57 – How to Land a Literary Agent, With Barb Roose

Posted April 12, 2021 | Laura Christianson
The Professional Writer
The Professional Writer
57 – How to Land a Literary Agent, With Barb Roose
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A literary agent helps hopeful and established authors achieve their publishing goals. But finding an agent who’s a great fit can be a formidable task.

Barb Roose, an agent with Books & Such Literary Management, unpacks three important factors that will speed an author’s goal of receiving a “yes” from an agent:

  1. A wow concept
  2. Compelling writing
  3. A strong platform

(A transcript is at the bottom of the page)

How to Land a Literary Agent, With Barb Roose | Episode 57 |The Professional Writer podcast with Laura Christianson | BloggingBistro.com

WOW concept

Massive Action Step:

  • Look at your wow idea and ask yourself: “How does my wow concept demonstrate a fresh twist?”
  • Then develop a 3-sentence hook based on your wow concept.

Compelling writing

Massive Action Step:

Answer these questions:

  • What is my reader’s felt need?
  • What is my reader crying about?
  • What is my reader praying about?
  • What is in my reader’s Amazon shopping cart?

Strong platform

Barb defines platform as “the audience that’s connected with you over your message.”

Platform is “not a wall that keeps authors out of traditional publishing,” she adds. Rather, it’s “a protection of an author’s dream.”

Massive Action Step:

  • Do Barb’s “red light, yellow light, green light” exercise to assess where you are now, in terms of platform building.
  • Use the same method to assess your wow concept and to evaluate how compelling your writing is.

Three ways to build a platform:

1. Buy

Investing money to create products that will help you connect with your audience, such as producing online courses and virtual summits, and selling tangible and/or digital products.

2. Build

Expanding your audience through everyday efforts, such as building your email list, blogging, podcasting, video, social media posting and engagement, running Facebook and Instagram ads.

3. Borrow

Aligning yourself with a much larger, more influential platform that will send their audience to your online home (aka, your website and email list). This includes writing for online magazines and/or online devotionals, speaking/presenting at virtual summits, guesting on popular podcasts whose message aligns with yours, advertising on bookbub.com).

Which should I prioritize? Buy, Build, or Borrow?

Barb suggests asking this question:

Is this audience (that I am buying/building/borrowing) engaged enough to support me when it’s time for my book launch?

Building a platform can feel overwhelming, even for experienced, multi-published authors. Barb encourages us with these words:

“Do all that you can, but not more than you should.”

About Barb Roose

How to Land a Literary Agent, With Barb Roose | Episode 57 |The Professional Writer podcast with Laura Christianson | BloggingBistro.comBarb is a literary agent with Book & Such Literary Management, representing non-fiction and adult fiction. She loves partnering with authors to achieve their publishing career goals.

With experience as an author, award-winning pharmaceutical sales representative and executive leader in the megachurch environment, Barb embraces the challenges and opportunities that agenting in Christian publishing offers.

She welcomes queries that meet agency submission guidelines at booksandsuch.com.

Listen to Barb’s “Better Together” podcast and check out her blog, books, and other resources at BarbRoose.com

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Read the Transcript

How to Land a Literary Agent, With Barb Roose

Laura: Today I am pleased to welcome a literary agent. Her name is Barb Roose. She’s a literary agent with Books & Such Literary Management https://www.booksandsuch.com/, and she represents nonfiction and adult fiction authors. Hi, Barb. Welcome to the show.

Barb: Thank you, Laura. I am thrilled to be with you and your audience.

Laura: We’re happy to have you here. I have not had a literary agent on the show yet. And so you’re my first. I have been watching some of your videos on YouTube. I have been following your blog posts on the Books & Such blog. Everything that you have put out so far since you’ve been with Books & Such has so impressed me.

Barb: Thank you very much. I am so pleased to be a part of the Books & Such team on the agent side. I have been an author and so I’ve been a client of Books & Such since 2014. As an agent, I have had the beautiful privilege of learning the ropes from our owner, Janet Grant. And so I am thankful for all of the wisdom and the other agents who are part of our agenting team and the entire agent staff. This is an incredible group of women who have taken me under their wing.

