The Blog

Agents, Anyone?

Do you really need an agent to sell a book? What is an agent, anyway? A great agent can do a great deal for you and your career – and it isn’t just about the money.

  • Agents negotiate book deals with editors on behalf of writers. They know the editors, the publishers, and the markets far better than a writer could – because that’s their only job.
  • As the author, you are the agent’s client and he or she must serve your best interests.
  • Agents can help you avoid common contract pitfalls and help you steer clear of dangerous contract clauses.
  • Agents can earn higher advance payments with book auctions and can negotiate royalty rates and favorable contract terms – it’s much more difficult to do this yourself.
  • Agents make sure you value yourself and your time appropriately.

So you’re going to seek representation. Where do you start? And how do you know when you’ve found a good agent?

  • To find an agent, get a personal introduction or reference from fellow writers, through writers’ organizations, and by attending writers’ conferences.
  • You can also query agents directly with a letter or email, although this is less effective than a personal introduction. Try www.agentquery.com as a place to start.
  • To pick the agent who will work best for you, be sure to talk with each potential agent before signing any contract or letter of agreement. Make sure you both are clear about your expectations, responsibilities and obligations.
  • Know what to expect from your agent by educating yourself about how good, legitimate agents operate.
  • Remember that agents are in high demand, so put your best foot forward.
  • Start with a simple agreement for the agent to represent one of your projects. If that’s successful, you can easily do additional projects together.
  • Some writers’ organizations have agents databases and in some cases discussion boards where you can find out about other writers’ experiences with a particular agent. This can be worth the investment in membership fees.

Give Agents and Editors a Taste

Nonfiction books are sold by proposal, not complete manuscript. But an editor needs to be confident that you (or your coauthor) will write it well. You’ll want to impress the editor with sample chapters that convey your book’s message in a friendly, entertaining way.

  • Don’t use the introduction as the sample chapter. Write a chapter with real meat.
  • Pick a chapter that best showcases the message of your book.
  • Do all the necessary research and interviews to make it a fabulous chapter.
  • Don’t forget all the extras that will make the chapter valuable to readers – exercises, tip boxes, success stories.
  • Include subheads to break up the text and help the reader stay on track.
  • Use a friendly, conversational style – as if you were telling the story to an interested listener. Don’t think you have to be “writerly” or use long words to get your point across. Friendly and accessible, that’s the ticket!
  • Write, polish, and edit until the sample chapter is as close to perfect as you’re able to accomplish. Don’t send a draft and think it’s good enough.

Show Your Idea Is Newsworthy

To bolster your proposal, add research that shows your topic is popular, reference articles that you’ve been interviewed for or that have been written about you to show you’re in the public eye, and include news items that show the importance and relevance of your subject matter. Testimonials and reviews from clients and fans also add a little spice to the recipe!

  • Keep an eye on the major papers – and on the minor ones, too! Sometimes that’s where the most interesting news is to be found.
  • Sign up for Google News Alert (www.google.com) and PR Newswire (www.profnet.com) to get information related to your subject matter delivered directly to your email inbox.
  • Ask friends to alert you to stories about your subject matter in their local papers and favorite magazines.
  • Don’t forget to get your name out there, too. If you’re quoted in a story, even in a small local newspaper, copy the article and include it in your proposal.
  • Take a poll! Even a fun, unofficial poll can get an editor’s attention. Invite people to respond to a questionnaire on your website or to send you an e-mail with their answers.

Outline Your Promotion Plan

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you’ve got to know how to get your message out there, and in the marketing/promotion plan section of your book proposal, you’ll show the editor how you will sell tons of books. Just as important, you’ll give yourself an action plan for promoting your book.

  • Offer ideas and strategies for ways to promote your book (and yourself) effectively and efficiently, without wasting time and money.
  • Build on your current business and career. If you’re a consultant, explain how that will help you market the book to your clients. If you’re a writer, you can write articles about your book.
  • Be creative and use what’s available. Are you already teaching classes? Can you tie in the message of your book to your teaching?
  • Brainstorm with marketing pros, business people and readers – not just other writers – to come up with good ideas for promoting your book.
  • Only include what you will do. Even better if you’re already doing it! Editors have seen too many empty promises. They want to see that you’re already out there doing what you can to develop a following.

Whet a Reader's Appetite

Get the attention of an editor – and readers – by using chapter titles that pique their interest. Don’t just call them “Chapter One” and “Chapter Two.” Make your chapter titles inviting and descriptive. Come up with titles that succinctly communicate a point – while also being fun, eye-catching, or pithy.

  • Avoid dull narrative chapter titles like, “How to Get Started Buying Real Estate for Profit.” Try, “Make the Mortgage Lender Pay You!”
  • Don’t confuse the reader. “Beam Me Up, Scotty,” in a book on real-estate transactions won’t make sense even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie.
  • Use subtitles to clarify points.

Tip: With my Dojo Wisdom series, each chapter title is the name of the lesson in the book. 100 chapters = 100 titles = 100 lessons!

Building the Bones of Your Book

Once you’ve developed an overview that describes what your book is about and who’ll be interested in reading it, you’ll need to create a Table of Contents (TOC) outlining the order of the chapters and describing what those chapters will contain.

This is the backbone of your book, and it showcases the organization and scope of your material. In other words, this is not the time to be coy or mysterious – the editor or agent should be able to see clearly what you’ll be including in the book, how it will be organized, and even why it will be organized that way.

Take time to think about and divide your subject into chapters and to organize those chapters in the most descriptive, exciting way possible. The TOC should answer these questions:

  • What information will you present in the book?
  • What does the reader get out of each chapter?
  • How will you clearly present your content?
  • What information will come first and why?
  • What’s the “story” you’re telling? How does the book build from beginning to end?
  • If the book is based on modules that can be read out of order, are related topics grouped together for easy reference?
  • What materials will go in the back of the book – appendices, resource lists, etc.?

