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Friday, November 24, 2017

How Literary Agents and Publishers Think

This week I heard from a writer who's pitched to agents and publishers without success. And the query reminded me how important it is for writers to be able to get inside the head of these important gatekeepers. Here's what I want not-yet-published writers to know about how agents and publishers think...

When they're reading your proposal, the agent is thinking about what the publisher wants, and the publisher is thinking about what the reader wants. And the reader is thinking about...the reader. The BIG question you have to answer for agents/publishers is, "What's in it for the reader?" Whatever book you are writing HAS TO meet the felt need of the reader. Reader's don't buy books they "should" read, they buy books they "have to" read. Why is the book you're pitching a must-read?

Without knowing what book you've written, I will hazard a guess that an agent/publisher has seen this book before. Maybe 100 proposals for this book and 5 that made it to market--saying the exact thing you're saying, in a slightly different way. While that can sound jaded, that's their reality. So whatever message you want to communicate--ideally, in the words of Stephanie Smith, a "timeless truth"--must have a FRESH FRAME. Whether you're communicating that "God is gracious," or "You are loved," or "Kittens are God's gift to the world," the agent/publisher must read your proposal and say, "Hmmm...I haven't heard it quite that way before." Are you saying something in such a fresh way that the agent/publisher wants to know more?

The #1 rule of good writing is "show, don't tell." Your proposal needs to prove to agents/publishers that your project has FOUR THINGS: (1) a unique and compelling project, (2) a market of people who can't wait to buy this book, (3) a growing platform, and (4) mad writing skills. While I'd love to say that if they love your fresh idea, or if they think you're a great writer, they will take a chance and contract your book, I can't say that. They may WANT to, but to convince a publishing board to publish a book, they really need to see strength in all four areas. If you need to develop one or more of those areas, it might make sense to do that before pitching again. Does your proposal demonstrate that you are offering all four things a publisher needs to see?

The job of your book proposal is to convince the agent/publisher that your project meets the reader's need in a fresh and compelling way, and that you can sell books. To help writers do that, I've got a few free resources online...
1. An Author Inventory helps you mine and mention every asset you're bringing to the table.
2. An Annotated Book Proposal Template offers tips for each section of the proposal. (Not necessary to use this particular template, but do read the tips.)
3. The Book Proposal Checklist helps you review the first draft of your proposal, to make sure it's as strong as it can be.

Help agents and publishers say YES by offering them the strongest proposal you can!


  1. Your article is so helpful, Margot! Thanks for the insights along with practical suggestions (and links).

    1. Thanks, Sharon! We're all learning and sharing what we learn!


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