professional accomplishments. That’s what you get in a synopsis.

The agent should know better, so that was Strike 3, and she was out. Sadly, so was her client/author.

So, here’s the deal; it’s in your best interest to understand the makings of a good query letter and synopsis. I know, I know, you thought having an agent would free you of this hassle, right? But you did something right in order to get her attention in the first place.

This isn’t my first rodeo with agents who did their author clients no favors, so it’s not a bad idea for you to see exactly what your agent is sending out to editors. It shouldn’t be a deep, dark secret.

Somewhere…anywhere…should have the following:

Genre: Seems silly, but you’d be surprised at the number of queries that don’t include the genre. We do have tinfoil hats, but we invariably leave them in our other purse. We gotta be told.

Word Count: Another favorite that gets shoved under the carpet. This is so important to editors, and is literally the difference between “yes please,” and “no thanks.” If something is 245,000 words, I’ll instantly reject it. If it’s 34,000 words, I’ll instantly reject it. If it’s between 50k – 90,000 words, now you’re in my ballpark. It’s bothersome to have to turn around and ask. An agent (and you brilliant authors) should know to include this.

Plot: This is where the tequila meets the margarita…the guts of your query.

  • Who is the main person in your book?
  • What is his/her story?
  • What does s/he want?
  • What does s/he discover?
  • What choices/decisions/changes does s/he encounter?
  • How is s/he influenced by those choices/decision/changes?

The offshoot could also include:

  • What terrible thing will happen/ would have happened if s/he chooses (chose) A; what terrible thing will happen/would have happened if s/he doesn’t/didn’t?

Tomorrow, I’ll put up an example of a description query letter that isn’t an attention-grabber and one that totally got my attention – so much, that I offered them a contract.

Open Letter to Agents Addendum

August 24, 2011

I’ve heard a little bit of blowback from my Open Letter to Agents post. I never anticipated that I’d come through that post without some bruising, but I heard from a couple agent friends of mine whose prospective clients read my post and misinterpreted the part where I talk about the Book Proposal.

I’d like to clarify this point here and now:


Why? you ask? I’ll give you six reasons – all of them are previous posts that I’ve written about what book proposals are, why they’re vital, and how they can make you smarter, smell better, have whiter teeth, fresher breath, and will win you friends all over the world.

But the main importance of knowing how to write a book proposal is this:


Don’t ever kid yourself – writing is a business. It’s not about fuzzy kittens and gooey mushy nothings over the phone. It’s hard work that involves icky things like marketability, competition, platforms, distribution. Writing a proposal forces you to think like a business person, not a doe-eyed author looking for rainbows, soft clouds, and warm muffins from your editor.

If your agent signed you without a book proposal (depending on genre, of course), then consider yourself lucky. Agents are all different, and some won’t sign a client without the author providing a book proposal. But if your agent tells you they need you to write a book proposal, then I cannot urge you enough to WRITE THE DARN PROPOSAL. You’ll learn a tremendous amount about your book, and you’ll make your agent happy. In turn, that agent will make me happy.

Your agent will use your proposal as a foundation to send off to scuzzy little robots like me – who scream bloody murder for proposals. If you have the temerity to go grouch muffin on your agent when she asks for a proposal then you’re revealing yourself to be a prima donna and truly not serious about your writing future.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – even if you write mainstream or genre fiction, it NEVER hurts to write a proposal because it consists of information that you’ll need at some point in your promotion.

What goes into a book proposal? I thought you’d never ask:

