Ask the Expert- Agent John Talbot

Jessie: In New Hampshire, neck deep in knitting projects to stave off the cold.

Today we are delighted to have literary agent John Talbot visiting the Wickeds today. John happens to be the agent for all of the Wickeds and as such helped each of us to navigate the complicated world of proposal writing.  Proposals involve several components. We’ve covered the basics over the course of the month but are pleased to get John’s take on them. 

JohnTalbotJohn has twenty-plus years of book publishing experience as an editor and literary agent. As an agent, he has placed books at imprints of all of the major publishers including Doubleday, Random House, Bantam, Dell, Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, HarperCollins, Morrow, Grand Central, St. Martin’s Press, Putnam, Berkley, Dutton, NAL, Wiley, Macmillan, and McGraw-Hill. His clients include several New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, multiple Agatha Award winners and nominees, a National Book Award Finalist, a National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee, and a New England Book Award winner. He is a member of the AAR.

Prior to becoming an agent John spent over a decade with Pocket Books and Putnam Berkley (now part of Penguin Random). At Putnam Berkley he rose to the rank of Senior Editor and worked with such global bestsellers as Tom Clancy, W.E.B. Griffin, and Jack Higgins, as well as then-rising literary stars such as Tom Perrotta. He edited over a dozen national bestsellers and had five New York Times Notable Books for the Putnam, Berkley, and Riverhead imprints. He began his editorial career at Simon & Schuster/Prentice Hall Press. John received his B.A. in English Composition from DePauw University and also spent semesters at Washington University in St. Louis and Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan.

Thanks so much John for taking the time to be with us today!

John: It’s a pleasure.

JessieLet’s dive right in! Synopses can be such a challenge to write. What do successful ones include?

John: Synopses should be short, about a paragraph. They don’t need to be detailed in a way that includes every plot twist. I want to know the premise for the series and who the main characters are, a little bit of the setting and milieu, and the general trajectory of the plot. It’s not exactly like the back cover copy of a book, but it’s close enough that you can read a few of those to get yourself into a mental rhythm and then try it on your own. I would use cover copy, descriptions from the deal listings, since they are really compressed (usually one long sentence!), and reviews from Publishers Weekly to get the blueprint down. But of course try not to be too influenced by the marketing or review descriptors…. Another way to look at it is that it’s going to be similar to what your query letter description should be.

Jessie: Characters are arguably the heart and soul of a successful series. What makes for compelling character sketches?

John: Most of the characters I enjoy are aspirational, they are likeable, yet they have a tough circumstance to overcome, and they have a – and I don’t like this word exactly but it’s the only one I can think of – they have sass. They are everyday people who have obstacles to overcome and must rise to a challenge, they must find inner strengths they didn’t know they had. And they are not static. A good main character has the potential to become a friend to the reader, someone she can identify with and root for. Also, no one works independently of someone else. The characters are a pretty tight mesh, and everyone affects everyone else. To me they have to feel real, like people I know or might see every day of my life. You might be giving depth to that person I see every day but don’t know really well. You’re inviting me into that person’s life. It’s personal, even intimate.

Jessie: What do you like to see included in the first three chapters? What’s best left out?

John: What do you want your reader to experience when they pick your book up in the bookstore? What do you want them to experience if they download a sample electronically? This is a dress rehearsal for that experience. You’re barely going to have time for the plot itself to kick in — though you do need to have a body within those first three chapters – so what you’re really doing is trying to hook the reader on voice and milieu, and character. Readers can tell pretty quickly whether they’ve found a voice they’ll want to spend time with; it happens within the first few sentences. A proposal is a gift to the writer in the sense that with a shorter commitment, you can go over those first pages until you get the voice just right, rather than completing several hundred pages and finding you have to start over.

Jessie: We all know writing is an art but it’s also a business, even at the proposal stage. For some writers one of the most confusing and challenging parts of the proposal package is the marketing survey and comps component. Could you give us some pointers on crafting this section?

John: The marketing section, which can be very brief, is about showing your ability to find and bring an audience to your work. If your premise involves a unique setting, how many people visit this setting each year, and is it a locale with a strong book audience, with bookstores and specialty shops that might carry the book? What about national and local organizations that promote (for example) the craft or activity that your main character engages in? What is the national participation number for this activity and what are the membership numbers for the top organizations, and how could you as the author help your publisher to reach these potential buyers? Then you bring it back, most importantly, to the book world. Are there successful titles and series in this subject area? How might your series be similar and how might it be different to those?

