Ask the Agent: Requested Materials

Lisa wrote with this question:

When you request a proposal at a writers conference and ask for the first five chapters and a synopsis, is that all you want? Or do you want a market analysis, character sketches, etc.?

This is a great question, because it once again points out the need for clear communication. If I ask for a proposal, that’s what I want. If I ask for the first five pages and a synopsis, that’s what I want.

A book proposal is a specific document with expected contents: synopsis, audience analysis, competitive analysis, author bio and marketing information, etc. When an agent asks for a proposal, they expect you to find out what a proposal typically includes, and send a professional and thorough document.

If an agent says “Send me the first three chapters of your book along with a complete synopsis,” then send exactly that. If you’re not sure whether they want a complete proposal or not, just ask.

A query is another kind of document altogether. It’s a brief letter that pitches your book and your credentials to write it. From reading the query, the agent decides whether they want to see more, i.e. a proposal and/or sample chapters.

The important thing to take away here is that these terms (proposal, query, synopsis) have specific meanings, and we usually ask for exactly what we want. If you are not sure what an agent or editor is asking for, CLARIFY. Make sure you understand.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  4. Hayley on September 15, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    Enjoyed studying this, very good stuff, thankyou . “All of our dreams can come true — if we have the courage to pursue them.” by Walt Disney.

  5. Timothy Fish on October 2, 2008 at 12:45 PM

    >On one hand, I somewhat agree with Janny. The proposal is the aspect of this business where I feel the most inadequate. We might be tempted to think, shouldn’t there be some industry professional, an agent if you will, who will do this labor on our behalf? Such a person must of a certainty know what our work is up against better than we. Or perhaps we say my work is good enough to stand on its own, if they will just read it.

    Perhaps it is, but the words of our question echo in our minds, if they will just read it. What if there was something we could do to grab our slush pile reading friends by the collars and say, My work is worth your attention. It isn’t just another poorly written manuscript. People will be lining up in the streets for a chance to visit the world that I have created on these pages.

    To the computer we go and type our siren call. The proposal is our opportunity to say so much more than our manuscript can say. Buy my work, we say to those who ask, and it will make you money. It will stand out from the crowd. The proposal isn’t just more work for the author. The proposal is something the author should be glad he has an opportunity to write. How sad it would be if the publishers said, we only look at manuscripts and ignore the rest.

  6. Anne L.B. on October 2, 2008 at 12:02 PM

    >Dan and Matt bring good perspective to a message that permeates Rachelle’s blog: a good team is built by learning what unique gifts and needs each individual has, finding a complimentary fit, and working cooperatively. An author’s first submission communicates a great deal about not just an author’s work, but what the author may bring to the team.

    Both sessions Allen Arnold did at ACFW emphasized the importance of building a long-term working relationship between publisher and author. The expectations of an editor (or agent)—and the need for authors to both defer to others and stretch themselves—is one vital component to successfully working together. Recognition of an author’s unique gifts and fully exploiting those gifts is just as valuable to the team’s success.

    The former is nicely defined in “Find out exactly what they want, and then give it to them.” The latter might be summed up in: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman)

    Incidently, the second quote was used to introduce Allen Arnold before one of those sessions about authors and editors working together for mutual success.

  7. Pam Halter on October 2, 2008 at 11:58 AM

    >What I found years ago while doing the market research/book comparison was that there are books out there like mine. And here I thought I was being totally unique! HA! Good thing for that book search or I would have been embarrassed when I claimed, “there’s no book out there like it!” in my proposal. How foolish I would have looked.

    Of course, the book I found to compare to mine was published in 1985 and I was trying to sell mine in 2004 … but still, it was on amazon.

    I agree that it’s somewhat frustrating to have to learn all these different jobs instead of simply writing. But I’m finding the whole process interesting and even a little bit of challenging fun. I hope I’m a better writer because of it.

  8. Lea Ann McCombs on October 2, 2008 at 10:21 AM

    >What I found confusing when I first began to put together proposal packages was the vast differences in what editors or agents called a synopsis. The first book I read on the subject said a good synopsis should be one page for every chapter! (I got another book!)

    The first editor I submitted to asked for an 8-10 page synopsis.

    Then the latest one I did was only 2-3 pages for a 75,000 word novel. It can get very confusing when there are no hard-and-fast rules or definitions for what some of these things mean.

    I guess that’s another good reason to do careful homework on each place you plan to submit to, because they may all be radically different from one another.

