Literary agent Lucinda Halpern prepares us to navigate the industry and prepare for publishing. With her insights, we’ll position our project—and ourselves as authors—to pitch agents and get noticed.
She reveals what literary agents are really looking for when it comes to platform and clears up the concern about how much or how little to share of your book’s ideas on social media. And if you’re wondering what to really focus on when crafting your book proposal, Lucinda’s got insider info to help you make decisions.
After listening to (or reading) what she has to say, you’re going to feel more confident than ever as you prepare to pitch.
Lucinda says publishers are looking for books with “perennial potential”:
Publishers are trendcasters. They are futurists. They have to think about books from the perspective of what is going to sell when the book publishes in two years and then for five years after that, because they’re interested in books that backlist….So writers should be really savvy to what are the sort of trends that are happening in the media or on podcasts or Netflix series.
She urges writers to network.
See if you can discover the connection you have to someone in the industry. She says, “I always say get that six-degree-of-separation connection to an agent.” She continues, “There are so many blind submissions coming at [agents], better to have an ‘in’—a step up—if you can.”
Writers in my platform membership often ask how much they can share about their book idea—how much they can write or teach the topics—without giving too much away, so I asked Lucinda her opinion. You might be surprised (and relieved) by her response:
The rule of the day is the more free content, the better. And one of my authors, Paul Jarvis, had a really wonderful way of putting this: Teach everything you know…I believe in that so much. And editors believe in it, too. Because again, if they see that audience clamoring for your ideas…that’s a huge draw…It almost doesn’t matter that they’ve seen it before. It’s better they’ve seen it before.
When we discussed platform for nonfiction authors, I asked her for that magic number of how many subscribers or followers publishers (and agents) are looking for. She gave us the number, but not before offering an important disclaimer:
It differs for category and for the particular author that you are. So someone who’s a PhD or a doctor or finance professional or psychologist, there are a number of sort of more private industries where an editor is going to recognize your life has not been tweeting…
Whereas if you’re a journalist, it’s going to be how many bylines have you accumulated and what sort of publications and what is your Twitter following? How many people actually know who you are?
I just want you to know if you’re a business person and you’ve run this successful company, maybe again, you’re not so active on social media, but you have a YouTube channel that gets views and you also have a massive email list which publishers are more interested in than social media numbers.
I’m just giving you a sense of the diversity in the nonfiction sphere alone that we’re evaluating platform on. There is no one number.
I begged a little for the number.
Thankfully, she told us.
You want to know the number she’s looking for?
Listen, watch, or read the transcript below. (That specific answer is around the 17:56 mark.)
Lucinda Halpern is the President and Founder of Lucinda Literary, representing authors writing in the categories of business, health, lifestyle, popular science, narrative nonfiction, memoir, and upmarket fiction. She regularly shares publishing insights and motivation for writers here and hosts both live and online programs for aspiring authors here.
Ready to get your book noticed? Get Lucinda’s essential guide for writers: The 6 Things Every Book Pitch Needs — click here to receive your guide: www.lucindaliterary.com/subscribe
Get to know Lucinda and her literary agency:
- Website: www.lucindaliterary.com
- Twitter: @LucindaBlu and @LucindaLitNYC
- Facebook: @LucindaLiterary
- Instagram: @lucindaliterary
- LinkedIn: Lucinda Literary OR @LucindaHalpern
- Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, by Bret Anthony Johnston (Amazon Affiliate link; Bookshop.org link)
- Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (Amazon Affiliate link; Bookshop.org link)
- How to Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey Into the Minds of Our Greatest Writers, by Richard Cohen (Amazon Affiliate link; Bookshop.org link)
- A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders (Amazon Affiliate link; Bookshop.org link)
- This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett (Amazon Affiliate link; Bookshop.org link)
- Decoding Greatness: Discover the Fast Track to Writing Success, my interview with Ron Friedman
Prepare for Publishing with Insights from Literary Agent Lucinda Halpern
Are you curious what literary agents are really looking for when it comes to platform, or are you sharing a little bit about some of your books big ideas on social media, and you’re a little worried that maybe you’re sharing too much and it might jeopardize the interest the agents have in your project? Are you wondering what to really focus on when crafting your book proposal?
