We all know that old adage, right? That it’s easier to find a book publisher than to sign with a literary agent. And, well, it’s true!
So why are some writers successful, and others left adrift? What is the secret sauce to how to find a literary agent?
Mark Malatesta, former book agent turned author coach and consultant, reveals how to become a bestselling author, whether you write fiction, nonfiction, or children’s books
Authors Mark has worked with during his publishing career have gotten 6-figure book deals and been on bestseller lists such as the New York Times. They’ve had their work optioned for TV, stage, and feature film with companies such as Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks. They’ve won countless awards. And they’ve had their work licensed in more than 40 countries, resulting in millions of books sold.
So let’s see what he can teach us.
This is an interesting middle business in the publishing world, and not one I’d have thought of! I didn’t even know it existed until one of my writers went through your process.
What motivated you to start this? Terrible query letters? Did you see a need?
Some say the publishing industry has “evolved” to the point that you now need an agent to get an agent. In other words, in the “old days,” there were no agents. Authors simply pitched publishers directly. Now, all the major publishers, with few exceptions, only accept submissions from agents. The more successful an editor working for a publisher is, the more likely that editor only (or primarily) accepts submissions from successful agents they trust. Agents they believe aren’t going to waste their time with poor quality work.
And, since the most successful agents get as many as 10-15,000 submissions per year from authors, it’s smart for authors who understand the above to do all they can to increase their odds of getting an agent (I have an article that talks about the odds of getting an agent here).
There are many things authors can do to increase their chances. Two of the most common are hiring an editor and/or hiring a coach/consultant as myself who helps authors improve their pitch materials, platform, etc. and choose the right/best agents.
Getting writers agented is so difficult these days, and you’re quite successful. What do you attribute that to?
One specific thing or a comprehensive approach?
Or is it working with writers who are “teachable”?
Or something else?
All the above. After I stopped being an agent and started this new venture, in 2011, to help authors get agents, I had no idea how well it would work. Or, if it would work. Meaning, would authors see the value of it, and, equally important, could I be consistently successful enough to make it a working business? My initial goal was to see if I could help 100 authors get agents during my first ten years. I’m thrilled to say that I’m now approaching that ten-year mark and I’ve helped 234 authors get offers from literary agents and/or traditional publishers. Many of those authors are featured on my website. I don’t know of any other coach or consultant who has a dozen success stories helping authors get agents. That’s partly because I try to work with authors who are capable writers, committed, and coachable. That’s half the battle. The other half is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the various things one can/should talk about in a query letter. I talk about that in depth at here.
I’ve never understood other people who promise to help an author revise/improve a query letter, when all they do is look at the person’s existing query. In other words, the only way to do an excellent job helping someone improve their query letter is to also review their synopsis and ask them a lot of questions first. Questions about them as well as their book, genre, target market, comparable titles, and marketing possibilities. Granted, authors don’t always (at least initially) have great answers to those questions. But good coaching involves trying to help authors see how to come up with better answers to those questions, and it’s about presenting that information in a query letter in a way that’s the clearest, most concise, and compelling. The end result is agents having a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what the author’s work is like, so they can make a more informed decision instead of incorrect assumptions. And, when done well, the agents are more likely to trust the author as a professional, a good writer, and a good prospective promotional partner.
The good news about all the above is that many authors who’ve written books worthy of publication can increase their odds of having their books read and seriously considered if they simply present their books and themselves in the best way. It’s not easy.
In fact, I tell every author I speak with that it’s brutally hard, that most authors don’t get agents, and that authors shouldn’t “bank” on getting an agent and a six-figure deal. But, based on my track record, it’s indisputable at this point that there are things authors can do to increase their odds significantly. They can also do so at no cost by simply using the free resources on our websites. And, for those who want to invest in 1-on-1 coaching with me or someone else, they can consider that as well.
Yours is also an involved process. Can you walk us through the highlights? Anything you’d like to share here would be great.