  1. COVER SHEET (title and subtitle of book; genre, word count, author’s name, address, phone, fax, email)
  2. CONCEPT STATEMENT (optional—briefly state the target audience, why they need this book, why your book is unique or timely, why you are an authority on the topic, and what your book offers that other books don’t).
  3. OVERVIEW (how you came to write the book—weave in attention-getting facts; this must be the most compelling part of your proposal!)
  4. PURPOSE OF THE BOOK (what will your book do? what need will it fill? how will it benefit readers?)
  5. THE MARKET/AUDIENCE (who will buy your book? why do they want or need it? give statistics)
  6. COMPETITIVE BOOKS (what else exists? where is it shelved? how is your book new and better? how does your book differ from all other books on this topic?)
  7. MARKETING OF THE BOOK (bookstores, book clubs, Internet, clubs, associations; if applicable—these are sales outside of a bookstore environment such as retail store chains, specialty stores, catalogs)
  8. PROMOTION & PUBLICITY (list newspapers, magazines, TV & radio stations that the publisher should contact)
  9. AUTHOR’S PROMOTIONAL CONTRIBUTION (list everything you’ll do to make the book successful; be sure to include all of your ideas for author appearances and events)
  10. COMPLETION OF THE BOOK (state that “x” months from date of contract you will deliver the manuscript—usually a 9-12 month period is allowed)
  11. SEQUELS (optional—list 1-3 other projects that interest you and that have a large audience)
  12. ABOUT THE AUTHOR (your background and experience; why you are the best person to write the book)
  13. THREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS (your first three chapters)


Open Letter to Agents

August 22, 2011

Dear Agent,
First off, let me tell you how much I love you and your brethren. You make my job so much easier because you have vetted your author, invariably taken their manuscript through a couple edits in order to make it clean and spiffy. Oftentimes you make my life worth living when you bring me amazing authors whose stories humble and educate me. Compared to my authors’ lives, I’m a small bug.

The Query:  But there are times when you frustrate me beyond words. Just because you work at a prestigious literary agency doesn’t mean your query letter doesn’t need to be captivating. Your take-it-or-leave-it-I’m-too-cool-for-school attitude doesn’t impress me. It doesn’t matter what you letterhead says, I’m all about the book – not you, per se. Because I’m all about the book, I find it really unhelpful when you don’t include the basic niceties such as word count, genre, or whether the book is complete.

Be prepared:  You may not realize it, but that kind of response makes it appear that you don’t take your author or me seriously. I can almost forgive authors not being completely prepared, but I do hold you to a much higher standard. If you don’t come to my inbox prepared, what kind of impression do you think that leaves with me? Does it matter to you what I think? I know there are some who don’t care, but I always make sure to show you the utmost courtesy, so don’t you think I deserve the same?

Book proposal:  I know we’re all busy and trying hard to make a buck, but that book proposal I asked for needs to be a full proposal. That means we need a promo plan, suggested markets, title comparisons, how far along the manuscript is, estimated time of completion, word count (estimated in cases of an unfinished ms). We don’t need that information just to be a pain and force you (or your author) to do more work. We use that information during submission meetings, when we submit information to our distributors, sales, and promotion teams, and when we send out TIP sheets to reviewers.

When you send me three pages of overview, this is only a small piece of the puzzle, and it forces me to email you back and ask for the rest of the proposal. If I have to do this several times, I conclude that you either don’t care, or are too important to give me what I need in order to fully assess whether your author is the best thing since sliced bread, or not a fit for us.

Likewise, if I ask for a proposal, it’s hard to take you seriously when you say, “Oh, I didn’t write one,” and then never offer to get right on it. It leaves me wondering if you are trying to sell this manuscript or simply throw a dart out into the cosmos, hoping to hit a star. Equally gobsmack-worthy is the “Let me have the author write that up for you.” Why would you put your author in charge of doing something that’s clearly your job? Chances are high your author doesn’t know what goes into a proposal. The problem is compounded when you don’t even read it, but simply send it to me.The quality of the proposal makes me wonder if you care. And if you don’t, then why is the author your client?

Communication:  Since we don’t have the luxury of meeting each other in person, I depend on your emails to be detailed and informative. Your email is a window to you and your author, just as much as mine is the face of our company, so I really appreciate it when you put a lot of thought into your communication. You are the go-between, so your author and I expect nothing less.

Rejection:  If we offer a contract and there are points that both sides are too far apart, there’s no need to be insulting or arrogant. That’s why God invented negotiations. I’ve bought wonderful stories from big agents, so you don’t get to play the “I’m sooo better than you.” Do you think I’ll ever consider anything you might have down the line if you stick your nose in the air and pretend that I’m a bug to be squashed because we don’t offer six figure advances? Surely you realized that before you queried me.

