Know Means No: Giving Editors and Agents a Reason to Say Yes

Know means no.

Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

What do you need to know to make it less likely an agent or editor will say no to your proposal?

know means no

KNOW who you are (and who you aren’t) as a writer.

You may be multi-talented, but does that mean your best chances lie in dabbling in a little of this and a little of that? Or are six of your seven passions well covered in the market already by other talented authors? That doesn’t mean you can’t write books on prayer, for instance. But can you write about the topic from a position of expertise, and in a way that rises above other books already published on the subject?

KNOW the other options readers have in your chosen genre(s).

Agents and editors are used to receiving proposals from writers who unintentionally reveal they are unaware of what’s on the shelves. They suggest ideas that have worn out their welcome among the reading public. Or they propose a premise recently tackled by a bestselling author. Thoroughly. Or they leave the “Comparables” section of their proposal blank because they’re under the assumption no other book is like theirs. Knowing the options readers have helps you prepare a more informed proposal.

KNOW what editors and agents expect in a proposal.

Although publishing houses and agencies differ slightly in the elements of a noteworthy proposal, many elements are standard. The Books & Such website recommends The Art of the Book Proposal by Eric Maisel as a resource. You can also check out advice from Rachelle Gardner, Jane Friedman, Writers Digest, or a familiar tome–The Inside Scoop: Two Agents Dish on Getting Published 

know booksKNOW what makes your book appeal to readers.

When studying books comparable to yours, take note too of what readers and reviewers have said about those books. What have they appreciated? What approach resonates with readers? Can your book fill a gap?

KNOW what makes your book unique.

Are you writing about the importance of knowing our identity in Christ? Have you Googled “identity in Christ” to see how many books tackle that topic? It is an important topic. It’s been addressed in a variety of ways in recent years by people with small and large platforms. How will you convince an agent or editor that your angle is unique and adds to the conversation rather than duplicating it? Note: If you can’t convince an agent, the agent won’t be able to convince an editor. book proposal

KNOW the word count publishers expect of a book in your genre.

Is your book a novel or a novella? A word count of 100,000 words is typical for nonfiction, right? (Add the correct answer in the comments section.) Will a publisher think 50,000 words is too long for a children’s book?

KNOW the terminology that makes you sound professional.

If you call your book a “fiction novel,” the prospective agent or editor will cringe. A novel is fiction by default. No need for the redundancy. If you’re serious about writing, your self-study should include understanding a synopsis and its purpose, an overview versus chapter summaries for nonfiction, the difference between a memoir and an autobiography….

KNOW the details that will make your proposal stand out.

Neatness counts. Typos sting. Compelling one-sentence hooks make editors and agents lean forward with interest.

KNOW standard practices for agent and editor etiquette, including the difference between inquiring and pestering.

(That sounds like a good idea for a future blog post.)

KNOW your strengths.

Master the art of genuinely humble confidence. know strengths

KNOW your weaknesses.

But don’t spotlight or excuse them. Get help to overcome them.

Know means no. What you know can make it hard for an agent or editor to say no to your proposal or manuscript and easier to say yes. It’s worth your investment of time.

How have you added to your storehouse of knowledge about writing or the publishing industry this month?

Tweet this: How does what you know make it harder for an #agent or #editor to say no?

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  1. Perhaps the most important knowledge in publishing and in life is this:
    “Be still, and know that I am God.”
    * There are so few places of stillness in our fallen world, and I would imagine that to present a dynamically Divine stillness would be nigh-on irresistible.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      I agree, Andrew. Stillness–confidence in God’s timing and His will–is irresistible from all angles.

    • Amen, Andrew.
      Know God, and all else fall’s into place.

    • As an example. consider Ken Watanabe’s portrayal of Katsumoto Moritsugu in “The Last Samurai”; his economy of movement and speech are precisely the reservoir from which his decisiveness of action and application of personal honour can arise. He is the lodestone to the heart of Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), the vision of refuge for a lonely and peripatetic soul.

      • Cynthia Ruchti says:

        “Economy of movement and speech.” Love that line, Andrew. You epitomize the image used in this post–Thinking Allowed.

  2. This is helpful, Cynthia. It’s clear that so much of learning this industry takes time just hanging out with other writers and industry professionals (online or at conferences) and soaking up the lingo and knowledge over time. This concisely shows the benefits of putting in the time to develop that kind of know how.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Thank you, Kristen. I remember going to multiple conferences over the course of time and being startled by how much I had grown because of having unconsciously assimilated some of the lingo and etiquette. It enhances the “book learnin'” that we do, too.

  3. Carol Ashby says:

    Cynthia, your suggestion to study reviews of comps to see what readers loved or not is great actionable advice. Reviews at Goodreads and Amazon have slightly different slants, so it would be good to use both.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Good point, Carol. If anyone wonders what I mean by that, it’s interesting to watch if readers of your genre are repeatedly saying things like, “The historical details were so accurate,” or “Even though I came to this nonfiction to learn something, it felt as if the author were inviting me on her journey, which made me feel like a companion rather than a student,” those are points to watch for in your own work.

  4. I appreciate this list, Cynthia. Knowledge is a process. I make so many less mistakes because of the wealth of information I gather here.

  5. Thank you Cynthia. The sad reality (for me, at least) is that we often learn these guidelines through their commission, and the negative impact of that. There are a lot of “KNOWs” up there, but with time and repetition, they are les overwhelming.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Another piece of good news is that after time, some of the “knows” become automatic, habit, and even…gasp…joy!

  6. Totally off-topic question, Cynthia, if I may…does anyone know if, when “Little Dorrit” was published in Spanish, was it called “Dorito”?
    * After all, Dickens did write it when the chips were down.

  7. KNOW your subject.
    Strangely enough, I’m kind of an amateur authority on my subject matter. I know that in terms of editors and pub boards, I have to be able to answer any questions they have, down to what foods people ate and what they wore. Even what their fuel sources were for cooking.
    If someone challenges some historical fact? I have to be the one who can back my work up, and stand for what I said, but very nicely.

  8. The contract for the nonfiction book I just wrote specified a 43,000-47,000 word count.

  9. This is worthy of a re-post/re-Tweet:

    If you call your book a “fiction novel,” the prospective agent or editor will cringe. A novel is fiction by default. No need for the redundancy.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Thanks, Heidi. Most of what I learned came either from overhearing conversations before I blundered…or from blundering.

  10. Stacy Voss says:

    Fabulous post. One of the tips I never would have thought about is looking at reviewers’ and readers’ feedback on similar books on the topics. That’s like getting a behind-the-scenes peek at what readers want–which kinda makes me wonder how I never considered something so obvious before.

    Thanks, Cynthia!