Laura: Barb, you like partnering with authors to help them achieve their publishing career goals, which is the job that most agents have.

I love the fact that you have experience as an author. You are also an award-winning pharmaceutical sales representative — that’s interesting — and an executive leader in the megachurch environment. So you have quite a wide range of skills.

Barb: Yes, my dad, however, that was a little troublesome for him because when I was in pharmaceutical sales over 20 years ago, and I let him know that I would be leaving that career, he was scratching his head and he couldn’t figure out exactly why I would leave a job that I had so much success with. And I chuckle now because I’m like anyone else. There have been ups and downs in the personal and professional areas of my life, but I love how God can use all aspects of our journey in order for us to do the work he’s called us to do in that season. So, yes, those drug rep days… those skills…they really come in handy.

Laura: One of the things that I know about literary agents because I have several literary agents who are friends and acquaintances and colleagues, is that you absolutely love partnering with hopeful and established authors who are very serious about their publishing journey. By hopeful, that would mean a pre-published author or someone who has never been traditionally published?

Barb: That is correct.

Laura: An established writer is somebody who had one or more books published.

Barb: Absolutely. When I look at the client base that I have and the client base that I want to grow over the years, I would love to walk with someone from their first to 2nd and 3rd to 15th to 20th to 40th book. Yet there are times when there may be someone who just has an extraordinary story, and that story needs to be told because it is that extraordinary.

So I do recognize that some of those clients may come across those special ones. But for the most part, I am interested in creating an opportunity for successful careers for authors.

Laura: The big question that a lot of authors have, particularly those who you would call a hopeful author or a pre-published author is, I have an idea for a book. I have a proposal or I have a manuscript and I want to pitch it to a literary agent. What can I do to prompt that literary agent to say yes to my proposal as opposed to a “no thank-you.”

What are some tips that will help you, as an agent, to say yes to a prospective client?

Barb: That is a great question, Laura. I want to begin with asking your audience to think about taking a road trip across the country.

Road trips, by nature, aren’t just something that you hop in the car in the spur- of-the-moment. It just makes the journey very rocky. So for anyone who is thinking about a career in traditional publishing, envision the journey as if you’re driving from one coast in the US across to the next coast and all of the preparation that’s required before you ever get in the car.

This is the same type of approach to beginning the process of contacting the literary agent. Some of the things that we want to do before we get into the car to begin our publishing journey is something I call a wow concept. There are lots of books on the market, about all types of topics. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” like King Solomon said a long time ago.

But a WOW concept is a concept that is a unique and fresh twist on a topic that we’ve already been reading about.

The example that I often use are Hallmark movies, even if a listener hasn’t watched a Hallmark movie. Generally they are known for basically having the same type of story, right, Laura?

Laura: Oh, yes. I was on vacation in November of 2020 and we got cable at the place where we were staying. We don’t have cable at our house. We just have one of those antennas that you stick up on top of your house and it gets three channels. And so we were watching the Hallmark Channel while we were on vacation. It was the Christmas season — late October early November, and they had Christmas movies playing back-to-back-to-back 24/7. One day I sat down and watched three in a row.

Barb: You knew generally that the storyline was gonna be the heroine or the hero. They had had a lost love. They ended up having to come back to their hometown or they lost their job. Then they would meet. There was a reason why they couldn’t be together, and then they got together in the sweet moment. And then something would happen just as they were getting together and then happily ever after. But Laura, why did you keep watching the movie?

Laura: I did know what to expect, and after a while I had to stop watching because it was like repeat, repeat, repeat the same storyline over and over. But there was something intriguing about each story. It took me to a place I hadn’t been or it had quirky characters. It was a delight. It felt refreshing.

