I Just Deleted Your Proposal without Reading It . . . by Karen Ball

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I Just Deleted Your Proposal without Reading It . . . by Karen Ball

Why is it so hard for an author to get a literary agent? What do you have to do to make the cut? Here are some pointers from guest blogger Karen Ball, author and agent with The Steve Laube Agency. Their website is a wonderful resource for the writer seeking publication–check it out! This article was first published on The Steve Laube Agency Blog.

I Just Deleted Your Proposal without Reading It

Karen Ball


A caveat: I realize those of you who read our blog on a regular basis likely don’t need the following information. You guys do it right. But if nothing else, now you have a place to direct all those folks who ask you, “How do I put together a professional proposal?” Okay, on with the blog.

A month or so ago I sat down to tackle a gargantuan number of proposals that had been awaiting review. I hadn’t had time for so long to just sit and read, so I was actually looking forward to it. Yes, I should have just waited for my first-pass readers to dig in, but hey, I felt like reading.

Silly me.

The good news: there were a few that captured me, whose words transported me, whose topics were right on the mark. The bad news: on the whole, what I found were submissions that weren’t even close. Many of which should never have been sent out. To anyone. Some just shouldn’t have been sent to me. Some were on topics that were totally inappropriate for the market in which I work (no, I really don’t have any desire to represent your novel on the sexcapades of a young woman running amok in Thailand). Some were for categories I don’t represent (no, you do NOT want me to represent your children’s book or screenplay. I know nothing about those markets. Zilch. Zippo.) Others were peppered with “real” language. Translation: obscenities. (What the–?? Ahem…). Still others sported rampant craft errors or misspellings (gotta say it, “dear ageant” just doesn’t inspire my belief in your study of the craft). After several hours of reading, I was discouraged and my delete key was exhausted.

So I’ve learned my lesson. Let the first-pass readers do their job, which is to cull through the proposals and send on to me only those that meet my established criteria. But it did get me wondering…

Am I the only agent who receives proposals like this? Proposals where writers don’t even take the time to learn what you represent before hitting “send”? I did an informal survey, and guess what? I’m not alone. (I’m not sure if I’m relieved or even more depressed.) Which means, thanks to our first-pass readers, many of the proposals coming our way just…go on by. Without ever reaching our in-boxes. And while that’s good news for me, because I’m not taking time away from my current clients to read things that have no chance of being accepted, it’s bad news for the writers who sent their proposals—and perhaps their hopes–flying.

So let’s make a deal. We, the agents, will give your proposals thoughtful, serious consideration. And you, the writers, will only send the kinds of proposals we request. To help you with that, let me cue you in on the guidelines I’ve given my first-pass readers. And while other agents have their own do’s and don’t’s, I’m guessing several of these things will get your proposal sidelined elsewhere.

