Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Writer’s Dream: An Agent and a Deal—Part I

The dream of every writer has always been: get a New York lit agent and then get a publishing deal through that agent. The city matters; a lit agent in Kansas City just doesn’t have the same gravitas as a New York City lit agent—sorry. Anyway, this is the brass ring. Getting an agent and a publishing deal makes you an author, not just a writer. I have always held this dream for myself; like anyone, like everyone, who writes.

Would you be surprised if I told you I had both pieces of this dream in the palm of my hand … and then walked away? Would you be shocked and appalled if I told you I found a great agent who told me she loved my book proposal, thought I was brilliant, and felt super-confident she could sell my book—fast—and I still walked away? I can only tell you that you would be no more surprised, shocked and appalled than me, because I walked; I walked.

How the walking happened; the process by which I came to this crazy-ass decision (which I am very pleased with now, by the way) is a process worth sharing. It is worth sharing because I think thousands of writers are facing the same circumstances which were offered to me, and that my case is now more the rule than the exception. A year ago there would have been no debate, I would have gone the way of the dream. What a difference a year makes.

So, I asked a friend, who is a New York Times bestselling author, for an intro to an agent, or at least a recommendation for agents that might be interested in my book proposal, How Not to Write Your Self-Published Novel: The Missing Manual for Writers & Storytellers. My friend was Johnny-on-the-spot and referred me to her husband’s agent; a wonderful New York agent with a small but energetic lit agency.

I submitted my e-query; I followed all the detailed requirements for the submission process; I was sure to mention in the first line of the query email that I knew my friend and her husband. I hit “send” and waited with baited breath.

In short order I got a reply: the agent saw my friend’s referral in the first line of the email and decided she should read it. Normally, she told me, they just deleted queries from the queue, there’s just not enough time to read them. But, because I was smart and dropped some names in the first line, I made the cut and she read my email. And, she loved the idea of the book.

We began talking immediately and she enthusiastically asked for my proposal. She even told me that she knew several publishers that might be interested in my project. One, in fact, had contacted her an hour before we talked describing to her the kind of project he was looking for, and what he was describing was essentially my book. What luck! He also described the kind of author platform any prospective author might need to have in place in order to strike a deal with his company. The platform was critical. The platform was key. The platform, as I came to discover, was more important than the book! My very experienced friend told me that all this was a great sign; agents don’t engage a writer in this way unless they are strongly considering making a deal. Yay for me!

As I waited for a response on the proposal, I chewed on the idea that the only reason I was even talking to an agent was that I had name-dropped and had a network. If I hadn’t written that my e-query was a referral, I would have been deleted and consigned to email oblivion. How crazy was that? What a crap-shoot this process really ends up being. Nevertheless, in about two weeks, the agent responded back and reported that she liked the proposal, thought I was brilliant and was excited about the idea of the book and its prospects. There were just a few cosmetic changes she wanted to make to the proposal to make it attractive to editors. Whew, so far so good.

And then the bombshell, and I paraphrase: “I can sell the book, but I can’t sell you.”

The dream was slipping fast. I had to do a quick reality check: she loved the book, she thought I was giving great advice to writers, she felt confident she could find a publisher, but the weak link was the author (ME). Huh?! What was wrong with this picture? Well, what's wrong was that my author’s platform was too weak. I didn’t have the numbers. “But,” she said, “Let’s cobble together what we can and see what I can do.” Meaning, let’s start spinning your bio and platform infrastructure to try to generate some confidence in your ability to market the book and create a readership. The good news was she was still in my corner, willing to work with me and get creative on selling me to the publishers. The bad news was I had to get creative to sell me to the publishers.

So, we hunkered down to give the Emperor some new clothes. And I began wondering about the process: it’s not enough to have a good book; it’s not enough to be qualified to write that book; it’s not enough to have a good agent if you are a first-time author; you better have a platform, and not just any platform, you better have a strong one. But, what does that mean? How does that look? How do you know you’re ready and can dance the dance with a publisher? The dream, it seemed, now had three pieces: an agent, a publisher and an author platform.

It was at this point my thoughts began to move into the unthinkable; and I began dancing with the publishing devil. Oh, what a difference a year makes. Stay tuned for part two and the exciting conclusion!

Now, go be brilliant.


AlvaradoFrazier said...

Alas, that's the deal now. I have found JA Konrath Kristen Lamb and
Rachel Gardner plus a few others who have great blogs on social media and platforms.
Start the author platform education. Best of luck and opportunities

Jeff Lyons said...


Yes, I love Konrath and Lamb (sounds like a law firm). Platform education is so important... wait for part II of the blog... I break down all the numbers and show how I got from the dream to reality. Thanx for comment.


Colleen Chen said...

Dang it, how could you leave us hanging?

Like all your other posts, this is very interesting. But I wish you would post more often.

Jeff Lyons said...


Wow... a fan! Thanx so much for the nice comment. I know I'm supposed to post at least a couple times per week... at least that's what the blog marketing pundits tell me. But, I'll take your comment on advisement. Thanx again.