Literary agents, query letters, and book proposals

book proposals

Our second excerpt from “How to Become an Author: Your Complete Guide” gets into some detail about self editing, literary agents, query letters, and book proposals for the author looking to land a publishing deal.

Don’t quit your day job

I didn’t become a full-time freelance author until I had written and published nearly 90 books. I had been advised by a veteran author that my freelance income ought to be around three times what I made at my job before I considered going solo.

I was stunned. Why so much more?

He started listing everything I would have to pay for on my own. Insurance, retirement, all my benefits. I had always been careful to separate my writing and my office work, but during my off hours on business trips I might do some research.

No more. Any travel would be on me.

When I was writing while working and my three sons were young, I came home each day, ate dinner with my family, spent quantity (not just quality) time with my boys and my wife, and then blocked off 9:00 to 12:00 each night to write.

I never brought home work from the office or wrote while the kids were awake. That way I never wrote with guilt, and those three hours each night became some of the most productive of my life.

Why? Because even though I’m a morning person and anything but a night person, I was forced to redeem the time. I didn’t have the luxury of procrastinating. I knocked out several books a year during that season.

Your day job doesn’t have to keep you from writing your book. You might not like this, but I recommend you keep it and spend your after-hours time writing your book. Why?

You’ll have steady income – one less thing to worry about – while trying to build your writing career.
The structure will force you to be more productive with fewer hours.

So, yes, you can have your cake and eat it too, without sacrificing time with family. You lose three hours per night for what, TV? How big a sacrifice is that for your writing dream? How badly do you want to become an author?

Become a ferocious self-editor

This has the power to determine whether your book either makes a huge splash with readers and publishers or slides into the editor’s reject pile after the first page or two.

Get serious about self-editing.

Editors know from the first page whether your manuscript is publishable. I know that doesn’t sound fair or even logical. You’re thinking, It took me months, maybe years, to write hundreds of pages and you didn’t even get to the good stuff!

How could they do that to you? Why did they?

First, the good stuff ought to be in the first two paragraphs. And if an editor sees 15 adjustments he needs to make on the first two pages, he knows the cost of editing 300-400 pages of the same would eat whatever profits he could hope for before even printing the book.

To avoid the dreaded “Thank you, but this doesn’t meet a current need” letter, your manuscript must be lean and mean, besides being a great story and a great read.

How to get an agent

Your first step in trying to land a traditional publishing deal should be to land an agent, which can be just as difficult. As it should be.

There will seem a dichotomy here, because you are likely writing for altruistic reasons – you have a mission, a passion, a message, something burning inside that you must share with the world. Yet agents or publishers will appear to base their decisions solely on the bottom line.

If they see sales potential, they will accept it; if they don’t they won’t.

But don’t despair. That doesn’t mean they don’t share your passion. It simply means they must make a profit to stay in business – even faith-based publishers who are all about ministry.

Though it’s hard to find an agent, it is possible to get traditionally published without one. Most will not consider unsolicited manuscripts, though some will.

Two things you may be asked for – and which some writers struggle with – are a query letter and a book proposal.

Query letter

This is an easy way to reach out to an agent, but many prefer more, like a full proposal, which we’ll get to. Most agents prefer submissions to be electronically delivered as an attachment, not as part of the body of your email. Avoid snail mail.

A query letter is just what its name implies – it queries the interest of the agent in your book idea. So make it stimulating and intriguing. Remember, you’re selling your book to the agent. Make your query letter crisp and short. The shorter (while saying what you need to say) the better.

Four essential parts of an effective query letter:

1. Your elevator pitch. This is a summary of your book’s premise, told in the time it would take for the editor to reach his floor if you happened to find yourself in the same elevator. So it has to be fast and convincing.

Here’s the elevator pitch for my very first novel:
“A judge tries a man for a murder the judge committed.”

It worked.

2. Your synopsis. In a paragraph, tell what your nonfiction book is about and what you hope to accomplish with it. Or tell the basic premise of the plot of your novel. The synopsis would naturally go beyond the elevator pitch and tell what happens and how things turn out. (Note: Almost any plot, when reduced to a one- or two-paragraph synopsis, sounds ridiculous.)

3. Who your target audience is and why they’ll enjoy your book. Agents need to believe they can sell it before they’ll ask you for more. Help them envision how to pitch it to publishers, but be careful not to oversell. They know the business better than you do and will not be swayed by your assurance that “everyone will find this amazing.”

You can say that your audiences have been enthusiastic or that beta readers have expressed excitement.

4. Your personal information. Sell the agent on yourself. What qualifies you to write this book? What else have you published? What kind of tribe have you built? Where can they read your blog?

Of course you’re including all your contact information.

Other query letter tips:

  • Keep it to one page, single-spaced, and 12 pt. sans serif type.
  • Don’t sell too hard – let your premise speak for itself.
  • Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to a T.
  • Proof your letter before sending. Any typo on such a short document makes you look like an amateur.

Book proposal

You’ll find that for most agents, a book proposal is the most important document they want to see. Some want only this. Succinctly and completely describe the details of your idea and make them want to read your manuscript in its entirety as soon as it’s ready. Leave nothing out. For nonfiction, include every major issue you’ll cover and the basics of what you’ll say about it. For fiction, rough out the entire plot in a few pages.

With a proposal, your query letter becomes a cover letter.

Resist the urge to write a long cover letter. Allow your proposal to do the heavy lifting.

Proposals can contain any number of possible components, such as:

  • Premise
  • Elevator pitch
  • Overview
  • Target audience
  • Chapter synopses
  • Marketing ideas
  • Endorsements
  • Your analysis of competing books, and where yours fits
  • Up to three sample chapters

More book proposal tips:

  • Tell why you think your book can succeed.
  • Every page in your proposal should make them want to flip to the next page.
  • Despite that a proposal is longer, keep it tight and terse, as short as you can without cutting crucial information.
  • Every word should be designed to pique an agent’s interest, your goal being to be asked to send your entire manuscript.

Which should you choose, query or proposal?

The competition is so fierce these days, I would lean toward a full proposal almost every time. The only instances when I might fire off a query would be if an incredible opportunity fell in my lap and I thought an agent could help me jump on it before I had time to craft a proposal.

For instance, if a major celebrity wanted help with a book and chose you to write it, a fast letter to an agent might get a quick response. Otherwise, take the time to put together a professional proposal that shows an agent you know how to work and can be thorough.

But know this: If you spark an agent’s interest, they will immediately ask for more information. So you’ll need a proposal at some point. Keep that in mind and be ready to get busy!

This post was adapted and excerpted from How to Become an Author: Your Complete Guide by Jerry Jenkins. Reprinted with permission.

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Hybrid Author Game 


Related Posts
Three Things To Do Before You Write A Book
Nine Things Every Book Proposal Needs
15 Attributes Of An Effective Query Letter
How To Approach Publishing As A Business, Part 2: The Importance Of A Book Proposal
The Dreaded Competitive Title Analysis


  1. 90 books are a great deal, really productive to his dream to fulfill.
    I should like to thank Jerry Jenkins for your great tips for the writing of a book, I even like books short and crisp.

  2. Thanks for the advice Jerry!
    I really appreciate hearing how hard you worked to make it in the industry. 3 hours a night after working full time shows dedication, and how much you practiced your craft.
    “income ought to be around three times what I made at my job before I considered going solo” What a lofty goal. Guess I better get to writing…


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