Once you’ve nailed down the organization of the chapters, you need to describe what’s in each chapter. Sum up the chapters in your book so that the editor can’t wait to read them.

  • Keep each chapter summary to one page, even one paragraph (or less), double spaced.
  • Give the title of each chapter (remember to keep it snappy!)
  • Organize each chapter summary so that the editor or agent can easily see what information the chapter will contain, what the reader will get from the chapter, how you’ll present the information and the order in which the information will appear.
  • Think “story.” Arrange chapter content so that it has a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • Include descriptions of “extras” – exercises, resources, call-out boxes, success stories, case histories and more.
  • Use action words to describe the content of each chapter.
  • Name facts, cite statistics, and give quotes to punch up each chapter summary.
  • Make the summaries easy on the eyes – create lists, bullet points and use other means to draw attention to important points. Editors are busy and may skim, so you want them to get the most essential information immediately.

Showing the Big Picture

You’ve created the big message – the one or two sentences that describe what your book is about. Now you have to show what it means and to whom. In the book proposal overview, you’ll give a brief description of the book and its audience – answering what, why, and how.

  • Tell what the book will be about
  • Include an audience description
  • Give details, such as how long the book will be, its structure, and any photographs or illustrations you plan to use (also explain where you’ll get them).
  • Create checklists and worksheets – these add a lot of perceived value to a book.
  • Include any other information that can help the editor envision the book. This is your most important opportunity to grab the editor’s attention so she’ll want to know more.
  • Describe studies and recent research that bolsters your case.
  • Mention a few sample success stories that you’ll use in the book.

I’ve seen some overviews that plunge into a description of the book without setting the scene. Don’t make this mistake! Instead of starting, “Wellness Diet includes information on whole grains, vegetarian diets, and organic farming,” give the editor the background. Try, “Ten percent of the population is vegetarian. This number grows by fifteen percent each year. Yet vegetarians have difficulty preparing foods that meet their dietary needs. Wellness Diet will solve this problem.”

Showcase Your Professional Bio

If you’re a writer working on a nonfiction book proposal, the about the author section can be the most difficult to write. Not because you don’t have any credentials, but because you don’t know how to write about them.

Remember, this is not the time to be modest! Make your credentials, experience and expert status wow the editor who reads your book proposal. Present your professional bio so that the editor knows you’re an author who commands respect and credibility.

  • Pull out the big guns. All your credentials related to your subject matter should be included. Remember that you’re trying to persuade an agent or editor (or reader, for that matter!) that you’re the right person to write this book.
  • Write a narrative – don’t give a dry recitation of facts or a bullet list of employment titles. Engage your reader by telling a story.
  • Keep the resume to yourself. A professional biography is not an employment resume!
  • Make it reflect you – if you’ve got a fun sense of humor, your bio should reveal that.
  • Use third person to write about yourself – it’s much easier and it doesn’t sound like you’re stuck on yourself.
  • Hobbies add dimension to your bio, but don’t say, “In her spare time, Julie likes to lawn bowl and skeet shoot.” Say, “A sharpshooter on the skeet-shooting range (watch out, clay pigeons!), Julie is also a threat on the lawn as the highest scoring bowler in the Binghamton Ladies’ Lawn Bowling Association.”

Crafting Your Pitch Letter

If you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll need to pitch your message so that it gets heard – and read – by agents who’ll want to sign you up and by editors who’ll want to publish your book. Then use this pitch to interest media in your subject, too, getting two uses for the price of one.

The pitch letter (also called a query letter) should convey your book idea and your credentials for writing the book in one page (about 200-300 words, no more).

  • Describe your big message in one or two sentences. For instance, Dojo Wisdom is about using the principles of martial arts to get what you want from life. You’ll need this brief description many times as you write, publish, and promote your book. Whenever anyone asks, “What’s your book about?” you need to have this brief message ready to go.
  • Why do people need your book? What problem does it help them solve? The answer to those questions goes in your pitch letter.
  • What’s your unique angle? What is different about your approach to the subject matter? If you don’t have a fresh approach, people aren’t going to be interested in your book.
  • Why are you the one? What is it about you that makes you uniquely qualified to write the book? If you’re partnering with an expert (or are an expert partnering with a writer), mention this.
  • Use a pitch letter to introduce your proposal. It grabs an agent’s or editor’s attention and shows them why they should read – and buy – the book!

Collaboration 101

Not everyone who writes a nonfiction book is an expert who happens to be an excellent writer. Sometimes you’re an expert who needs a little help getting the words down. Or you’re a fantastic writer with an interest in a certain subject — but you’re not an expert.

That’s where collaboration comes in. Plenty of successful books are the result of collaboration between two coauthors, usually an expert in the subject and a writer.

Before getting involved in a coauthorship, though, you need to know what you’ll be getting into, what you can expect out of it and what you can do to protect yourself in case something goes wrong – or everything goes right and your book shoots straight to #1.

  • Hammer out a letter of agreement with your coauthor before you start writing.
  • Outline each person’s obligations and responsibilities.
  • Seek representation to protect you – a lawyer or agent.
  • If you’re the writer, keep a share of the royalties unless the upfront payment is significant ($20,000 not $2000).
  • If you’re the expert, protect your knowledge through nondisclosure agreements.

Writers’ organizations, like the National Writers Union, offer model collaboration agreements as a benefit of membership. Some will even help you hammer out your own agreement. Check to see if any of the organizations you belong to offer a benefit like this.