Agents and Proposals: What to Expect

Last week I left you with a question: How do editors/agents get through all the proposals they receive. For me, as an editor and now as an agent, the answer was to hire someone to be my first-pass reader. In my case, this person is someone I’ve worked with now for over fifteen years. She knows me and my tastes well, and, as an avid reader and a skilled writer herself, she knows quality writing. She reviews my proposals and, based on a list of criteria I’ve given her, determines if said proposals are at a level that I should review them.

Here’s a hard truth about proposals: roughly 95% of the proposals my first-pass reader reviews, she rejects. And that percentage is fairly common for many editors and agents. When my reader determines the manuscript isn’t ready for me to review, she sends the writers something very similar to the noncommittal response most writers dislike. Honestly, I’m not that crazy about it when I receive it from editors! But I understand and accept it, because I know it isn’t the editors’ jobs to to critique the proposals I—or others, be they agents or writers–send them. Just as it isn’t my reader’s job to do so. What she’s supposed to do is determine whether or not the proposals meet my clear criteria.

So what, you ask, are my criteria?

#1: The manuscript has to have a strong Christian message/theme.

I love powerful, passionate writing, but that’s not enough for me as an agent. I want to work with writers who are driven by the passion to share God’s truth with a hurting world.

#2: The writing has to take your breath away.

There are a lot of proposals out there that are good. But good isn’t good enough. I want the proposals, fiction or nonfiction, that my reader can’t put down. Something that captures her heart and mind and won’t let go. Because if it captures her, odds are good it will do the same for me. And for editors and readers.

If the proposal is for fiction, meeting these first two is enough for my reader to send it on to me. If the proposal is for nonfiction, my reader moves on to:

#3: The writer has have, or be in the process of developing, a solid platform.

Yes, the dreaded “platform.” As much as I’d love to tell writers they can just write a great book and leave the rest to the publisher, that’s no longer the case. Those who’ve been in publishing for awhile know that’s so. This whole gig is harder than ever these days, and publishers are looking for authors who have done, or are doing, the work of building a readership for—and getting said readership excited about—their book long before the book is released. An existing following/fan base/readership translates to sales, folks. And having that makes any agent’s or editor’s little heart sing.

#3: Nonfiction writers need to have some kind of credentials that qualify them to write on the topic they’ve chosen.

Those credentials can be professional (a family psychologist writing about working with troubled teens), or they can be some remarkable life experience that will draw readers to the book (think Carol Kent and When I Lay My Isaac Down). If the writer doesn’t have the credentials themselves, they at least need to have endorsements from those who do have them. And I’m not talking about “I believe I can get endorsements from <insert list of best-selling authors here>.” I’m talking about already having the endorsements, or already having agreement from those qualified folks that they’ll endorse.

I will say, though, if the writing and the message are amazing, my reader knows I want to see the proposal even if criteria 2 & 3 aren’t met. Because I can always work with writers, helping them build a platform and secure endorsements. But the writing has to be powerful for my reader to pass it on to me without a platform.

There is another reason I want to share with you as to why editors and agents don’t offer more than form rejections. A reason that few will mention. In fact, it’s called by some “The Great Unspoken.” But I’m planning to speak it…next week.

12 Responses to Agents and Proposals: What to Expect

  1. Diana Harkness November 28, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    Good words. I recently had my novel rejected by a publisher, but even before I received the rejection, I reread the novel and realized that if I could I would withdraw it from consideration. It simply didn’t meet my standards. That’s what happens when our gazes are skewed by the things of life: in my case, a dying mother. I can’t write without a Christian theme, because that’s life as I know it. But, the prose was lifeless, dying along with my mother. I’ve since rewritten it to bring life into it, but every time I read a excellent novelist (currently Michael Chabon), I realize that there’s more work for me to do. After Christmas, I’ll try to find an agent to reject it!

  2. Rick Barry November 28, 2012 at 5:30 am #

    I suspect that all authors could benefit from even one day spent as your reader. I used to edit textbooks. In that line of work, after receiving many raw manuscripts, I learned to spot quickly which ones would be a joy to work on and which ones would–gulp–require a machete and plenty of patience. I’m sure the same is true when your reader picks up a new proposal. Thanks for sharing, Karen.

  3. Jennifer Dyer November 28, 2012 at 6:01 am #

    Thanks for the insights, Karen.
    I think Rick has an excellent perspective. I learn so much from helping other writer friends with their projects.
    I do have a question. As we are all on a journey of improving and changing, do you ever allow a writer to resubmit a project after they receive a standard rejection from you?

  4. Lisa November 28, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    Thank you so much for this post. It is very helpful. I especially love number one, being passionate about sharing God’s truth with a hurting world. That is what keeps me writing.

  5. Jeanne November 28, 2012 at 7:23 am #

    I’m so glad you shared your perspective on this, Karen. Thanks. It reminds me what I’m aiming for. :)

  6. Gabrielle Meyer November 28, 2012 at 7:31 am #

    It’s always good to get a reminder, like this one, about what agents and editors are looking for. As I was reading it, I had a thought about the form rejection. As a mother of an 8 year old, 6 year old and 2 year old twin boys, I can’t tell you how many times a day I have to say no. And so often, when my children ask me why, I simply say: “Because I said so.” Now, there is always a reason for my no – but after saying it about a hundred times, I don’t have the time, or the energy to explain every no I give. I imagine being an agent, and saying no to hundreds of proposals, can become just as tiring! Thank you for taking the time to explain your “no” here.

  7. Anne Love November 28, 2012 at 8:13 am #

    Thanks for posting your criteria here Karen. In the last several years, I’ve spent a lot of time studying craft, honing my skills on my MS, and networking. But I find that when it comes to proposal writing (and synopsis writing too), it seems to be a bit of a different skill set. We all have plenty of great examples of how to write a great story, but writers don’t have the opportunity like Rick to sit around and read a lot of proposals to compare what’s quality and what’s not. How do you recommend we polish the skill set for proposal writing? and synopsis writing? Can you list some good sources and examples?

  8. Lindsay Harrel November 28, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    I love lists and so this is a great one. Can’t wait to read next week’s post, too!

  9. Meghan Carver November 28, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    So much appreciate that one of your criterion is a strong Christian message, Karen!

  10. Peter James November 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    Thank you for letting us peek in to the agent world. It is a huge help. For the last year I’ve been working on my manuscript and have just begun building my platform. Can you give a ball park figure as to how far along in the platform development stage I should be before I submit proposals?

  11. Andrea Nell November 29, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    Thanks Karen. I’ll be anxiously awaiting next weeks post. I love seeing your faith in action through you commitment to aquiring projects with a strong Christian message.

  12. Carrie Miller December 2, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    This is very helpful, thank you!

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