Tag s | Proposals

Unsolicited Proposals: aka “The Slush Pile”

All literary agents receive dozens of proposal each week. Some in the mail and some via email. Last week was a slow week, only 30 unsolicited proposals arrived. (Unsolicited means proposals that are not from our existing clients. We get a number of those each week too.)  The variety can be rather astounding. We don’t mean to be mean about it, but sometimes you have to find the humor in these situations.

There are myriad of email submissions that simply ignore our posted guidelines regarding email submissions such as “Please do not copy and paste your entire manuscript into the body of your email.” Yes it has happened.

Despite saying we don’t represent poetry I once received a PDF attachment with 900 pages of poetry in it. The author felt it was so good I would ignore my stated preferences and make an exception.

Or the poor soul that failed to proofread their email before sending this sentence, “I would like to send you my quarry letter….”

Or this opening sentence, “I found your name on the inner net.”

Nor does it include those that find our name in a directory somewhere and just pick up the phone and call without doing their research. I once received a call that went something  like this:

Agency: This is the Steve Laube Agency…
Caller: What kind of agency are you?
Agency: We are a literary agency.
Caller: What does that mean?
Agency: It means we represent books to publishers on behalf of our clients and manage our client’s careers.
Caller: Oh good. I do comic strips…and they are really unique…  [caller's voice gets faster and louder as they talk]
Agency: Well, we don’t represent artists or comic strip artists.
Caller: But I’m a philosopher too! ….. [further explanation followed]
Agency: Well, we [caller interrupts]
Caller: And I’m also a musician with over 500 songs to my credit.
Agency: Unfortunately we do not represent musicians at this time.
Caller: But I was named Rock musician of the year…
Agency: We’re sorry but it does not appear that our agency would be a good fit for you.
Caller: You want to listen to my stuff for free on Myspace?
Agency: I don’t see how that would be a good use of our time.
Caller: Someday someone will discover it and make millions.
Agency: We wish you the best in all your endeavors…

Or the time we received a call from an aspiring author who was a psychic who had an “amazing” personal story to tell…oh, and by the way, they also have two novels done and five children’s books ready and waiting.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not complaining. What I’m trying to say is that the simple act of reading our blog and following an agency’s guidelines can make you like so much better than those who do not take that time. We’ve written about rejection many times and no agent takes the process lightly. But a little understanding and self education would make every writer’s experience while approaching an agent a little more tolerable.

 

(an earlier version of this post ran on January 6, 2010. The new picture above is not from my office!)

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Endorsements: How Important Are They?

How important are endorsements? (Those “blurbs” on the back of a book that exclaim “A real masterpiece!”) Let me answer with a question. When you are browsing a book title do you look at the endorsements or notice who wrote the foreword or introduction? I suspect you do without realizing …

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Who Am I? – About the Author

The author biography section in a book proposal seems to be one of the least anxiety-provoking sections, yet I often see areas that could be improved. Here are a few ideas on how to make your author bio section the best it can be.

Include a portrait

When I was an intern on Capitol Hill, one of my duties was to open the mail. On one occasion, we received a resume that included a portrait, which was not the common practice at that time. The portrait wasn’t large, and if you looked like this man, you would put your picture on everything, too. But the office manager said, “I would never hire him. He’s an egomaniac.” Now, maybe my office manager was jealous. (And no, I don’t think he’s reading this). But I thought including a picture was a great idea. On proposals, Steve Laube recommends including a portrait in the author bio. And no, no one will think you are an egomaniac. I have put together many proposals under our banner, and I can tell you that including the visual is helpful. We like portraits that are about the size of a postage stamp.

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Will You Vouch for Me?

As part of my continuing series on proposals, today I’ll talk about endorsements. This element can cause anxiety, so I hope this post will ease your mind.

When to Ask for Endorsement

Some writers tell me, “I’ll get back to you on that list as soon as I talk to the authors.” Or even, “I’ll let you know as soon as the authors read my manuscript and get back to me.” In reality, neither time is right to ask an established author to endorse your book. The time to ask is when you already have a contract and the publisher is almost ready to send advance copies to potential endorsers. Then the publisher can offer a deadline for the endorsement and the endorser can verify whether or not he has time to read and endorse the book.

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Do You Have Perfect Pitch?

Thanks so much for all the ideas for my mini-conferences. I’ll put those together soon.

Speaking of conferences, while I was at a writer’s retreat awhile back, I was struck, as I always am when in the company of writers, by the power of the right word used in the right way. On the first day of the conference, I had group meetings with the writers. This is where a group of writers come in, sit at a table together, and each takes a turn pitching his/her book to me to see if I would be interested in representing the author. I had six groups, each lasting a half hour, made up of anywhere from 5-7 people each. So folks had a total of 3-5 minutes to engage me in their project.

It’s the writer’s conference version of speed dating!

