Literary agents often get a reputation for being cruel and heartless. It is true that not a one of us has escaped sending out many, many rejection letters. I am sure that there are a few slightly sadistic agents out there, but for the most part, authors, please know that we take no pleasure in saying no to you and your project!
It is true! We WANT you to be our clients. We WANT to sell your book and make you and us both a trillion dollars (okay, at least a million dollars). Everyone at my agency has received angry, resentful and oftentimes threatening responses to our rejection letters. While we can understand being disappointed by a rejection letter, if we have sent one to an author it is for good reason -- the book project is missing something (or things) that we need in order to effectively sell the book to publishers.
I was recently asked to speak at two conferences in southern California about "mistakes" that authors make that are holding them back from success. There are some obvious ones made by bad writers (typos, copycat books, no platform, etc.), but I am more interested in helping GOOD writers identify their hurdles and move their way past them. I consulted with colleagues and peers and put together a long list of dos and don'ts for writers at any stage in the writing process, and now I would like to share them with you now. Without further ado, here are six examples of what even great writers do badly (and how to change!).
#1: They Don't Think Like Marketers
I often start any presentations I do by asking audience members to raise their hands if they are authors. Inevitably, almost everyone raises their hands. Then I ask them to raise their hand if they consider themselves a marketer. There are a few brave souls who raise their hand, but just a few. Words like "marketing" and "platform" are dirty words to many authors nowadays. Having to build awareness surrounding you and your project sounds scary and overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be! Yes it requires time, yes it requires legwork, but it is 100% necessary in the industry today. Know exactly what your book is about and what you are bringing to the table. Nail your logline (one sentence summary) and elevator pitch (a 3-5 sentence summary of your book's content and unique features, as well as your credibility and expertise). Know which audience you are writing your book for. Think of your book as a product that you need to convince people to sell and to buy.
#2: They Don't Know Who to Pitch Their Book To
Before you start sending out your query letters, you need to do some research. While you may have an amazing project on your hands, you need to make sure the agents that you are pitching to represent projects in genres similar to yours. For instance, at my agency we do not represent anything that falls under the science fiction, fantasy, young adult, or children's umbrellas. That doesn't mean that we don't have great respect for those writing, editing or publishing in those genres, we just aren't interested in taking those projects on. So whom should you be pitching to? There are numerous directories of literary agents out there -- try the writing reference section in Barnes & Noble, PublishersMarketplace.com, or even a straight Google search. Look at the agency's website and see what type of authors they work with. If it seems like you could be a match, go for it (make sure you follow their submission guidelines!). If not, move on and don't waste your time -- there are plenty of other agent fish in the sea.
#3: They Don't Understand Their Book's Place in the Marketplace
Do your research! Look at other books in your genre and ask yourself what those authors did right and what they didn't do so hot with. What makes your book better? In a nonfiction book proposal, there is a section that is titled the Competitive Analysis. This is where an author will list five or so books that are similar to theirs and say what each book does well and what they don't do as well as the author's. This demonstrates that people are currently buying books like yours and that yours provides something better than what is already out there.
#4: They Don't Offer Something N.D.B.M.
N.D.B.M. is an acronym created by my colleague Wendy Keller. It very simply stands for New, Different, Better, or More. This is another way of zeroing in on your book's uniqueness in the world. Has there been a book like yours before? Does your book touch on previously written about material, but from a different angle (perhaps Gone with the Wind from Rhett Butler's point of view)? Is your book clearly better than what is currently out there (maybe you have greater expertise in the subject matter)? Does your book provide the reader with something more than they have had before (perhaps your book educates readers about the new miracle diet AND includes a workbook)? Fiction or nonfiction, this is one of the first thing that any agent or editor looks for.
#5: They Hide Their Voice
You will never be Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, Anthony Doerr, Maya Angelou, Stephen King or Patricia Highsmith (and neither will I, unfortunately!). Their gifts are and were unique and all their own. You will, however, be YOU. And that can be an even better thing. You're not just telling a story, you are illustrating your mastery of the craft. It is not just the information that you are presenting, it is HOW you are presenting it. If you have been writing for long enough, even if you are influenced by other authors (who isn't?), you will have likely developed a style all your own. Don't be afraid to show it! Also, please make sure that your voice shines through your query letter as well. Don't drown us in metaphors and flowery prose, but a basic form letter will not entice us to request your manuscript from you.
#6: They Give Up
Rejection can be tough. When the umpteenth pass comes through, it can be tempting to throw your hands in the air and give up. Don't! I'm sure you've heard the stories about famous authors who were turned down time and time again before achieving success. J.K. Rowling was told not to quit her day job, John le Carré was told he had no future, even Robert M. Pirsig's bestselling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 (!) times before it was published. When you are feeling down, remind yourself that YOU HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK. There are lots of people out there who dream of being a writer, but a small percentage of those folks actually write! If you need to set your project aside for a while, if you need to take time to feel sorry for yourself, do so. But under no circumstances give up. There are readers (and agents and editors) out there waiting to have their lives changed by your book. Don't keep them waiting too long!