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How to Get a Literary Agent: The 3 P’s to Get Published

book proposal coach lisa tener
Your Book Proposal Coach Lisa Tener

Yesterday evening, in the midst of making chicken soup for dinner, I got a call from a book coaching client to tell me that a top literary agent had called him to say she wants to represent his book.

Despite the pandemonium (one son wanted help with his knight costume and the other begged to invite his friends over and neither conversation could wait, of course), I turned off the stove and temporarily escaped into an empty room to celebrate and pow-wow. Seven other agents had requested the book proposal and he wanted advice on how to proceed.

Although both of us felt this agent to be a terrific match, we agreed it would be worthwhile to let each agent know that he was  in the midst of making a decision and ask them a few questions to get clarity. I’ll share with you those questions in my next post, but for now, I want to share how John Doe (he hasn’t signed any contracts yet, so I won’t share his name) landed a fabulous agent in this very competitive environment.

His first secret? Perseverance–which is the story of many a published author. Many aspiring authors get rejections and give up. John didn’t give up.

John received tons of rejections when we first shopped his proposal–and many were very complimentary, “I wish I could take this terrific  book, but your platform just isn’t big enough for such a competitive category,” and “This category is just too crowded right now. Nobody’s buying books about this topic.”

Well, it’s  a year later and suddenly people are buying books about this topic again. How about that?

The second thing he did was “Pay attention.” He listened to the feedback he got from agents and he heard, “Platform, Platform, Platform.” Platform–how you reach people online and offline– just happens to be the third “P” to publishing success.

So, he worked on building his author platform–his following–particularly online, but offline too. He worked on his blog, his website, his mailing list, magazine publicity, newspapers, being quoted on blogs and websites and began planning workshops and teleseminars.

He didn’t have much spare time. He’s got a very busy professional practice and two young kids of his own. But he worked steadily, over time, a little at a time.

His hard work shows. It’s not earth shattering. He doesn’t have thousands of people on his mailing list or reading his blog yet. But he’s been building a steady following and this top agent is happy to work with him to continue to improve his reach.

He’s also been getting more and more magazine and web interviews–though he’s carefully staying away from the really hot, fresh information in the book and offering tangential information in media interviews (important in his particular arena, because someone could  co-opt the groundbreaking ideas and proven methods in  his book).

He subscribes to helpareporter.com (affectionately known to subscribers as HARO), a free service to reach reporters who are looking for sources to quote, as well as PR Leads, which is a paid service but much more targeted, and which often has high profile opportunities.

And as he’s worked on publicity to build his author platform, he’s been steadily developing relationships with reporters.  He does a great job of responding to reporter queries by providing well thought-out answers that are print-ready and highly quotable. They’re clear, concise, practical and proven. His responses are also often entertaining and clever. He puts his responses in an easy to read format, using bullets, bold fonts and even colors (very sparingly) to make them very readable and appealing.

The take-away? If you’ve been getting rejections, take the opportunity to see what you can improve.

1. Persevere: If you hear, “No,”  hear it as, “Not yet.”

2. Pay Attention: Ask what you need to do next? What challenge do you need to overcome? What’s missing in your proposal or your background or the book? Ask questions, particularly of the agents who turn you down.

For you, the issue may not be just author platform. Ask agents what you need to do to make the book attractive to publishers. Some of them will give you very specific advice. It could be to narrow or clarify your audience, to research competitive books and demonstrate the freshness of yours, or it may be something else entirely.

And if the issue is that your topic is “saturated” right now and publishers just aren’t buying books on that topic at the moment due to saturation, that just means they’ve just bought tons of books in that category. Give it some time and they’ll be buying again. Meantime, use this time to build your following, like my book coaching client, John.

3. Platform Building: Whatever reason you’re hearing “no” right now, continue to build your platform. It can only help you attract an agent, a publisher and a bigger advance.

Who knows, maybe you’ll b the one calling me next to decide how to choose among many agents or publishers. Next post, I’ll share how (and what questions to ask them).

I’d love to hear from you. What challenges are you coming up against? How are you working with them or what do you need help with?  Share as a comment your victories, challenges, struggles or questions.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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