The cool thing is, a good number of those who came had such a strong understanding of their project and of the market that they were able to hook me in the first few words. Now that’s doing your homework! For example, one woman told me right off the bat her book was romantic suspense, what the main story line was (in a sentence), and what the conflict and spiritual takeaway were. That took about 45 seconds of her 4 minutes, so from there I asked questions about the story and focus and she was able to relax and just talk. I ended up asking her to send me the proposal. Don’t know if we’ll pursue it–the writing is what tips the scales, of course. But I was impressed with her well chosen descriptions. And if I’m considering two manuscripts and all things are basically equal, I’ll always go with an author who is, first and foremost, teachable, and then able to communicate the heart and soul of her story quickly and effectively.

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What Is the Agent Doing While I Wait?

You submit a great manuscript to an agent. Then you wait. And wait. And wait.

What could she possibly be doing?

Let’s say your baby jumped most of the hurdles and is near the top of the slush pile. (See the previous post on the Mystery of the Slush Pile) Why can’t the agent make up her mind? Might I offer a few ideas:

1.) Market changes can mean a shift in priorities. An agent may receive an email at five in the afternoon on any given Friday that opens up a new market or closes an old one. The agent may need to reevaluate and reassess her strategy. This does not mean agents chase the market. What it does mean is that, for example, if markets are trending away from a certain type of novel (Remember hen lit?) the agent may realize she’d better focus on the writers she already has rather than risking taking on a new client writing that type of book, no matter how wonderful. Or if a huge market opens up, the agent might focus on that category for awhile, shunting your wonderful retelling of Genesis to the side, if only temporarily.

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The Mystery of the Slush Pile

When you submit a manuscript or query to an agent, you may wonder what happens to it, and what our thought processes are regarding the properties we offer to represent versus those we must respectfully decline. Every agent is different, but you may find learning about my process helpful.

I have a very smart assistant. When she reviews my slush pile submissions, she goes through a winnowing process.

The first submissions she rejects are those that are obviously not a fit for me. These include:

1.) Stream of consciousness submissions. If she can’t figure out what you are talking about, she sends it back. By this we don’t mean that we don’t understand systematic theology. It means that the query letter is incoherent.

2.) Error-ridden letters. Even the best of us can type “here” when we meant to type “hear” but more than one error in a final letter is a red flag that either the author is not well-versed in basic grammar or will turn in careless, sloppy work.

3.) We rarely acknowledge queries sent as an email blast in the cc line to the entire industry. It is a form of spam. Target a select few and then personalize your proposal to each.

4.) Books that aren’t in categories we represent.

Submissions that bypass these four problems, among others, and otherwise show promise are passed on to a reader. The reader looks for factors such as:

1.) Excellent writing.

2.) For fiction, coherent plot.

3.) For nonfiction, whether the intended audience is likely to connect with the topic.

4.) Overall message of book, whether fiction or nonfiction.

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The Wild Pitch

In honor of the upcoming baseball season I thought it would be fun to explore the art of pitching.

A couple years ago I was watching a Major League baseball game and the pitcher unleashed a horrific throw that sailed about eight feet behind the batter. It floated to the backstop without a bounce and everyone in the stadium wonder what had just happened. It looked like the pitcher lost his grip and could not stop his delivery. In baseball terms this is classified as a wild pitch.

Unfortunately many writers unleash a pitch on an agent or an editor before it is ready to deliver. Let me list a few actual letters I have received.

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Why Do I Have to Jump Through Your Hoops?

Recently, my assistant had a conversation with an author who did not send a complete proposal. The author was referred to our guidelines and gently reminded that we needed more material in order to make an evaluation. But instead of saying “thank you” for the guidance, the author declared they did not have to jump through any hoops, and took the opportunity to aggressively express their complaints about our review process.

What made this all the more frustrating to us is that it happens more often than you’d think.

Why All The Work?

Have you ever worked in an office where you could swear one of your coworkers could find something — anything — wrong with your work so they could get it off their desk and back onto you? Well, that’s not what we are doing when we ask for a proposal. We are not giving you busywork so we can get back to our soap operas and coffee.

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Charmed, I’m Sure

Dear Editor:

You really should meet this author! He knows all the best places to dine. I couldn’t believe the fabulous meal we were served at a hole-in-the-wall place I’d never heard of until I made his acquaintance. He has also been quite generous and charming to my family. My husband and my kids have nothing but great things to say about this wonderful author!

In our meetings both in person and on the telephone, he has convinced me that his book will sell millions! And because of his extroverted manner and considerable verve, I believe it really doesn’t matter if his book is any good or not. His platform isn’t anything great yet, but it will be — as soon as he gets paid your hefty advance so he can travel the country, taking meetings. In fact, he wants to meet with you at your early convenience. Can you fly out to meet him in Charlotte on Tuesday morning? 

Cheers,

Tamela

Of course I would never send this letter like it to any editor, but on more than one occasion, I have found that this is how authors seem to think marketing to editors works.

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