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.

By asking for a proposal, we have a way to evaluate you as an author and what we might expect in the way of your career. In turn, we are helping the editor evaluate your work and giving that editor a document they can take to Committee that will answer the Committee’s questions. That proposal needs to be a thorough document, especially in this tough market. The advantage you have with an agent is that we will help you get the proposal in the best shape we can before the editor sees it. We help your proposal stand out among the many others the editor will review. But you have to help us by doing your share. And most authors do. Trust me, I know how hard successful authors work. Everyone down the line appreciates cooperative, hardworking authors.

What If I Don’t Know How to Create One?

Writing a proposal can be scary if you’ve never had to write one. There are so many parts to a great proposal and many can fee inadequate. For instance, some new authors don’t feel they can garner meaningful endorsements because they don’t know anyone “famous.” That’s okay. I have helped many authors with various sections of a proposal. There are ways to pitch a book that can avoid certain areas of inadequacy. Another scary section can be the past sales history of your books. You may be a new author with no sales figures or a mid-list author with modest sales figures. We often have published authors try to skip that section. Unfortunately you cna’t avoid it. Every publisher will ask for that information. But we know that each author has a different past experience in the industry and modest sales can occur for any number of reasons. Fortunately most publishing houses will take this into account when evaluating a new project.

Best Advice I Can Give

The best advice I can give is that if you’re feeling unqualified to write a proposal, don’t let it paralyze you into not submitting. And definitely don’t vent to an agent or editor (or to their assistant). Do the work and give it your best shot. Send the most polished and complete proposal you can along with your fantastic book. An agent will respect the fact you took the time to research the agency’s site and provided all the information you could, to the best of your ability.

We can heartily recommend a couple resources if you cannot attend a writers conference. Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, has an excellent e-book resource called Writing a Winning Book Proposal. Or buy Terry Whalin’s Book Proposals That Sell.

I wish you great success! And I look forward to getting your complete book proposal.

45 Responses to Why Do I Have to Jump Through Your Hoops?

  1. Nikole Hahn February 23, 2012 at 5:56 am #

    I actually understand the reasons why agents and editors need a proposal. Proposals are still difficult, but once I saw a visual of one then it got a little better. Actually, it’s the pitches that I can’t seem to do at all.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 23, 2012 at 6:22 am #

      For a quick pitch, I recommend using your back cover blurb included in your proposal. Obviously, you don’t want to memorize it, but be able to verbalize the idea when pressed. Since your back cover blurb is short and meant to sell your book to readers, it’s an obvious choice for a quick pitch as well.

      Hope that helps!

      • Nikole Hahn February 23, 2012 at 10:38 am #

        Thanks.

        That does help.

        Now if I can only find that cure for frazzled nerves. :o)

  2. Jennifer M February 23, 2012 at 6:00 am #

    I think perhaps part of the crippling paralysis in proposal writing is the “one shot wonder” constraint. Basically, it’s speed dating and do I look good enough? Are my teeth clean? Did I forget (takes a quick sniff) no I’m good. How about my hair? Are my roots showing or did I time the proposal and my salon appointment just right?
    All these worries are so intertwined, yet we forget the blind date wants to like us for our mind!

    Mind, manners and material.

    No pressure.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 23, 2012 at 6:33 am #

      I can’t speak for everyone in the industry, but my agent friends and I often talk to writers many times — sometimes even years — before we agree to work together. During this time an author can grow and experience an Aha! moment that takes her writing from the promise of talent to eagerly sought. Don’t get discouraged by the “years” reference — that’s rare. But what I do want to be sure to get across is that I think it’s fine to ask an agent if he or she will consider more work from you, especially if there has been a new development, such as an editor expressing interest or a contest win. And if an agent says her door is always open, or if he says to feel free to submit other work in the future, that is gold. Follow up on that when you have your next work ready.

      Roots? What roots? Your minty breath tells me you brushed your teeth after you had lunch, so no worries. Keep at it! :)

  3. Pete Missing February 23, 2012 at 6:05 am #

    Tamela, I buy your point, but then it should work both ways. I submitted a manuscript some 5-6 months ago. Receipt was never acknowledged and when I merely followed up to see if it was received, I felt I was given shortish shrift. Since then I have done all I can to be cheerful, engaging and constructive. Yet I still feel like a Broadway beggar, whose eye you dare not catch, for fear of what that would lead to. I am not fighting – on the contrary I am really trying to show the restraint and professionalism that publishing expects of an aspirant writer, but your blog gives me the impression you would rather give time to those many who abuse you than the one leper who merely asked for a reply. What hurts more, maybe, is that I am not a beggar – we are family, with the same Father, but different mothers.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 23, 2012 at 6:42 am #

      Pete, you certainly have been engaging and constructive on this blog, a fact we appreciate. Please note that I am posting the following from our web site for everyone’s benefit:

      If we are interested in your project, we will be in contact within six to eight weeks or sooner. If we do not think your project is something we can represent, we may or may not be in contact, depending on current workload.

