Literary Agent Jennifer Chen Tran Answers My Questions

Jennifer Chen TranLiterary agent Jennifer Chen Tran graciously answered my questions. Thank you Jen! These questions were asked with the nonfiction author in mind. However, I let her know that if she had information that might differ for a fiction author, I'd love to know that as well.

What is the first step an author needs to take to find a literary agent? There's not one right way to find a literary agent, different methods work for different people. Publications like Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents or Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents, are good resources to start with and they are updated annually. There's also agent spotlights in various trade publications. I also suggest talking to other writers you know or looking at the Acknowledgements section of books you enjoy reading. Take notes. Read the agent's bio and get a sense of the authors she or he represents. This will help you narrow down the right agents for you.

Does an author need a literary agent in order to get a traditional publisher? Yes, if you are talking about the Big Five publishers. Editors and publishers need literary agents to be the initial gatekeepers since there is so much volume in the literary world. We sift and sort through the bad so that the editors can see what's good or better than good. Unless you have a direct relationship with an editor or are super famous (read: celebrity), it's difficult to get a book deal with the Book Five. On the other hand, if the publisher is independent or medium-sized, you may or may not need a literary agent to get a traditional deal. It depends on many factors such as whether you are a debut author, the type of book you are writing (fiction vs. non-fiction), etc.

Does a literary agent expect the author to already have in place the following: website, blog, social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn? For non-fiction I would say it's more important than ever to have a social media presence. At a minimum, you should have a website and/ or blog and some social media presence, whether it's on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. In my humble opinion, it's better to have a website than nothing at all but try to use your name as part of the website name. Also, more is not always better. If you are terrible at Twitter for instance, don't force yourself to do it 'just because,' but do try to stay open-minded about social media and see it from the publisher's perspective--who wouldn't want to buy a book from an author with a built-in audience? Social media is just one way to measure potential audience engagement but it's becoming very important, especially to secure non-fiction deals.

How often should an author blog? I think an author should blog at least twice a month. That seems to be a solid number that is realistic and won't subject readers to attention fatigue.

Is a larger social media following (i.e. many followers on Twitter) a factor in whether a literary agent or publisher accepts an author's manuscript over another author who may have a smaller social media following? I don't think social media would be the deciding factor, at least for me. I look at the whole picture--the book has to be compelling, the author has to be professional and work well with agent feedback, and yes, they do have to have a social media following of some sort but many of my authors have less established platforms when I sign them and we work together to achieve the most realistic social media numbers in a certain amount of time before pitching to publishers. So no, I don't use social media as a tie-breaker but it is important. As for publishers, you will have to ask them, but I do know that they take social media seriously and that often that is the weakest link in a proposal--sometimes the social media numbers just aren't high enough to warrant a deal for a particular book--there are always exceptions though.

Is a book proposal necessary to get a literary agent? A publisher? Does a fiction author need a book proposal? At this point in my career, I will not offer representation for a non-fiction author if the author doesn't have some semblance of a book proposal. The proposal doesn't need to be perfect but the author does need to show substantial effort and a solid understanding of who the audience is for his or her book and what the competitive books are. That gives me a really good sense of whether the author 'gets' why the book is needed and also how to market it. I believe the same is required of most, if not all publishers of non-fiction--if you don't know how to market your own book, how can you expect the publisher to do all the heavy lifting? Fiction is sold on the strength of the manuscript, not a proposal, so no, for fiction a book proposal is not needed.

Does a book proposal need to have a section about social media marketing? Yes, absolutely. Ignore at your own peril.

Does a literary agent and a traditional publisher do marketing for the author? I've been told, "Most agents don't care whether you have a website, a blog or a social media platform". I think any literary agent that is invested in his or her author's career would be willing to brainstorm marketing and promotion ideas. But the more you bring to the table as an author, the better. In my view, publishing and publishing well requires you to have a big picture mentality and that includes marketing! Marketing doesn't always have to be expensive to produce results but you do need to be strategic and not put all your eggs in one basket. Remember, agents work on commission--our job is to get you the best deal for your investment but we do not and should not have to originate all of your marketing ideas. Remember, this is your book, why wouldn't you want to use all the tools available to market your book successively and get the word out?

