Getting a literary agent to represent you is an essential step toward getting profitably published. Literary agents are necessary to help you get around the “gatekeepers” at most publishers; most publishers won’t even look at unsolicited manuscripts.
A good agent will save you time by knowing which acquisitions editors and publishers are most likely to be interested in your book. In addition, a literary agent will make sure you are published under the most favorable terms possible.
Your ONE chance to make a positive first impression
But, before approaching an agent to represent you, you should finalize the presentation of your book.
It’s vital that you don’t waste a literary agent’s time. Literary agents don’t have time to waste dealing with publishing “wannabees” who don’t have–and may never have–a concrete book project to represent. To busy agents, dreams don’t make it.
If you approach an agent before you’re prepared, you may never be able to contact them again. They’re likely to consider you a “dreamer” and ignore your e-mails and phone calls.
Here are some 8 questions to ask yourself before contacting potential agents:
1. Do you have an “elevator speech?”
Before approaching an agent, prepare an “elevator speech” describing your project in the less than thirty-seconds it takes for an average elevator ride. If you can’t quickly explain the essence of your book in a few words, your project probably isn’t ready for prime time.
Your elevator speech must answer several basic questions:
- What is your book about? What is it’s “big idea?”
- Who is going to buy it?
- Why are they going to buy it?
- How does it differ from existing books on the subject?
- Where and how are you going to promote it?
Your “elevator speech” will form the first sentence of the first paragraph of your book proposal, where you attempt to “hook” the potential publisher’s interest. If your first sentences don’t communicate the urgency of the problem your book addresses, a fresh or unique approach to the problem, and why you’re the one individual in the world best qualified to write the book, many acquisitions editors may not even continue reading.
2. Have you chosen a compelling title for your book?
The book title is crucial to your book’s success. The title is often your one—and only—chance to make a sale. It must attract the attention of acquisition editors, book reviewers, bookstore managers, web surfers and readers.
The ideal title makes a compelling promise to a specific market segment and backs it up with a supporting subtitle that provides elaborates on the promise.
Unlike fiction books, which are purchased for pleasure, nonfiction business and self-help books are purchased to solve problems and achieve goals. Few readers buy nonfiction books because they want to read a general “textbook;” most nonfiction readers have specific problems they want to solve or goals they want to achieve.
Successful title techniques include:
- Alliteration. Repeated consonants, (i.e., “hard” sounds), create patterns in the reader’s mind, that help makes titles memorable, i.e., Beautiful Bridges of Baltimore, etc.
- Action verbs. Verbs ending in ing, i.e., gerunds, imply that action is being taken, i.e., Writing White Papers, etc.
- Conciseness. The shorter the words, the bigger they can appear on the cover of your book.
3. Have you created a detailed table of contents?
Your book’s table of contents must demonstrate your mastery of your topic and your ability to organize and present complex information in a logical sequence. Each chapter title should be accompanied by a brief description of the main points to be covered in each chapter.
Note that the chapters in many nonfiction books are organized into sections. Sections make a book appear easier to read by breaking it into a smaller parts. It appears easier to read 3 sections of a book, each containing 4 chapters, than a book containing 12 separate chapters. The sections also help readers better understand how to apply the information described in your book.
Details count! Your publisher wants to know the expected page count of your book and the number of exercises, tables, illustrations, graphics, and worksheets you plan on including in each chapter.
4. Have you clearly identified who’s going to buy your book?
It’s essential that you demonstrate that there is a reachable market for your book.
Strive for urgency. Describe the specific market segment likely to be interested in buying your book. Describe the characteristics of your target market as concretely as possible. Answer questions like:
- What are the symptoms your book helps solve?
- How many people share the problem?
- What are the symptoms, or consequences, of the problem your book addresses?
Quantify your book’s market in terms of buying power, willingness to buy books, and its ability to to be reached through associations, blogs, newsletters, or publications.
5. How will your book be different?
Why will readers choose your book instead of one of the existing books on the topic? Existing books on the same topic are a good sign, not a bad sign. They prove that there is an market for books on the subject. Your analysis of currently-available books must address issues like:
- What are the strengths and weakness of existing books?
- What will make your book more desirable for readers?
6. What are your qualifications for writing your book?
This section offers you an opportunity to describe your background and how it contributes to your book. How do your experiences permit you to write a better book than the authors of existing books?
Never discount your ability to write a book. Academic credentials are not as important as your proven ability to contribute to the success of your clients and employers. If you have been successful in business, you probably know more than you think you know about the practical aspects of your field than those who have studied it, but never practiced it.
7. How are you going to promote your book?
Promotion is your responsibility, not the publisher’s! Your ability to promote your book is as important as your ability to write your book.
Start by describing your contact sphere; individuals who you deal with or write for on a consistent basis? What kind of an online presence do you have?
Next, list book reviewers and press contacts who can help promote your book. List publications who might run an extract from your book. Research producers who book guests for radio and TV interviews.
Discuss your speaking experience and willingness to travel to support your book. Describe how you will promote your book in your blog and on your web site.
List authorities in your field who have offered to write a foreword or provide you with cover testimonials.
8. Have you prepared the necessary sample chapters?
Prepare two—three, if you’re a first-time author—sample chapters and hire a professional editor to fine-tune them. It’s better to show three perfect chapters than a finished manuscript filled with spelling errors.
You don’t have to write your whole book before approaching agents. And your sample chapters don’t have to begin with the first chapter, nor do they have to be in sequence. But, they must represent your writing at its best.
Because of the importance of sample chapters, many authors work with book coaches or developmental editors to prepare their book proposal and sample chapters.
Respect the time of the agents you contact. Agents are busy. To the extent you can sell your book idea as a realistic possibility in thirty seconds and can support your answers with a well-written proposal, a compelling title, and strong sample chapters, you are well on your way to success.
After you’ve been successfully published, you may be able to sell a book on just the basis an e-mail. But, for now, you must be fully prepared.