1. What types of books/proposals are you interested in?

I am interested in the following non-fiction subject categories: history, current affairs, business, management/leadership, politics, narrative non-fiction, television tie-ins, books based on popular blogs/Web sites, pop culture, true crime, television, music, reference, ornithology, science, conservation/environment, national security/intelligence, military history, health/diet/wellness, memoir, and humor. If you’re working on a book in any of these subject areas, I would welcome the opportunity to consider your project.

2. Do you accept novels, poetry, or screenplays?

Unfortunately, no. I am only seeking non-fiction proposals at the present time.

3. Do you represent Americans in their negotiations with major U.S. publishers?

Most definitely. Don’t let the mailing address mislead you. The agency represents an extensive roster of American writers and experts, including many prominent Americans, and has brokered dozens of deals with major U.S. publishers including Random House, Penguin, St. Martin’s Press, Disney, and many other U.S. publishing houses, on behalf of U.S. writers. The agency is very active in the United States so please don’t hesitate to ask if you have specific questions.

4. How can a writer increase the odds that you will offer to represent their work?

First of all, you should know what types of books I’m most interested in, as I’m most likely to be receptive to a pitch if the book fits my interests and the subject categories I like to work on.

Second, books rarely sell themselves these days, so I need to look for authors who have a “platform.”  This means that, ideally, you have some type of public stature that a publisher can leverage to promote your book. If you’re a leading expert in your field or you have experience writing for major newspapers or magazines, I’m more likely to have success selling you to a major publisher. If you have a popular blog or Web site or you’re affiliated with a major organization or university/college, publishers are more likely to be interested in your work. The lack of a decent platform is one of the most frequent reasons for an agent to reject a book proposal. It is very hard to generate publicity for books, even when a major publisher is doing the pitching, so publishers, and hence agents, are very leery about taking books by authors who don’t have a platform.

Third, you need to have a strong proposal and strong writing skills. As good a salesperson as I may be, publishers usually make decisions on the strength of a proposal that outlines the book, the author’s credentials, and the marketing opportunities the author can bring to the table. A strong proposal can make the difference between getting an offer and not getting one.

5. Why is it so difficult to find a literary agent?

To understand why literary agents scrutinize projects so carefully, you need to understand the sales process.

I’m going to be most responsive to projects that I believes are saleable to the major publishers I work with. Even if I’m interested in the idea you’re pitching, I have to believe that the editors I work with are also going be receptive to the idea. Because of the considerable amount of time required to shape an idea, pitch it to editors, and negotiate a contract, it’s simply impossible for an agent to represent everything, even projects that are likely to result in an offer from a publisher. Literary agencies are businesses, and they are not only motivated by their personal interest in certain topics, they are motivated by projects that are going to generate the most interest (and the strongest offers) from publishers. No two literary agents are the same. Since agents have different personal interests (one may be interested in history while another may not) and different relationships with editors and publishers, it may take awhile for you to find an agent who can be an effective champion for your book.

There are several steps in the process of getting a book published. First, the agent has to pitch the idea to an editor at a publishing house. Second, the editor has to sell your project internally to his/her colleagues (including the marketing and sales staff) and build enough in-house support to justify an offer from the publisher to the agent. Third, the publisher has to sell your book to the book buyers at the chains and bookstores. This doesn’t happen until about six months before publication, when the publisher releases its catalogue for the upcoming publishing season and publisher’s sales reps call on bookstores (and other accounts), hoping to generate big orders from book buyers. Fourth, the publisher (and the author) need to generate enough publicity to make the public aware of the book and in turn drive sales. When an agent is reviewing a book proposal, he/she has to think about all of these hurdles and whether or not the proposed book can successfully clear them.

Often, a book proposal doesn’t get the past the editor’s desk if the editor doesn’t believe he/she will be able to generate internal support for the idea. Even if an offer is made and you sign a deal with a major publishing house, you’ve still got two more major hurdles. A book isn’t guaranteed to be well-distributed just because a major publisher has acquired it. If the booksellers don’t get excited about it, orders will be small, and the book can stagnate before it even hits the shelves. And regardless of how many orders are placed by retail stores, if there isn’t sufficient publicity to generate awareness and momentum for the book, sales could be very disappointing. Publishers are looking for books that can move tens of thousands of copies, so the bar is set very high. This is not as easy to achieve as you may think.

