As the infamous Kenny Rogers once said, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
At this point in my book journey (when I didn’t actually have a book, or really anything more than an idea and a goal), Kenny would have probably advised me to run. Staring at an overwhelming list of potential publishers was a moment of reckoning.
All had different submission requirements. They asked for things I didn’t yet understand, speaking a slightly foreign language. I had gotten a glimpse of the world of publishing, and it was clear it would be a strange and challenging one. I envisioned months (maybe years?) of sending off my Gentelligence manuscript into the abyss, never hearing a response.
I would suggest Kenny Rogers add a line to his sage advice: Know when to find yourself a powerhouse agent.
The Publisher’s Marketplace went back on my bookshelf, and I set my sights on learning how one finds such an agent. There’s a Guide to Literary Agents that I was tempted to buy next, but this time I decided to try a different approach. I dove headfirst into Google, reading blogs (like this one) and searching for which agents represented authors I admired. It was almost as overwhelming as looking at publishers, but then I found #MSWL.
#MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) is amazing. It’s a site run by publishing experts, and also a Twitter feed with the #mswl hashtag. It features posts by literary agents calling out the kinds of work they are currently hoping to receive (“What I’m looking for: military fiction, humor, travel, biography, particularly of non-American historical figures…”) and what they DON’T: (“No romance, women’s fiction, teenage fiction, or sci-fi…”). These seem to be updated frequently, depending on the market and the changing interests of the agents.
I admit I spent a few nights down the #MSWL rabbit hole, scrolling to find agents that seemed like a good fit. Finally, I found one. Yes, just one.*
Here’s something else about me: I’m a put all my eggs in one basket kind of a gal. I applied to just one college. I applied to just one grad school. I brought home exactly one boyfriend to meet my parents and he was the one I married. When I interviewed for my faculty job at Miami, I told the interviewer: “This is the job I want. If you offer it to me, I plan to take it.” (Note: this was frowned upon by my advisor, who thought this was a poor negotiation strategy. But they did offer it to me, and I took it).
So maybe it’s no surprise that once I found Jessica Faust’s listing on #MSWL, I just had a good feeling this would be the right fit. I studied her post. Although she specializes in fiction, at that time she has specifically put out a call for strong female voices in business and non-fiction. “That’s me!” I thought. Strong! Female!
I did some more digging and found the YouTube videos, and blog she and her team @ BookEnds Literary Agency regularly post, providing straightforward advice to aspiring authors. She seemed both developmental and direct–two of my favorite qualities.
Of course, there were a few small wrinkles to work out: Jessica was president of her own literary agency, had no idea who I was, and likely hears from huge numbers of aspiring authors every week. But by then I had decided, and there was only one way forward: The Query.
About the Query
If you are an author hoping to be published, you must become very familiar with The Query. A query is a short pitch you make to an agent, usually just one page. It is your chance to introduce yourself and your book. The query also asks for either a full book proposal (for non-fiction) or the first pages of your book (for fiction).
Here’s a fun fact I did not know: if you are writing a non-fiction book, you don’t need (or really want) to have your entire book written when you get started on the agent-publisher process. You will need a clear idea and an outline of the chapters and overall organization of your book. However, you won’t need to have the entire book figured out before seeking out an agent. Your agent (and potentially your publisher) will want to help shape the direction and focus of your non-fiction book (this seems to be different for fiction books). So there’s no need to toil away in a vacuum, writing an entire book with no idea if what you are doing is any good. No time for that nonsense.
You do apparently have to toil away on a solid book proposal though, and it took me a while to get that together. The process of creating the book proposal itself was very helpful. It forces you to clarify your idea, and think through whether you really could write an entire book about it. What would your chapters look like? How would you structure the book? How much ground do you really intend to cover? How is your book different from what is already out there? And why are you the right person to write this book?
A word about this last question. A colleague of mine who has self-published several books met me for coffee a few months before I embarked on this book-writing quest. She said, “Be prepared. It’s all about your platform.”
No, no. Writing books cannot possibly be all about your platform, it must be all about your idea! Your expertise! Your writing ability! She was right, though. It is a lot about your platform. This was unfortunate, as I am a professor of management and a leadership consultant. I’m not an Instagram Influencer or reality TV star.
There are a few people in our field that have an enormous platform. Researchers like Brene Brown and Adam Grant, for example, have both the academic chops and the talent to translate their work in a way that resonates with huge numbers of people. Brene Brown inspired Oprah. Adam Grant has given counsel to Sheryl Sandberg. I’ve yet to find my high profile executive in need of leadership counsel.
Maybe someday I will have such a collaboration…but at this point, all I had was one TEDx talk, and a stack of academic journal articles. I was coming off a strong year of Gentelligence interviews and articles in newspapers and magazines, including a piece in the Washington Post about how veteran quarterback Tom Brady practices Gentelligence with his younger teammates. I had speaking gigs for companies across the country and an incredibly supportive university that shared and highlighted my work. But I didn’t have much of a platform to name. My social media game was passable but not magnificent.
Agents and publishers care about your platform for a number of reasons. First, as a non-fiction author, you need to be seen as an expert in what you are writing about. People have to be willing to listen to you. Your platform is one way to determine whether you have already managed to gain a ready audience. A strong platform also means there will be people ready to buy your eventual book, which translates into less risk for your agent and your publisher.
So here I was: barely a platform. A strong idea. A tentative book proposal. What would Kenny Rogers do? (WWKRD?)
I don’t know what Kenny would have done, but I went for it. I crafted my one-page query. I explained why the world needed Gentelligence right now and why I was the right person to narrate the conversation about generational diversity in the workplace. With a deep breath, I pushed submit.
Want to see how the whole thing turned out? Gentelligence is available for pre-order on Amazon right now.