Well, I have literary agent Lucinda Halpern on the show today. And this conversation is packed with ideas for how to get your book noticed. I’m Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, and on this show, I help writers improve their craft, pursue publishing and achieve their writing goals.
Today, I have New-York-based literary agent Lucinda Halpern on the show. Lucinda Halpern is a literary lecturer and PR agent with over 15 years experience on both the corporate and agency sides of publishing.
As owner of Manhattan based literary agency Lucinda Literary, her roster of authors includes:
New York Times bestselling authors Susan Pierce Thompson, Chris Bailey, Kate Flanders, Paul Jarvis, the new work of Nicola Krause and Jake Wood. In a marketing and publicity capacity, Lucinda has worked with New York Times bestselling authors Stephen Dubner and Stephen Levitt of Freakonomics, Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, Ben Mezrich of Bringing Down the House and Busting Vegas, and many more.
Ann Kroeker (01:23)
Let’s dive straight into this conversation with Lucinda, and I think you’re going to feel more confident than ever as you prepare to pitch Lucinda.
Ann Kroeker (01:31)
It’s great to have you on the show.
Lucinda Halpern (01:32)
Thank you so much. Wonderful to be here. Yeah.
Ann Kroeker (01:34)
I’m just really, really excited to introduce our listeners and let them have a glimpse of what it’s like to interact with an agent. So I’m going to give you a quick and easy question to start out with, just because I feel like, oh, surely you have a favorite what is your favorite book of writing that you recommend to your writers, those you represent or anybody you’re talking with?
What’s your favorite writing book?
Lucinda Halpern (01:57)
Sure. So there’s a great book that is little known. It’s so hard to choose right there’s Bird by Bird. There is a book by Bret Anthony Johnston, who was formerly creative writing director at Harvard. I fell in love with his novel. He wrote a second book called Naming the World, which I love. Like the discipline of being a writer, you just have to sit every day. Butt in the chair.
There’s a wonderful book I have on my bookshelf here called [How to Write] Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen. He just has a wonderful sort of historical rendition of how all the great writers wrote. And recently I read Ann Patchett’s [This Is] The Story of a Happy Marriage, which is about her sort of memoir and also tips for writers. And I found that to be just incredible. So four books for you.
Ann Kroeker (02:51)
That’s awesome. I love it. People can expand their library of books on writing. That one about reading, writing like Tolstoy. Is that what you said? How to Write Like Tolstoy? I’m not familiar with that, but I’m thinking it could be a nice compliment to George Saunders book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Are you familiar with that book?
Lucinda Halpern (03:11)
No, I haven’t read it. But this is a beautiful packaging that’s also rich.
Ann Kroeker (03:16)
It’s gorgeous. That’s a great idea to get people ready to write and coming at it from a lot of different angles. Thanks for your tips. Well, we have so many different kinds of writers who tune in to the show, but a lot of people are working on nonfiction. So even though you represent both novelists and authors of nonfiction, I thought maybe it would be interesting to talk a little bit more about the world of pitching and querying nonfiction work. Is that okay?
Lucinda Halpern (03:44)
Ann Kroeker (03:46)
But you see proposals every day, and you know how to represent those when you go pitching publishers. So we’re dying to have a little bit more insight here. And I think most people know by now that they need if they’re going to work on a nonfiction book, they know they need a nonfiction book proposal. And that is what you have to have in order to start the process because you’re going to be querying and then you’re going to hopefully hear some interest from the agent, and then you’ll be sharing the book proposal with them with some sample chapters. So again, here’s a simple question, but how many sample chapters do you like to see in the proposal?
How many sample chapters do you like to see in the proposal?