  • No Queries. I can’t make a decision based on a query. I have to see the writing. And I have to see the information in the full proposal as well, so just sample chapters aren’t enough. (Now, this one differs for different agents, so check each agency’s guidelines to see if they do want queries. But for me, no. Send me a full proposal right out the gate.)
  • No proposals where the writer hasn’t done his homework. This applies to a number of aspects:
  • Is the subject or genre wrong for me as an agent? How do you know what an agent wants? Well, many of us list exactly that on our agency websites, under our guidelines. In addition, a number of agents, me included, have written blogs about what we do and don’t want. Each of us at the Steve Laube Agency has done so, and our blogs are linked on our Guidelines page on the website. (I’ve included my link at the end of this blog.) But for expediency’s sake, let me reiterate that I, personally, do not represent: Children’s or middle-grade books of any kind, poetry, screenplays, children’s books, personal stories or biographies (which are vastly different from memoirs, which I do want to represent), any book not written from a Christian world view or that lacks a spiritual thread or impact…oh, and did I mention children’s books? (Sorry, but I’ve made it clear over and over that I don’t work with children’s books and every month my assistant tells me I received several proposals for, yeppers, children’s books.).
  • Is the craft where it needs to be? Do not, under any circumstances, send an agent a first draft. Or a second draft. Send your best writing. One agent received a proposal with the following comment from the writer: “I know my writing isn’t strong enough to be published, but I was hoping that you’d see the potential in what I’m sending you.” Let me just put that idea to rest right now. No. I won’t see it. Nor will most agents. And I mean that literally. Because a proposal without strong writing won’t make it past the first readers. Same thing for proposals pasted into an email. We make it clear your proposal needs to be in a Word file, attached to your email.
  • Are there careless errors? Okay, so spelling my name wrong or using which and that incorrectly isn’t going to make the publishing world collapse. But seriously, when push comes to shove, if I like another proposal as much as yours, and I like that writer’s potential as much as yours, and you spelled my name wrong (I mean, it’s BALL, folks! Not Bale, Bald, Balle, Boll, Bull—no comments from the cheap seats–or any of the countless options I’ve seen over the years), I’m going with the person who cared enough to find out how I spell my name. As a fellow agent put it: “I won’t disregard an excellent proposal if I spy an honest mistake, but overall carelessness and sloppiness suggest that the writer doesn’t pay close attention to detail. I’ll move on to the next excellent, clean proposal instead. And you can trust me that there will be one.”
  • Does the proposal follow our website guidelines (link to that is also below)? I need all that information to make an informed decision because I’m not just considering your book or your craft, I’m considering you and your long-term potential and how we can best work together.
  • No proposals where I’m one in a long list of recipients. Yes, it takes more time, but really. Send a separate email to each agent. I’ve been included in emails sent out to 20 or 30 agents, all of whom are in the to: field. Generally, those emails won’t receive any responses. But once in awhile someone will reply by hitting “reply all,” which means we all get to read the exchange. Um…no thanks. Another agent commented, “If I see my name in the email next to the bcc: it shows the author is shot-gunning the proposal and doesn’t care who gets it. I am simply a name on a mailing list.” Finally, do not, at least with our agency, send your proposal to all three of us. Pick one.
  • No debut authors unless the proposal says the manuscript is finished. Strong sample chapters are good, but equally important is a writer’s ability to not only hook a reader, but keep him through the book and provide an ending that will have said reader looking for said writer’s next book.
  • No proposals that tell me to go to this website or that link to review the author’s writing. With all the craziness online nowadays, I don’t follow links from folks I don’t know. Nor do I want my assistant to do so.
  • No proposals that make amateur or outlandish claims. Another agent had this to share: “Saying something like ‘There are 300 million people who make up the potential market for this book’ tells me you have no idea who your real audience is.” Likewise, you writing in your proposal that I’ll make a million dollars if I represent your book tells me your expectations aren’t exactly anchored in reality (unless, of course, your first name is Stephen and your last name is King).

So there you have it. Do with it what you will. But I hope it does help you or someone you know to put together a more effective, more powerful proposal.

Location of our guidelines: http://www.stevelaube.com/guidelines/

Blog regarding what I do and don’t want to represent: http://www.stevelaube.com/still-wanted-writing-that-sings/


2 responses »

  1. Great advice! When I worked at a screenwriting agency, many writers asked how to break in if they didn’t know anyone. The best answer I could give was, “Win a prestigious contest. In the meantime, move to LA and get to know people.” Not every contest garners agent attention, but the big ones do and are great stepping stones for unknown writers.

    The most heinous don’ts that stick out in my mind: 1) “Slow down, Miss! Everybody talks so fast.” 2) Speaking in a kind tone of voice when you start the conversation and turning rude when I tell you we only work by referrals. 3) Telling me how illogical it is the way Hollywood works. 4) Telling me you’re a great writer. (Prove it by winning a big contest.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops. I’m one of those old people who is always asking people on the phone to talk slower. Including my daughters. I just don’t hear that fast. I guess I’ll never get an option on my screenplay. . . .But seriously, Allison, thanks for your comments. It’s neat to get a glimpse from the inside.

      Like

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