Keep in mind that most agents are receiving dozens or hundreds of book pitches a week. Editors are usually in the same boat. The process of pitching a book to editors, and then negotiating a contract, if an offer is made, is very time consuming. It can take several months. So agents have to pick and choose their projects carefully. It is simply not practical or possible for an agent to circulate every proposal to publishers. I once had an author ask me why I couldn’t just send out his proposal to editors and see what happens, even though I wasn’t keen on it. Editors depend on literary agents to vet proposals and send them the most promising prospects. Even though editors and agents often disagree on what constitutes a strong idea, I have to believe in a project in order to attach my name to it and then take up an editor’s valuable time.

When an agent rejects a proposal and says “it’s not right for me” or “it doesn’t fit my current needs,” it means that the agent isn’t motivated enough by the idea to be able to pursue it enthusiastically. That decision is usually based on multiple factors, including the agent’s current client load, the quality of the writing, what the agent’s personal interests are, what projects the agent believes his/her publishing contacts are most likely to be interested in, how much the project is going to sell for, and more. It’s a complicated business!

6. Why did you become an agent?

I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I love the business side of publishing – finding great authors and book ideas, pitching book projects, negotiating deals, and being a part of an exciting and dynamic industry. I became a bestselling author early in my career and eight years later, after several successive bestsellers, I decided to put my business savvy and passion for publishing to work for other authors. I love what I do, and I love getting excited about a new book project that I can pitch to the editors I work with. There’s something special about holding a book in your hand and realizing you played a part in its creation.

7. Why Do I Need a Literary Agent?

Due to the overwhelming number of writers seeking a contract with a major publisher, editors cannot possibly keep up with the hundreds of unsolicited submissions that come in every week. This is why most major publishers do not accept submissions directly from authors who are seeking publication. Instead, they rely on a network of literary agents who understand the publishing business, have relationships with editors, and know the subject areas and types of books that specific editors are most likely to be interested in. Within each of the major publishing houses, there are dozens of editors, each with their own interests and “wish lists” for books. A literary agent is usually the most efficient way to find the right editor, and the right publisher, for your book. An agent can help you improve your book proposal, resulting in stronger offers from publishers, and consider publishers you may not have even thought of approaching.

Publishing is a very specialized field, and book contracts can be especially complicated. Just like you should never sign a business contract with a lawyer, I don’t recommend you sign a book contract without a literary agent. A literary agent can help you secure a better deal by helping you to select the right publisher and negotiating improved contract terms that will protect your financial and intellectual property interests.

I have years of experience negotiating contracts with the major publishing houses, and I will bring this business experience to bear when working on your behalf. You can undermine your own financial and professional success by trying to negotiate a contract on your own. I’ve seen it happen many times. Often by the time I’m asked to become involved, it’s too late.

8. What are the most common mistakes authors make when pitching a project to you?

There are many. Perhaps the most frustrating is receiving a proposal (or letter) that has clearly not been vetted for grammar and spelling mistakes. Because of the volume of submissions an agent receives, an agent has to make a quick judgment about whether a project is worth pursuing or not. An agent does not want to spend his/her time cleaning up proposals. The stronger the proposal, the more likely it is that an agent is going to be interested in representing you. Make sure you have a solid proposal ready before you contact a literary agent.

9. How should I pitch a book idea to you?

Every agent is different, but for me, a short inquiry by e-mail is best. Describe the book project, why it’s unique/special, and your credentials/platform. Do not paste entire chapters into the body of an e-mail message. Because of the volume of inquiries I receive on a daily basis, inquiries that are personalized (rather than copied to multiple agents simultaneously) and make an effort to recognize my interests are most likely to get my attention. If I’m interested in what you’re offering, you’ll hear from me!

10. What does a good book proposal look like?

Unless you’re a celebrity or well-known personality whose name alone will excite book buyers, a publisher will rely heavily on your proposal in order to decide whether to make an offer on your book. Even if you’re a celebrity, a publisher may still want to know what you’re proposing before they make an offer. Remember that you’re selling a written product. While the agent will get you in the door, the quality/style of the writing and the strength of the pitch is what really matters. Once the agent passes your proposal to an acquiring editor, it will be circulated to other editors, as well as people in marketing, sales, and publicity, for their opinions. Rarely does one person alone make a decision about whether to buy a book. I can’t underscore enough how important the book proposal is.