An easier way to do this is not to have the marketing section separately, to just fold the crucial parts of it into your author bio. Social media is vital now, so you need to have a presence on the Web and show how you could expand that around the books; that obviously fits right into the author bio. Then your own participation in the relevant activities and organizations is helpful, and of course any writing credentials, groups, awards, and publications (as long as they are in the same genre).

Specifically on comparables, you want to point out three or so series from authors with the publishers you are targeting, whose readership might also find your work appealing. One or two comparables might involve a similar subject that you are adding a personal twist to, one or two might involve just a milieu or voice that might attract some of the same readers.

Jessie: What is the single best thing a writer can do to improve the possibility of her proposal being offered a contract?

John: Flexibility, responsiveness, and an ability to work quickly and reliably are all important in getting a start and for the long haul as well.

Keep at it and be willing to re-work a proposal. There are so many moving parts to a good piece of fiction that it is almost impossible to get everything in balance the first, second, or even third time. But eventually you do reach that point of balance and that’s when it’s time to go out.

Work with a spirit of collaboration on the final product. In other words, craft the work in whatever setting you work best, but when it’s time to shape the final draft be sure you have your support group of first readers and writing group such as Sisters in Crime, and that you are willing to think hard about prompts and coaching from your agent and an editor.

The times when I sell a book or proposal untouched or unmodified are far fewer than the times an editor has made a suggestion to me and I’ve found a writer willing to work towards that suggestion. Editors know the market deeply and have passions and a vision for what they might want to see two years down the road. As a writer you’re looking for hints and guidance on how to fit your work into that vision. My job as an agent is to be the connector between the two. In practical terms that means sometimes you the writer will need to open yourself up to modifications that might range from tweaks to wholesale reworking.

Be willing to adapt to the needs of an editor. I’ve seen many good writers have a hard time getting published at first because they are stuck on a narrow vision for their work, and don’t realize that an editor may have a broader vision that improves the book and gives it an appeal to a wider audience, or that an editor has a very specific vision, and they are looking for someone who can retool or craft something new to fit that vision.

Jessie: And before we let you go, are you currently open to queries? If so, how would those interested do so?

John: Yes. Via email on the submission page of the Talbot Fortune Agency website is best. A brief cover letter including contact information (and phone number!), the synopsis and author bio, and the option for me to request a full proposal.

Thank you for reading this! Happy writing to all of you.

25 Thoughts

  1. I’ve heard your name for years, John, not just from the Wickeds. Great to meet you and interesting interview.

    1. It’s my pleasure, and I am so glad you hosted this interview. As far as I’m concerned the Wickeds are the perfect example of what a really good writing group can be — everyone is supportive, generous with advice and information, and we are all learning from each other.

  2. Thank you, John, for joining the Wickeds today. I was the series Master Class at Crime Bake and found it enlightening. For many years, we aspiring authors have been encouraged to write and then pitch the first book first, not the series.

    Yet, I can see the advantage to having, not only an idea for the main plot points of at least two subsequent books, but even the second book largely first-drafted as we learn to write faster. I’ve also heard of agents asking, “So, what else do you have?” Is having another proposal ready to ship a good idea, even if you don’t have a first draft for that particular book yet?

    Also, Wickeds, thank you for this informative series. I loved how additional authors added their experiences in the comments. I may not comment on most posts, mostly because Gravatar and I have a love/hate thing ;), but I’m reading. 🙂

    1. ABW — Always Be Writing! Yes, I would always having something in the works and/or ready to show as you go out with your first proposal. The other thing to keep in mind about proposals — they’re not just selling tools for mystery series. You can do a short, informal proposal before beginning a stand-alone novel, and use that proposal as your own guideline, or to help you choose between one project and another. It’s not even something an agent or publisher would need to see, it can just be for you or for you and your writing group to share insights over. A proposal is a shorthand way of keeping your goals and guidelines front and center, and it should let you know where your book will fit in the professional sense, i.e. in the bookstores and vis a vis other authors.

      1. Thank you, John. A proposal can be more guideline than outline, if the o-word makes a person’s teeth itch. Thanks again. And thank you, Wickeds!

  3. Excellent interview. John, you not only shared valuable tips and explanations in the interview, but your comments have also offered some very pertinent points for those of us beginning proposal writing. Thank you. Debra

  4. Wonderfully helpful info! Thank you, John, and Wickeds for clarifying how to put together a proposal. I like the dress rehearsal comment–voice + milieu + character. That seems to cover it.

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