What Makes an Agent Say Wow?

As part of an interview for the upcoming Blue Ridge Writers conference in Ridgecrest, NC, May 22-26, Tamela was asked a series of questions by Al Gansky. (Be sure to check out the new conference web site.)

1) When you review proposals what stops you in your tracks?

Tamela: Since this question is aimed at writers attending a major conference, I’m answering as though you’re an author I’ve met at this conference rather than an author submitting over the transom.* At conference, you’ve made a great impression and I think we can work well together. So I’ve asked to see your proposal. I’m now thrilled that you’ve followed up. Thank you for that! So many authors never follow up after a conference. Now, I want to see that you’ve given me as much information as you can that will take your proposal to the top of the stack: a super project; great social media presence, etc. Our proposal guidelines are here:

*Al: “Over the transom” is an old publishing term. In the old days, office buildings didn’t have air-conditioning. To keep the offices cool, builders put narrow windows over interior doors. In warm weather, employees would open an exterior window and that transom window to provide air flow. Would-be authors would often stop by after business hours and push unsolicited manuscripts “over the transom.” Editors would show up at work the next day with manuscripts on the floor of their office.

2) What makes you want to dig deeper into the proposal?

Tamela: The writer submitting after a large conference such as Blue Ridge may face a different yet happy dilemma than the writer submitting cold and hoping for the best. For instance, at conferences, many writers find that more than one agent will ask to see a proposal.* That’s great! And I do want to know if other agents are looking. But believe it or not, that fact doesn’t make me want your proposal more.** Yes, it’s flattering for an author to have several agents express interest in a manuscript, and I believe this interest is sincere. Sometimes it’s obvious that the manuscript won’t work for me (for example, there are some genres I don’t handle) and I have to pass on the proposal. Giving a manuscript the evaluation it deserves in fifteen minutes at any conference doesn’t do either the writer or myself justice. So I usually ask to see many manuscripts at conference. I want to go home and give everyone’s work careful evaluation before choosing between several worthy manuscripts and charming authors. And I also want the authors to go home and think about working with me. I realize CBA is blessed with many talented literary agents. I want both partners to have the best fit, and of course, it is my desire that we try to make decisions according to what we both believe is God’s plan for our individual careers. So the decision to work together is important for both of us.

That said, authors also learn much from workshops at conferences. Often they can apply what they learn as they revise their proposals. As you revise, think about these things:

  • Who do you know in the industry who’ll vouch for you?
  • What are you doing on social media to reach out to existing and potential fans?
  • What is your publishing history, if applicable? Please provide sales figures. This includes indie published works.
  • Where will your book fit in with the rest of the books on the market today?

I must consider all of these factors as I review your work, in addition to how wonderful you are at your craft.

*Al: Over the years I’ve noticed that many conferees fail to send a full proposal to an agent when asked for. Perhaps it’s a fear of rejection. Muster up the courage and send the proposal as requested.
**It’s a good idea to mention in your proposal that other agents have shown an interest. Agents do a lot of conferences and they know that several agents might request a proposal from the same person. Be upfront with such information. 

3) Do you recall the best proposal you’ve ever seen? What made it a stand out from the others?

Tamela: The best proposal is a thorough proposal. Cover all the bases. Consider that you are preparing a document for the editor to take into a meeting to convince the committee to publish your book. All questions must be answered based on that document.

4) Do you have a mental checklist of things you look for in a proposal?

Tamela: For fiction: A fantastic first page. Make me want to read more. Then more. Then more. If I’m flying through a manuscript and suddenly I’m well into it, you’ve got a great chance with me. Then I’ll look back and see how I think I can position your work with editors in the marketplace.

For nonfiction: A new way to present a timeless topic. We’ve all read books on having a better marriage/romance/friendship/parenthood/budget/younameit but how can you make this concept fresh and appealing? A great title will also help. Make sure you hit a target but that your target isn’t too small. For instance, a book on how parents can pray for their college students could work. A ten-day devotional book for left-handed Druid quilters living in Mexico–not so much. And don’t forget, you’ll need to show me your specific plan on how you are reaching your audience, ready to buy your book.

I can tell you that once I start digging, I’ll look for you on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ll look for your web site. An impressive Internet presence helps.

I suppose I’m more of a big picture person than a checklist person. But the picture must work. Again, our proposal guidelines are on our web site: *

*Al: Always check submissions guidelines of any agent you submit to. These vary some from agency to agency. It will show that you’re doing your homework.

Authors, I look forward to meeting you!

[The original interview ran in December 2015 and can be found here.]


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