In addition to my no-cost resources referenced earlier, I only offer two things via coaching. The first is what I call an Introductory Coaching Call. Prior to getting on the phone (or Skype for authors outside the U.S.), authors fill out a detailed questionnaire that many have said is as valuable as the call itself. In other words, the questions are designed to help authors see, more deeply, where they’re strong and where they’re weak. And, the questionnaire helps authors see where they need to focus to improve their position with agents. Then, during the call, I talk fast and literally do 95% of the talking, if the author lets me, so I can share as many actionable strategies and tips as possible during our time, working off the assumption I won’t be talking to the person again in the future. That’s because I only suggest authors I believe have the best chance at getting an agent consider doing more with me in longer-term coaching.
I also record the intro call for the author so they can review it again later, to capture everything they weren’t able to capture the first time. Some of what I share with authors during an intro call is the same for everyone, as there are some important things that everyone needs to know. However, as you can imagine, I also, when possible, adapt what my experience says is the best strategy generally, to the specifics of each author’s individual situation. That’s the point of coaching.
You can only take someone so far via one-way teaching such as articles, audio training, etc. My long-term coaching is no different. It’s simply an opportunity for an author to go further with me, doing more things and at a higher level that are related to the topics we covered during the intro call.
Some things vary for specific genres, most notably the greater need for nonfiction authors to have a strong profile or platform. But, other than that, most authors of most genres essentially need the same things: the best writing, pitch materials, strategy, list of agents, and mindset needed to give them a competitive advantage.
We all know how drastically publishing has changed. The big 5 have just become the big 4 publishers.
What are the effects you’ve seen?
Has this changed how you do things?
Has it changed the queries your writers send?
I’ve worked on and off in the publishing industry, in different capacities, for approximately twenty years. The entire time, I’ve heard agents and authors talk about how hard it is and how one day the big publishers are going to disappear. They’re not. And, yes, it’s hard to get a top agent, publisher, and book deal. But my experience says it’s always been hard. So, that’s my default setting mentally. I tell my clients, “If I’ve had the success I’ve had and I’m still paranoid about how hard it might be for us to get you an agent, you should be paranoid about how hard it might be for us to get you and agent.”
My biggest changes re: how I coach have nothing to do with how the publishing industry has changed. Instead, it has to do with getting more confident and direct. In other words, when I started this coaching approximately nine years ago, I wouldn’t have been so blunt about the fact that an author should think and acknowledge, from the start, that they might query hundreds or many hundreds of agents and not get an offer. Or that they might have to query that many to get an offer. Now I know, planting that reality seed early helps authors approach the process in a way that makes it more likely they’ll send out more queries before they quit, and it increases the likelihood they’ll have an easier time mentally and emotionally.
In that sense, I’ve gotten better at getting my clients to send out more queries before they quit.
I tell authors, “That’s one of the few things we have control over, so let’s make sure you don’t fail to get an agent because you left some agents unqueried.
However, the continued consolidation of large publishers hasn’t changed what makes a great query or pitch. The only thing that’s really changed over the last two or few decades, in my view, is that major publishers do expect aspiring authors, especially nonfiction authors, to communicate more willingness and ability to help promote their books. That has nothing to do with the consolidation of publishers, but it’s a trend worth noting.
The truism holds that it’s easier to sell nonfiction. What has been your experience in getting fiction writers agented?
Generally, I agree. Nonfiction is easier to get agented and published for two reasons. First, there’s less competition.
In other words, there are a lot more authors trying to publish the next big mystery, thriller, or romance novel than there are authors trying to publish a book about innovation or any other nonfiction book topic an author might write about.
And, for most nonfiction books, there are usually many more ways the author and publisher can promote a book.
For example, if I decided tomorrow to write a book for people thinking about writing a book, a publisher might think to promote that book via places where writers gather (such as writers conferences; writers groups, organizations, and associations; writer podcasts; writer websites and blogs; writer magazines, newsletters, etc.), and they might target some of the above but with variations that would allow them to reach executives and entrepreneurs who might be interested in writing book to promote their businesses, seniors who might be interested in writing their memoirs, etc.
