When it comes to writing an agent’s submission, amongst other things your cover letter will need to include the following key information:
– The genre and target audience for your book
– A concise summary of what this book is about – its overall theme and the central plotline i.e. why is your target audience going to love this book!
If you have one, think about your current work-in-progress. Imagine by some strange chance you find yourself sitting next to an agent actively looking to take on new writers in your genre (and as this is make-believe of course they’d be happy to wait until you’ve finished it). You’re two minutes away from the train’s final destination (eurgh after those nasty films that sounds so ominous, but I’m just talking about Kings Cross, or your main terminal here!) and this is your big chance to pitch your work.
Nervousness aside, how well-equipped are you to give them exactly the information they need to be able to identify the one piece of information all agents are looking for – is this book marketable?
A few years ago when I worked as a commercial market researcher I did a lot of research for a partwork publisher who’d set up a new venture to create children’s book series. They knew it was series that made money rather than stand-alone books so that was their start point. We did a research mapping exercise for them, exploring children’s reading habits and what they found engaging in books. They then did workshops with professional writers to collaboratively create a number of concepts for new book series. We researched these with children using depths and discussion groups and fed back which concepts had appeal, and options for developing them. Following the first wave of research they developed a book series, paid the writers freelance rates to write it, put a young handsome face to it as ‘the author’ (one of their execs) and launched it. It won two awards and was long listed for another in its first year. Since then they have placed more than a dozen children’s book series with children’s publishers.
I loved the research; I absolutely despised them for what they were doing! All the while I was doing their research, in my free time I was labouring on my writing – taking an idea and developing it into a plot, setting, characters. Writing for the love of literature. Writing a book is a creative exercise, not a mercenary business pursuit! I’d just finished my adult contemporary literature novel and I sent it out to three agents, two of whom requested a full submission. One rejected with a “Not for me, but best of luck,” the other rejected with the suggestion that I re-write it for young adults. Since then I’ve re-written it for YA and I’ve changed the protagonist from boy to girl…and back to boy again but it doesn’t get over the fundamental issue that the concept underpinning the novel is intriguing and the first third of the book is great, but then it stagnates as the plot can’t carry the concept. I don’t know if I’ll ever re-finish it. I’ve worked on numerous things since, none of which have made it to market.
Out of sheer stubbornness I refused to apply what I’d learnt doing this research to my own writing. You do not write by numbers … but you can’t argue that they’ve had huge success while I’m still just an aspiring writer! Okay so they have the huge advantage of existing publishing links, but rather than taking a labour of love to publishers (warts and all – and you have to admit, us writers do make a lot of mistakes in our work that we’re just too close to the novel to recognise) they’re taking a viable, appealing business plan.
I’m tempted to be mischievous and suggest we follow the principals of the partwork venture just to see the outraged comments and abuse that you throw my way in response! But in all seriousness, there is a business to publishing and being conscious of this from the start can only be an advantage. An agent isn’t going to want to take on a book that has no clear target audience or ‘hook’. I know it’s tempting to leave all the detail until you’ve finished (which is what I always do!), but thinking about this from the onset could have a huge impact on the resulting book.
This doesn’t mean curb your creativity or make the book’s marketing your start point. Of course not! As a writer your novel has to come from the creative space inside your head and your heart that tells you about the world and its characters you’re about to create, a world that unfolds piece by piece into your final novel. But if you do want to be businesslike about this, why not pause after that initial creative spark and think about the end result? Why not force yourself to think about who this book is for? What are my readers’ needs? How would I pitch this book to an agent? When I recently wrote about planning on my personal blog, limebird friend Kourtney Heintz had the great idea of writing your agent submission (cover letter and synopsis) at the start to really focus your mind on what you’re trying to do with your novel (and noooooooooo I don’t mean, “This is going to be the next Hunger Games!”). Of course that will change and need completely re-writing at the end, but it does help you identify what your core themes are.
It may well be you hate this suggestion and don’t even want to think about how to position your book until you’ve finished with the creativity of writing it. That’s fair enough and I should think this is how the majority of writers of first-time authors have completed their work! But at the same time when it came to pitching their books they must have been able to identify a clear target audience and engaging premise. I hope that all of you will be able to do that regardless of when you shape your thinking on these issue, but for me, I think with my next novel I’m going to think about this fairly early on in the process. What harm can it do!