Lucinda Halpern (04:20)
So Interestingly enough, most nonfiction book proposals we’ve sold have been without sample chapters. What which is it feels like an embarrassment of riches that we’ve been able to do that because that overview, which we can talk more about, is just so important. And the crucial decision makers who are deciding whether they buy a book or not are not often reading all of that sample material for something like a business book or popular science book or health lifestyle book. So that’s just sort of an interesting kind of inside the trenches: You don’t always need the sample chapter to sell a nonfiction book proposal.
And there’s a famous story of Simon Sinek walking into a room with his then publisher and getting the book deal on the spot based on his TED Talk. So that happens, too. But to answer your question, I like to see one to two sample chapters. And what I don’t like to see is someone who sends me their entire manuscript, especially in the category of business or prescriptive nonfiction. I don’t know what to make of that as an agent right away because I’m really looking to develop something from the ground up with someone.
Lucinda Halpern (05:33)
And so much is going to change about that later manuscript after we do the roadmap together with the proposal. So write those sample chapters, I would say, and really spend your time on that overview and that bio and that marketing section.
Ann Kroeker (05:47)
The other pieces, which a lot of the writing style and the writing voice could come through in those places and should come through in those places even as they’re pitching the concept itself. So they should get an idea of how you write by looking at that if you’ve done it. Well, yeah. Well, you know, a lot of the way that you present a book in a saleable way is happening in those spots. Do you have any ideas or tips that they can start to begin thinking about their big concept, their big idea for their book and how to best present that? I mean, that’s kind of asking a lot.
How can they begin thinking about their big concept, their big idea for their book? How can they best present that?
Lucinda Halpern (06:21)
I think what’s most instructive sometimes is to give an example. And I noticed that you had one of our beloved authors, Ron Friedman, on your program. And I recommend that anyone listening to this go back and listen to his segment on Decoding Greatness. So what Ron does so well is the elevator pitch for his book.
I mean, I can recite it for you. It’s that we’ve all been taught that there are two paths to greatness practice and talent, but it turns out that there’s a third path that we don’t know about. And that’s the subject. It’s called reverse engineering. And that’s the subject of his latest book, Decoding Greatness. So that is so succinct. That is so surprising in its thesis. And it’s something that an editor or an agent can just get behind and say really quickly on the phone and elicit interest.
So when you’re thinking about your big idea, I actually sort of counterintuitively suggest that you become small. What is the most surprising element of what you have to say? So here’s a sign that you’re onto a big idea. It hasn’t been done before. And they say in the music industry, for instance, that no hit song is a new song.
Lucinda Halpern (07:28)
It’s a different spin on something popular and proven extremely similar in the book world. So that big idea should have sort of a landscape of popularity, of hunger around it. And then you present your unique pivot.
Ann Kroeker (07:44)
Tell me what you mean. More about that hunger around it. Say more about that.
Tell us more about the “hunger” around an idea.
Lucinda Halpern (07:49)
So again, I can give another client example of that. If there’s something that is a trend. Right. It’s really like the simplest way to think about it is a trend. And publishers are trendcasters. They are futurists. They have to think about books from the perspective of what is going to sell when the book publishes in two years and then for five years after that, because they’re interested in books that backlist. So ones that have that perennial potential.
Writers should be really savvy to what are the sort of trends that are happening in the media or on podcasts or Netflix series. Cults, for instance, like I represent a cult memoir. Why was I interested in that writer? Because it was a very fertile category and there were readers who are hungry for this kind of content. I represent Kate Flanders. As you mentioned, she wrote a wonderful bestseller called The Year of Less. When she came to me with her idea, we were just sort of like nipping at the heels of the trend of minimalism. And we could place her book idea in that category of there’s this new generation and they’re all interested in being minimalists, and there’s this hashtag about #vanlife.
Lucinda Halpern (09:00)
And editors love to see sort of things like that that speak to the trends of the day.
Ann Kroeker (09:06)
So then that points to comps. It’s got to be a lot of deep looking into comps because the comps—and for those who are listening and don’t know what I’m talking about, comps are what…You can tell them.
What are comps?