The more successful authors are those that take an active role in promotion and marketing, not those who passively expect the agent and/ or editor and publisher to do everything for them. While it's true that publishers do help with marketing and promotion, some of the best ideas again, come from the author. Publishers are relying more and more on authors to have original ideas regarding marketing and promotion--they will help you build a plan based on the foundation you have provided. And I heartily disagree with whomever said that agents don't care whether you have a website, blog, etc.--even for fiction, you need to build your author brand and presence, and that includes being on the internet! If I can't find an author online, whether for fiction or non-fiction, I really hesitate, as an agent. So the short of it is that the answer is somewhere in between: you can't do nothing but you aren't expected to do everything if you have the right partnership with the right publisher.

Jennifer Chen Tran
Literary Agent
Bradford Literary 
@jenchentran

Doing It for Love and a Living: How an Agent Can Help You

Adapted from How to Get a Literary Agent by Michael Larsen. Reprinted by permission.

How a Literary Agent Can Help YouAn agent is

  • A mediator between you and the marketplace
  • A scout who knows what publishers are looking for
  • An editor who can provide guidance that will make your work more salable
  • A matchmaker who knows which editors and publishers to submit your book to, and just as important, which to avoid
  • A negotiator who hammers out the best contract
  • An advocate who helps answer questions and solve problems for the life of your book
  • A seller of subsidiary rights
  • An administrator who keeps track of income and paperwork
  • A rainmaker who may be able to get assignments from editors
  • A mentor about your writing and career
  • An oasis of encouragement

7 Things Agents Can Do That Writers Can’t

  1. By absorbing rejections and being a focal point for your business dealings, your agent helps free you to write.
  2. As continuing sources of manuscripts, agents have more clout with editors than writers.
  3. Your share of sub-rights income will be greater, and you will receive it sooner if your agent, rather than your publisher, handles them.
  4. Your agent enables you to avoid haggling about rights and money with your editor.
  5. Your agent can advise you about publicity and self-publishing and may offer these services.
  6. Editors may change jobs at any time, and publishers may change direction or ownership at any time, so your agent may be the only stable element in your career.
  7. The selling of your book deserves the same level of skill, care, knowledge, experience, passion, and perseverance that you dedicate to writing it. An agent can't write your book as well as you can; you can't sell it as well as an agent can.
Mike Larsen / Author,  Author Coach / michaellarsenauthorcoaching.com
Co-director, San Francisco Writers Conference:
A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community
www.sfwriters.org /laurie@sfwriters.org
San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Writing to Make a Difference
www.sfwritingforchange.org / laurie@sfwriters.org
1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109 / 415-673-0939

Publicist Joanne McCall on Literary Agents & Social Media

A great conversation ensued on a LinkedIn group when I posted on the topic of what literary agents expect from authors using social media based on what I wrote in a previous blog post.

There were over 40 comments on the post in the LinkedIn group. Many authors were not very happy that I said literary agents expect authors to have a solid social media presence if they wanted to get noticed.

  • If an author must do their own marketing, why should we pay a literary agent? Isn't it their job to market the book?
  • If an author needs to have their own marketing plan, what will the agent do for me? Isn't marketing supposed to be done by the traditional publisher?
  • Most agents don't care whether you have a website, a blog or a social media platform . . . because publishers have their own marketing departments.

There were many comments also from authors who do understand the need to have a solid social media presence.

  • If you want your book to shine above the rest, you need to put in the hours and do the leg work. The good news is social media is basically free. It just takes time & persistence. 
  • There are over 4,500,000 titles on Amazon. To get your book noticed, it must be excellent and have excellent marketing and promotion backing it along with social media marketing skills. This does not guarantee book sales, but it helps.
  • Agents need to have a strong pitch to publishers. Publishers spend little to promote books and authors unless it's expected to be a best seller. The author needs to show they can fill in the gap with social media and promotions.

