Chip MacGregor

February 13, 2012

How do I approach a literary agent?


Diane wrote to ask, "When is the best time to approach an agent? What do I need to have ready in order to talk with him or her?"

The best time is probably 11 in the morning. The hangover is gone, but the agent has yet to move toward that three-martini lunch. And what to have ready? Well, you ought to have a book proposal that is completely ready. That means you've got a good description of your book: an overview, the features, the details about word count and genre, and your overall focus. You also need to include information about the market: the audience, the need, and comparable titles. And you'll need to have a complete bio, not just something you dashed off in five minutes. You want to reveal who you are and what you bring to the table — your past publishing credits, sales history, media exposure, online traffic, and speaking schedule (where, to whom, on what topics, when, and how often). Hopefully your proposal will tell me something about marketing: what you plan to do in order to support the work, who is endorsing it, what you've done in the past that has worked. There will be a Table of Contents that explains to me the scope and sequence of your book (what you cover, and in what order), and above all there will be some sample chapters that are DONE — written, edited, and polished. If you're authoring a novel, you'll send me a great synopsis that reads like a well-done short story, and you'll tell me that your novel is complete, so I can read the whole thing, should I desire to do so. If you've got a great book package to present, you're probably ready to talk with an agent.

Be aware that most people I talk to at writing conferences aren't there yet. They might have a good book idea, but it's not ready to show. It's like having fruit that isn't ripe yet — the idea is good, but the fact that it's not ready makes it unpalatable. They're 60% ready, or maybe 80% ready, but they aren't 100% ready. The book still needs writing help, or the idea is good but the rest of the material is weak. The ingredients all seem to be gathered, but the cake isn't baked yet. (Go ahead — pick your metaphor.) Sometimes I discover I'm the first person to ever actually read the material — a major mistake, in my view. If you're too shy to have trusted writing friends critique your work, you're clearly not ready to have an agent or editor tell you that your writing is bad. Make sure other eyes have looked it over and corrected the things you've missed. I've never understood why people want to show me their half-baked idea. There's nothing I can do with it, other than offer a kind word and hope they go fix it. So get your stuff ready — 100% ready. Then talk to an agent.

Susan wrote to ask, "Do agents want to read a part of an unfinished nonfiction book, or do they require a complete manuscript as they do with a novel? I was told at a conference that I should send a nonfiction proposal before it was complete, in order to leave room for content negotiation, but an experienced author friend recently told me that, in these competitive days, it's better to have any book done before querying an agent."

I can't speak for every agent, but I always prefer seeing a completed book to a proposed book. With a completed book, there's no mystery about due dates, no concern about researching the rest of the topic, no worries about family emergencies keeping you from completing it. I find it easier to sell a complete manuscript than a proposed one. That's not to say I won't seriously consider a proposal and sample chapters on a nonfiction book — I will, if I like the idea and am impressed with the writing. But there's no question that a completed book has a leg up.

Val wrote to say, "I'm a new writer trying to break into the business. I understand that previous publishing credits are a plus, but do prospective agents and editors view e-zines and web sites as accomplishments worth mentioning in a query?"

Publishing credits are publishing credits, Val. What book editors and agents are looking for most is a great idea, expressed through great writing, by someone with a great platform. So by all means reveal your complete writing background. Writing for the web counts in this business. The bigger the readership and the more well-known the site, the better.

Dee wrote to ask, "What are the words you most want to hear from an author who approaches you at a writers' conference?"

Probably "You look younger than your photo." But "you've lost weight" is also nice, and "Let me buy you a drink" is a good runner-up.

Got a publishing question you've always wanted to ask an agent? Here's your chance…


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  • sally says:

    Funny post. thanks. 

  • Josh Kelley says:

    It was interesting to hear you say you prefer a completed manuscript; that’s the opposite of what Michael Hyatt said. It is helpful to know that he is not the final word on the subject! 

    PS: If I am ever able to get in your neck of the woods, I will be glad to buy you a triple martini (I’ll stick to a good microbrew) and we can chat about my book, “Drinking to the Glory of God.”

  • Chip, thanks so much for answering the question about having a completed manuscript for a non-fiction book. I’ve been wondering if I was on the right track trying to finish my book (or have as much of it done as possible) before going to a conference later this year. Your answer really helped. Thank you!

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