Lucinda Halpern (09:19)
So comps are comparative titles or competitive titles. However you define it really, what editors and agents are looking for in comps are ones that have published in the last two years with a number of Amazon reviews and within a ranking of 10,000. So in an ideal circumstance. What does that signal? That there’s really been popular sort of acclaim and response to this book and the book industry, like the Hollywood industry, is a lookalike business. Does this book look like three other titles that Penguin Random House has published successfully? Yes? Okay. Well, let’s put together a P&L that suggests how many sales that we can expect based on those titles.
And there’s always a magic and a gamble to it. Book buying is not a straight science. I wish it were, but it isn’t. Is there some new element that we can get readers excited about which would merit the higher amounts based on what we’ve seen from our P&L? So comps comes all day long. They should be in your pitch letter. They should be in your overview. They should be in your elevator pitch to an agent. Everyone gets more excited when they are anchored in the best seller that your book could be.
Ann Kroeker (10:31)
So even though the bestseller may be by a person who’s established they’re already famous, if you were writing in the world of fantasy and you cite The Hunger Games, you’re saying that’s okay because I know a lot of people advise not to.
Lucinda Halpern (10:47)
Yeah. So my advice is to really be…and It’s a combination and it is an art. You should try to find titles that are popular but not like Brene Brown, you know, not Glennon Doyle, because if you’re starting out and you don’t have that kind of platform and you haven’t published before, it’s really hard to make that case to a publisher or an agent. So really just go by—this is what Editors do, too—they go into Amazon and they search the keywords that your proposal has the key themes. And sometimes they find books that they’re not even familiar with that seem to have really performed, and then they dig around, they do their research.
If you’re really well-read in your category, which is one thing I wanted to emphasize to writers who are listening. If you’re not reading, you shouldn’t be writing. You need to be well read in your category to prove why your book is different. So you want to dig around and you want to sort of use comps to prove your unique sort of thought on that shelf.
Ann Kroeker (11:44)
So if there’s something unusual about some element of your book and you’re in a certain genre but there’s another book that can be fairly well known and something about the structure or its approach is an easy way to quickly with shorthand explain something about your book. Is that going to create confusion because it’s outside your genre, or is that going to create clarity because you’ve given an easy way for them to picture what is happening in this element of your book?
Lucinda Halpern (12:12)
I say the latter. I think that’s like a wonderful thing to do. I encourage that writers in their pitch letters be really specific about the characteristics that are similar. So if you’re going to use Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, which every memoir writer comes to me saying “I’m going to be the next Glennon Doyle,” then you really should have sort of the evidence for why. Like, “I’m going to tell my book in the format of” or “I share a voice with.” There have to be other, more specific characteristics than just saying my book is going to be hers.
The other thing that’s sort of surprising about Comps is that you can use other media forms. So I personally and editors love this as well, love to see: “Based on the success of the podcast XYZ Serial, I have developed a fantasy series that is in the same genre.” Or “Based on the success of all of these Netflix series, X, Y and Z…” Because readers are digesting content across formats. Right? That was another point I wanted to reach you on the marketing front about, you can’t just think about book readers anymore. In the same way, think about comps expansively.
Lucinda Halpern (13:23)
It’s suggestive of that hunger that we were talking about. What are people looking for most in content? It needed to be booked specifically.
Ann Kroeker (13:31)
That’s really good. And that’s very applicable. That’s actionable. They can put that in there, put that in their proposal. And I loved how you said to pepper the comps throughout the document. That’s a great tip. Thank you for that. So when they’re looking at their comps and they’re in the comps section trying to highlight these books, how many should they spotlight?
How many comps should they spotlight?
Lucinda Halpern (13:52)
So if you’re in your overview, I would say two to three. You don’t want to overwhelm. Right? Then an editor’s focus is all over the place. And in the actual comp section, you could aim for more. You could aim for five to six but again, using that all to say, here’s why mine is similar but different.
