I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this. Agents post submission guidelines on their websites for a reason. It is your responsibility as an author to make sure you adhere to these guidelines, whether it be for submitting a novel manuscript or a non-fiction proposal. If you don’t, you are only shooting yourself in the foot and limiting your chances even further of getting picked up for representation.
With fiction, I know it’s tempting to give an agent more than they req uest. As an author in the process of pitching his first novel to agents myself, I’m with you. Still, if an agent asks for a succinct cover letter, a 2-3-page plot synopsis and the first 5 pages of manuscript—do NOT send them 10 pages. I can almost guarantee that you are setting yourself up for rejection. Agents don’t have a lot of free time to look at new material. A good agent—like a good acquisitions editor—is bombarded with dozens of proposals and manuscripts at any given time. When he or she does have time to consider new work, they are going to be attracted to something well-written of course, but almost more importantly, something that grabs their interest within the first couple of pages. If you can’t do that within 5 pages, you need to work on your opener. If an agent likes what he or she reads in those first 5 pages, they will probably ask to see more.
With non-fiction, you have a bit more leeway, though not much. Make sure you pay attention to an agent’s non-fiction proposal guidelines before you submit your work to them for consideration. Or, if you’re not sure, feel free to email them any questions you might have. Don’t call. Most agents don’t like talking to writers they haven’t already had some interaction with before. The important things to include in a proposal are:
- An Overview (a couple paragraphs describing your book idea)
- Target Market (who is the book targeted toward? We’ve talked about this here before.)
- Table of Contents (it doesn’t have to be carved in stone because changes happen during the writing/editorial process, but be sure to include catchy chapter headings as well as a 3-4 sentence summary of each chapter’s contents.)
- Deliverables (when do you estimate delivering the final manuscript? How many words do you estimate? Any pictures, graphs, charts, or other illustrations?)
- Competitive Title Analysis (what’s already been published on your subject, when and by whom? How is your book different and/or better than its competition? Be thorough in your research and analysis. Don’t ever say your book is the only one of its kind. Agents won’t be impressed. They’ll just assume you were lazy and didn’t do your homework.)
- Author Bio (a couple paragraphs about yourself, your qualifications, etc.)
- Marketing/PR Platform (What are you already doing to promote and brand yourself as an expert in the field you are writing about? What resources can you draw on to help the publisher market/promote your book once it’s published? This is an essential part of any strong book proposal…and often the most difficult part to write.)
- Sample Chapters (usually two suffices. Choose the chapters that you feel are most representative of your overall narrative.)
Agents may differ on some of this information but generally what I’ve listed above is what most are looking for. Be sure though to check the agent’s website before sending them anything. Also, it’s important to see how they prefer to receive proposal and manuscript submissions. Most prefer email though not necessarily as attachments. Some are old school and prefer you to send materials through snail mail. It’s important that you pay attention to this. At the very least, it helps you get your foot in the door.