      However, I still try to make sure some sort of response leaves my office. I am a full-time literary agent now, but I was a writer for a number of years and so I understand what it’s like to await a verdict on a proposal. If your comment is directed to me and is not generic, what I can say is that it’s unusual for neither the initial proposal nor a followup query to be acknowledged. For that reason, I am not positive our office received either. If you are talking directly to me, let me know and we’ll figure out a way to have your work reviewed.

      • Pete Missing February 23, 2012 at 7:13 am #

        Tamela, you are not guilty at all – it was before your time, but I am not witch-hunting anyway. I was told 6-8 weeks or bust, but I have no idea whatsoever if my proposal was ever even received – it may well have been lost in the mail. That much I could not establish from whoever I emailed. As such, there may well be a good explanation for it all, especially given the volume of proposals you guys process. Forgive my mind playing tricks, but for all my blog comments, I think your warm feedback was the first I received from the agency, which compounded my sense of feeling rebuffed – although, to quote Karen, I also twitched somewhat. Anyway, lets start again … if that is still okay with you. I will resubmit as per your suggestion. Yours in Him, Pete

  4. Susan Falck February 23, 2012 at 6:31 am #

    Wow, I am amazed at 1)how someone could be so rude and expect to succeed, and 2)that you didn’t toss the proposal with a rejection slip since he didn’t follow the guidelines. Thank you for being so kind to him, and for understanding and helping us with this intimidating side of writing.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 23, 2012 at 6:49 am #

      Susan, I think that in some cases, the writer realizes there is no turning back from our decision, so he or she may feel there is nothing to lose by venting. However, clearly *you* have read Steve Laube’s post on burning bridges!

      http://www.stevelaube.com/never-burn-a-bridge/

      In fairness, many authors thank us for acknowledging their work even after they receive rejections.

      In the meantime, thank you for your kindness and understanding as well! :D

  5. Beth February 23, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    It’s amazing to me that an aspiring writer would respond that way to an agent they hope to have a relationship with. And as far as ‘jumping through hoops’ goes, that’s true of any job. Not definded in those words, but we’re all pushing through those hoops every day.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 23, 2012 at 6:44 am #

      Excellent point! I know of no job that doesn’t have hoops, hurdles, or whatever sports analogy you care to use. :)

      • Rick Barry February 23, 2012 at 7:25 am #

        I like Beth’s point too. Just imagine a candidate for a position at a large corporation saying, “Resumé? What do you mean I have to make a resumé? Look, I’m good and I know it. I don’t have time to compile a list of references, work history, contact information, and the rest of that nonsense. Just let me get my foot in the door, and I’ll show you what great a great job I can do!”

  6. Pete Missing February 23, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    I tried this morning to convey a principle on prayer using the analogy of an employee who pushes his own agenda. They often face the stonewall of the organisation, just the way believers find their prayers cold-shouldered by similar attitudes. But when an employee constructively engages stakeholders and seeks to be of value, whilst acceding to teh bigger picture, their personal issues have a funny way of just sorting themselves out – in the way that Jesus said, “seek the kingdom first and all these things will be added”. I suspect that, just as that principle holds for prayer and for corporate relationships, it also holds for writers.

  7. Lindsay Harrel February 23, 2012 at 7:54 am #

    Tamela, thank you for your tips (and I’ll have to go check out those resources you mentioned when it’s time for me to write a proposal!). I think the best type of agent is one who communicates clearly and is warm and personable. You seem to be both. The fact that you gave that author a chance when he/she didn’t submit the right materials astounds me. But it gives me hope that agents aren’t all intimidating! :P

  8. gina welborn February 23, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    When I think back to the initial submission I sent you, Tamela, I cringe. Oh how many things did I do wrong? Well, clearly not that many because you offered representation. But to my defense I will say that where I blundered was because I didn’t know . . . how to write a hook, market analysis, comparatibles, sell sheet, etc.

