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“Struggling: Should I Work with an Agent? Pitch Publishers? Do I Write the Whole Book First?”

Book Writing Coach Lisa TenerAre you struggling with questions like, “Should I work with an agent or contact publishers directly?” and, “Do I write the whole book first?”

I recently received an email from Sue, who felt stuck, partly due to these looming questions. With these questions answered, she expected a breakthrough, and she’s likely correct.

Not knowing what steps to take can feel overwhelming. Clarifying direction and steps can be just the thing to open the door to the muse.

Since Sue’s questions are fairly common, I figured I’d share my answers with you, too. In addition, I unfortunately seem to have accidentally deleted Sue’s email, so I hope this post will provide your answers, Sue (name changed).

When To Write the Whole Book vs. Write the Book Proposal First Click To Tweet

If you know you’ll self publish, just write the book. Sure, it’s important to understand your audience and have a clear idea of how your book fits into the marketplace compared to other published  books on the subject. And, yes, you will need to create a marketing plan for your book, but you don’t need a full blown book proposal to self-publish. Just make sure you are clear on your vision, goals, audience, content (both what’s in the book and what to leave out), features, tone and structure.

Of course, no matter how clear your plan, sometimes a book will surprise you and change, particularly if it’s a narrative driven book, like a memoir. That’s just part of the process. It’s still helpful to start with a plan even though it may change.

Now, if you’re writing a self-help, how-to or business book—and you want to traditionally publish—it usually makes sense to write the book proposal rather than write the whole book first. Your book proposal will, of course, include chapter outlines and one or two sample chapters. My article on how to write a book proposal provides details on all the elements of a book proposal.

Why not write the whole book first? After querying agents or publishers and sending them your proposal, they may be interested in your book but have large or small changes based on a niche audience, a new way to organize the material or an emphasis on different aspects of the topic. You’ll save much time by not writing a book that changes a good deal.

Trust Your Intuition, Too

author victoria dunckley
Victoria Dunckley, MD wrote the first draft of her book before writing her proposal. While it’s no the path I tend to recommend, sometimes an author just knows they need to get clear on the book by writing a large chunk, or even the whole thing.

Sometimes, however, a writer has a strong sense that they need to write the whole book first. You can do that. I’m a big believer in intuition. Just be sure you understand that it’s possible your agent or publisher requests changes and you may end up having to make changes to an already written work. So, it can save time to write the proposal first, with just a couple of sample chapters. On the other hand, it can take some pressure off to have a few more chapters done before you sign a book deal.

Sue also felt that having a publisher would help create structure—and pressure—to complete her manuscript. This can be true, but be careful to give yourself enough time in your “specifications and delivery” section of your proposal—and in the final contract—to complete your book. Publishers take those deadlines seriously as they have to plan and manage the project according to the schedules of each member on the team. Messing up the deadlines can mess up everyone’s schedule—and affect whether your book makes it into the catalog.

I was once contacted by a writer who had received a significant advance, only to freeze when it came to writing the book. She missed her deadline and had to return her advance. Not a pretty situation. I felt for the woman.

What You Need to Know About Writing and Publishing a Memoir Click To Tweet

In Sue’s case, she’s writing a memoir, and that’s a trickier question. Most publishers will want to see a completed—and highly polished—manuscript and exquisite writing. There’s a very high bar for memoir writing in traditional publishing. So you’ll definitely need a compelling angle, great writing and a significant author platform (or reach) to interest most publishers with your memoir.

For the quality of writing required, I suggest you hire a freelance book editor (get references!). And you will likely need more than one round of editing. Maybe many.

While most agents and publishers want to see a very developed and highly polished, complete manuscript, a small number of agents or publishers like to play a much more involved part from early on. They actually prefer to develop the manuscript with you. How do you know whether that’s the case? Research publishers and agents you may want to work with by finding out who is looking for books in your genre.

How to Research Literary Agents and Publishers Click To Tweet

publishers marketplaceLearn as much as you can about the agent beforehand. Meet agents and publishers at writing conferences, research appropriate agents through read their websites and submissions guidelines and use check out the following websites which are excellent for researching agent requirements:

1. Publishers Marketplace publishes information about agents, including, for many, the book deals they get for their clients (including publisher, acquisitions editor and advance range). It has an excellent search function! You will also find a literary agent bio for agents that are members.

