Stage Two of Publishing a Book: Finding a Literary Agent and Writing a Knock-Your-Socks-Off Proposal

How to publish a book

This month I’m running a series [update: Intro; Part 1; Part 3; Part 4] On how the publishing process works and how to successfully navigate each stage of the journey, with zero bewilderment and maximum fun.  And while the platform-building stage can often be lonely work done over many years, this next stage is where things really get fun, especially if you’re working with a Literary Agent who’s excited about your work.

If you’ve done the work of building a large and engaged platform, finding an agent and convincing them to offer you representation will be a piece of cake. As I talked about last week, every agent is focused on solely One Thing: signing the authors who will launch bestsellers. So if you can show an agent that you have the readership in place to launch a bestseller, you’ll likely have your pick of agents.

If you’re searching for an agent, try researching different agencies on websites like Writer’s Digest and Publisher’s Marketplace. Look for agents and agencies who have a track record of selling to well-respected publishing houses and who have other authors on their client list whom you admire. If you can get a referral from someone else who’s worked with an agent, even better—most of our clients come from referrals from existing authors, and I personally always pull those queries to the top of my pile.

One thing that’s too often overlooked by authors who are eager to land representation is whether an agent is a personality match for them. Remember, this is a relationship that will last at least two years if you land a book deal, and hopefully much longer if you publish other books. So you want to work with an agent you actually like! It sounds obvious, but ask yourself if you admire your agent, if they treat you and others respectfully, and if you trust them to put your goals above their own. Your agent should be in service to you, not anyone else.

Once you’ve found that agent who gets you and your work, you’ll be able to get started on your book proposal. You may already have a concept in mind, or you and your agent may brainstorm a concept together, but the proposal is really where the magic happens. A great book proposal is part-resume, part-business-plan, part-preview-of-the-book. But a knock-your-socks-off proposal is all of those things, PLUS it captures an editor’s imagination and makes their pulse quicken. This may be weird, but think of editors as cats. They’re hard to impress, but if you figure out what’s catnip to them, they’ll be all over it.

When I was an editor I had to sift through dozens of proposals a month from literary agents, and the ones that I pursued were always the ones that left me with a feeling of delight, possibility, and infectious enthusiasm. With how competitive the book market is these days, you need an editor to be all-in when he or she takes your proposal to the acquisitions team or Publisher, because this excitement and passion for a book will spread throughout an imprint, and ultimately, throughout the publishing process. So make sure your book is pure catnip to editors—make sure it’s that one title that makes people light up when they talk about it.

The 4 Questions You Should Be Able to Answer at This Stage:

  • To ask an agent: What’s your experience in the publishing world, and what houses have you sold books to recently? What categories do you specialize in? How involved are you in developing the book concept? (Be wary of agents who try to pair you with a concept they’ve already thought of themselves—you need to pick something you will be excited about!)
  • Will your existing readership love your book concept? Don’t be afraid to poll them—this is the value of having a direct connection with the people who will ultimately buy your book!
  • Is your book concept unique? Is it offering a different perspective, or a new spin on an idea, or a new way of presenting information? This is important because a book is a fabulous opportunity to reach even more new readers, and you want to be sure that a casual browser at a bookstore finds your book clever and useful, even if they’ve never heard of you.
  • Is your book proposal irresistible? Does it highlight everything that is valuable about your platform and everything that is interesting about your book concept?

Once you’ve written a knock-your-socks-off proposal and your agent has submitted it to editors, it’s time to play the waiting game. No nail-biting necessary—I’ll unpack what happens at this stage next week!

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