Today, we’re taking the opportunity to bring it back to basics. For those trying to break into traditional publishing, there is immense value in knowing exactly what an agent does and what you want in an ideal agent—and yet, quality resources on these topics can be hard to come by.
Lucinda recently spoke with ghostwriter Dr. Cindy Childress, founder of Childress Communication, about agenting, querying, and the art of the book proposal. She and Cindy covered a lot of ground and important strategies for writers to know, so today we’re sharing an edited transcript of some of the most salient material on agenting from the interview. Read on to learn what you should keep in mind when thinking about your ideal agent, or watch the full recorded interview here.
Cindy Childress: A lot of people may not have ever worked with or thought about why they might want a book agent, so I wondered if you could start by letting us know what a literary agent does and what your role is in traditional publishing.
Lucinda Halpern: First, I will say that you really want someone who can guide that process and who can be your partner. We work with a lot of first-time authors, and it’s one of our great pleasures navigating newcomers through the twisting, winding road of publishing. You really want an agent who can guide both the editorial and the business sides, and have their sights set on your long term career. When we take on authors, we’re not just looking at their one hit, the first book they have; we’re looking at them for the course of their careers, which means excellent communication and a shared vision that begins at the editorial level is crucial.
An agent is primarily there to serve the interests of the author, to protect you at all stages of the process, beginning with your contracts. So it is really most important to know that you can trust that person and that you have an advocate in that person. An agent is the primary advocate on your team before you even get into the publishing relationship. All of which means that when you’re choosing an agent, it’s a long term relationship, and you really want to be focused on their track record; who they have relationships with; how often they’re doing deals; have they sold books successfully in the past to the kinds of publishers that I want to be associated with; what books have they worked on in the past.
I should say here that oftentimes an agent will have an interest in something that’s not their specialty, but they have such a creative vision for, and such an excitement about what you’re doing, that you shouldn’t rule that person out because they’re not well-known in that area, or haven’t worked with authors that you recognize. But you should make sure that you share that vision. So at Lucinda Literary we’re all about tough love. We’re there to root you on, but we’re not there to give you lip service for your ideas. We want to be really tough skeptics about what you can expect to face from the market on your idea, both from editors and readers.
Cindy: When you’re looking at a book proposal, I’m wondering what are some things that really let you know you’ve got something you can work with? What do agents really look for?
Lucinda: A combination of what’s popular, but also something new. So what does it comp to, but how does it break apart? I need that to be there more than anything else; it’s the idea, or even the germs of a really crisp idea that I can then get in and work with if needed. Then it’s really who the author is. There are a lot of ways to reflect expertise or to show commercial appeal. It’s like writing a resume in that regard, right? You’ve got to self-promote a little bit to show why you’re qualified for people to hear from you and trust your expertise.
Then it’s the writing: is the writing terrific? The best way for any kind of proposal to do this, from the self-help to the more narrative, is hit me with stories. I want gripping stories that feel like fiction. I want to be immersed in the narrative as soon as I’m picking up that proposal. And I want to start flipping the pages and have even an element of suspense as to what happens next. What am I going to learn? What are you going to reveal? So things that feel really rote and boilerplate aren’t going to hook me, because like many other agents, I’m getting 10 of these a day. It all comes back to how you can make me feel this is something new and special.
Cindy: I’d love to know what your dream project is now. Are there a few books and authors that you’re on the lookout for?
Lucinda: I’m so happy you brought that up because we are pivoting slightly—or my tastes are pivoting. I’m someone who likes a challenge. So I’ve built a reputation in doing more self-help and business books, that blend of those categories—and that can still be exciting to me.
If there is an incredible business story or entrepreneur, as an entrepreneur myself, I identify with that; so if you’ve taken some crazy journey to reach a level of success and you have takeaways for other entrepreneurs, that’s interesting to me, especially if it feels like it hasn’t been said before in quite the way that you’re saying it. But I think what I’m most looking for is really great writing. I think we’re now in the age, especially with the pandemic, of clickbait, news bites, and everything being short and punchy grabbing for our attention. If I’m going to be reading a book, I want it to really feel like I’m learning something and it’s touching me on a deep level, which is going to begin with the literary quality and the author’s style of writing. So I’m looking for things by journalists, more narratives, memoirs, and really people who bring great writing to the table. Then we can help with the idea and the platform, if it doesn’t already exist in the proposal. If the idea and the writing are terrific enough, an audience will come out for that book. And I think publishers are thinking in the same way.
Watch the full interview below, where you can also learn what Lucinda is most interested in seeing in her inbox.
Dr. Cindy Childress is the founder of Childress Communication, and a ghostwriter and book editor for entrepreneurs. You can learn more about Cindy on her website.