Nonfiction Authors Podcast host Carla King interviews Lisa Tener: How to Meet and Choose the Best Literary Agent for Your Book

Nonfiction Authors Podcast | May 4, 2022 10:00 am PT / 1:00 pm ET

“Looking at actual books to see who’s acknowledged by the author of a book that might be complementary to yours is a really good way to [find an agent].”
-Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener - How to Meet and Choose the Best Literary Agent for Your Book

Lisa Tener is a leading authority in book writing publishing and book proposal development whose clients have signed five- and six-figure book deals with HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, Beyond Words, New World Library, New Harbinger, St. Martin’s Press, Yale University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, HCI, and other major publishers. Lisa has been quoted by the New York Times, Boston Globe, Glamour, Vice, and MarketWatch in addition to appearances on ABC World News and PBS TV. Her latest book is The Joy of Writing Journal: Spark Your Creativity in 8 Minutes a Day. You can find out more about Lisa at www.lisatener.com.

Nonfiction Authors Podcast: Lisa Tener

Find the video podcast, show notes, links, quotes, and podcast transcript below.

Live on May 4, 2022 at 10:00am PT

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Show Notes

Links

In this episode…

  • How an author can begin the process of identifying and reaching the best agent for their book.
  • How to query more than one agent at a time.
  • What to expect in contracts and expectations from potential agents.
  • The process for sending a proposal to an agent.
  • How to get an agent if you chose to self-publish.
  • How to find an intellectual property lawyer.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to the interview series for the Nonfiction Authors Association. Today’s session is with Lisa Tener and we will be talking about how to meet and choose the best literary agent for your book. I’m Carla King, your host, and I’m happy to have you with us today. This interview will last only 30 minutes and you can find the replay on our Nonfiction Authors Association website and social media platforms including YouTube, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

And now I’d like to introduce our guest.

Lisa Tener is a leading authority in book writing publishing and book proposal development whose clients have signed five- and six-figure book deals with HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, Beyond Words, New World Library, New Harbinger, St. Martin’s Press, Yale University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, HCI, and other major publishers. Lisa has been quoted by the New York Times, Boston Globe, Glamour, Vice, and MarketWatch in addition to appearances on ABC World News and PBS TV. Her latest book is The Joy of Writing Journal: Spark Your Creativity in 8 Minutes a Day. You can find out more about Lisa at www.lisatener.com.

Hey, Lisa. Welcome to the podcast!

Lisa: Thank you, Carla. It’s so great to be here with you.

Carla: Yes, and welcome. Okay, agents–you’re so popular, agents. Can you tell our audience–how do you even start to find an agent? Is it best to meet them at conferences or online virtual events? Where do you get them?

Lisa: It is great to meet them at conferences. And the Nonfiction Writers Conference is obviously a great one, because you have a Pitch-the-Agents forum. So I highly recommend that. Other conferences, as well, live or virtual, can be a great way to meet agents.

And then also, there’s a lot you can do online. First of all, you want to do some research and see who might be a good fit. And you can do that through a number of search engines like QueryTracker, Writer’s Digest has one. There’s a whole bunch of them–so you can just Google that. That’s a good way to start, putting in some information about your genre and maybe even the topic, and see who comes up.

You want to find agents who have an interest in your area. Let’s say, [an agent] who likes health books and especially brain books–if you have a book that’s on brain health, that might be an ideal match. But you don’t necessarily want an agent who has a book that’s a direct competitor of yours. It might be better to find someone who represents books in that arena, but it’s not a direct competition. You can also look at some of the complimentary books that would complement your book. Look in the Acknowledgments section, and see who was the agent for that book. On social media, start to follow these agents and you might get a feel for their personality and preferences as well. Writing Cooperative on Medium often has lists of new agents, or agents that are looking for new writers, so that can be a good resource. There’s just a lot online. Of course, the Nonfiction Writers Association can offer support as well.

Carla: Wow, that’s a lot to wade through. And I know there are a lot of agents and keywords, right? Because we all work with Google, who knows what we’re looking for all the time. But how do you really identify and drill down on the absolute best matches for you and your book?

Lisa: These different queries are a good place to start. QueryTracker, Writer’s Digest, has one. Duotrope–that one, I think, is paid. There are a lot of different options. So if you just query search for an agent, you’ll get a whole bunch. And you can try different ones and put in health books, brain health. Or self-help books, spirituality. Or self-help books + yoga. And that could be a really great way to see who’s interested in those kinds of books. But, like I said, looking at actual books to see who’s acknowledged by the author of a book that might be complementary to yours is a really good way to go as well.