Ann Kroeker (14:09)
Yes, I have a template and I have a whole training program, and that is exactly how I have it set up. And just really clearly it’s similar in these ways and different in these ways. So I think that’s aligning with what I’ve been hearing. I’m so glad to hear you confirm it. I think that marketing thing that gets me thinking about the big word that every author gets frustrated with, but is inevitable. And that is “platform” and how we need to be able to present to you, an agent, and then you would then in turn show that to the publisher platform numbers. And you talked about a P&L. Some people might not know what a profit/loss is. If you can just quickly explain that. Just to clarify that.
What’s a P&L?
Lucinda Halpern (14:52)
Sure. No, it just means that they’re actually running a sort of spreadsheet in house. The editors who are thinking about acquiring a book for what can they expect to profit on this book? And then what are the expenses associated that they can lose? And then that net number comes out with what they’re able to offer.
Ann Kroeker (15:10)
What kinds of things are they plugging in to that?
Lucinda Halpern (15:15)
For profits, it would be sales. Whether you’re thinking book sales or whether you’re thinking subsidiary rights like foreign licenses that they’ve sold against the book and audio rights, all of that sort of goes into the computation of how much profit the book generated, and then losses would be what they have to spend on a book. So the marketing, the co-op for placing that book in Amazon or B&N, the design and packaging of that book. You know, it would be interesting. It’s like I’m spitballing here as a business owner myself, I know what a P&L is, but I haven’t actually looked at Editors don’t give agents access to their P&Ls, so I’m just sort of imagining what those things could be that they’re looking at.
Ann Kroeker (15:55)
Well, I would assume that part of it would be the platform of the author. So based on the numbers I’m seeing here, they probably can move this much product, but based on the email list or their reach on social media, or maybe they have an asset like a podcast, which we’re on right now, something like that? So I think that’s probably enough for them.
We don’t need to get into the weeds on a profit and loss statement or the process. But I am thinking it’s maybe a segue to talk about platform, platform numbers, and then how they might then also think about leveraging some of that for their marketing of the book and other marketing efforts that are unrelated to their platform.
Let’s talk first a little bit about platform. If you’re willing to, would you just tell me a number? I know nobody wants to get hemmed in, but when can an author know that he or she is ready to come to you with her query with a pitch. Whatever opportunity they have with you, where do their numbers need to be before you can even take a look?
To prepare for publishing, what platform numbers does an author need to have?
Lucinda Halpern (16:54)
You’re going to get different numbers from different agents. I also like to say that it differs for category and for the particular author that you are. So someone who’s a PhD or a doctor or finance professional or psychologist, there are a number of sort of more private industries where an editor is going to recognize your life has not been tweeting, right? Like, this is not who you are.
Whereas if you’re a journalist, it’s going to be how many bylines have you accumulated and what sort of publications and what is your Twitter following? How many people actually know who you are?
I just want you to know if you’re a business person and you’ve run this successful company, maybe again, you’re not so active on social media, but you have a YouTube channel that gets views and you also have a massive email list which publishers are more interested in than social media numbers. So I’m just giving you a sense of the diversity in the nonfiction sphere alone that we’re evaluating platform on. There is no one number.
Ann Kroeker (17:54)
[in a pleading tone] Oh, come on.
Lucinda Halpern (17:56)
I know, but I’m going to give it to you. I’m going to give you my ideal number to see. And really, I think if you are an expert, meaning you’re an expert by way of popularity and not by way of credential, then editors are really looking for numbers well into the thousands.
You know, 10,000 is really where I want to see you be before you even contact an agent. 10,000 on one platform: your email list, your YouTube channel, your Instagram following.
“Beyond the platform numbers, I want to see engagement”
And beyond that number, I want to see engagement. Because there’s obviously a lot of people who sort of—you can never really fake these services, but people do put enormous investment behind their social media. If they don’t have an engaged community, an editor’s really looking for that, too.
Ann Kroeker (18:46)
Lucinda Halpern (18:47)
That’s only for the experts among us, not for those who bring other sort of credentials in the writing or business space.
Ann Kroeker (18:55)
That’s a great distinction, and I appreciate that. How about novelists? Just briefly, do you feel like…I’m hearing more and more they need some sort of reach into readership. Where do you stand on that?
