[Above: Literary agent Sarah Jane Freymann talks to Paris American Academy students about the publishing business.]
One of my most intriguing guest speakers at the Paris American Academy writing workshop last month was my literary agent, Sarah Jane Freymann, who gave an hour-long talk on the business side of book writing. Below is an outline of her tips (compiled with the help of PAA students Carol Bender and Joyce Hardy-McDonald) regarding finding an agent for a travel book:
Why you need an agent
Getting an agent
- These days, book editors want to deal initially with agents, not authors. An agent is your best intermediary to the book world.
- A committed agent will work to help you through the legal aspect of contracts, and help manage your career.
- Your agent will be your initial editor, as you prepare your book proposal.
- Rarely do agents send a work to publishers before they guide extensive revision and rewriting. Writers working with agents must be willing to rewrite until the agent says “go”.
The art of writing effective pitch letters and book proposals
- It’s better not to try and get an agent over the Internet — and never pay a reading fee. Legitimate agents don’t ask for payment in reading book queries.
- Books such as the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents list literary agents by category, and are a worthwhile investment.
- Don’t approach an agent that doesn’t represent your genre of writing. A trick to finding an appropriate travel-literature agent is to go to a bookstore or library and browse through your favorite travel books. Authors tend to thank their agents in the acknowledgements, and a little bit of follow-up research will usually yield contact information.
- Do your research and call the agent by name when sending a query (never start a query letter with “Dear Sirs”).
Remember: It’s about the writing
- It’s preferable not to pitch an agent by email. Mail your pitch as hard copy — and use good-quality paper.
- Don’t send a “rough draft” pitch letter; hone it until you’re absolutely sure it’s perfect. Out of hundreds of proposals agents receive each week, yours must shine — it should be inviting and exciting while still being courteous. Capture the agent’s imagination, but don’t be gimmicky. Be intriguing without being “cute”.
- An effective pitch letter is brief — one page — and to the point. Tell the agent who you are, why you’re writing what you’re writing (including what authority, if any, you have on that topic), and how you can market your book.
- Simultaneous submissions are fine, and it’s OK to play the numbers game. It’s not uncommon to send queries out to up to 25 agents at once. Remember to include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope).
- If an agent expresses interest in your book project, send her a more detailed book proposal, including three sample chapters, a chapter outline, and an overview. The overview should be well written, informative, and succinct, like a New York Times book review. [Note: While non-fiction is sold based on a proposal and sample chapters, fiction (especially for first-time authors) is generally sold based on the completed novel.]
- The book proposal, including sample chapters, is typically 15-30 pages long.
- Good writing is always the bottom line in attracting interest from agents and publishers. But good writing isn’t enough: Every book needs to transcend the experience it describes and tie in to the universal.
- This means you have to use storytelling to communicate your experience. Write from the heart, and let the reader share in your sense of discovery.