  9. Lisa Jordan on October 2, 2008 at 9:12 AM

    >Thank you for answering my question, Rachelle! I wrestled with asking it because I didn’t want to appear like a noob, as my gaming teenagers would say, but figured if I was wondering, then someone else may be too.

    Putting together a book proposal is an educating experience. It helped me to see where my book fit in the marketplace with the other thousands of novels already published.

  10. Matthew C Jones on October 2, 2008 at 8:45 AM

    >I love Dan’s comment, “Find out exactly what they want, and then give it to them.” To me that sums up most of what this or any business is about. And it works on every level. Rachelle has repeatedly encouraged us all to study up on the houses/agents/editors that we’re interested in submitting queries or proposals to and then follow their guidelines so that our proposals will make it to their desk.

    But what I’ve read even more in this blog is that there is an underlying reason why we should send exactly what someone asks for: people, regardless of their job or position, enjoy being respected. Paying attention to someone’s request shows you respect their wishes. If this whole business is built on relationships (which I am 100% convinced it is), then we know that any good relationship is based on mutual honor and respect. We give people what they want or need not to brown-nose or curry favor, but because we respect them as people!

    Allen Arnold gave a fantastic class at the ACFW conference this year. His whole message was about how much it helps when we as writers come to the editors, publishers, and marketers with an attitude of “How can I help you?” rather than “What can you do to help me?” Is there any better way to make a friend than by showing yourself to be helpful or friendly? Hmmm, that might even be in the Bible…

    Matt J.

  11. Dan Case on October 2, 2008 at 8:24 AM

    >One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever picked up at a writers conference came from Denny Boultinghouse at Howard Books, referring to the pub boards that decide whether a book idea lives or dies: “Never give them a reason for an easy no.” The same rule applies well to agent/editor queries and submissions.

    Most agents and editors are in the same box, inundated by marginal manuscripts and pathetic proposals. The first thing they do when they open the mail is look for the “easy no” and file it appropriately. Many agents and most editors have staff people whose jobs include opening the mail and filtering out the “easy no” submissions before they ever get to the decision maker’s desk.

    As I’ve spoken with agents and editors, the number one “easy no” I’ve heard is submissions from people who obviously haven’t read their guidelines. If the guidelines say “three chapters and a four-page synopsis” and you send a full manuscript or a synopsis the size of three chapters, it’s an easy no. If they ask for a proposal and you only send sample chapters, it’s an easy no. If they say “query first” and you send a partial, it’s an easy no.

    It doesn’t matter how good your writing is–if you give them an “easy no” it will probably not be read.

    When I returned to writing after a five-year sabbatical pity-party, one of the first things I did was go to a writers conference. Before attending, I bought an editor friend (currently editing a denominational newspaper but formerly editor of several major magazines) lunch and asked for his best advice. His answer is one of the great secrets of publishing success, whether you’re pursuing fiction, non-fiction, books or articles:

    “Find out exactly what they want, and then give it to them.”

    So far, it’s worked for me. 🙂


  12. Rachelle on October 2, 2008 at 8:22 AM

    >Janny, your frustration is certainly understandable, but what most writers don't know is what the retailers require of the publisher salespeople nowadays. When a sales person sits in front of a buyer for B&N or Family Christian or whatever, they're expected to give all kinds of information that includes comps (comparable books), author sales history, the book's "hook" and so on. As the writer, you are expected to include these elements in your proposal because after all, YOU know your book best, right? Think of the proposal as your best chance to get your book pitched properly and understood properly all down the line, not only by editors, but by sales and marketing folks who have the responsibility to sell your book, and by retailers who then have to sell it to consumers.

    And even though you will spend a lot of time putting together a great proposal, please understand that the marketing team at the publisher will spend many more hours expanding on what you've done, putting together the strongest possible sales and marketing pitches for your book.

    We could all spend a lot of time decrying the "old days" but the fact is, our culture is so massively crowded with media and entertainment options that it is harder and harder to sell books. Everyone needs to work harder at being marketers all down the line, from the writer through the publishing house staff to the clerk hand-selling on the floor of Barnes & Noble. And writers aren't the only ones who have a much more difficult job… so do agents, editors, sales people, etc.

    We all have something to rant about! Yes, the frustration is understandable but this isn't going to change. Every career or profession in the world has elements that we don't love. Still, we put up with the negatives for the sake of our higher calling, or the overall satisfaction we get from our chosen job. Being a writer is no different.