Carla: Okay, so there are search bars in these tools, which makes total sense. So, say you’ve found an agent–what happens when the agent says yes. What’s next? What contracts and expectations should we be prepared for in that best case scenario?

Lisa: You definitely want to see their contract and show it to a lawyer, because you want to know exactly what you’re signing. And your lawyer may suggest some changes.

They’re fairly standard. But one thing you’d want to know, for instance, is what if they don’t sell the book within a year and a half or two years? Are you able to exit that contract and get another agent, for instance? So you do want to make sure that certain things are in place, and an intellectual property attorney will help you with that. Then you also really want to interview the agent. You don’t want to just say yes. One thing I would ask is, ‘Why are you excited about this book?’ And really try to see–are they excited? Hopefully, they are really excited.

I can remember, with The Creativity Cure, there were several agents interested in Dr. Barron’s book. And one agent said to me–we were at the Harvard conference, and she’d taken the actual book proposal that we’d sent to her with her, and she’d read it and said, “I really want to represent.” It was actually a team, husband and wife, but the wife wrote most of it. So it’s Dr. Carrie Baron and Dr. Alton Baron. She said, “I really want to represent the Barons for this book. I’m so excited.” And she told me why she was excited about the book, and also why her. And she also mentioned other books she’d agented that she thought showed what a good match she would be for the book. So she really pushed harder than any other agents about why her. And to me, that said she was really hungry for that particular book, and she really saw why it was such a great book. So she was going to make a great case, because her enthusiasm was going to rub off on acquisitions editors at publishing houses. So when you see that kind of enthusiasm, especially from a very–that was Jean Fredericks and she was a very experienced agent, so  I knew that she was going to be a great choice.

But other things are–do they have the same vision as you? So always ask, ‘What changes do you see making?’ And if their changes sound good, that’s great, because they have a lot of experience. But if it’s really far from your vision, and something feels wrong about it, I would definitely consider, ‘Is this the right fit? Or are they taking the book in a different direction that I’m not comfortable with?’ I would ask them why, because you might learn that actually, their direction makes more sense. But I would definitely try to make sure you’re on the same page.

Carla: So is it okay to query more than one agent at a time? Or do you have to go one by one? Because maybe you have two or three agents that say yes. I know that might be rare, but what’s the etiquette there?

Lisa: It does happen! It used to be that you could only query agents one at a time. In fact, for my first book, we were looking for an agent, and that’s what happened to us. It took many years to get a publisher, actually. We ended up not getting an agent, but we published with Health Communications. And that was a very frustrating process.

So I’m happy to say that the process is so much nicer now, and you can query more than one agent at a time. You do want to let them know. Usually, I say something like, ‘We’re just querying three agents and you’re one of them.’ Just to let them know we’re not sending it out to 20 people. Because if we’re sending out to a ton of people–and even if it’s a very exciting book–an agent may feel ‘Is it really worth my time to read the proposal if they’re sending it to so many people? What are the chances I’m going to get this?’ So I would just query a few at a time, like two or three. Some people will say to go ahead and query a lot. It really depends a little on personality.

The other thing I would say, though, for the very first agent you query, I would think–who’s your very top choice. And when you query them, say that you would be happy to give them a two-week exclusive. And what that does is, it pumps it up for them. If they are excited about the book, they’re going to make a decision more quickly. So that can be a helpful thing to say–’You’re my top choice, so if you are interested in seeing the proposal, I’m happy to give you a two week exclusive.” That can be a big deal for agents. So that, I think, is a really helpful tip.

Carla: That was going to be my next question, because I know authors who have waited so long to hear back from agents. How much time do you give them? So you can say, ‘Okay, for two weeks, I won’t send out my query to any other agent.’ What is the normal time that you would give an agent? And when would you give up?

Lisa: There’s not a very specific timeframe, I’d say. Recently, I queried an agent for a client of mine and we heard, I think, within a day. And that was an agent I didn’t know. It was a top agent that I didn’t know personally. If they’re really excited, sometimes they’ll hop on it. On the other hand, it could be that they didn’t receive your email. We all know email can go to spam, or trash, or get deleted by accident. You do want to make sure they got it. If you haven’t heard back in a couple of weeks, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I just wanted to make sure you received my query letter.”

