Gathering of the Ghosts – January 22, 2024

Straight Talk for New Authors: Why It’s So Hard to Get an Agent

Welcome back to Ghostwriting Confidential, a series we launched in 2021 to educate prospective authors about what it is that ghostwriters do (and don’t do). Our goal: to define, demystify, and, to the extent possible, de-risk-ify the process and ultimately maximize the payoff from working with a ghostwriter.

Since then, it’s become clear to us that a lot of confusion and misunderstanding remains about some of the key aspects of hiring and collaborating with a ghost. So, we thought it was time to revive the series to better set author expectations under the banner of Straight Talk for New Authors. In this edition, we’ll address the real deal on why it’s so difficult to find an agent.

Here’s a question we get all the time from prospective authors: How do I get an agent?

And here’s the honest, sobering answer: it’s a hard row to hoe. Indeed, for most first-time authors, seeking out a literary agent is a time-consuming, challenging process with low odds of success.

Why is that the case? It’s a matter of demand and supply. The number of people globally seeking to become authors is exploding thanks in large part to the democratization of publishing (which has made it easier than ever to birth a book) and to the growing premium being placed on being a thought leader (which is incenting tens of thousands to have a book as a credential). This means agents are being flooded with submissions in record numbers. 

At the same time, because of the ongoing consolidation among major publishers in recent years, there are fewer slots than ever on publishers’ lists and more focus on projects that are sure or at least surer things, all of which forces agents to be extremely selective in what they take on.

Even if you get in the door with an agent, it still doesn’t mean they can move forward with representing you and your project. As president and CEO of Serendipity Literary Agency Regina Brooks recently told us at Gathering of the Ghosts, “I see good book proposals, but a good proposal is not necessarily a salable proposal.”

To truly understand this process, it is essential for new authors to put themselves in the shoes of today’s agents. Start with the fact that agents act as a proxy for publishers. Publishers want to make money, and they feel the best way to do that is by publishing books that are the most likely to generate sales. According to the agents we deal with, your ability as an author to meet that sales benchmark is primarily based on three factors: 

  1. The author’s “platform.” This amorphous idea generally comes down to the size of your social media following (at minimum, around 10,000 followers), email newsletter subscribers, and/or your history of appearing on television and radio (and, ideally,  connections at those platforms that could lead to future appearances). Publishers will make a cumulative assessment of the viability of your platforms; there’s no standard formula for a number. 
  2. How bankable the book’s concept is. Your book has to be familiar enough that a publisher can place it in a known genre and create a clear marketing campaign around it but distinctive enough that it doesn’t feel like an iteration of an existing book.
  3. The quality of writing. Does your storytelling blow them away? And can it shine through even in a proposal? 

If you don’t have a large platform, you need to have a bankable concept and compelling prose. And most potential authors find it really difficult to generate either, let alone both, of those things, making it extra challenging to attract an agent in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace.

Of course, if you believe your book meets these core criteria and pursuing an agent is worth your time, we have some hard-won advice for how to maximize the chances of securing representation:

  1. Do your research. First, pitch agents with a track record of publishing books in your genre; don’t spam agents who aren’t right for your book in an attempt to play a numbers game. Once you’ve identified these agents, research the landscape of comparative titles (or books similar to yours) that have been published and sold well in the past three to five years. This will be essential information to present to an agent to convince them your book is salable.
  2. Try to get a direct introduction. If at all possible, avoid the slush pile. Work your contacts to try to find someone who can make a direct introduction to an agent; a direct referral is far more likely to result in an agent actually looking at your work.
  3. Be ready to demonstrate your platform. Especially if you don’t have a large social media following or email list, identify the tools you have available to you to market and promote your book that you can leverage to create a higher floor for sales potential.
  4. Engage an editorial professional. The book proposals that attract agents and are ultimately bought by the “Big Five” publishers are the most detailed and attention-grabbing. Included in those details? Your business plan for selling your book. Agents and, in turn, publishers are looking for authors who they believe can sell at least 10,000 copies of their book through their own channels. That’s why, whether you find them through Gotham or elsewhere, it’s a good idea to work with a skilled writer with a track record of creating proposals in your genre that have attracted agents and publishers alike. 

But probably the best counsel we can provide, before starting an agent search, is to first think long and hard about whether your book is commercially viable. . . . or if traditional publishing is even the right solution for your project. It may well be that some form of self-publishing – whether it’s a low-cost DIY approach or a premium hybrid publishing partner – will serve your interests just as well or, frankly, even better. That’s especially true for the rapidly growing class of thought leadership authors we’re working with.

As Naren Aryal, CEO and publisher of the hybrid-publishing company Amplify Publishing Group, told us at our Gathering of the Ghosts convention in January, alternative publishers offer many benefits and advantages, including an author’s ability to “retain creative control, retain intellectual property rights, get to market in many cases faster than you might otherwise, and have a real say in the process.” To learn more about hybrid publishing, check out the January edition of our Words to the Wise newsletter

Bottom line: Go into the agent search process with your eyes open and your goals clear.

Stay tuned for upcoming installments of Ghostwriting Confidential: Straight Talk for New Authors to learn more about what to expect from this process. 

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