I read an article by Jane Friedman (she has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry) where she states, "The most common problem leading to rejection: no author platform." She goes on to say, "An agent or editor is going to evaluate your visibility in the market, and will want to know the following:

  • The stats and analytics behind your online following, including all websites, blogs, social media accounts, e-mail newsletters, regular online writing gigs, podcasts, videos, etc.
  • Your offline following—speaking engagements, events, classes/teaching, city/regional presence, professional organization leadership roles and memberships, etc.
  • Your presence in traditional media (regular gigs, features, any coverage you’ve received, etc.)
  • Your network strength—reach to influencers or thought leaders, a prominent position at a major organization or business
  • Sales of past books or self-published works

Joanne McCall, publicist to literary agentsAll of this inspired me to reach out to Joanne McCall, who represents a group of New York literary agents. We had an extensive phone conversation on this topic. I asked these questions with the nonfiction author in mind and asked her if she had information that might differ for a fiction author to please share it. Joanne reminded me that all the information she provided is valid at this point in time. Things are always changing.

What is the first step an author needs to take to find a literary agent?

Joanne explained that it’s really a two-step process. First, before looking for the agent, start building your platform: social media and blogging, if it makes sense to have a blog for your book. Second, approach literary agents who deal in your genre. Some specialize in fiction versus nonfiction. Others might even just specialize in business books or health and wellness books. Do your research and find out exactly what each agent wants from you when you approach them. Joanne recommends Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents.

You’ll be sending a query letter to an agent and Joanne says, yes, you will get noticed more if you mention your marketing plan, including your social media plan, in your query letter. Most literary agents will look at your social media platforms even before they respond to your letter. Your query letter is sort of a short book proposal and this applies both to fiction and nonfiction. The difference is that with fiction your book is already written. With nonfiction, your book may not be completed. You may only have sample chapters or a Table of Contents when you send out your query letter.

Does an author need a literary agent to get a traditional publisher?

Joanne said it is possible to get a publisher without an agent, but not many do that. It’s better to have an agent since they have industry contacts and know what to look for. An agent can help you write a proposal that gets noticed. They also understand contracts and rights. If you don’t get a literary agent, she suggests you at least hire a lawyer who deals with literary contracts so you don’t give away things such as ebook rights. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction authors. For fiction authors to get media attention, most of your focus needs to be on reviews, unless you have a really strong nonfiction angle.

Does a literary agent expect the author to already have in place the following: website, blog, social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn?

Their job is not to get you on social media Joanne says. It already needs to be in place. Too many other authors are already embracing all of this and if you don’t, your book may not get noticed. There may be an exception. An agent might be willing to start without all of that if they really love your topic, for example, but as a general rule, they will reply to authors who already have those things in place versus ignoring those who don’t. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction authors.

The literary agent’s job is NOT to market your book. Their job is to find a publisher. 

Publishers will be looking at your social media platforms and numbers and these things need to be included in your book proposal. That doesn’t mean you have to be everywhere on social media. Joanne and I agree that you need to be where your market is and then go deep. Pick just one or two social media platforms and then really engage. Pick something you like. The main thing is to be consistent. Joanne says video can be very important. But if you hate it, then trying to force yourself to do it means you’ll probably not come across well and you will resent it.

How often should an author blog? Are book excerpts good blogs?

Joanne advises authors to be consistent. If you can blog three times a week, great. If not, then at least blog once a week – consistently. Don’t do it and then skip a couple of weeks.

Book excerpts can be good blog posts, particularly if you can show it causes engagement. This will show publishers that there’s already interest in your book.

Is a larger social media following a factor in whether a literary agent or publisher accepts an author's manuscript over another?

It used to be the norm that bigger numbers won. Since some authors are buying likes and followers, this doesn’t apply as much. Now they are looking more at engagement. Do your posts and messages engage people? Are they sharing your posts and commenting?

Joanne advises authors not to be too self-focused. Reframe your messages to show how others can benefit from what you are sharing. Don’t be afraid of sharing your competitor’s messages as well. She calls competitors “niche-mates”.

Is a book proposal necessary to get a literary agent?

No, but a query letter is necessary to find literary agents, and it should include some information on how you plan to market your book.

Is a book proposal necessary to get a publisher?