    If I had to do it over, I would have gotten over my nervousness and asked pubbed authors I knew for help and explanation of what was what.

    That’s why I like it when authors and agencies include a sample proposal on their website. (And I say that having no idea if SLA has one. LOL.)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 23, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      LOL Gina — so glad we’re a team. And I’m glad you mentioned our guidelines. Indeed, they can be located here:

      http://www.stevelaube.com/guidelines/

    • Steve Laube February 23, 2012 at 10:08 am #

      We don’t provide a sample proposal on our site. Just “guidelines” on the guidelines page.

      Why?

      Because if we did writers would follow it slavishly and get hung up on fonts and headers. There isn’t a set formula into which you can plug information. There are guidelines and big picture sections that should be addressed.

      In some proposals we have an extensive author marketing section. In others it barely makes a blip.

      In some proposals we provide an extensive author vitae. In others it is a simple paragraph.

      Some authors provide extensive market research on the topic. In others it is immaterial to the content.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can’t provide an orange as the best example when your proposal is an apple. But both are fruit.

      (What a terrible metaphor. That is what I get for composing while in the comment box on screen.)

      • gina welborn February 23, 2012 at 10:43 am #

        Steve, I totally understand your metaphor because trying to make my proposal exactly like what was on an agency’s website is what pre-agent-me would have done. Fit my apple in orange skin.

        Part of that drive, though, is personality. And I don’t think I’m the only writer who likes to submit proposals exactly how an agent (or editor) wants them. Yes, I’ve fretted over font because if the editor wanted CN12, then I wanted my proposal in CN12 (or TNR or whatever). I’m sure I sent Tamela more than one e-mail on “what format does the editor prefer.” Not because I’m OCD, but if I can do something to make someone happy, and that somethign isn’t immoral or unethical or embarrassing, then I want to do it. I like to be nice merely for the sake of being nice. Besides, who wants to be reject because s/he didn’t include a detailed enough market analysis?

        In other words, I’m okay with jumping through hoops, but what if I miss one of those hoops because I didn’t understand exactly what that hoop was requiring of me? When you’re a writer looking for an agent, you can get pretty desperate about wanting to hoop jump right.

        So I figure if I’m that way, I bet other writers are like that too.

        Thankfully now I just format my proposals in the same style as the one Tamela sent to me as an example. Doing it that way makes me happier and less stressed.

        Still, I see your point about sections varying with imput based on the manuscript. No two of my proposals are exactly alike. Just mostly. ;-)

        Now non-fiction proposals . . . I shiver at the thought.

  9. Ann Shorey February 23, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    Excellent post, Tamela. I remember jumping through all those hoops. It was worth it!
    I plan to share this blog post on Saturday when I teach a workshop on rejection.
    Blessings!
    Ann

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 23, 2012 at 11:16 am #

      Very good, Ann! I’d love a CD or MP3 file of the workshop if the conference provides one. Hugs to you!

      • Ann Shorey February 23, 2012 at 11:35 am #

        Will do, Tamela. All the sessions are recorded.

  10. Jane Myers Perrine February 23, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    I am appalled a writer would act this way but not surprised. My husband and I had an on-line short story magazine. One the the writers we rejected wrote us and DEMANDED to know why her story was turned down when those we published weren’t nearly as good.

  11. Terry Whalin February 23, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Hello Tamela,

    Thank you for the recommendation of Book Proposals That Sell which has 100 Five Star Amazon reviews. I wrote that book over seven years ago. I’ve got a new innovative 12 lesson course which is much more step-by-step to teach writers the elements of putting together a book proposal–whether nonfiction or fiction. The course is located at:
    http://WriteABookProposal.com I’ve had students all over the world and because it is on autoresponders, anyone can get started at any time of the day.

    Also I have a free teleseminar about proposal creation with a free Ebook, Book Proposal Basics at: http://AskAboutProposals.com

    From reading thousands of proposals and pitches, I know the importance of this document and I’m trying to help all of us have better proposals.

    Terry

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 25, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

      Terry, thanks for stopping by. Appreciate your innovations to help writers!

  12. Rachel Wilder February 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    At first, the thought of a proposal terrified me. ACK! Why do I have to do this???

    Then I took a deep breath and told myself if I can write a 110,000 word novel, pitch it at ACFW, then chop it down to 100,000 per an agent’s request, I can write a proposal and live to tell the tale.

