A writer’s chance comment to my associate at the Florida Christian Writers Conference reminded me of a serious misperception among some writers. The writer reportedly said, “I’m looking for an agent with more clout.” That attitude leads me to ask, “Who is responsible for a writer’s clout with an editor or with a publisher? Is it the writer or an agent–or is it a package of content and writer activity?”
Rather than merely pontificate, let me illustrate from experiences with both fiction and non-fiction in recent years.
At an ACFW conference a couple of years ago a panel of fiction editors was asked what they were looking for in deciding what proposal to recommend for publication. The answers were: “I’m looking for a great story that is well-told”; “I’m looking for a story that moves me”; “I’m looking for an extremely well-written story.” Not one of the editors said, “I’m looking for a story from an agent with clout.”
Consider the case of Nicole Quigley, who had entered the Genesis contest in the YA category. When she approached me during interview time at ACFW and gave me a summary of her story, telling me she was a finalist in the YA category, I said, “Go sit at the table of the Zondervan YA editor at dinner and connect with her.” What I did not know was that the Zondervan editor had been on the panel of judges to decide the winning entry among the three finalists. She did connect with the editor at dinner, and later at the Awards Banquet was announced as winner in the YA category. Not long after the conference I was able to get her a contract from Zondervan.
What gave her clout? I certainly didn’t as her agent, but her exceptionally well-written award winning story gave her the clout to receive a contract. I’ve had two clients who were winners and two were finalists in the Operation First Novel Contest in recent years. The winners and one finalist have already received contracts, and there is strong interest in the novel of the other finalist. Winning in major writing contests gives fiction writers clout that no agent can give them.
Or consider the experience of Robert Treskillard. When he submitted his Arthurian period proposal for Merlin’s Blade to me, I was stunned by the research he had done, not only on the historical period to give his novel authenticity, but also on all the key books from that period already on the market and selling well. He had done research on what was happening in the movies, on television, buttressing his contention that the market for novels from the Arthurian period was alive and well. When an editor at Zondervan responded positively, she mentioned that his research was so thorough she could take the well-written and researched proposal to the Pub Board with confidence. Yes, this author had a fascinating and extremely well-written manuscript and proposal, but the research on the background of his novel and its probable acceptance in the marketplace gave him the extra clout needed to gain a three-book contract—and a number of concessions in the contract.
Clout as Non-Fiction Writers
Kim Ketola not only won a first-place award at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference for her non-fiction book proposal, she gained a contract for what became Cradle My Heart at Kregel Publications. What gave her clout was that she had accompanied Ruth Graham on speaking tours and led workshops for women who had experienced an abortion. She had also been a radio personality on a key Christian network. That background gave her clout I could not give her book as agent.
In a previous article on this page I wrote about the added value that gave non-fiction books clout with editors that I could not give them. In one case the writer not only prepared an illustrated discipleship process, but lined up a Foreword from a nationally-known theologian and writer, plus endorsements by several other nationally known seminary professors. In another the author prepared dishes to go with her Daniel Fast proposal, complete with photos of each dish. A writer who was preparing a book for pregnant mothers not only provided meditations for each week, but also medical advice and 3-D photos and videos of living babies in the mother’s womb from the latest sonogram equipment. The extra effort gave all three the clout needed to be offered a contract by a major publisher.
What an agent can provide a writer is insight into market openings. When editor Jon Wilcox sent me an e-mail describing what he was looking for in books for men, I forwarded it to several clients I thought had the potential to meet his need. One of them, Murray Pura, saw that Jon was looking for stories of adventure and danger in the wild and promptly responded. After all, he was living at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and regularly walked the trails and hunted and fished there. The sample stories he provided required tweaking, but the result is a book, Majestic and Wild,being released this spring by Baker Books.
An agent can also increase the clout of a writer by helping the writer improve the title, sharpen the selling hook or premise, make sure the synopsis actually provides a readable “walk through the book,” and adequately covers author credentials and marketing efforts of the author. Finally, an agent can identify if the first chapter has the qualities to attract the interest of an editor. I consider the relationship between an agent and a client to be a partnership.
Negating Clout Potential
Writers approaching me during the years I served as acquisitions editor and now as agent negate clout they might have in the following ways:
- They inadequately do research for books already coming from publishers, blithely repeating what is already on the market by a better-known author. Or they fail to recognize that just because there is not a book on their topic does not mean there is a wide open market. Publishers most likely tried and failed in efforts with books on their topic. Checking with an experienced book buyer at a Christian bookstore can help avoid this mistake.
- They do not check submission requirements by publishers and agents on websites, submitting what is obviously not acceptable in terms of length or proposal presentation.
- They do not employ a professional editor to improve grammar, spelling, sentence structure, clarity of content. Just because someone is an English graduate or teaches English does not make them a professional editor. Over the past week I have had two editors tell me that they are so busy they do not have time to do major editing of a manuscript, so they rejected it even though they really like the content of the proposed book. The margin for error has shrunk dramatically in recent years as editorial staffs have been reduced.
- Writers fail to realize delivering an important book proposal is not enough. Editors today are consistently asking for endorsements by name personalities on non-fiction books by debut authors.
- Writers who do not attend Christian writers’ conferences regularly miss out on skills training they need to gain clout and fail to build relationships with editors that give them clout when their agent presents their proposal.