Do you have that first novel completed? Have you been staying up late and getting up early to study and write about a topic you’re passionate about telling the world?
Then it might be time to query a few agents to see if you have what it takes to get their attention. But keep your expectations realistic. New authors are harder to break out than they’ve ever been. And please, don’t blame the agent. We’re just the messenger of what publishers keep telling us.
You’ll need some criteria to go by to determine if you’re ready. Here are a few dozen hints.
First: Know who you truly are…
- Someone who has always wanted to write
- Someone with a message you feel God is asking you to put to paper
- Someone with a message that others have said needs to be put to paper
- Someone who can’t wait to get to your computer to create the stories in your head
- Someone who reads a lot, both within the genre they write as well as others.
Second: Understand what the book publishing industry is looking for…
- The 80/20 principle is alive and well in publishing. Publishers must have the big sellers to stay in business. So 80% of their advance and marketing money will always go to 20% of the authors and books. And if you’re a new author, unless you’re a pastor of a mega-church or you can write like Hemmingway (or better), you’re likely not going to be amongst the 20%.
- Because of the loss of browsing retail, publishers can’t find readers, so they expect authors to find them. They want authors with built-in audiences ready to buy. That’s why they are less willing to take risks on unknown/debut authors, preferring known quantities instead of new voices. If I had 200 new authors to speak to, there would be perhaps 5% who will ever get published traditionally. Not because they can’t write. Not because they don’t have a compelling message. It’s because they still have an information gap about what it takes to get published and be successful at it.
- Great writing. They want authors who are sold out to getting honest critique. They want a book with a clear vision/message, and an obvious audience (felt need). They hope authors are willing to study the craft of writing, attend conferences, willing to join and participate in critique groups or have a critique partner. Most of all, they want authors who have “come to play.” They’re working on building audiences; they’re invested in their own marketing and they have a plan to grow. Publishers and agents want more than one book. They want to grow with you and your career.
Third, what motivates you…
- Money. Okay, that’s not terrible. Would C.S. Lewis have written The Chronicles of Narnia for free? Provision—whether it’s today’s manna or retirement’s manna–motivates us, and it’s not evil. However, if this is your ONLY motivation, you have to ponder whether God will bless it. You also have to recognize that it’s harder than ever to make a living as a writer today, and that the days of six and seven-figure advances (with a few exceptions) are largely gone.
- Legacy. Publishers don’t care about this unless you’re already famous. Legacy projects get self-published, and that is perfectly fine.
- This does not include “ax to grind” books. Please, self-publish those. We can’t sell them.
- “I can’t help myself.” Obsession is a good place to be, but not if you’re sacrificing your health, family, bank account and soul to do it. Your obsession should pass the “sniff test” by those who know you best. Just because you feel “God has told me” to do this, doesn’t make that statement true. Obsessions MUST be confirmed by several people in your life before you give them wings in a big way.
So, with all of this in mind, here’s how to know “forsure-forsure-forsure” you’re ready for an agent.
- You have something inside of you that must get out. A novel, a message, a memoir, a brand. When I started FaithHappenings.com two years ago, I was like a dog with a bone. My excitement did border on obsession.
- You’ve put at least half of the book on paper–the whole book if you’re a novelist. (With novels, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.)
- You understand that traditional publishing is a business and you won’t question their motives if they reject your work. People DO know more than you.
- You feel God’s pleasure in your efforts to communicate what you want to share.
- You can’t wait to get to your computer.
For sure, for sure…
- You know your motivation. It doesn’t have to be pristine, you just have to know what it is.
- You know your book will get published no matter what. You are going to do this! Start traditionally if that is a goal, but not let that stop you from doing what’s needed to publish independently, if you have to.
- Someone has said that your message, life story or writing is above the curve. But even so, remember this: Perhaps one person per state ever makes it to the major leagues in each year. The pyramid is very small at the top in any professional endeavor.
- You are patient with the process and want to trust an industry professional to help guide your book/career. Once you think you know more than they do, turn off the tap on traditional publishing. And this is fine. Some are wired to be control freaks. Go with it. Don’t drive yourself and an agent/publisher crazy if you want to control every step in the process.
For sure, for sure, for sure…
- You have 5,000 to 10,000 “followers” (blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) Further, you are convinced—and you hereby solemnly swear to not complain—that you must help any publisher you go with—traditional or your own efforts—FIND READERS.
- Twenty people who don’t know you well have seen your book/writing and they’re not adding much more to it. You hear the term “great writer” from several different people.
- You know your genre, your audience, your message—you have FOCUS!!!
- You have a great proposal that answers the publisher/agent questions. If you don’t, get the agent’s proposal template. We all have one. Work hard on it. Don’t have typos, and follow directions! There are too many other people vying for an agent or editor’s attention for them to waste time on a proposal that doesn’t meet the basic requirements listed.
- Read three book marketing books. And then in your proposal, give the agent five pages of marketing ideas you KNOW you can do.
- You have counted the cost:
- Inevitable rejection and bad reviews, perhaps even the “ten mean church ladies” who write scathing letters and reviews on nearly every book they see.
- You know you have “come to play.”
- You know what five agents/agencies you want to be with. Get to know what they have represented. (You aren’t sending your proposal out en masse to every agent whose email address you can find.) Of these five, take the first one who says yes. Realize that you may not get the top guy, but the reputation of the agency is what you’re after.
If you can check off nearly all of these criteria, you’re forsure, forsure, forsure ready.