    Your book proposal is a sales tool that is necessary and required. I hope having a greater understanding of the requirement makes it easier to accept.

  13. Yvonne on October 2, 2008 at 8:16 AM

    >Rachelle, when it was time to send in my proposal, I found your requirements easy to understand and follow.

    I also realized that if I wanted you to be interested in my work, it would be wise NOT to stray from them and try to be “different.”

    I did get a book about proposals to see the various kinds or styles that other agents might want, but I then went back to your list to fit my proposal to your wishes.

    You don’t realize how much of a teacher you are, Rachelle. I have learned so MUCH about the publishing world through your site.


  14. Rosslyn Elliott on October 2, 2008 at 8:03 AM

    >Janny –
    While I can understand your frustration with the marketing requirements for writers, I have two points to offer on the other side of the issue.
    Firstly, I suspect that outstanding writing and original ideas will survive poor marketing skills.
    Secondly, I have seen writers benefit from the market comparison exercise. I have a writing buddy who is intelligent, capable, and hardworking. That writer had some significant problems with the plot and structure of her novel. Doing a market comparison showed her in a very concrete way that there were critical issues that needed to be fixed. If a writer can’t find any comparables, there’s probably something fishy going on that will keep her novel at home in a box for the rest of its life.

    Marketing may have its drawbacks, but it also can teach us more about our writing.

  15. lynnrush on October 2, 2008 at 7:54 AM

    >It is very confusing sometimes. This information is really helpful.

    I’ve found most agents have websites now that give specifics on what they want..even examples, so that’s helpful as well.

    Thanks for the info, Rachelle.

  16. Janny on October 2, 2008 at 7:38 AM

    >”A book proposal is a specific document with expected contents: synopsis, audience analysis, competitive analysis, author bio and marketing information, etc. When an agent asks for a proposal, they expect you to find out what a proposal typically includes, and send a professional and thorough document.”

    I just feel compelled to say here that while this is the way “proposal” is interpreted nowadays, it was not always thus. In most fiction writing circles, twenty years ago–or even ten, for that matter–a “proposal” was considered to be three chapters and a synopsis. Period. Maybe not in the Christian writing world, but certainly in Writer’s Digest and other “bibles” of the industry, that was your standard definition. I ought to know. I sent enough of ’em. 🙂

    It was considered to be a nice bonus if the cover letter included such things as “what books are like my book” or the like–it was considered a thoughtful and intelligent touch–but it certainly wasn’t expected and demanded like it is now. In fact, if editors and/or agents wanted more, they spelled it out. If they didn’t, you didn’t have to bother with it. Authors were expected to supply the creative elements…not the creative elements plus everything else as well.

    And yes, if I sound a little honked off that authors are now considered to be negligent in their jobs if they’re not thinking like marketing people, sales people, and half the other staff at a house–I am.

    I think we’re hamstringing many authors’ creativity by insisting that they take their fresh, new voices and try to compare them to some “box” already out there. At best, they can do a pretty good approximation. At worst, they compare their work to something it isn’t remotely like–and then what does an editor think of them? I shudder to think of the snap judgments that are probably being made about many prospective authors now simply because their market analyses, marketing plans, or audience-analysis skills don’t “resonate” with a house from the get-go. Those aspects of book publishing are widely different from storytelling skills–and, in truth, they rarely occur in equal strengths in very many people. If the only people who then can get “over the bar” are those who exhibit these two radically different skill sets…what are we missing in the meantime?

    I dearly, dearly wish we’d get back to letting writers be writers and marketers be marketers. I think the fiction world would be immeasurably better for it.

    My take,

  17. Chatty Kelly on October 2, 2008 at 7:10 AM

    >As usual, great material for all the new kids on the block. (and I don’t mean the boy band.)

    Blessings to you!

  18. Marcie Gribbin on October 2, 2008 at 7:08 AM

    >Thank you!!!!!

  19. Richard Mabry on October 2, 2008 at 6:58 AM

    >Reminds me of one of my favorite lines from a movie, the one in Cool Hand Luke where the Captain says, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
    When an agent or editor asks a neophyte author for a proposal, sample chapters, or a full manuscript, the adrenaline level starts to run high and the brain sometimes turns into a seive. We do, indeed, need to leave the encounter knowing exactly what’s been requested.
    The other half of the equation, of course, is to follow through and send the requested material.
    Thanks for the clarification.