Barb: Yes, and so in your experience, you’ve identified a few nuggets that are around that wow concept. The fresh twist is sometimes quirky characters. The fresh twist is sometimes a unique and unexpected setting. The fresh twist is unexpected event in how characters come together. So even though Hallmark movies generally all follow the same template, what keeps us in front of the television is there’s just enough of a unique twist that makes each story distinct from another.

And as a literary agent, when I open up a query or when I review a proposal, that is what I’m looking for. It really begins with that wow concept. And so if you’re listening today and you have an idea for a book, I want you to look at your concept and say, What about this is fresh?

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of book proposals about wives whose husbands have left them and the wives lose their job the same day, and they have to start over now. That is definitely a dramatic storyline, but right now what we need is something that will be fresh. Something that will be a twist, such as a wife ends up with an opportunity to be a caregiver to somebody who has an extraordinary skill, like I’m just kind of making that up.

But I really want to encourage readers to take their time in developing what we would call the hook or the storyline that the plot is hinged on. And how do you know that you’ve gotten your hook? The litmus test is: can you explain it in 2 to 3 sentences? Basically let’s picture it to be the key that goes in the ignition. When you have your hook — your wow concept in 2 to 3 sentences — that lets you know that you’re on the right track.

The second thing is what I call compelling writing. I was trying to figure out how to make this a little more practical. What is your reader’s felt need? That’s the first question. And when I say this, I’m talking to fiction and nonfiction authors. The question I ask is, What is my reader crying about? Because that’s that felt need. It’s an urgency. That’s the difference between a book that we’re eventually going to buy and a book we have to buy right now. What are they crying about?

The second is: What is your reader praying about? This is about the spiritual growth. This is about where they’re inviting God… are hoping God’s going to work in their heart. So what are their prayers? And again, I know that one skews more towards nonfiction, but fiction authors can think through that as well.

And then third is: What is in their Amazon shopping cart? Because this informs what are the solutions that he or she is seeking instead of engaging in the process that God’s calling them to engage in. And so that informs compelling writing.  And, yes, there needs to definitely be, if you’re a fiction writer, good fiction, craft. If had to give a couple of things to be aware of for your audience, I’ve noticed that there there’s a tendency to begin with a lot of back story at the start of a novel. We want to begin the novel in the present action, because when we begin with a lot of back story — an info dump –that slows down the pace of the novel. So we want to start in present day. We also want characters that have some uniqueness to them, as I’m a reader first, before I’m an agent.

So let’s make sure that we can picture the characters in our minds. Give us some description of the characters. Give them a couple of quirks that helps us identify them more.

And if you are a nonfiction client, one of the things that I’m looking for is as you are writing your prescriptive nonfiction, your how-to book, your instructional and spiritual growth. Is there a framework or a model that helps a person identify the journey you’re taking them on? How will they know if they are winning? And so the best way to make sure that that that journey is evident is to have some kind of framework or a model so that they know that they’re making progress.

Laura: Barb, I can tell already that I’m going to be going back and listening to this episode three or four times. I’m taking notes and I can’t keep up with you. And I want to ask a zillion followup questions. But I know you have another appointment coming up very soon, and you and I still have to have a discussion about platform.

Barb: I wanted to cover these two first and then leave some breathing room because I just backed up the truck there.

Laura: I love what you said about diving right in, especially when you’re writing fiction, diving right into the middle of the action and not giving a whole lot of back story. I am a huge fiction reader. I’m not a fiction writer, but I’m a fiction reader. I started reading a book yesterday. And the first words in the book where, “This was the day she would die.”

Mmmm. And I’m like, okay, that hooked me in about five words. I want to find out who this person is, and they have not revealed that yet. I’ve read 10 chapters, and I still don’t know who the person is, because now they’re going back and doing the back story. But I want to find out. Why did this person have to die today? What happened? I had so many questions just from that one sentence. And so you can hook a reader in just a few choice words and dive right into the action

Barb: Yes. And that is exactly what we want in fiction. There has to be that conflict. And we also have to know that that character needs to have a goal, if somebody knows they’re going to die that day. I want to know how they’re going to try to keep themselves alive.