I realize you make very big sales, but not all books are six-figure capable, and there might be a point when my company will look very good to you and your author. And if I see your name in my inbox, I’ll remember how you treated me, and politely decline to review your author’s book. Sure, I may be cutting off my quill to spite my exclamation point, but you’ve already shown me who and what you are. Once burned, shame on you. Twice burned, shame on me. I have a long memory, and I won’t forget you.

Ours is a business of relationships, and just because you’re hot stuff now doesn’t mean you’ll remain at the top of the heap. Your journey down may be long and lonely. What’s worse, is that your author will never know any of this.

Prepare your authors:  It would be SO helpful to your authors (and us)  if you discussed how the publishing industry works with your authors. I know time is at a premium and you’re busy with all your authors. But there are numerous times when I realize authors are ill-prepared to go from your loving arms to mine, and the production process can be challenging because they have no idea how to navigate.

I’ve been surprised numerous times by the questions I’ve been asked or the expectations authors have regarding how publishing works. Of course, I always try to explain the entire process, but these questions/expectations can make for some hard conversations because authors tend to believe their agents instead of their editors. If you haven’t done anything to prepare them, then I’m sometimes put in the unenviable position of looking like I don’t know what I’m doing – which is hardly the case. These instances leave me wishing they had been better prepared. Educating our authors is a shared job, and I love it when an author says, “No worries, Agent ABC explained how this works.”

Contracts:  I know this is a silly thing, but we deal  with you during contract negotiations, so I feel you should be the one to handle the back and forth of signed contracts. I shouldn’t receive the signed contract from the author – you should send me all three copies (yours, your author, and ours), where we will sign all three copies and send you back two.

If you email me wondering where the signed contracts are, it becomes a game of “Who’s got da contracts?” which irritates the beagle because I make her track it down. In order to avoid confusion like this, you should assume this role, and leave your author out of it.

Platform:  If you represent nonfiction, you know publishers look for author platform – so I really appreciate it when you don’t get upset when I ask about it. This is the way of publishing nonfiction, so you shouldn’t be surprised by it. This means you need to include your author’s platform AND discuss its importance with your author. Help them understand how this ties into knowing who their target readership is and why it’s so important to us.

Referee:  Agents are sometimes put in the position of being in the middle of their author and the editor because there is a breakdown of the relationship. We all know how emotional publishing can be, and personality clashes do happen. Editors try very hard to repair or prevent a breakdown, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, and this is where you step in to be the neutral ground. I understand it’s difficult because your first duty is to your author, but you also sold us the book.

I may have already reached the point where I’m ready to walk away. No one wants that, but problems sometimes arise, and your author will only believe you. If you don’t step in and back up what I’m telling our author, then the relationship erodes to the point where all communication stops.

This means that I don’t get promo updates or even know what our author – your client – is doing. If I get an email from my sales guys asking what’s going on, that sales have either jumped way up or nosedived, I look like I’m nuts because our author won’t communicate with us anymore. If I don’t know what’s going on, how can I effectively continue selling the book?

If you don’t step in, then I get to the point when I will no longer lift a finger to help the author or their book. This helps no one’s bottom line, but no one gets paid enough to be treated like bantha fodder. For all concerned, there are times when it’s best to have all communication go through you, so I love it when you step up to the plate to preserve a frayed relationship.

In closing, what concerns me the most are the times when I shake my head and feel badly for authors whose agents failed them on so many counts because they’ll never know how shoddily they were treated. My biggest hope is that every author has the stellar treatment that I’ve seen time and time again by you hard-working agents. But some of you are phoning it in…just barely…and it isn’t right.

We share a common goal to have successful books, so doesn’t it make sense that we work together to make that happen? We all got into this crazy business because we love books, and we love the brilliant authors who write amazing stories. Our lives are insane-crazy, but it all goes down so much better when we stick together for the common good. Thank you for being wonderful. I hope it continues.

Lynn Price

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