When compared to the outlets available to promote or market any particular type of fiction, one can make a case that there are far less options and far more competition.
What are the main misconception most writers have about querying and getting an agent? I.e., what issues come up time and time again, or seem somewhat universal?
I love this one. It’s important. First, authors tend to think it’s all about the book or that it should be. What’s in a book is an important part of a pitch, but it’s equally advantageous to speak intelligently about how one’s work is similar and different compared to other titles. How authors speak about themselves is another great opportunity.
Agents don’t represent books; they represent authors.
Second, authors usually send out far fewer submissions to agents than they should before they quit. But, once you have the best manuscript and pitch materials you can put together, why wouldn’t you commit to query every agent who might be interested in your work, before giving up? One reason is it’s easy to second-guess yourself, your book, or your pitch materials. That’s why working with an editor and/or pitch coach can be a big help. It’s easier to power through lots of submissions if/when you know the material you’re putting out there is the best it can be. At that point, it becomes, at least in part, a numbers game.
Querying is such a tough slog for most writers (okay, pretty much everybody hates it!), and it’s so easy to get discouraged. Sometimes it takes hundreds of queries to get one response.
What do you tell your writers to keep them motivated? To keep them sending out queries?
I could write a book in answer to this one. Some of the most important things are simple, in a sense, but I know from experience that hearing them can make the difference.
The most important is remembering that as long as there are unqueried agents remaining, it can still happen, regardless how many queries you’ve sent.
I’ve seen it many times in the eleventh hour, an author getting an offer when there’s little hope left and very few agents left. It’s easier to tell my coaching clients the above, because I only work with authors I genuinely know, based on my experience, have a real chance. But, even for them, it can be understandably difficult to keep believing and keep going after (sometimes) many hundreds of queries and rejections.
Conversely, how does a writer know when it’s truly time to quit querying? I.e., when do you wave the white towel and accept it? Or, is there ever that time?
Per the previous question, I do all I can to inspire and motivate authors to not quit until they’ve queried every agent who might be interested. If someone gets to that point and they have another book in them, they can/should consider sending out submissions for that book as well. If the author doesn’t have another book, or if they don’t have the stomach to get their hopes up and apply what they learned the first time around to querying their next book, I suggest they go directly to legitimate small- and medium-size publishers that don’t charge fees and don’t require agents. Some of those publishers have bestselling authors and/or books that have sold more than 25,000 copies. An author’s chances of achieving that kind of success are better with a major publisher, but, if/when they’ve been unable to get an agent, those small- and medium-size publishers can start looking more attractive. Better than paying a vanity press, self-publishing, or lining your bird cage with your manuscript.
What is the one thing you would tell writers to focus on in order to find an agent, and/or to survive in this business?
Get educated and get help. The smartest and most successful people in all areas of life (business, sports, relationships, etc.) know they can’t possibly figure out on their own how to excel at everything they want to be good at in life.
And, even if they could, it’s wise to take advantage of proven insider information and strategies that will save time and headaches. And, if your writing is very important to you, it makes that much more sense to get help. Even if you get support and do everything within your ability to get a top literary agent, publisher, and book deal, you might not make it. I know that doesn’t sound like good marketing or sales copy, but it’s the unvarnished truth. Acknowledging that fact and using it as motivation to get help is the best first step toward success. And, for those on a budget or with no budget, simply take advantage of free resources like my FAQ with answers to the 50 questions I’m most frequently asked, where, of course, you can see my answers…and post your questions. You should also click here to become a member our community at The Bestselling Author. It doesn’t cost anything. And, as soon as you enter your first name and email address, you’ll get instant access to The Directory of Literary Agents, our audio and PDF training library, and many other resources.
*In many respects, getting published isn’t luck…it’s a decision. So, to every aspiring writer, decide today to do all you can to make it happen.*
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