But when we have too much backstory or on the nonfiction side, when we have too much groundwork — too much background — it slows things down for a reader and they feel like they have to plow through a lot of information… what we call info dumps in order to find out what’s going on.

There are patient readers who will do that, but let’s give a gift to our reader by keeping the story moving with characters that are really trying to fight for something.

Laura: Barb has made two points so far about things you can do that will help an agent to say yes to your idea. You need to have that wow idea and be able, in 2 to 3 sentences, to develop that hook for your fiction or your nonfiction storyline. And you need to have very compelling writing. I love what you said about what’s in their Amazon shopping cart. That made me stop to think.

And third, you have to have a strong platform. Could you define what platform means to you? Because that’s a term that gets bandied about at every writers conference I’ve ever been to. And a lot of people don’t have a clear idea of what that means.

Barb: Well, there are so many different definitions. The first time I ever heard “platform” was I was at a conference and Michael Hyatt. It was the speaker the year that he came out with his book, Platform.

I stood in line. He signed a copy. I promptly lost that copy while I was at the conference, and I tweeted him and he sent me another one. But… but.. platform? The way that I define it is, this is the audience that you have connected with your message. That is platform.

So it’s more than just people who know who you are. It’s more than just putting things out there. It’s the audience that’s connected with you over your message. The reason why this is important is, if we go back to that analogy about your publishing journey being a cross country trip, platform is the gas that is in the car. And so when you think about how much gas is in the car, it’s going to determine the distance that you’re going to be able to go and in some ways how fast you’re going to be able to go.

Because when you don’t have much gas, you don’t really try to go that fast. You want to make it stretch. Platform is one of those parts of our publishing journey, and what it says to a publisher is, This is how we know how successful we can be with the book right now. Ultimately, publishers want to be successful with books because this is a business.

Platform is not a wall that keeps authors out of traditional publishing. That is often how it’s characterized. “Oh, I don’t have a platform, so I can’t traditionally publish.”

In some ways it is a protection of an author’s dream. I’ve known many first-time authors over the years who had smaller platforms but had great ideas They ended up with a publishing contract, but because they did not have an audience that was large enough, they had very, very low sales for their book.

The only thing worse than not ever being published is to have your publishing dream underperform. That is a heartache. My first book that I published many years ago underperformed. So I have a passion for making sure that authors not only get a book contract but have a successful book launch.

The book contract cannot be the goal. Successful launches and good sales — that’s the goal. That’s why platform is so important. Does that make sense, Laura?

Laura: That makes sense to me, especially what you said about viewing platform not as a wall that is going to keep you away from traditional publishing, but that it’s more of a protection of an author’s dream.

Barb: I really care about people who embark upon the journey and again for me, as somebody who is a full time author, I understand the ups and downs and the emotional investment of the process of traditional publishing. It is emotionally volatile at times, so I use the screening tool of red light, yellow light, green light. I ask everyone to evaluate where they’re at.

A red light is not stop, but a red light means, You know what? I might not be on the right track. I might need to retool.

A yellow light is, I’m making progress but I still have a ways to go.

And a green light is, yes, I’ve got some momentum and I’m moving forward.

I ask individuals to rate their wow concept red light, yellow light, green light. On compelling writing I ask them to rate as well. And so, if you’re listening, give yourself an opportunity right now to self-assess where you’re at and also on platform in traditional publishing.

We want folks to be yellow, as close to green as possible, because if a publisher feels like they can be successful, that’s one thing. But I want that author to feel like he or she can be successful because their best buying audience is the audience that has already said yes to them in their email list as well as their social media. That is their top buying audience.

Your top buying audience isn’t the organizations of the people that you belong to. And even though influencers are important, those influencers are also not going to drive your sales. What’s ultimately going to determine the success of your book is the number of people that are already in your audience.

I want to talk with you for a few minutes about some different ways that authors can achieve or build their platform. This is where I want to talk about a framework that I share with prospective clients.

There’s three words to create platform. There is build there is borrow and there is buy and I’m going to do them out of order.