Lucinda Halpern (19:10)
Every writer, as you know, we’ve offered a number of events and courses and every writer comes to us with the marketing question. Right? It’s always “I’m starting out” or “I’m concerned, I don’t have the numbers. And how do I get there?” And these are novelists as well as nonfiction writers.
Novelists need to focus on getting their writing out there, their voice and their writing. Is it beneficial if they bring an Instagram platform of 25,000 people? Yes. Is it necessary? No. Their work is evaluated really on the page. You can have a complete unknown come out there and be the next Darling of the literary world, that’s how many successful novels are born. So it’s not a metric that is as important in fiction.
Ann Kroeker (19:56)
Very helpful. That’s very clarifying because I think we’re hearing some trends in the other direction, but this is really reassuring. So when a nonfiction writer is trying to work on their big idea, their big concept, you said a couple of things. One of the things you said was that you like to develop the project with the author. So now we’ve got this confusing, I think, not knowing when to come to you if they have the idea, but it’s not ready because you’re going to work with them.
Tell me what that looks like, if you’re going to be developing a project that they’ve already developed, or should they come to you at a different point?
At what point of a project’s nonfiction book development should they come to you or any literary agent?
Lucinda Halpern (20:31)
So honestly, if you’re going through the proverbial slush pile, the inbox has a vision and you’re blind querying. You should have as much of that material developed as possible. I don’t really want to receive a query letter about your book idea, and then you say to me when I request it, “I don’t actually have a book proposal.”
However, if you’re referred by an author in our network, which is really how the majority of agents are finding their clients, which is why I always say get that six degree of separation connection to an agent. Just because there are so many blind submissions coming at you, better to have an “in”—a step up—if you can.
So, if someone is referred to me and they just have an excellent source profile and they have the germs of a big idea, I will not require that they have a book proposal already developed to take them on. Is it a bonus, especially when my pipeline is really full and I just need to sort of be thinking about how I can work with that person effectively. Yes. Always better to have the book proposal, but I’m going to tear it apart.
Ann Kroeker (21:32)
I love it.
Lucinda Halpern (21:32)
I’m a ruthless editor. I love to get my hands what everyone on my team, at least in the literary is. It’s like why we got into this business and we’re trying to work and collaborate with you on what does the market want? How do we make this most commercial? Usually that’s a really wonderful sort of asset that agents bring.
Ann Kroeker (21:50)
Absolutely. If a writer can kind of just let go of their babies like the darlings and let you work on finding what’s really working, hone it down, man, you’re going to position them for success. That’s exciting.
So if somebody is trying to get that six degrees of separation from themselves to an agent and they’re living in the middle of nowhere, they have an opportunity, which is social media. They can connect by following and liking and interacting in the comments of something that somebody like you might create.
I know you’re very active on social media, almost all the channels, all the big ones. If they do that, though…I work with a lot of writers as clients, and they’re like, “Oh, I feel so silly doing that.” I give them an answer, but you give them an answer.
How can writers connect with agents?
Lucinda Halpern (22:34)
It was on my list to bring up. And just a note on social media. I am social media phobic as they come. And the reason that I recently forayed into that is because that and building an email list and really going through this arduous process of learning how to market is what’s going to help me guide my authors better in that way. So I’m like learning this step by step on the ground with writers who are doing the same. And to answer your question, yes, there are all these different avenues now.
So back in the day, honestly, before I even started my career as an agent, people were mailing physical manuscripts to agents’ offices, and there were interns reading these things. And now we’re in an email world, like, you’ve got to capture people with a subject line.
If you can’t break through someone’s spam filter or gatekeeper or agency slush pile, absolutely you should turn to social media as a way to sort of short pitch your book. Is it uncomfortable to do it publicly in an Instagram comment? Yes. But what do you have to lose here? The business of writing, it’s this business of rejection, and you’ve got to get out there and swallow your fear.
