Stop. You’ve skipped some steps.
Before you can even think about contacting an agent, there are several important questions you must be able to answer. Why? Because, if an agent calls you, she or he will ask them. (I know this from painful personal experience.) You must be prepared to reply with compelling answers.
This short quiz will tell you if you are ready to take on the publishing industry.
1) Have you written a one-page summary of your novel? Do you have a “hook,” an intriguing sentence that will draw your audience into your story, for example: “A man wakes up one morning to discover that every single person he knows is trying to kill him – even his wife and kids – and he has no idea why.” Can you keep your agent’s full attention for three minutes while you describe (verbally, or in writing) the rest of the story? In short, if your agent asks, “What’s your book about?” can you sell it? 20 points
2) Have you researched your market? Who will buy your book? Agents rely on numbers because publishers do, so you have to be able to say, with accuracy, how many people are in your demographic. (Hint, “adults” is not a demographic. College-educated, married women with small children is a demographic.) 20 points
3) What is your competition? Your agent will want to know the titles, authors, publishers, and year of publication of other popular books in your genre (or field). There are two reasons for identifying your competition: 1) You have to prove that there is already a market for your kind of book, and 2) You have to prove that your book is better or different. (Give specifics.) 20 points
4) How will you reach your market? Do you have a platform? You may think that marketing is the job of your publisher, and it is. But agents must convince editors that not only is there a market for your book, but that you have the credentials, and visibility, to promote your work. In the old days, BI (before internet), this was done through book tours, signings, and talks. You can still do those things, but what agents really want to know is how many people are reading your blog/website. (Publishers are fond of the number 10,000, so it helps to be able to say, “My blog/website has had 10,000+ page views.”) If you have published other books, how many were sold? Do people in your field or niche know who you are? Do you have any famous contacts who can give you endorsements? 20 points
5) Do you, in Michael Larsen’s immortal words, “harbor a consuming lust for success,” and are you “irresistibly driven to do whatever it takes to make your books sell?” Your agent will expect you go the whole nine yards, and to comply – eagerly – with whatever sports metaphors your publisher will hurl at you. This is no time to be a shrinking violet. You are going to have to step up to the mat and bat a thousand. 20 points
If you scored a hundred, congratulations! You are ready to contact an agent. If you answered, “I don't need to do that,” “I can't do that,” or “Huh?,” to any of the above questions, then get to work!
How to score 100 on the test
1) Fortunately, there are a many good books about pitches and proposals. I recommend Michael Larsen's How to Write a Book Proposal. (This book is also useful for fiction.) Larsen really understands the publishing industry, so you can rely on his advice. To get the hang of preparing pitches, start with a pitch for a book you haven't written. If your one-sentence hook can make your friends want to read the book, then move on to pitching your own work.
2) To determine your demographic, check the Alexa ranking for every well-trafficked website related to your genre or field. Alexa includes a demographic profile for high-ranking sites. Identify all the organizations or groups that might have an interest in your topic. What is their membership?
3) Amazon is one of the greatest research tools of all time. To identify your competition, look up the bestsellers in your genre. What books are on the top 100 lists? Who publishes them? Use the “look inside” feature to compare those books with your own. (Google Books also allows generous previews.)
4) Building a platform takes time. But you can accumulate 10,000 page views in a few months if you blog about interesting topics – and if you do some social networking. Advertise your blog posts on BookBlogs, Goodreads, and LinkedIn groups. You can precycle your posts on blogs that get more traffic than yours. You can recycle your blogs, as well, on sites that accept reprints. Look up the "Top 50 blogs" in your genre on Blogrank and read them! High-ranking blogs invariably contain lots of insider tips, trends, news, and industry gossip.
5) Getting writers to harbor a consuming lust for anything other than writing is a tall order. Writers are an idealistic lot, deeply committed to exploring the human soul while crouched in front of a keyboard in a dim, unheated garret. Before you contact an agent, you need to go through a metamorphosis – from idealistic writer, to practical businessman. When your agent asks if you will do anything to sell your book (mine did), there can only be one answer.
This article first appeared on Writer Unboxed on May 30, 2013.