My Book Agent

A Literary Agency Getting Authors Published Well

3 Elements that Attract Literary Agents


Have you ever noticed how some books feature one or another element in their presentation. Three covers features can be a good way to visualize the three reasons that literary agents are attracted to nonfiction proposals. I call these features or elements the author’s name, the book’s title, or the sales moment.

The Author’s Name

The October 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest arrived today. Featured on its front cover is Patricia Cornwell, “the world’s #1 bestselling crime writer.” The interview features images of her ten books. Each of them has her name in giant letters on the top half of each book. Why will readers purchase her next book? Because she is so successful; because in the crime genre, she has a following.

What the publishing industry means when it speaks about author platform is this (or something like it). Here’s a definition I like for platform:

The attention that an author can bring to the publishing project apart from the work being proposed. Usually this refers to an author’s speaking experience, followers in social media, or even appearances in People or Us magazines. But it can also refer to an author’s visibility, for example, as a blogger or in an academic subject. For fiction writers, having a well-told story is still more important. But platform is something that all authors should work to build.

You have platform when your submission to a literary agent strikes a sense in the agent that he or she has heard of you.

The Proposal’s Title

If not author recognition, then another element that can attract an agent’s attention is the proposal’s (or book’s) title. It offers something fresh; a new angle on a traditional subject. When the agent shares the cover page around the office, others are equally intrigued.

Notice how many works of fiction have short titles; many popular ones are only two to four words in length. Even excellent nonfiction titles are restricted to about ten words.

The Book’s Moment

Related to a book’s title is what I call the book’s moment. I was introduced to this element years ago as “the sales handle.” Because I worked in nonfiction, I soon discovered three basic moments, namely, the first, the most comprehensive, and the most concise.

The first is fairly obvious. Even after some research on Publisher’s Marketplace, no deals are discovered that delve into this subject. For example, I edited books in feminism as it moved into various fields of study, such as religion and politics.

The most comprehensive simply is the biggest book with the most contributors or descriptions of a field being mapped. Even with Patricia Cornwell’s 5 novels in the Scarpetta series, we can see that the promotion surrounds the large number. Potential crime book buyers only partially aware of her work might think, “I should start reading these because they must be selling” (or important or a means for conversing with others who read).

Sometimes this is simply the broader category being treated as a whole, such as Wine for Dummies, which was followed up by Chardonnay for Dummies, and Merlot for Dummies.

That sort of big moment to more a refined one–from wine to chardonnay–introduces the third element, name, the most concise. This often emerges at the end of a movement or when a fairly cohesive subject moves into tributaries. Students for some time will need to attend to the movement. But they need something that gives a quick overview.

Your Proposal

Yes, these are all sales vehicles in a way. To get consideration, your proposal needs to feature one (or two) of these elements–really shine–and be good enough in the other.


Leave a Reply