Literary 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.