The benefit of doing a Pitch-the-Agents at the Nonfiction Writers Conference, or pitching agents at another conference, is that you can send a proposal right away. You don’t need to send the query. You might still want some of the points that would be in the query letter in your cover email, in this case. But you can skip that step.

In the subject line, I would say something like “Requested Proposal for…,” so that they know this was something they’ve already requested. And they’ll realize this isn’t the slush pile–this is something they requested. So it’s really helpful to say that. And then in your cover email, you would again say, “I’m so thrilled that you were excited about seeing the proposal for this. I think you’re such a great match” and say why. That will give you a little bit of a leg up, too.

So how long do you give them? After two weeks, you could just say, “I just want to make sure you got my query.” If you don’t hear back, and you really think they’re a great match, you could call the office to say, “I’m just calling to make sure that so-and-so got my query letter.” Agents are really busy. Often they have assistants helping them. Things do get lost. So some agencies may not be as friendly about your phone call. It used to be you weren’t supposed to call, but nowadays, because things do get lost, it is okay to call, in general. It varies agent to agent. You can look on their website and see their guidelines. They may say please do not call our office; then don’t call their office. You could, if you’re following them on social media, for instance, send them a private message via Twitter, and just say, ‘Just making sure you’ve got my proposal.’ So there are other ways to follow up too. And I would encourage you to. Don’t be aggressive, but be assertive.

Carla: That’s a great suggestion. I have seen tweet chats with agents, and there’s some sort of #agentday. Am I correct in saying that Twitter is a popular venue for meeting agents?

Lisa: It is. And you can do #MSWL, which is “manuscript wishlist” to see any conversations where agents are talking about what they’re looking for, too. I forgot to mention that, but that’s another good way to see what agents are looking for, and who might be a good fit.

Carla: Great. Well, that’s why you’re the book coach, you know all this stuff. It’s really hard for us to see, you know, with blogs and on the internet, what’s really true. Is it also true that you shouldn’t attach your proposal? Should you put it in a Dropbox, or Google Drive, or something like that? Because I know sometimes, emails don’t get through because of large attachments…and viruses!

Lisa: That is a good point. That can be a better way to go. I’m not crazy about Google Docs. But I think some of it depends on the age of the person. I think the younger people really like Google Docs. So if it’s a young agent, they might prefer a Google Doc. Dropbox is a good way to send a large file, too. Again, it might depend on the person. But if you send a query letter, you could even ask them, ‘How would you prefer to receive it? Would you like it in Microsoft Word or would you like a Google Doc? Would you like it through Dropbox?’ You can kind of find out from them what their preference is.

Carla: Excellent. So query letter first. No attachments, just the query. Then ask how they would like the manuscript, or the proposal, delivered. Okay, that’s the process.

Lisa: Unless you met them at a conference, and then you can skip that query and just have like, a little opening about how you met.

Carla: Great. Well, perfect. So you did mention–just really quickly–how do you find an intellectual property lawyer?

Lisa: There’s one that I tend to refer everybody to. I don’t know if you want me to mention a specific name.

Carla: Well maybe we’ll put it in the show notes.

Lisa: She just has helped a lot of my clients to negotiate contracts–particularly publishing contracts. If you go to a smaller publisher–you don’t go through an agent, but you find the publisher yourself–she’ll negotiate that contract. It is great to know somebody like that. The reason I like this intellectual property attorney is that she’s also a literary agent. So she’ll only take on clients in agenting that have a big platform in the right genres. But for intellectual property, or contracts, she’s happy to do that work for everybody. She’s a great resource.

Carla: Okay, great. So this is my last question, and it’s about self-publishing. Do you coach self-published authors to create proposals and get agents? What are the different scenarios? And what are the chances if you’ve had a self-published book? Or if you’re thinking about self-publishing? We hear that if you self-publish, you can’t get an agent. Or if you self-publish and do well, you can get an agent. The answers are all over the place.

Lisa: For nonfiction–and of course, it’s going to vary by genre and by topic–but sort of the magic number I’ve heard is 15,000. So if you sell 15,000 copies, then publishers and agents are thinking wow, especially if there seems to be a larger market than that. You’ve done a good job selling that book, and they start to get excited. That can be sort of the magic number.