Your proposal should start off with an overview of the book you’re pitching – draw the reader in with a compelling story or narrative. After that, proposals take on different forms, but they generally include the following sections. These are guidelines only – it’s important that you make the proposal your own.

  • Target Audience (what makes your book compelling?; what are the media hooks?; what markets will your book appeal to, and why?)
  • Marketing (describe any media connections or special connections you have that will help a publisher market and publicize your book)
  • Competition and Market (how is your book different from other similar books; what makes it unique?; what current publishing trends does your book capitalize on?)
  • Manuscript Delivery (how many words will your manuscript be?; when can you deliver a finished manuscript?)
  • About the Author (your background and credentials/work experience; describe newspapers/magazines/journals where your work has appeared or where you have been quoted, any radio/television shows you have appeared on, and any speaking engagement/seminars you have delivered at notable conferences)
  • Chapter Outlines (include one- or two-paragraph descriptions of each chapter in your book)
  • Sample Chapter (publishers usually like to see at least one sample chapter from your book so they can get a sense of your writing style) 

In the marketing section of your proposal, do not put together a full-blown marketing plan that includes a laundry list of ways that you will promote your book (for example, book signings, press releases, a Web site, etc.) This is one of the biggest mistakes authors make when crafting a book proposal. Remember that publishers are interested in your current media platform rather than your future plans for promoting the book. For example, if you have a popular Web site, include this information in the proposal (along with any major media mentions). On the other hand, telling the publisher that you plan to build Web site later to promote the book is not helpful. Remember that you’re competing with dozens of other book proposals, all of which are vying for offers from major publishers, so your platform needs to be strong now rather than later. Book signings are rarely effective unless you’re a celebrity, so telling publishers that you’re going to do book signings in your community is not very persuasive. Publishers are most interested in the existing connections and relationships you have (with newspapers, television shows, Web sites, etc.) that will help the publisher sell your book when it’s published, not ideas you have for future promotional activities.

11. What's the most common complaint you hear from authors?

Most authors are unhappy with the marketing efforts expended by their publisher. In some cases these complaints are warranted, but in many instances they are not. A publisher will typically include your book in their catalogue (used by the publisher’s sales reps to sell your book to retailers), include it on their Web site, and assign an in-house publicist to mail out review copies and pitch the book to print and broadcast media. Sometimes the publisher will run print advertisements in selected publications or on Web sites. The publisher cannot be expected to do much more. Most publishers are publishing dozens of books a year and it is simply not practical or effective for your publicist to continue pushing your book month after month. Some authors hire a publicist at their own expense to supplement the publisher’s efforts, but even with this added ammunition, the results are often disappointing. 

By and large, the media decides what books they are going to review or feature. A well-connected publicist (yours or your publisher’s) will get your book to the right people, but after that, it’s up to a reporter, editor, or producer to decide whether they are interested or not. If you’ve ever tried to get publicity for yourself or an organization, you know how difficult it can be. Publicists have the same challenges. In an environment where there are always more books being pitched than there is space or air time to feature them, the media usually gives precedence to books by well-known authors or hot topics that they feel their readers will be interested in. Even if you’ve got a decent platform and a timely book, there’s no guarantee you’ll secure the type of national press coverage that’s usually needed to sustain strong sales. Even if you’re able to generate publicity or land a positive review of your book in a major publication, it doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. Sometimes luck and/or timing play a role in determining what books make it onto the bestseller lists.

Since a publisher has limited control over which books succeed and which ones fail, and a narrow window of time to promote any given book, it’s essential that you work hard to promote your book through your own network of industry-specific contacts. Publishers are generally focused on reaching mainstream media outlets, so you should draw up a list of your own contacts, people who may not be on your publisher’s radar screen, and have your publicist mail out review copies. Your personal involvement in your book’s media campaign doesn’t guarantee success – you’ll no doubt run up against the same obstacles your publisher faces – but at least it will give your book a better shot of success.