2. Querytracker can help you searc for appropriate agents, organize and track your queries and find agent data. There are free and paid versions. They list over 1,600 agents.

3. AgentQuery has excellent articles, links to agent blogs, lots of great resources here. It also helps you post your query, which would not be my first choice. It is my experience that a focused search is most successful. However, you can explore it and see what you think.

Will An Agent Help You Edit Your Proposal and/or Manuscript?

Yes, and no.
An agent will likely fine tune the proposal (and manuscript, if it’s a memoir). However, most agents do not have the time or interest to edit an incomplete or rough proposal or manuscript.

Sue also asked about getting an agent to help her prepare her book for pitching to a publisher and was concerned about potential costs of editing. Here are some important distinctions:

1. When you work with a literary agent, they should not be charging you for editing. The AAR (Association of Author Representatives) specifically does not allow literary agent members to charge their agency clients. If a literary agent wants to charge to edit your manuscript, run the other way, unless they have a separate business of editing and are very clear that they could not represent your work.

2. Some agents do a large amount of editing at no charge if they think the book is likely to get a large advance, but most of the time they can’t justify a big investment of their time at no charge, so do send them the best possible proposal you can to begin with. Ditto, the manuscript, if you are writing a memoir. You won’t send the full manuscript right away but it’s likely that if they are interested after seeing the proposal, they will want to see the full manuscript. And, yes, sometimes, a publisher or agent is okay with your not having the full manuscript but that’s more unusual.

3. Because editing is usually a very involved process, when you work with an agent, he or she may suggest you hire an independent editor, in addition to working with them on bigger picture feedback and ideas. This is a legitimate requirement, but do your own due diligence. If your agent has strong ideas, check in partway through editing to make sure your editor understands your agent’s vision.

Should I Pitch Publishers or Work With an Agent?

Sue wrote that her idea had grown as she grew, that the idea for the book felt stronger than ever. Yet she felt stuck.

Write the entire thing first? Pitch first? Or work with an agent?” She felt that if she could answer these questions, she would be able to focus.

It’s often ideal to work with an agent because they know acquisitions editors personally and may know specifically what certain editors are looking for. Agents can also time submissions to improve the likelihood of multiple offers (or “an auction” as it’s referred to in the publishing industry).

In addition, agents are experts at negotiating book contracts. You want a quality literary agent in your court if you can gain their representation. There are many, many reasons to work with a literary agent, among them a publishing contract that represents your best interests.

However, perhaps your platform is modest or your audience is modest. There may not be enough money in your advance and potential reventue to justify an agent’s time. Yet your book could appeal to a niche or mid-sized publisher. This is a case where it would make sense to query publishers directly.

What To Do About Writer’s Doubts?

Sue also asked about some of her doubts: “Who am I to write this? Who is going to publish a memoir from me? Why is my story any better or worse than someone else’s? Who cares?”

These are valid questions. Sue had some excellent strategies:
“I fight these by telling myself that my story is important and relevant because I know that it is. I tell myself that even if someone else had the exact same experience, only I can tell it in the way that I want to. I am the only one who has the perspective that I have, and if I don’t write it, then no one will ever know what it is that I want to say.”

Yes! This is true. And if you’re writing a memoir, feel free to shoot for a traditional publisher, but know that self-publishing can be a valid and successful path, as well. Martha Rhodes, author of 3,000 Pulses Later, is a wonderful example of an author who self-published, has sold over 11,000 books, and whose book is opening doors for all kinds of extraordinary experiences, speaking in the US and “across the pond.” Martha’s book has been featured in the New York Times online twice. You can read more about her remarkable publishing path in this article, After Publishing a Book, Now What?

What questions do you have about book writing, publishing or book proposals? As always, ask below as a comment and I will answer!
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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.

Reader Interactions


  1. Liz says

    Hi Lisa and thank you for the great information. I would like to know if you could help me find a ghostwriter for my non fiction book. I would love to send you more details in private if that’s ok with you. Thank you in advance.


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