What Agents Look For In A Book Proposal

I’ve have several recent conversations revolving around the question, “What do literary agents and publishers look for in a book proposal?” Rachelle Gardner, from Books and Such Literary Agency, sent me the answer below.  (Rachelle gave me permission to post this information and it also appears on her site at www.rachellegardner.com).write-a-book

When you submit your proposal to an agent or publishing house, you may wonder how they make their decisions as to which books to reject and which to accept. Obviously there are numerous considerations that vary from person to person, from publisher to publisher. But there is a simple three-tiered approach we all use to evaluate the viability of a project:

1. The Idea
, 2. The Execution and 
3. The Author Platform

Generally, you’ve got to be strong in all three areas in order to sell your proposal. There are always exceptions: You might be extremely strong in two of the areas and get away with being a little weaker in the third. In fiction, the idea and execution are primary; the author platform is still important but not nearly as important as the writing. In nonfiction, the author platform is of primary importance; the idea comes next, and the execution (the writing itself) becomes the third consideration.

The Idea

Pretty self-explanatory, right? The concept itself must turn heads. For example, you could say your concept is “A book about how to have a satisfying marriage.” Yawn. Low marks in the idea category. But consider what Gary Thomas said: “What if God intended marriage not to make us happy, but to make us holy?” Now that’s a fresh idea. It sparks interest, it compels people to want to hear more, and it even makes some people mad.

Take a look at your idea, and how you’re phrasing it. Does it sound fresh and exciting—or like a hundred other books already out there?

The Execution

This is all about the writing. Plenty of people can string a few words together. But when you put your words on a page, do they sing? The craft of writing is exactly that—a craft. Like any craft, it requires learning, practice, apprenticeship, dedication. Have you done what it takes to make your writing worthy of public exposure prior to submitting it for publication?

In the fiction queries I receive, the execution is the biggest reason for rejection. Some people have terrific ideas for stories that sound like they’re going to knock my socks off. But when I start to read, I realize this is probably the first draft of the first book they’ve ever tried to write, and they haven’t actually taken the time to develop their craft prior to submission. (Truthfully, it bums me out, because often the ideas are really good.)

Folks, ideas really ARE a dime a dozen, so it’s not all about the idea. You’ve got to be a WRITER. And the fact that you’ve always wanted to write a novel doesn’t mean you’re qualified for the job, any more than always wanting to play pro football qualifies you for the Patriots startling lineup on Sunday. You’ve got to get yourself to training camp first. The execution—the quality of the writing—is crucial, especially for fiction.

The Author Platform

I’m going to write more posts later explaining platform in further detail, because there’s too much to say. The important thing to realize is that PLATFORM is extremely important, and in nonfiction, it’s fast becoming the #1 consideration by more and more publishers.

Your platform refers to the means by which YOU will help sell your book by your presence in the media and/or the public sphere, or at least within the audience you hope to reach with your book. Elements of a strong platform can include:

  • Previous books published with high sales numbers
  • Numerous articles published, whether national, local or specialized
Appearance on television or radio with significant proven audience
  • Frequent or regular speaking engagements
  • Regular contact with your target audience, e.g. a newsletter
  • A blog or website with proven track record
  • Notoriety or authority within your area of expertise

The key to platform is your target market and what you are doing to reach them. It’s smart to begin building your platform well before you hope to be published—years, even. If you’re just setting out to build a platform, you can start a blog, write articles for publication, and begin working on establishing yourself as a speaker. Teach Bible studies, lead a retreat, speak at a women’s luncheon—whatever you have to do. Establish yourself as an authority on your topic.

Evaluate Yourself

Look critically at your proposal and manuscript—better yet, have someone else do it for you—and make an honest evaluation as to how you’re faring on the three tiers: Idea, Execution, and Platform. Whatever is lacking, set out to improve it. And don’t worry about how much time it will take. Contrary to what some people are saying, the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.




2 thoughts on “What Agents Look For In A Book Proposal

  1. Carissa Schneider says:

    I really thought when I first saw your post this was a Lent message. I thought to myself, Idea: God’s redemptive plan for humanity, set in motion from the beginnign of time, to send his son as a ransom for a flawed and condemned creation; Execution: Jesus is born of humble origins, erupts on the stage in his 30’s as a radical to some and an answer to generations of prayer to the masses, fulfills all the old testament prophecies and flawlessly executes the redemptive blueprint through his death and resurrection; Author Platform: God himself, what other credentials does HE need. Now that is a story worth publishing, reading and sharing.

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