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Agent Terry Burns On: When NOT To Stand Out From the Crowd

Editor's note: I am declaring November
2010 to be "Agent Guest Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be
posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 15: Today's guest agent
is Terry Burns of Hartline Literary.

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Terry Burns is an agent with
Hartline Literary.

When
we talk promotion, having something to set us out from the crowd is a
good thing. Authors often do promotional events and book signings in
costume or use various promotional items to attract attention and draw
readers to them. I like western wear, but when doing promotional events
or when going to a conference I dress a little more flashy than usual
for the same reason, so people will remember me and to draw people to me
at a signing.

It’s a tried and true principle; just watch ads on
television. When we want people to remember us it is a good thing to
stand out. But is it always a good thing?

Not when submitting a
proposal or query. I get proposals on colored paper or with huge type on
the cover, maybe bound or with fancy covers. Anything to attract
attention. This is NOT where we want to attract attention.

On
Chip MacGregor’s blog, he was talking about people making exorbitant
claims about their book. They were trying to stand out verbally. Doing
things in a book proposal to stand out raises flags from the very
beginning. Such things shout from the rooftop, “I am a newbie!”

We
can’t hide the fact that we are a new or unpublished writer if that is
the case, but the goal is not to advertise it. The goal is to have the
person evaluating the proposal run across it after they are favorably
impressed and be surprised with the professionalism of the presentation
for a new writer.

So what’s the goal? The goal is not to stand
out but to have our proposal look exactly like the carefully polished
submission of someone who has been doing it for years. The goal is to
have the writing as polished and ready as we can make it, to look at the
submission guidelines to make sure we are pitching the right person
then to send them exactly what they want precisely how they wish to
receive it. I have people argue with me about what I ask to see. Would
you think that is more or less likely to make me look at something other
than what I’ve asked to see?

Our Agency submission guidelines
help make sure the manuscript itself is ready to go. I’ve even posted a
checklist on “Is it ready to submit?” on my own website,
and in the bookstore at that website I even offer a little ebook on
“Pitch and Promote like a Pro” to walk someone through the process step
by step. So, with us doing all we can to help make a very professional
proposal and pitch, why do so many still feel like the best thing to do
is stand out from the crowd? To that newbie trying to make the cut I
say, “Stand out in your promotion; make your writing stand out with the
quality; but your proposal is not the place to stand out.”

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The quickest way to get an agent's attention
is a professional submission. That's why you need
Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed.

It has dozens of query letter examples (novels,
nonfiction, short stories, kids books and more).

Want more on this subject?

  • How to Write a Query Letter.
  • What Should You Write in the "Bio Paragraph" of a Query Letter.
  • Why Your Manuscript Can Get Rejected, by Hallie Ephron.
  • 10 Hidden Gifts of Rejection Letters.
  • Google Alerts and Agents.
  • Confused about formatting? Check out Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript.
  • Read about What Agents Hate: Chapter 1 Pet Peeves.
  • Want the most complete database of agents and what genres they're looking for? Buy the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents today!
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