I had one client who wrote a book proposal, or query letter, that got rejected–I think it was just the query letter. It was sort of in the slush pile, written directly to a publisher. Even though she wrote to a senior person, it was probably seen by somebody who was an intern or something. She got a rejection. A month later–a month after she published the book–she heard from that same Acquisitions Editor that had rejected the book, saying, ‘I saw your book. I read it and we’d like to publish it.’ So sometimes there are gatekeepers. And then magic can happen, and that gatekeeper is out of the way, and the right person sees it. She didn’t sell a ton of copies when she self-published. But the publisher was looking for a book on that topic and was really excited to read it and said, ‘This was the book I’m looking for.’

Carla: The authors that you coach–do you encourage them to self-publish after a certain amount of time goes by, perhaps?

Lisa: I would say–it’s maybe not as much the time as the kind of feedback we’re getting, too. Sometimes it might be that the platform is just not big enough, even for the smaller publisher, and then it becomes more a question of–do you want to spend your time jumping through these hoops? They’ll help, in the long run, with book sales. But, is that what you’d like to be doing? Or do you want to get the book out there, and really have it be impacting your readers, and also maybe growing your business, depending on how the book fits in with your business model? So sometimes it’s more–let’s reassess and see what makes sense, given your goals. And sometimes, it’s more, ‘I really just want to get the book out there.’ There are certainly so many obvious advantages to self-publishing–from the amount of control you get, to how much more quickly you can get it out there. And then also how quickly and easily you can update it and make changes. So there are lots of benefits to self-publishing. And sometimes, as people meet some resistance in the publishing field, they start to think, ‘You know, I can see those advantages. Maybe I should just self-publish’. So it’s sort of very individual, I would say.

Carla: Great, thanks for all that good advice. As a book coach, I’d love for you to just talk about what you do a little bit, and let us know how to find you. Do you work with authors on how to word a query letter, make sure they’re on target, like maybe rewriting the book, what do you do? And how do we find you and connect with you? Also mention your book, which sounds like a solution in eight minutes. That’s great. I want to create an eight-minute solution, please.

Lisa: It’s The Joy of Writing Journal: Spark Your Creativity in Eight Minutes a Day. And we’ve got these fun QR codes. So in addition to a few words about the prompt–like sort of my personal experience with it, or kind of something leading into it–you can watch a video of other people responding to the prompt or something related to the prompt. Or listen to an audio meditation to get you in the zone to write. There are lots of fun experiences along the way. And I do a little bit of teaching and some of the videos too. It’s a fun experience. I’ve heard good feedback. People are really finding that it jumpstarts their creativity. I’m hearing from such a variety of people–from podcasters looking for help to write their scripts, to moms who are using it with their kids. Which really surprised me, because I thought of older people using it, but I didn’t really think of kids. But I think it’s rated G,so it works. It’s been fun.

In terms of working with me, I do work with people on their book concept, all the way through getting that book written. Or writing a book proposal, and all the pieces to get a publisher. And sometimes that includes helping people come up with strategies, and finding resources for them that really are customized for what they need to get that platform in shape. Or even get a website– sometimes people don’t even have an author website. So helping them figure out what they need, and suggesting resources. And I do have a referral service for editors and ghostwriters, and things like that, as well. A finger in a lot of pots!

I love to help people with the creative process. And I have a new program coming up. We’re just going to be getting together and writing, and getting into that zone. So some quick, easy steps to get into that creative space, and having that support to write right on the call. So that’s another fun thing. Get your writing done.

Carla: Great. And can we find this on lisatener.com?

Lisa: You can, thank you. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram. And we have a Facebook page, “Write and Create with Lisa Tener.” Wherever you are, you can probably find me.

Carla: Lisa, thank you for being our guest today. Really grateful for your wise advice

Lisa: Thank you. Well, it’s such a pleasure. And I really encourage listeners to do the Pitch-the-Agents as part of the Nonfiction Writers Conference. It’s such a great opportunity.

Carla: Yea, that comes around every year, so thank you for that.

And thank you to our listeners for joining us today and every week. For a list of guests and topics just check our schedule on the site, use your favorite search engine, or better yet, sign up for our mailing list at NonfictionAuthorsAssociation.com.

Quotes from our guest

  • Looking at actual books to see who’s acknowledged by the author of a book that might be complementary to yours is a really good way to [find an agent].
  • You definitely want to see [an agent’s] contract and show it to a lawyer because you want to know exactly what you’re signing. And your lawyer may suggest some changes.
  • [If the agent suggests changes that are] really far from your vision, and something feels wrong about it, I would definitely consider is this the right fit? Or are they taking the book in a different direction that I’m not comfortable with?

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