Let me start first with buy a platform. That’s number one. Buying a platform is where a writer, in essence, they are spending money in order to connect with an audience to share their message. This looks like online courses. This looks like virtual summits. This looks like products for sale, whether they’re tangible products or digital products. A hopeful author is putting out their own money investing in creating products, and by doing that, they are growing their email list.

Laura: When you said buying a platform, what first came to my mind, Barb, was people who purchase, say, Facebook ads to try to ramp up the number of followers to their Facebook page Would you consider that a viable means of buying a platform?

I know there’s a lot of pros and cons with that, and one of the cons that I’ve heard is that when you are buying fans, so to speak, you can have millions of fans, but they may not be the correct people who need to hear the message that you have to share.

Barb: And I would agree; I would. Even though that’s financial output, I would slot that under number two, which is building a platform. The reason why I put that under build a platform is because that is when the authors efforts are solely focused on their own real estate, whether it’s their social media pages, whether it’s their website or what I call online home. So this is any activity that a writer does his or herself to try to get followers. So it could be Facebook ads. It could be Instagram ads.

It could be lead magnets at a website. It could be any type of social media posts. Blogging. These are all author-generated, writer-generated efforts in order to draw an audience.

These are legitimate ways to create platform. I am not poo pooing any of them. We just want to look at them to make the determination as to what’s going to be the best fit for someone as they’re trying to reach their publishing goals.

If a person wants to do Facebook ads and they do them well, that’s fantastic. The question that they have to ask themselves is, Is this audience engaged enough to support me when it’s time for my book launch? That’s a question that we all have to ask pretty regularly. The same thing with an email list.

I track my email list. I make sure that it’s growing. But I also have to ask myself when I’m doing my weekly newsletter, and I’m watching my open rates, Is this audience going to be engaged enough to support my book launch?

And so I want to challenge those who are listening. If you want to build your platform, meaning, if you want to put all of the effort in on growing your online real estate, when you grow it, you want to make sure that it’s engaged. Are they engaged enough to support my book launch?

Laura: Because there’s kind of the cold, warm and hot audience where some people don’t really know you. They’re just finding out a little bit about you. And then there are those that know you and they’re interested in what you have to say.

And then the hot audience I would classify as the ones who are definitely engaged the most to go out and purchase your book when it releases.

Barb: Yes. And so, if you are listening to what Laura just said, you want to hold on to those three kinds of audiences and monitor that in all of your areas, whether it’s your newsletter, whether it’s your social media. You want to pay attention to, is your audience trending hot and cold or warm?

Now there’s one more way of building platform, and this one is my preferred of the three. I call it borrow a platform. And the reason why I call it borrow is because this is where a writer/author aligns themselves with a larger, much larger, much more influential platform. And that larger platform creates a path for their audience to come back to my online home.

So this isn’t just me guest blogging somewhere on a platform. But rather, this is where this particular platform says, “Hey, this is Barb. This is what Barb has written, and as a next step, we want you to go back and visit Barb at her online home or download Barb’s resource that she has available.”

There’s a few monthly outlets that I write for, and they have mailing lists that are beyond the hundreds of thousands. And the reason why [I write for them] is I love their platform. I love that I get to be a part of it, but they allow me to borrow their platform and so I can reach more of an audience all at once, and they directly link to one of my resources. At the end of every single one of my articles, it is especially profiled. There is a photo. There is a direct link, and I can tangibly see a noticeable increase in my Amazon rank. I see the jump noticeably every single time.

Think about some of the larger platforms that are consistent with your audience, whether it’s a virtual summit (those are all the rage now), whether it is an online devotional, whether it’s a large podcaster that is consistent with your message, and pitch yourself to them. Make sure that you’ve got a great message to pitch.

But pitch an interview. Pitch a talk. Pitch a product that you would like to share with them. And when they say yes to having you as a guest, make sure it is very, very clear that the next step is coming back to your online home — to your website — so that they can download whatever resource you have.