Yes, particularly for nonfiction authors. Even fiction authors should consider writing a book proposal to help define their target market, know what the competition is, help determine what you need to write, and to plan your marketing and book promotion.

Does a book proposal need to have a section about social media marketing?

Yes. According to Joanne the marketing section is the biggest part of the book proposal – both in its importance and in the number of pages it takes. The marketing section shows the publisher how you’re going to help sell your book. Are you going to speak, do webinars, hire a publicist and a social media expert to amplify your efforts? An agent and publisher may have a catalog of books and may include your book in it. Publishers may market your book on various media outlets and on their website. But most of their marketing dollars will be spent on books that are expected to do the best. You can help them see your book will sell by showing them what your marketing efforts will include. 

Joanne McCall is a media insider, veteran publicist, and adventure athlete who knows how to capture the attention of national, regional and local media for authors. On a first-name basis with hundreds of top-rung producers, editors, writers, and journalists, she secures coverage for clients including Brian Tracy, Ken Blanchard, Dave Ramsey, Geneen Roth, Andrea Lee, The Deepak Chopra Center for Wellbeing, and the founder of NLP, Dr. Richard Bandler. Her Media Strategy Sessions helps those on a budget to learn how to become a Media Darling.

By the Time You Finish Reading This Post 15 More Books Will Be Published

That unwieldy title is the fact behind yesterday's post about literary agents and your social media platform, and today's follow-up.

Depending on who you ask or where you check, each year between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published. That's more than one every minute, 24 hours a day.

If you only take away one thing from Sue's post and today's, this is it:

#1. If you don't stand out, agents, publishers, and readers will choose someone who does.

When Sue posted some of her thoughts from that blog post on other social media platforms, there were always a few who quibbled about how agents don't necessarily require this, that, and the other thing. Perhaps. However, see large note #1 above.

A second note which seems, still, to escape far too many authors:

#2: Publishers do not do marketing. Authors do marketing. If you won't, they'll find someone who will.

This shatters the dream of so many authors who, apparently, still hope they can simply write their book and have someone else do the hard work of earning the money for them. After all, writing a book is hard enough already; I know this well and understand the frustration of those who, having typed The End are dismayed to discover that it's just The Beginning.

If you're still secretly hoping someone else will make this easy for you, see large note #2 above.

A third note:

#3: Reputations are hard-earned currency. No one is going to lend you theirs without good reason.

Yesterday's post touched on the quagmire of guest posting. The entire point of guest posting is to share reputations, to find mutual benefit.

If you have a brand new blog about entrepreneurship, having Richard Branson write a guest post is a great idea, right? Doesn't hurt to ask, right?

What earthly reason would Sir Rich have to lend you his reputation?

Bringing it down to more realistic levels, what reason does mid-level blogger Jane Doe have to lend you their reputation, giving you access to their hard-earned network of fans? By writing a guest post for you, or allowing you to write a guest post for her, Jane is endorsing you, telling all and sundry "I trust and respect Billy Bo Bob Brain and you should, too."

Why would they do that?

Flipside: why would you do that? If you have a worthwhile blog and a total stranger, entirely unknown, wants to post on your blog, why would you share your reputation with them? Do you really want to publicly endorse the views and ethics of a total stranger?

A final takeaway:

#4: If you intend to sell your book or use it to promote your business you are not just an author, you are an entrepreneur.

You may already be marketing your business. Your book is part of your business, and you have to invest the same marketing effort and savvy as you would any other new product or service launched.

A solid social media presence is vital to getting noticed as an author and should be in place long before your book is published.

Your Social Media: What to Include in Your Book Proposal

Today we're delighted to share a guest post from editor, proofreader, writer, and writing coach Candace Johnson.

You have a unique idea for a nonfiction book, and you’re writing a compelling proposal that you’re certain will knock the socks off an agent and then a publisher. And then you get to the part where you illustrate author platform, including your social media footprint.

Your Platform as a Nonfiction Author

If you’re confused about what you should include in your proposal to illustrate your platform, you’re not alone.

… more … "Your Social Media: What to Include in Your Book Proposal"