2017 BIO Conference – Book Proposals

The literary agent, biographer, and founder of London’s Biographer’s Club, Andrew Lownie, offered insights into what biographers should put in a proposal to entice an agent, the pitfalls to avoid, and when it makes sense for an author to go directly to a publisher.

“The more you can give [in terms of chapters], the easier it is for the agent to decide if he/she will represent you,” explained Lownie. He repeated several times during the two-hour session that the first three chapters are the best ones to provide, for they give the agent a sense of a writers’ style, pace, storytelling talents, and how they weave plot and subplots through the work. “It’s all in the writing,” he said, but a proposal submission should also include chapter endnotes and pictures that will “bring whole things alive.” Lownie added, “Titles are huge—something that pricks up the ear, grabs them” and makes an agent want to represent the author.

To target an agent, Lownie said writers can consult several sources as a starting point. The website Publishers Marketplace, at $25 per month, offers an extensive listing of agents with email addresses and phone numbers. [https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/]. “It tells you what agents have been selling. See who they deal with. Knowledge is power.” He also said Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus provide useful information on what is going on in the industry. Concerning how to judge an agent, Lownie said, “Look at their website; the better the website the better the agents.” Then, writers need “a pecking order” of agents to query. Simple things, such as addressing the agent correctly, are important. Also helpful, is letting an agent know about a possible tie between the author’s work and one the agent has already sold.

Lownie said to be realistic for there will be rejections. “Just ignore them and move on,” he stated. “Don’t take it hard . . . it’s all very subjective” in how an agent or publisher decides to work with an author. “Sometimes,” he added, “they don’t think the project is commercial enough” and reject it. They also are looking to sell in more than one country.

Lownie said his agency handles 12 books a year and has about 200 authors. Regarding submissions, his agency tries to read everything the day they receive it. In general, a response to a proposal should come within three weeks. If sending to more than one agency, be upfront about that in the initial contact and identify to whom the submission was made. He also said it was better to do no more than three at a time. To build trust, he said, “If the book has been sent to publishers, tell me.” It’s also probably better to try agencies in the country in which the author lives.

Once writers land an agent, Lownie said, authors need to remember that although “we try to help you, we are not a social service; we want to sell books.” Lownie said his agency sometimes works with university and academic presses, but the profit margin is low. He encouraged authors to go directly to those presses. And, he warned, “Your interest and your publisher’s is not the same . . . and all contracts are not the same.”

Getting expert advice on contracts is important. Lownie said hiring a developmental editor is a good step, but buying “author services” can be costly and of little or no benefit. Also, writers should not pay to get reviews and, if self-publishing, “You should not pay for production.”

Lastly, Lownie explained, the process of getting a book to the marketplace takes about a year once it is in a major publisher’s hands. There are two seasons—July to Christmas, which often features many celebrity bios marketed as gifts, and then January to July. For authors starting out, the latter slot is a good place to be. In general, he said, writers need to get in front of people through social media and attending conferences. “You need to go where editors go.” [JG]