    The proposal guidelines here really stretched me as a writer and forced me to think hard about my story and why I feel so passionate about telling it. That’s a very good thing in my opinion. Being complacent as a writer is just as bad for you as burning bridges.

    One other thing I did that really helped was asked a couple of my writing friends if I could look at their proposals. They both agreed. One of them was a proposal that sold, in a time period that’s not done a whole lot. Which is what mine is. The other I’m fully convinced will sell this year.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 24, 2012 at 10:07 am #

      Rachel, congratulations, and thank you for sharing your experience with us. I think it’s a great idea to elicit support from writer friends. You gave the writers you chose a compliment because obviously you thought their proposals would be ones to emulate.

  13. Don Kimrey February 23, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    I appreciate what you said in this article, as well as the manner in which you made your point. I reckon it helps when those of us who struggle to think and write worthwhile stuff come to understand that an equally difficult (and important) task is passed along to folks like you. It helps me to know we struggle together, hopefully for the same good reasons, and that each of us understands and appreciates the valuable role the other plays in the entire process of creating and distributing material. Best to you! ~donkimrey

  14. Ruth Douthitt February 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    Thank you for the tips and resources! They do help. I recently submitted my first proposal. I was very nervous, but the agent provided guidelines on his web site. That was most helpful!

    He asked me to revise the manuscript and encouraged me to keep writing because I was on the right track. Whew!

    In the end, all that hard work and worry was worth knowing I am heading in the right direction!

  15. Heather Day Gilbert February 23, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    I enjoyed this post! When I started out, I certainly thought I was the exception to every rule, because of my sheer writing prowess. Turns out, if you don’t follow basic guidelines, you’re not even going to get your query noticed, much less your proposal! There’s certainly a place for your personality/prowess to shine through, but querying and proposing correctly only serve to shine up your stuff. I think much of it is just newbie arrogance, which quickly gets knocked out of you after several rejection emails!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 24, 2012 at 10:04 am #

      Heather, good point about personality. Writers can certainly write an engaging cover letter and proposal to get the agent’s attention!

  16. Mike Manto February 24, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    I totally get it. I’m a project manager at a large wireless telcom, and my department recieves dozens of requests every day to undertake a variety of projects. In order to handle the volume of submissions, we had to setup an ‘engagement’ process that uses forms requiring certain information. If submissions do not have what we need we have to reject them until the missing information is supplied. Without a formal process that specifies what we are looking for in a project proposal, we would just end up wasting precious time in an endless round of emails as we try to extract what we need from the submitter. Often we get critized for having a process – usually by people who don’t want to take the time to meet our requirements, but it’s the only possible way we can sort through the mountain of requests and make a meaningful evaluation. It’s not because we want to be nasty or enjoy ‘red tape’ (so-called).

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 24, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      Mike, that is fascinating. I imagine the only people who complain are those who don’t understand your business well.

  17. sarah February 24, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Sadly, I AM too scared to write a proposal… someday, maybe!

  18. Deb Kinnard March 3, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Sarah, if I can do it, anyone can. I started my career proposal-averse (and synopsis-averse, too — ask anyone) but I think it’s learnable. Ask Tamela if my first few proposals were really, truly pitch-ready, despite the fact I’d sold like 6 books already at the time we linked up!

    IMO, and this is merely my take on a book I acquired some time ago and read with interest: Terry’s book is aimed more at nonfic proposals than at fiction, though there are nuggets of gold in there.

    In truth, most of the time I do the very best I can; ask questions two or three times until I understand; and pray it gets its best shot. One thing I’ve learned to do is to keep asking. The only bad question is one I’ve been too timid to ask.

  19. Daniel Darling September 5, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    If I could chime in here with my two cents (how’s that for mixing metaphors?): I’d say Tamela is right to simply say to do the work required to get properly evaluated by an agent. Putting a proposal together takes some work, thought, and a bit of frustration. But if this is what is required for publishing, we should, by all means, do what it takes.

  20. Jan Cline September 5, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    I was so fortunate to have a friend who is an author help me with my proposal. If writers know anyone who has been successful at landing a contract it’s a good bet they can help you learn about proposals. I have to think of it in terms of having a conversation with someone about what I’m writing, who I am and what I’ve done. When you consider that the agency just wants to know more, that’s a good thing.

  21. Penny McGinnis September 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    Thanks Tamela for this reminder. I’ve been working on a book proposal and at first I was overwhelmed. The more I write for it, the more comfortable I am. It has also helped me to see things about my story that I may have missed.

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