Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It Makes No Sense To Me

Recently a fiction author sent an email query to my literary agency about his work. He had a Christian contemporary novel and expressed his frustration about the lack of response and attention from editors and agents. In fact, that attitude seemed to ooze out of his pitch letter (which should have been a bit of an indicator to me).

If you read these entries, you know that as an author, former book acquisitions editor and now a literary agent, I want to help writers understand the marketplace and become more successful with their pitches. Most writers have no understanding of the sheer volume of submissions which editors and agents receive. Dan Poynter in The Self-Publishing Manual estimates there are millions of proposals, manuscripts and queries which are circulating around the country. I have a small portion in my office so it doesn't take much for me to believe that number.

For this novelist, I told him that nonfiction out sells fiction and that there are more people trying to write fiction than nonfiction--but if he still wanted to send me his proposal and sample chapters, then I would have a look and get back to him.

Even with my caveats, this author sent me his material. Late one night recently I pulled his submission out of the envelop to have a quick look at it. His synopsis was OK then I flipped to his sample chapters--which started at Chapter Two then also threw in Chapter Eleven. Yes, the sample chapters were two and eleven!

I've read hundreds of these submissions and I still see authors select random chapters from a novel to send to the possible agent or editor. It makes no sense to me. When I pick up a printed book in a bookstore, I don't start reading in the middle. I turn to the opening pages and see if I like it. If I like the opening, then maybe the rest of the book is worth purchasing. The opening chapter lays the groundwork for the whole novel. It introduces the characters and the setting and the difficulty or problem for the entire book.

It's also true for a nonfiction book proposal and sample chapters. The first chapter is critical because like in the novel, it lays the groundwork for the subsequent chapters. It's almost impossible to evaluate a work from looking at the middle of it.

Let me close this entry with six steps to stand out in your submission:

1. Use my tips in Straight Talk From The Editor -- the free Ebook.

2. Send a complete proposal and the initial chapters of your writing and only send compelling writing.

3. How do you know if your novel or nonfiction is compelling? Check it out with a colleague. Join a critique group. Write and rewrite it and please don't fire it off without some serious thinking about how it will come across.

4. Check and double-check the name you are sending. Even this past week, a writer queried me at my submission email address for the agency which began, "Dear Ms. Wagner..." When I wrote the author asking about it, she apologized and her second attempt began, "Dear Mr. Whalen..." These exchanges happened rapid fire and within a 20 minute period. If you didn't notice, she misspelled my last name. I fired back with a form rejection. I don't need to work with such sloppy submissions. Yes she made an impression but not a good one.

5. Continue to learn what factors in a proposal or submission make an editor sit up, notice and get excited about it. One of the best tools that you can easily use is the session I did with eight different top editors and literary agents called Secrets About Proposals. Go over there and access this information, download the audio, listen to it. Then download the written study guide material, print it, read it and study it.

6. If you are looking for an agent, make sure you get my free list of agents and also that you look at this short two-minute clip from David Henry Sterry about the easily overlooked art of agent research which on the Media Bistro site. It's common sense but few writers actually take these wise steps.

These actions will dramatically increase your possibilities for having your idea seriously considered. It's all any writer can ask from an editor--that their idea be seriously considered. Like I've mentioned before in these entries, your search as an author (and my search as an agent for my clients) is to send the right idea at the right time to the right place to the right editor. Yes, I understand there are many "rights" in the previous sentence. You are looking for a match.

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7 Comment:

At 4:50 PM, Blogger Krista Phillips Left a note...

Curiosity question. Do you want to/like to/currently represent fiction authors?

I understand the sales figures regarding non-fiction, and may try my hand at it someday, but right now my heart is in CBA fiction. Your posts are very helpful, but I’ve have personally never sent you a proposal as I assumed your heart was in non-fiction.

Side note: Wanted to take a minute to THANK YOU for your kind words and suggestions you give on your blog. You always seem to encourage and constructively criticize when needed, and I for one appreciate it. I just got back from ACFW and had 2 vastly different experiences with agents (one was very helpful and gave me much to think about, and the other treated me as if I wasn't worthy of the dirt on her shoes...)

Regardless, I realize agents are inundated with proposals from people who haven't done their homework and those with less than stellar talent. I just wanted to applaud you for your kindness.

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


I have fiction clients and have sold their novels--so yes, I like to represent novelists. I read a great deal of fiction and was a fiction acquisitions editor for over two years.

I hear it often that people want to write fiction because it's easy (it's not) or because they don't need a platform (they do) or any number of other reasons (most of which show their complete ignorance of the details of publishing).

Thank you for the kind words of appreciation. I care about authors no matter what they write--and want them to quit stumbling around in the darkness and understand some of the business dynamics of how they can be successful. My intentions are pure and hopeful for them.

Author of Book Proposals That Sell

At 6:45 PM, Blogger Donna McDine Left a note...

Terry...great informative post...thanks for your insights...much appreciated.

Donna McDine

At 4:58 AM, Blogger Crystal Laine Left a note...

There is a lot of bad advice out there concerning fiction, and I'm not sure how it gets around because it's easy to find great resources--like this one.

Even though sales figures are dismal and competition fierce, it just takes that "one." Having a stellar proposal to show off that novel goes a long way. Hope people pay attention to what you say here, Terry. So generous.

You keep encouraged, too. Many of us listen closely.

At 4:37 PM, Blogger Cindy Thomson Left a note...

I'm sorry to hear that Krista was treated so rudely by one agent at ACFW! That agent should realize that who she snubs today could be tomorrow's best selling author. Jeez!

Terry, I've noticed that now when editors request a partial, they ask for "the first three chapters." I suppose that's to make clear that they don't want chapters two and eleven.

It always amazes me how people (in all walks of life) cannot follow directions!

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


You are exactly right to understand the reason editors and agents are asking specifically for the first three chapters--to avoid the out of sequence chapters that people select without those specifics.

I've been negotiating on contracts for the last few days and one of the things I've noticed in these contracts is that the issues are different for each publisher.

Often specific clauses in certain contracts were created because of a problem or difficulty in the past--and the publisher is trying to prevent going through that difficulty or challenge again.


At 9:12 AM, Blogger Krista Phillips Left a note...

Cindy, thank you for your indignation on my behalf :-) It was great getting to meet you by the way!

Terry, you are so right about contracts! I've yet to be involved in contracts in the publishing industry of course, but it is enlightening to go through them with our attorney (at my day job) and see him point out the different elements and places that are meant to protect the vendor, and places that could cause us a huge room for liability. Little words can make huge differences, which is one of the reasons agents are so important (not to mention the whole foot in the door thing...)


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