Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
I’m rubbing my hands together in anticipation because, next up on my to-do list is working on proposals from my clients. Some agents find this work drudgery and therefore don’t engage in it. But I was a book editor for decades, and I put my editor cap back on when I look over proposals. Pretending I’m sitting at my old desk at Zondervan, I imagine how I would respond to the proposal in hand were I in the role of buying projects. This mindset makes me something of a proposal taskmaster. It’s not unusual for a client to have to rework at least parts of a proposal if not the entire thing.
Because I know that every project has one shot with a given editor, it’s never made sense to me to slap an agency cover letter on a client’s proposal and sample chapters without careful scrutiny of what’s being sent. I’m in effect saying to the editor, “Take a gander; I think this is a good fit for you, is well written, and is carefully thought out.” I want to really believe that’s the case when a proposal floats from my hand to the editor’s.
So what do I look for when I scrutinize a proposal? (Let’s say this is a nonfiction book.)
–Is the title winsome? Does the title make the editor want to immediately dive into reading the proposal? After all, editors have lots of other proposals they could look at rather than my client’s. If not, I’ll give this serious thought and suggest other options to the author.
–Same goes for the subtitle. Combined, the title and subtitle form a first impression for the editor, and it pays to recognize that a positive first impression can go a long way toward a lasting good impression.
–Has the author succinctly (in a sentence or two) presented the hook of the project? If not, then the proposal needs more work.
–Is the reader clearly and accurately defined? Few books appeal to “everyone between the ages of 18-80.” Nor is such a description helpful to the editor, who is trying to discern if the project is targeted to an audience that particular publishing house is adept at reaching.
–Are the published books the project is compared to suitable and show good research has been done? An author loses all credibility if a significant title should have been mentioned but wasn’t. Or if only huge best-sellers are chosen to compare this title to, which isn’t a very smart strategy because that tells the editor this project is unlikely to perform well on the bookshelf alongside giants. Nor is it sufficient to say, “Nothing like this exists.” Call me skeptical, but really? Nothing? Nah, I don’t buy it.
–How did the author present him or herself? Are all the avenues this writer has developed to market the book not only mentioned but also quantified? For example, if this client has 500 twitter followers and 3000 Facebook friends, these are important avenues to use in marketing a book when it’s released. And you want to tell the editor about them. Are special qualifications highlighted? Why, in other words, should this author write this book?
–Are the chapter titles, outlined in the “Chapter Summary” section, engaging and show careful thought as to how the book will be structured?
–And, finally, do the sample chapters shine? This is where the writer gets to show off his writing muscles. Does the lead pull in the reader? Does the first chapter promise benefits to the book’s reader? Are the stories that illustrate key principles involving and appropriate?
Some agents would tell me I’m silly to spend so much time perfecting proposals–and making my clients aim high. But, with only one chance to get a golden yes from an editor, this is no place to skimp.
Now, you tell me, doesn’t my typical day make agenting sound glamorous? Okay, maybe pouring over contracts and proposals isn’t everyone’s cup of java, but agenting does have its rewards. There’s nothing quite so wonderful as finding the right publishing home for a project or watching a client’s career bloom into full-flowered wonder. And I didn’t have a chance this week to mention the delight of connecting with editors who love books as much as I do, or brainstorming titles with a creative client, or the importance of walking with an author down the road of disappoint knowing that you might be the only person who really understands the depth of a lost contract or of a favorite editor who no longer has her job.
I often describe an agent as the stillpoint in the turning universe of publishing. Many things will change in a client’s lifetime of writing, including publishing houses, editors, sales, and fan base. But one person is a constant through the thick and thin of a writer’s life: the agent.