How Agents & Editors Decide

When you submit your proposal to an agent or publishing house, you may wonder how they make their decisions as to which books to reject and which to accept. Obviously there are numerous considerations that vary from person to person, from publisher to publisher. But there is a simple three-tiered approach we all use to evaluate the viability of a project:

1. The Idea
2. The Execution
3. The Author Platform

Generally, you’ve got to be strong in all three areas in order to sell your proposal. There are always exceptions: You might be extremely strong in two of the areas and get away with being a little weaker in the third. In fiction, the idea and execution are primary; the author platform is still important but not nearly as important as the writing. In nonfiction, the author platform is of primary importance; the idea comes next, and the execution (the writing itself) becomes the third consideration.

The Idea

Pretty self-explanatory, right? The concept itself must turn heads. For example, you could say your concept is “A book about how to have a satisfying marriage.” Yawn. Low marks in the idea category. But consider what Gary Thomas said: “What if God intended marriage not to make us happy, but to make us holy?” Now that’s a fresh idea. It sparks interest, it compels people to want to hear more, and it even makes some people mad.

Take a look at your idea, and how you’re phrasing it. Does it sound fresh and exciting—or like a hundred other books already out there?

The Execution

This is all about the writing. Plenty of people can string a few words together. But when you put your words on a page, do they sing? The craft of writing is exactly that—a craft. Like any craft, it requires learning, practice, apprenticeship, dedication. Have you done what it takes to make your writing worthy of public exposure prior to submitting it for publication?

In the fiction queries I receive, the execution is the biggest reason for rejection. Some people have terrific ideas for stories that sound like they’re going to knock my socks off. But when I start to read, I realize this is probably the first draft of the first book they’ve ever tried to write, and they haven’t actually taken the time to develop their craft prior to submission. (Truthfully, it bums me out, because often the ideas are really good.)

Folks, ideas really ARE a dime a dozen, so it’s not all about the idea. You’ve got to be a WRITER. And the fact that you’ve always wanted to write a novel doesn’t mean you’re qualified for the job, any more than always wanting to play pro football qualifies you for the Patriots startling lineup on Sunday. You’ve got to get yourself to training camp first. The execution—the quality of the writing—is crucial, especially for fiction.

The Author Platform

I’m going to write more posts later explaining platform in further detail, because there’s too much to say. The important thing to realize is that PLATFORM is extremely important, and in nonfiction, it’s fast becoming the #1 consideration by more and more publishers.

Your platform refers to the means by which YOU will help sell your book by your presence in the media and/or the public sphere, or at least within the audience you hope to reach with your book. Elements of a strong platform can include:

a Previous books published with high sales numbers
a Numerous articles published, whether national, local or specialized
a Appearance on television or radio with significant proven audience
a Frequent or regular speaking engagements
a Regular contact with your target audience, e.g. a newsletter
a A blog or website with proven track record
a Notoriety or authority within your area of expertise

The key to platform is your target market and what you are doing to reach them. It’s smart to begin building your platform well before you hope to be published—years, even. If you’re just setting out to build a platform, you can start a blog, write articles for publication, and begin working on establishing yourself as a speaker. Teach Bible studies, lead a retreat, speak at a women’s luncheon—whatever you have to do. Establish yourself as an authority on your topic.

Evaluate Yourself

Look critically at your proposal and manuscript—better yet, have someone else do it for you—and make an honest evaluation as to how you’re faring on the three tiers: Idea, Execution, and Platform. Whatever is lacking, set out to improve it. And don’t worry about how much time it will take. Contrary to what some people are saying, the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

(This is a repeat of a previously posted column.)

Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

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!


  1. Gabster on December 11, 2011 at 1:53 AM


    Wonderful blog post, saw on…

  2. Christina Farley on March 24, 2009 at 6:51 PM

    >Great post! Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  3. Angela Breidenbach on March 23, 2009 at 10:51 PM

    >I’ve been working on my platform for the last 2 years. But it takes a long time and a lot of work. I’m so glad to get an even clearer picture of my goal.


  4. Donna on March 23, 2009 at 10:01 PM

    >Thanks so much for posting this. It came just in time, as I’m finishing up a non-fiction proposal and getting ready to hit “send.” Now I have a pre-send checklist.

  5. Jeannie Campbell on March 23, 2009 at 6:25 PM

    >thanks, rachelle! this post was encouraging to me as a fiction writer. your candidness is always appreciated. *yawn* 🙂

  6. Anonymous on March 23, 2009 at 5:25 PM

    >How many blogs can you read in a day? Unless you must write a blog, I’d think an author’s time is better spent marketing–unless the blog is REALLY interesting.

    Sadly, most author’s lives are fairly mundane and their blogs aren’t always that exciting or compelling…(unlike this one!)

  7. Jaime on March 23, 2009 at 2:04 PM

    thank you so much for sharing your insights on the blog! It certainly helps aspiring authors such as myself to have a direction in which to move! 🙂

  8. Robin Archibald on March 23, 2009 at 12:21 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. I’ve been thinking about the platform issue for fiction writers and how a blog serves to build an audience for a novel. Or not . . .

    I’m new to the blogosphere, and find the amount of blogs overwhelming. I’m wondering if fiction authors’ blogs are really that effective for building a reader base. True, an interesting book trailer on a blog could help sell books. But authors’ blog posts about various topics, no matter how pithy or thoughtful, don’t do much to interest me in their novels.

    Yet recently I did become interested in a novel. Not because of a blog–because of a twitter feed. The person tweeting was Mary Russell, the main character in Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novel series. A novel character who twitters! How fun, I thought, and began following the tweets. What got my attention was Russell’s compelling voice. The story’s premise was also interesting, but it was Russell’s voice that got me to read the book. I enjoyed it immensely and am now a Laurie R. King fan.

    Of course, it was the CRAFT (execution) of the writing that created Russell’s voice and memorable character.

    So while I work on the craft of writing my series, I’m also working on ideas for a twitter feed and for a blog that will extend the world of the series into the social media. It would be super cool to have a platform for the novel before it’s released.

  9. T. Anne on March 23, 2009 at 11:18 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle, I don’t think I caught the original posting and this is great info!

  10. lynnrush on March 23, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    >Great post. I’m glad you posted it again. Nice reminder.


  11. Rachel on March 23, 2009 at 8:01 AM

    >I love this post. I’ve read it so many times (on my own), and it always is so clarifying and motivational. You are an excellent teacher.

  12. casey on March 23, 2009 at 7:53 AM

    >I appreciate your explanation of refining the IDEA. It’s difficult to know when an idea is “blah” and when it is “fresh.”

  13. Sharon A. Lavy on March 23, 2009 at 6:28 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle. Repeating posts as important as this one is good. I look forward to more in the series.

  14. Adam Heine on March 23, 2009 at 3:04 AM

    >This is a really helpful post. All this time I thought platform was only the latter (notoriety/authority in the field). I didn’t realize it was all that other stuff too.

  15. Megan on March 23, 2009 at 1:32 AM

    >thanks Rachelle! its sure interesting to see the process of selection.

    but i have a question: how can a first time ficition author build a good platform? just say for example they write in their spare time?

    I myself have won a few comps, done a few courses, write a blog – is this sufficient?

  16. matthewdryden on March 23, 2009 at 1:10 AM

    >Thanks for this informative entry. This was something I was wondering a couple of days ago during a discussion with a fellow novelist of mine.

    It’s interesting to me to see how much the concepts of marketing and basic public speaking tips relates to almost every area – as if the idea of presenting yourself is universal.