Having a larger platform than your own that is willing to help promote you is going to give you the fastest results of the three different methods of platform — building, buying, and borrowing.

Bookbub.com. I wasn’t so much of a bookbub person until Mary DeMuth, who’s a fellow agent and friend of mine, told me to check it out. I went and all of a sudden I have for $35…. Now this would fall into buy a platform but also borrow in some ways. But for 35 bucks, I ended up with literally hundreds of followers in one week and I was like, Wow, what is happening here?

There are devotional websites. There are online virtual summits. If you’re a nonfiction writer, as an agent, I’m going to want to see that you have some type of speaking platform.

So those are all ways for you to borrow platform, connect with the audience and have them join you at your online home.

Laura: So, we should be doing all three of those in your opinion, buying, building and borrowing, or some kind of mashup of the three?

Barb:  I’d say prioritize. I love to follow the ABC system. Pick which one is going to be A for you?

A Is going to be the one that is no- negotiable. If everything in your life goes up in flames, the A is the one that you’re going to keep doing, even from a hospital.

B is the one that you’re going to add to a when seasons are slow and you have time and you can do it.

C is the one you’re going to do as you have time or as you have resources, I suspect for a lot of people that’s where buying a platform will come in, because it’s expensive. For me, A is borrow. That’s my A. I prioritize writing for large, large-scale influencers for me.

The next one then (for me) would be build. I do a regular newsletter. I make sure I regularly post to social media, but for me, C is buy.  I don’t do as much, but I do some. I will host an online course periodically. I do have coaching services, but though that’s not where I’m counting on my platform growth to come from.

Laura: I think it’s going to be a little bit different for each person, because when you were saying that, I was thinking for me, my number one would probably be build and then borrow and then buy. For some other people that I know, buy would be right up right at the top. So it kind of depends on what you’re writing about, what your message is, and who your specific audience is that you’re writing for.

Barb: Well said; that’s a great recap.

So, yes, if you’re listening, you have latitude.  And we trust that, as you are thinking and praying through, you will come up with what that mix looks like for you — what that order looks like for you.

Laura: Do you have any parting words of wisdom that you can leave with my listeners? And also, where can we go to find out more about you and about your agenting?

Barb: First I want to say thank you again, Laura, for the invitation to be here with your audience. It has been so much fun talking about book life. One thing that I want to share with you is that this is a journey. There are twists and turns, ups and downs. It’s all part of the road, but I want to cheer you on for saying, “Yes, this is the journey I want to take.”

There are so many of us out there who are supporting you, like Laura and many others. And so I want to encourage you with that.

And the second encouragement is, this is coaching that I give myself, and it’s also coaching that I share with many others. And it’s this. Do all that you can, but not more than you should.

There are all kinds of options out there. I do not want you to get overwhelmed thinking you have to do everything today. Think and consider what your priorities are and do what you can, but not more than what you should.

If you want to find out more about me and Books & Such, and specifically what I am looking for as an agent, you can go to booksandsuch.com. We’ve got a page there that features all of our agents – our fabulous agent team — and you can make submissions there if you do have a project that you would love for me to review.

Laura: You also have a personal website. If we want to find out about the things that you’ve written or other things you’re doing in your personal life, where would we go?

Barb: Well, thank you for that information. It is at barbroose.com, and if you’re there, my favorite lead magnet that has been so much fun sharing with so many is, if you’ve just been slogging it out and going through a tough time, I have a free e book there. It’s titled, Taking Care of You: 101 Self-Care Tips for Wilderness Seasons. This was a self-care just list that I made for myself during a really tough season in life. It’s hyper linked to all kinds of resources, but it’s about physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational self-care.

Laura: Barb, I love your energy! I am going to try to do a transcript of this episode because I was taking notes like a crazy person the whole time you were talking, and wow, there’s a lot to think through. My listeners deserve to have a transcript of this episode so that they don’t have to take so many notes… they can just kick back and print it out and learn from you. Thank you so much, Barb, for joining us today.

Barb: It’s been an honor, and I am thrilled that we had a chance to talk.