By Wendy Keller, Literary Agent
Yay! Someone wants to see your baby! An agency (maybe ours!) is willing to look at what you’ve written in hopes they can represent it. Agents are always hungry to find good content from smart authors. (I think of myself as a hungry shark endlessly prowling the ocean.)
You are probably a little nervous. Who knows what we’ll say? What if we don’t like it? What if we do? You’ve heard horror stories about endless rejections. You’ve heard about that book way back when? Some author whose name no one remembers sent his book to 5 agents and they fought to represent him and it eventually sold a million copies and…(I forget the rest of that fable!)
Here are the only 5 things you need to double check before you mail or email your book proposal (nonfiction) or manuscript sample (fiction) to any agency in the USA:
- The agent’s correct address and spelling of their name. Call the agency if you have to, but don’t screw this up. I’ve gotten emails addressed to “Kelly” dozens of times in my life, and while I don’t get annoyed, I do know it slightly detracts from my ability to trust the author’s attention to detail (so important in nonfiction!)
- Proofread your cover letter or cover email. It doesn’t have to be as perfect as your query letter. You’ve already overcome that hurdle. But it should not contain typos or misspellings. People like us are nerds – we always notice that stuff.
- You are sending a clean version. Sometimes, people unfamiliar with Track Changes will still have markups. Or redlined notes in the physical copy. No editorial marks should be shown in the document the first time you send it to an agent. We don’t want to see your process.
- Vague promises or threats in the cover letter. An astonishing number of people use one or the other in some futile attempt to induce speed or greed in the agents. “Eight other agents are looking at this” better be 100% true if you’re going to say it. Also, “You’ll be missing out on the book that could make your career…” and “I guarantee this will become a New York Times best seller…” are shockingly common. Those kinds of phrases mean instant rejection at my agency.
- Begging or Bribing in the cover letter. Begging makes me sad for you. (See? I do have a heart!) Begging and its sister, bribing me with a larger percentage of your commission, are bad ideas. Again, you’d be amazed how many people whine about how badly they want this book published. As for the bribery, doubling my commission on something I think is worth $0 means nothing. But the begging is scary. “I need this book to build my life coaching business because I’m a single mother with 3 kids to support” is begging. The publishing industry is not a charity. I can only represent things I think have a greater than 90% chance of selling to publishers I know. Publishers I’ve spent almost 30 years befriending, studying and to whom I’ve been selling other people’s books.
If the 5 points above seem ridiculous or obvious to you, you might be someone we could represent if your content is marketable and you are, too. These are unbelievably common mistakes writers make, over and over, year in and year out. A word to the wise: take heed!