Lucinda Halpern (23:43)
And if you believe in your book and know it will find a home, there is no avenue you shouldn’t try. My assistant gets LinkedIn messages with people. Hey, can I query this? And when that happens, I’m probably giving away—I’m about to face a flow of LinkedIn messages from out of this podcast—but when that happens, she comes to me and says, “Do we know this person? Do we want to look at this?” So it’s a good way in. And you and I connected through Instagram. So this is a great way to find contacts.
Another way, if you literally cannot think of a single author friend to ask, “Can I get a conversation with your agent?” you could write an author you admire. Not the Tom Clancy’s of the world, someone who sort of has a lower profile, but a book that you love, and you could get into a dialogue with that person. And at the right moment, you could ask for an introduction to that person’s agent.
I know that these are sort of tougher strategies for new writers starting out, but as an agent, this is what we do all day long.
We hustle, we network, we’re tenacious. That’s how I suggest writers behave as well, to get their work published.
Ann Kroeker (24:52)
There’s a lot there. And I know there will be some shy writers who feel like that just feels so invasive, maybe, and they feel funny about doing that. But you framed it so well: the belief in your project, like, do whatever you can to get it out there.
And, you know, I’m thinking if you can articulate it in that one sentence, that elevator pitch or less, really, it’s the hook. If they can hook you, then that’s actually good practice. Even if the person shows no interest, you actually are practicing your hook over and over again, which is also a good skill.
How can writers hook agents in a query (or at least entice them to read it)?
Lucinda Halpern (25:25)
Yeah, that’s exactly right. Even through the closing of a query letter.
I’m sorry to interrupt you from that, but I know that writers are always interested in, like, “What are the errors that you see in query letters?” And too often I see this sort of passive, like, “Please let me know if you’d like to receive my proposal.” That can work. If your pitch is so strong and compelling, I’ve got to pick it up.
But if you add a sense of urgency around it, like “You’re one of very few agents that I’m querying. And so if you could let me know your reactions as soon as possible,” that’s one tactic for the more gentle among us that doesn’t require being invasive.
Or “I have several meetings scheduled with agents. I’ve gotten a number of requests on the heels of this article that just published. I think now is the time I’m envisioning this publication.” I mean, there are so many different ways to be a little more forceful in how you close your query letter or pitch than just sort of passive about it.
Ann Kroeker (26:20)
You got me thinking about two different things at the same time. So let me see. Well, I’m going to ask about the project itself. How can we know if our project is too niche?
Because I know people like to go…they like to either pack everything they know into one book and it’s too big, too sprawling. But then you have them focus so much, sometimes it can get too niche because they keep hearing niche down. Niche down or niche down. How can we know if we’ve gone too small?
How can we know if our book is too niche?
Lucinda Halpern (26:45)
Yeah. So that’s a great question. I think the first place to look is comps. Do your research. What are the comps telling you? Well, there have been five books about this, but nothing that’s ever been what I’m trying to say, which demonstrates that there’s an audience.
The second thing I recommend is find your personal audience. If you can’t prove that audience, whether fiction or non, to an editor—and yes, platform is definitely the way we look at that, right?—but, “I’ve tested this with a focus group.” You don’t have to put it into that sort of business language, but: “The response that I’m receiving when I give events,” “The number one question people are asking me after I give the talk,” this suggests that you have road-tested your concept and that there is response.
So the book writing, you’re thinking about your reader first and foremost. You’re not thinking about the story that you want to personally get out there for your own catharsis or your legacy or your mother. It’s about what readers are telling you they want. And so being demonstrative of that in your pitch to agents and editors is just so important. I start to pay attention when someone tells me, “This is when I hear time and time again in my ten years of practicing X.”
Ann Kroeker (28:02)
So good. Because this is going to lead up to a question I have about how much are writers allowed…how much are they allowed to put out there prior to pitching a book?
This is a huge question that comes up all the time. If I publish some articles or blog posts or podcast episodes and I basically speak essentially the same information that would be in a chapter, is the publisher going to say, “Well, you already published that. I’m totally not interested,” or are they going to say, “Wow, you really validated your idea? Cool. Let’s go forward.”
