How I Wrote a Book Proposal and Found a Literary Agent

by Kim on April 18, 2015 · 18 comments

Many of you have written to ask how I found a literary agent so I’ve pulled my favorite resources together and hope that this information will help you too.

One big reason that Brian and I settled in Mexico after our hectic 7-month road trip around the U.S. was so that I could work on my book. I’d been researching agents and how to write a book proposal for over a year. It was my default Internet surfing activity. But I still felt clueless and terrified when it came to starting my proposal and sending that proposal off to agents.

Writing a book proposal

There’s confusion about when a memoir writer should write a book proposal and begin querying agents. See, if you’re writing fiction you must have a completed manuscript before you send your book proposal off to agents. If you’re writing non-fiction you are not expected to have a manuscript, only a book proposal. But memoir is a gray area. Some suggest finishing the book before sending your proposal off to agents and others say that only a proposal, but not a manuscript, is necessary.

I got great advice from another writer who encouraged me to search for an agent before finishing my book because an agent would likely suggest changes to plot and structure. I took her advice, set my book aside, and began working on my book proposal.

How I found a literary agent and wrote a book proposal

Working on my book in my bed in Mexico between first trimester all-day pregnancy barfing.

The problem was, I had no idea how to write a book proposal. I bought literary agent Michael Larsen’s book How to Write a Book Proposal (more info on the book below), and followed it step-by-step.

Luckily, two writer friends with successful book proposals shared their proposals with me. Their proposals were drastically different in structure and size but the key components were the same. They included: Overview (what your book is about and why anyone will want to read it), Audience/Market (who will buy your book), Competition (other books and websites that are like your book and why your book is different), Author Platform (who you are and why you are the best person to write the book), Chapter Outline (a 1-2 paragraph description of each chapter of your book) and, finally, a Sample Chapter.

2017 update: I work one-on-one with non-fiction writers, helping them with the process of writing a book proposal and finding an agent. If you’d like to learn more, please contact me. I am thrilled to help new authors navigate this daunting path and I would love to work with you (Yes, YOU. Let’s bring your book into the world!)

When I was done with my book proposal I had a friend who is a writer and editor look it over. I incorporated her feedback. Then I set the proposal aside for a week before picking it up and reading it aloud, line by line, until I just couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice anymore. Finally, I declared my proposal as ready as it would ever be.

A short list of books that helped me write my proposal:

Books About Writing a Book Proposal

How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen. This is pretty much the authoritative book on writing a book proposal. I found the book incredibly helpful and followed it closely. My tip: Buy a hard copy of the book. You’ll be flipping back and forth frequently and the e-version is hard to navigate.

The Art of the Book Proposal by Eric Maisel. This book will be most helpful for those of you that have not yet started writing your manuscript or anyone struggling with overcoming the mental barriers preventing you from creating your best work.

Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. I haven’t read this book yet but it came recommended by someone who really knows her stuff.

Now came the hard part: finding an agent.

Finding a Literary Agent

Now that I had my book proposal together I had to generate a list of literary agents to query.

I thought I’d start by determining which agents represented books that were similar to mine. I bought a membership to Publisher’s Marketplace for $25 per month. On Publisher’s Marketplace I could search through their database of authors and agents to find out who represented whom and how substantial each book deal was. This was a fascinating time-suck but proved to be pretty useless as far as narrowing down prospective agents to query.

Next I found the free websites and I liked the best because I could search by genre and generate a list of agents that represented my genre. I could also read comments from others that had queried the agent that I was going to query to get a sense of how quickly (if at all) an agent responded with a rejection or request for additional material.

After I generated a list of agents that fit the bill for me I went to each agent’s website. First, I made sure to verify that they represented memoir. I read about the agent, who they’ve represented, what they’re like and just generally tried to get a feel for the sort of person they were. I Googled each agent and the agency they worked for to make sure they were reputable. I read as many interviews with each agent as I could find. If everything panned out I put the agent on my query list.

I also found it helpful to follow the agents that I was interested in on Twitter and to read their blogs (if applicable). That gave me a sense of who they were, what sort of material they were looking for and how they preferred to be queried.

In the end I created a list of my top 50 agents and decided I’d query them all. I’d read that a writer shouldn’t give up until she’d received at least 100 rejections from agents. So I generated my top 50 list and figured that, if those 50 rejected me, I’d go to the next 50 until I found an agent or until my soul had been crushed completely.

Every agent is different. Some want you to send your book proposal with your initial query and some do not want to see that until they’ve requested it. Some agents ask for the first 10 or 20 or 50 pages of your book and others want only a query letter. Make sure to follow the specific query instructions of the agent.

The last thing I needed was a query letter. I found this example of a query letter that worked and used it as a guide to craft my own. Then I took a deep breath and began querying agents.

The results

In the span of one week I sent 37 query letters to 37 different agents. I kept a spreadsheet of the agents I’d queried and the date, the literary agency they worked for (you should query only one agent at a time per literary agency), and whether I could expect a response from the agent (many agents will only respond to your query if they’re interested). Then I waited.

Within the week I’d received my first rejection. But I’d also received my first request for a full proposal. I sent my book proposal off to the agent who’d requested it and crossed my fingers. Two days later another agent asked for my full proposal. This time the agent moved quickly. Within a few hours he’d asked to set up a time to chat on the phone. Two days later, after a long phone call, he offered to represent me. I swear I almost died of happiness.

The first agent still had my book proposal so I emailed her to let her know I’d had an offer of representation. She then offered to represent me too. Ultimately I went with the agent who moved quickly but the other agent was very understanding and encouraging.

It’s been two months since I sent out those 37 query letters. 5 agents ultimately responded positively and asked for more material and/or offered to represent me. 16 agents rejected me, almost exclusively sending form rejection letters. 16 agents have not responded and at this point I assume they never will, though the occasional rejection letter still trickles in.

There’s a ton of information out there on the Internet about how to write a book proposal and find a literary agent. I just groped around in the darkness until I found my path.

Now I’m at a new stage, getting my book proposal up to snuff so that my agent can sell my book. Wish  me luck!!

Update: I sold my book!!!! The Yellow Envelope was acquired by Sourcebooks and published in April 2017. It was on the shelves at Target, people. TARGET!!! Click here to find the book on Amazon and remember, if you need help navigating the world of proposal writing and agent hunting I’d love to help. Just contact me and let me know you’d like to learn more about the book proposal consulting work I do.