Step Up Your Pen Game: How to Help Agents and Editors Find You
By Dawn Michelle Hardy
Whether speaking at a conference or having one-on-one conversations, I’m often asked about what I look for in prospective clients. Over the past 5 years I’ve tweaked my response as I continue to learn more about content development and platform building. When I first started as an agent, I was passionate about wanting to represent celebrities. I just had to have an A-lister memoir on my roster. I learned soon after that most celebrities don’t write their own books; they pay someone else to. And one thing I knew was that I wanted to work with talent that actually loved to write.
I had to reevaluate my potential client list and I started by pinpointing what attracted me to celebrities in the first place. Several things stood out immediately: passion and talent; national reach; magnetism and influence. Celebrities become who they are because they love and are passionate about what they do, they are exceptionally good at what they do, and large quantities of people are drawn to them because of what they do and how they do it. I realized I wanted to find writers with those same qualities.
Writers who love to write, and are actually good at it, don’t need to have the perfect book idea right off the bat. Passionate writers are always writing something, meaning there’s always new content that can be developed further. And, through their writing, they are continuously building their platform by engaging with bigger and bigger audiences. When a writer is sharing their voice, and is well received by the masses for doing so, my role as an agent is to help create their next conversation piece in the form of a longer narrative, i.e. a book. The agent-author relationship is collaborative. We can brainstorm and dig deeper into the writer’s knowledge and interests and compare that to trends and opportunities in publishing. The book will be something that connects in the middle.
Recently, I garnered a deal for a book of essays for one of our clients, Clay Cane, an entertainment editor for BET.com. While working on his proposal for another book idea, Clay would constantly send me links to his latest TV appearances, opinion pieces, and byline articles from a variety of outlets including Huffington Post, MTV, CNN and Gawker. He consistently managed to keep himself in the media covering entertainment and pop culture, as well as commenting on breaking news stories. As his agent, this level of activity excited me. He was growing his platform by lending his voice across various mediums. His national platform continued to grow exponentially as he directed his first documentary Holler if You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church, which garnered him a GLAAD award nomination. We decided to switch gears and came up with the idea to do a book of essays. This came from his voracious writing and dedication to sharing his voice.
Another client at Serendipity is Washington Post sports writer Kent Babb, who penned an article that became the #2 most shared long form article of 2013. As a huge NBA fan I read his article on Allen Iverson and was curious about what happens next for The Answer. The article whet my palate and I knew it did the same for other fans. I contacted Kent with an idea that was an extension of the article he wrote. His debut book, Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson became one of the best sports books of 2015 and was shortlisted for a PEN Literary Award.
The secret to my success has now been to find bloggers, journalists or lay persons who have furious pen game. As an agent who is building her list in non-fiction it’s important that I represent someone who is a strong, smart and consistent writer. That blogger who manages to land byline articles with The New Yorker, The Undefeated, Salon, Medium and Jezebel while still dedicating an entry a day to his or her own site; the sports journalist who pens 3-5 articles for their newspaper a week and knows all the players in that space; or the socially conscious big mouth who engages their audience in the same way the Beyhive goes hard in the paint for Beyoncé.
Recently, I had the chance to lunch in Chicago with blogger, activist, and digital strategist Luvvie Ayaji, author of the upcoming book of essays I’m Judging You which is set to be released this Fall. Luvvie is a well-respected humor and entertainment blogger. She is a contributing editor and columnist for TheGrio, writes Scandal recaps for Vulture, and has written for XOJane, Essence, EBONY, Huffington Post, Clutch Magazine and Uptown Magazine. She has been blogging for 13 years and her writing becomes the talk of many a lunch, brunch, and booze session. She speaks the truth in such an engaging way that I became a fan instantly. During our lunch, Luvvie shared with me how she got her first book deal. Her now agent reached out and said he was a big fan of her blog and loved her writing. Gosh! I was late to that party, but I am not surprised someone scooped her up.
Writers like Clay, Kent and Luvvie are the type of voracious writers that land on the radar of agents and editors, and most often than not, will land a book deal if they want one. As agents we are always combing the web looking for fresh talent. If you have a voice, an area of expertise, a strong opinion backed by intelligent writing, odds are you are closer than you think to authoring a book. The road to discovery is in your writing frequency and audience engagement. That’s how we will find you.