Talk about that a little bit, about how much is too little, how much is too much, or how to handle that whole delicate balance of sharing content generally.
How much of book idea or content are authors allowed to publicly share (via social media, in talks, as article, etc) prior to pitching a book?
Lucinda Halpern (28:44)
Like, you have a blog and you’ve already talked about this a lot. Is that what you mean versus a self-published book?
Ann Kroeker (28:49)
Not a self-published book. I’m talking about just sort of testing your ideas. Like how can we test them in a way that is not basically sending the book out in advance, or is that okay?
Lucinda Halpern (28:58)
I think that the rule of the day is like the more free content, the better. And one of my authors, Paul Jarvis, had a really wonderful way of putting this: Teach everything, you know. and I really believe in that so much. I’m sort of getting chills as I repeat it. I believe in that so much. And editors believe in it, too. Because again, if they see that audience clamoring for your ideas, there are so many books that are based just a repurposing of existing content. So that’s a huge draw.
There’s a big mistake—and again, I’m focusing on nonfiction. If you’re a fiction writer, you don’t want to throw your whole story out there. Right? But if you are, again, proving the audience for your content, there is a way of repackaging it as a book.
And many of those readers I mean, the belief is because the data is that those who digested your content online, free, or in a podcast, are going to buy your book. So it almost doesn’t matter that they’ve seen it before. It’s better they’ve seen it before.
Ann Kroeker (30:02)
Well, that aligns with Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller. He has a whole chapter about that that we tend to hesitate to give away when giving more free content out actually benefits in the long run. So I just read that. I just happened to read this.
Leave us with an encouraging word, give us a little vision for what we should be focusing on with our work. Especially—again, let’s kind of focus in on nonfiction authors—leave us with a little send off to feel good about what we’re doing.
Give us a vision for what writers—especially nonfiction authors—should be focusing on to prepare for publishing.
Lucinda Halpern (30:34)
I mean, I am all about encouragement and motivation. I just think there’s way too much doom and gloom that new writers are hearing as they enter, as they’re standing at the gates of publishing. So I always often say, like, it doesn’t matter where you’re based. People say, “I’m not in New York. I’m not connected to the industry.” As you and I just discussed in this interview, in our virtual world, there are lots of ways to connect with agents and with authors, and we’re just starting to do more content online. These are all ways to get your name out there.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If your book is so powerful and so needed, you will find the right home for it.
But before you just think that in your own head, you road test it. I always say, go to your most skeptical, trusted friends, right? Let them kick the tires of what isn’t working about your idea, and let them say to you, “This isn’t new. I’ve heard it before. What’s your new spin? What is additive about the literature that you’re presenting to the world?”
It’s that combination by doing your homework first, and then once you know that it has real potential, just beating the bushes to get it out there.
Ann Kroeker (31:45)
Thank you, Lucinda. How can people best stay in touch with you?
Lucinda Halpern (31:49)
Oh, great. So our website is lucindaliterary.com, and we have a newsletter we send every week on Thursdays. It’s full of value driven content, tips for writer, secret strategies, interviews with film people. It’s all sorts of content. And as you know, and we offer now a ton of events for authors and coaching programs for writers and courses. So the website is definitely where to find me.
Ann Kroeker (32:17)
That sounds great. And this is different from being agented by you. This is just like, educational.
Lucinda Halpern (32:22)
You’ll find everything on our website, everything we do: how to query us. We have a number of really wonderful agents who are actively building lists that we send, literally. So please go to our submissions page and see what they’re focused on. And definitely check out all of the different resources we offer for writers.
Ann Kroeker (32:37)
Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today.
Ann Kroeker (32:42)
I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. You can access everything related to the interview at annkroeker.com/lucindahalpern. Lucinda has a gift for you. It’s her essential guide for writers. The guide is called “The 6 Things Every Book Pitch Needs.” The instructions for downloading that are at annkroeker.com/lucindahalpern
[The 6 Things Every Book Pitch Needs: www.lucindaliterary.com/subscribe].
Let me know your best takeaway from this interview.
Thank you for being here. I’m Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach.