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The Published Author Podcast

FINDING THE RIGHT AGENT AND GETTING THE BEST DEAL WITH A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER

Authors who aspire to getting picked up by a traditional publisher should find an agent first, given that about 80 percent of books from publishing houses are sold by agents.

Agents are the ones with relationships with editors, developed carefully over the years. An agent knows what a publisher is looking for, and how to present an author and their work to a publisher.

But how do you get an agent, and what exactly is their role, apart from—of course—sending your work to the right publisher?

AN AGENT DOES MUCH MORE THAN CONNECT AUTHORS WITH PUBLISHERS

Wendy Keller, owner of the highly successful Keller Media, answers these questions and more in this episode.

Speaking to Published Author host Josh Steimle, Wendy explains that today’s literary agent acts like a business consultant for an author. The agent will spend time working with an author on the book idea and, in some instances, will help with their book proposal.

“Curating the content and pre-determining the content’s marketability are really important factors,” explains Wendy. “It's my responsibility to determine whether a book is going to be successful once it hits the marketplace. So I'm gauging the author's platform, which is an indicator of whether or not the book will be successful.”

 

Keller Media is a literary agency, speaker's bureau, and content marketing consultancy focused on nonfiction, business, science and self-help content. Keller Media has placed more than 1800 book deals all over the world, including 17 New York Times bestsellers and nine international bestsellers.

Wendy, who has been an agent for almost 30 years, has published more than 30 books, including the bestselling Ultimate Guide To Platform Building and the Secrets Of Successful Negotiating for Women.

Agents specialize in building relationships with editors who eventually acquire an author’s manuscript. For this reason, focus on one or two genres, and in Keller Media’s case they represent authors of business, science, and self-help books—nothing else. 

HOW TO FIND AN AGENT

There are different ways of finding an agent who can sell your book to a publisher. Here are some methods:

  1. Reach out to your contacts and ask if they know any good agents. Be sure to thoroughly research any referrals
  2. Carry out your own research. Look at who the agent has published and the categories in which they specialize. Don’t send a query about a self-help book to an agent who specializes in education.
  3. Jane Freidman, a publishing expert with expertise in business strategy for authors and publishers, recommends taking out a one-month subscription to PublishersMarketPlace.com. It will give you a fast education into what the publishing world is like, and is one of the best places to find an agent.
  4. Hire someone to help you find an agent. CopyWriteConsultants.com is a good place to start.

AUTHORS GET PUBLISHED BASED ON THEIR ABILITY TO MARKET THEIR BOOK

Wendy says the corporatization of the publishing industry means that today traditional publishing is about the author's ability to promote the book.

“I used to say it's 90 percent platform 10% content. Just like everything goes from extreme to extreme, at this point I would say it's 25% content and 75% platform, platform being jargon for your ability to sell the book.”

Platform is about the number of people who are engaging with you and how big your fanbase is growing. 

WHY GO WITH A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER?

According to Wendy, the main reason to work with a traditional publisher is the number of people involved in the process, along with their experience, qualifications, and knowledge. A publisher will spend time fleshing out an author’s idea, so that they are sure the book will be competitive.

“You have this opportunity to be supported, to have your editorial content vetted and approved by many people in the process,” Wendy says.

“You have access to marketing backgrounds like mine and the publisher’s that are far more extensive than anything you will ever get from any of the self-publisher hybrid houses. I'm familiar with that model. In some cases, it's the right thing. But in most cases, it's not because the work is going to be inferior and the marketing is going to be slapdash.”

Next, while an author-entrepreneur is working on their book, a publisher is busy preparing the market. For example, they can approach Amazon to let them know that a big business is set to be published, and Amazon will buy according to the expectations of the salesperson. 

Working with a publisher means that there’s a system in place working for the author, ensuring that the supply and resources are working for the online and bricks and mortar outlets. 

THE IMPORTANCE OF A BOOK PROPOSAL

A book proposal is essential in the world of traditional publishing. A proposal for a book is to the publishing industry what a business proposal is to a venture capitalist, explains Wendy. She says: “You're trying to get a stranger to write a check for your idea, it’s got to be such a precise document.

Wendy can tell after reading the first two or three paragraphs of a proposal whether a book idea is strong. Even if an author has a great idea, if their proposal is weak and doesn’t answer all the questions editorial, sales, and marketing will ask, a publisher will likely reject the proposal.

Some agents, Wendy included, help authors write their book’s proposal. Wendy also assists with building parts of an author's platform that will either turn them into a paid speaker, bring more consulting revenue, or bring customers to their product or service—whatever it is that they're selling. 

In fact, says Wendy, today’s literary agent acts like a business consultant with an author. They spend time working with an author on the book idea and then their proposal. Next, a publisher will spend time and money on fleshing out an author’s idea so that it is truly competitive.

Owner of Bookproposalworkshop.com, Wendy teaches authors how to write amazing proposals. Without a strong proposal you won’t sell a book, unless you're world famous, then maybe you can get away without having a proposal

One of Wendy’s client’s is nationally famous and worked in Donald Trump’s government, and even he has to write a proposal for his book, so there’s no way around a proposal. 

For the book proposal workshops, Wendy brings in a team of proven New York editors and goes over the ‘Why’ of an author’s book. She explains: “A lot of times authors don't understand how the publishers are looking from their perspective at the content that's coming in.”

In this episode, Wendy also talks about:

  • The key aspects of an author’s platform that must be developed well before their book is written
  • How previously self-published authors tend to fail when they seek a traditional publisher
  • Author success stories
  • How the growth of Amazon has shrunk the advances publishers will offer
  • Why Wendy selects one publisher over another when pitching a book
  • Why she will occasionally decide to work with an author who doesn’t have a platform but whose book will contribute positively to society.

Learn more: If you appreciated this episode, listen to:

Make Writing Your Nonfiction Book Your Top Priority

And:

No Agent, No Followers, But She Still Landed a Book Deal

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ABOUT THE HOST

The Published Author Podcast is hosted by Josh Steimle, founder of Published Author. Josh is a book author himself and his article writing has been featured in over two dozen publications including Time, Forbes, Fortune, Mashable, and TechCrunch. He's a TEDx speaker, the founder of the global marketing agency MWI, a skater, father, and husband, and lives on a horse farm in Boston. Learn more at JoshSteimle.com.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Josh Steimle:

Welcome to the Published Author Podcast where we help entrepreneurs learn how to write a book and leverage it to grow their business and make an impact. I’m your host, Josh Steimle.
Today, my guest is Wendy Keller. Wendy is the founder of Keller Media Literary Agency, Speakers Bureau and content marketing consultancy focused on nonfiction, business, science and self-help content. Keller Media has placed more than 1800 book deals all over the world, including 17 New York Times bestsellers and nine international bestsellers. Wendy herself is the author of more than 30 books, including the Ultimate Guide to Platform Building, and the Secrets of Successful Negotiating For Women. Wendy, welcome to the show.

Wendy Keller:

Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here, Josh.

Josh Steimle:

So give us some background. Well, tell us a little bit more about your agency, your background, how did you get into being a literary agent, and who exactly do you work with, what types of clients do you have?

Wendy Keller:

Oh, thank you for asking. That's a great question to start with. So my agency specializes in nonfiction books only, and at this point in history, we handle only business, science and self-help books. That might seem like a huge perspective, but agencies specialize, in that we build relationships with editors who acquire the kinds of books that we sell. And so, my relationships are with those types of editors. It's really important when you're looking for an agent to find one that does the same kinds of books that you're writing. People pitch – somebody pitched me this morning on her illustrated book for children, I don't do those, for instance. And someone else pitched me on a celebrity memoir, and that's great, but I don't handle them, even if I think they're going to sell to the public, it's not what I specialize in. So that's what I do, and that's been a really successful – most of my clients are speakers, authors or consultants already when they come to me.

Josh Steimle:

All right. So give us some more background on you and your career as an author yourself.

Wendy Keller:

Well, so I won my first writing contest in fourth grade, and I stayed with that, I have a journalism background. I ran the largest weekly newspaper for Spanish speaking people, even though I speak almost no Spanish, in Los Angeles, and that was the crown of a career that had included being a beat reporter, being a reporter, being an assistant editor of a magazine and working for PR Newswire. So I had this great background in journalism, and then I decided to stay home with my son when he was born and work from home. I started working for an agent, I didn't like working for him after a while because I found out that he wasn't treating the writers fairly. So I thought, well, I’ll become an agent, it can't be that hard, I knew nothing, he had taught me nothing about the agent thing, and I just started. And I like sales, and so it became easy in 1989. And then in ‘92, I switched to not selling screenplays anymore, I’d started in screenplays because I live in LA, and I said, you know what, books are much faster to sell, it's an easier decision for a publisher to buy than it is for an entire studio to make a decision to invest. So that's what I did, I decided to just work in nonfiction books.

Josh Steimle:

That's fascinating. So how did you get started with the books, I mean, who was your first client, how did you figure out how the industry worked?

Wendy Keller:

This is a great story that I really love. So I had this fabulous, fabulous screenwriter named Barbara, and I had sold a couple of options for her work. She was really gifted, but the problem was, every single time I spoke to her, she would be on the phone and there'd be freaking dogs barking like crazy in the background. It was so annoying, we couldn't have a call, and that was the hardest part of dealing with Barbara. And kind of spitefully one time, I said, you know, you should write a book on dog training. She raised Weimaraners and sold them as a secondary job because she couldn't make a living as a screenwriter with just options, nothing ever got produced, although she was brilliant, in my opinion. So she goes, oh, I actually have, it's holding up the leg of my desk. I was like, yeah, right. She sent me this manuscript back in the day, it wasn't digital, literally had an indentation on the – the one leg of the desk had been held up by this. And I sold it about...

Josh Steimle:

She wasn't kidding.

Wendy Keller:

She wasn't kidding. I sold it about four days after I got it, and I was like, wow, that was super easy. And I got so excited that that was the end of it, I just decided to focus on books. Slowly, over that time, I closed out all my screen clients, sold them, and decided to focus on just books. But that was my first deal, and it was called something out, something raising your puppy, I forgot the whole title. But that was great, and then books were – books are made through such a series of executive decisions, but they're not subject to whimsy. One reason I don't handle fiction is because the editors, you have to write the whole thing, then the editors have to read the whole thing, then they have to take it to their editorial board, it takes forever. Nonfiction, if you write a really brilliant perfect business proposal, which is really focused on the content of the book and how well it's going to sell, it's so easy for an agent first to determine if it's right for them, and if they can sell it, and for how much. And second of all, it's really easy for the publisher to make a solid assessment. In fact, I would say that the business proposal is for a book to the publishing industry, what a business proposal is to a venture capitalist; and for the same reason, you're trying to get a stranger to write a check for your idea. It’s got to be such a precise document. I spend a lot of energy training and teaching people how to write those amazing proposals, because without a strong proposal, you will not sell a book, I mean, unless you're world famous, then maybe you can get a [inaudible 00:06:00] around it. I have a world famous client right now, who is – well, not world, but nationally famous client, and even he asked to write a proposal, you know, big shot government official, worked for Donald Trump, and this is a great book, it's the experiences that he had in that administration, and even he has to do it. So can't get around it.

Josh Steimle:

That's interesting. I’d like to dive back into that a little bit later, but that first client though, you said, you sold that in four days, and you said it was easy. Now, I’m assuming there wasn't a proposal there. Tell us more about that, I mean, how was that easy, how did you make it?

Wendy Keller:

So she had finished the book, this was 1991, probably 1992, might have been ‘92, because I quit doing screenplays in ‘92, I think that's accurate, started the agency in ‘89, I know that. Anyway, so I sent – I didn't know that she needed a proposal back then, and you maybe could have gotten around it. I think she could have gotten more money, if I had had her write a proposal. But I did it, and I sent the manuscript, obviously photocopied, so that it wouldn't have the indentation in it, and I sent that to her. I sent that to four or five publishers who I knew did pet books, and one of them bought it. So that was crazy, they called me, like, I mailed it, they bought it within four days of receiving it.

Josh Steimle:

They must have really liked it, I mean, that's amazing.

Wendy Keller:

Yeah, but that was a different time in the industry when books were bought based on content as opposed to based on marketing.

Josh Steimle:

Well, tell us a little bit more about that, this content versus marketing conundrum.

Wendy Keller:

Well, I think when Benjamin Franklin was alive and publishing, publishers bought books that were beautiful or beautifully written. You look at some of the things we consider classic, Steinbeck, Hemingway, etc., and you think, oh my gosh, this is beautiful – obviously, those are fiction, but these are beautiful books, Napoleon Hill, this kind of thing. And you could say that these books had merit, and what's happened with the corporatization of the publishing industry is that, increasingly, it's about the author's ability to promote the book to the point where I used to say, it's 90% platform, 10% content, and I would say that, just like everything goes from extreme to extreme at this point, I would maybe say, it's 25% content and 75% platform – platform being jargon for your ability to sell the book, the number of people who are engaging with you, how big your fan base is growing, etc. All those things make up a platform. So it would probably be more accurate to say, it's maybe 25%, especially in business books, where it's really like sales management, marketing leadership, right? So those are the main categories of business books. So we want to find someone who's got something new to say about one of those categories, which has become increasingly difficult as people rush to self-publish, whatever harebrained idea they came up with that morning, and thus distort the industry. The challenge, not that you asked, but the challenge of self-publishing, not from the author's perspective, but from the existential crisis it's caused in publishing, is that now there are 33 million plus books on Amazon available for sale in all categories, all genres. When I started in the industry, we did 32,000 nonfiction books a year, including textbooks, so then reference books, and all this other stuff. Obviously, the internet has taken away a lot of the how to and reference books, but because of those 33 million books, the consumer can't differentiate between a properly written well vetted book published by Penguin Random House, and the book published for $10,000 of the author paid to some, we've gone out of business publishing house somewhere. So the problem is that the consumer buys a book that might look like it's got the best fit for what they're looking for, they read it, they realize that it's garbage, and it doesn't actually solve the problem. And in the middle, the person is talking about the aliens that landed in their backyard or something, and they go, books are stupid, I’m just going to go on TikTok, if they're young, or YouTube, if they're older, and say, I’ll get the answer there. So they don't want books in general, which makes it harder for the authors who are coming forward with legitimate content to attract that disposable income that would have been dedicated to books.

Josh Steimle:

So that's one of the things that other guests on the show have said about working with a traditional publisher is that it forced them to write a better book.

Wendy Keller:

Better book every time.

Josh Steimle:

Other than that, what are some of the other reasons that you would recommend somebody seek out a traditional publisher versus self-publishing?

Wendy Keller:

Thank you. The first thing is the number of people involved in your process. So people say, well, I can get my own cover designer, or I’m a good artist, I’m going to do it myself, and they get out a pencil and do a stick figure, or, they, all the time – or they write the book and think it's genius, and then they hire some high school English teacher who knows their cousin to do the edits and thinking that that's the kind of editing that publishing does. So curating the content and predetermining the content's marketability are really important factors. So as an agent, it's my responsibility to determine whether or not a book is going to be successful once it hits the marketplace. So I'm gauging the author's platform, which is an indicator of whether or not the book will be successful. A lot of people go and just rush to self-publish, and they have no concept, and I actually had an argument, I guess, with somebody last week, who said – he sent us a query for his product, and he then two days later, he sent a letter that said, okay, my book is published, and it's like, well, then why are you querying us. So the process, the agents – so agents like me, I don't know about everybody, but agents like me, help the author write the book, so that it – help them write the proposal so it will get sold. Second of all, we help them, I help them, understand how to build the parts of the platform that will either turn them into a paid speaker, or bring them more consulting revenue, or bring customers to their product or service or software, whatever it is that they're selling. So agents have become more business consultants, that's part of it.
The second thing, and you're not going to get an agent, unless you're going to be able to sell it to a publisher – the publisher is going to spend time and money and resources, helping flesh out the idea, so that it's truly competitive, not just, oh, I think it's competitive. And the other thing I think that the publisher does is they spend that time while you're writing the book, seeding the market, so their credibility is on the line with each book. But they can go to Amazon and say we have this important A list business title coming out, and Amazon will buy according to the expectations of the salesperson, which means if you do get lucky with your marketing, or you do hire a publicist, now, when you're on some major news show or CNN or whatever you're on, now, suddenly, there's the resources in the system to supply books. Because if a consumer can't get a book, there's only a 20% chance they'll come back and find it somewhere else that they're buying through traditional retail model. So you have this opportunity to be supported, you have this opportunity to have your editorial content vetted and approved by many people in the process, and you have access to marketing backgrounds like mine or the publisher's that are far more extensive than anything you will ever get from any of the self-publisher hybrid houses. And I’m familiar with that model, in some cases, it's the right thing, but in most cases, it's not, because the work is going to be inferior and the marketing is going to be slapdash.

Josh Steimle:

So you mentioned that you work with your authors on a proposal. Do the authors ever come to you with their proposal already ready? Do you prefer that they come without a proposal or?

Wendy Keller:

Don't care. I’ve been teaching proposal writing since ‘94 I think. I run the I’m the person behind bookproposalworkshop.com which is a – it's open to anybody who has a nonfiction idea, I teach them sequentially. The extraordinary thing about bookproposalworkshop.com is that the people who have graduated, astonishingly, about six out of 10 either got an agent or got a publishing deal already of my people who've graduated. So what we do is bring in a team of proven New York editors, and then I explain the why, because a lot of times authors don't understand how the publishers are looking from their perspective at the content that's coming in, and they're like, well, my idea is great. Well, yeah, but here are the factors that they're actually thinking about, which you probably don't – you've never even considered. An editorial decision is not made by the editor who likes the project, it's made by a team, sales, marketing, other editors on the team, the publisher, the sponsoring editor – there has to be economic sense in that acquisition, and that's done through a very specific set of questions that the house, the publishing house will ask the editor to defend in that proposal. If the material's already in the proposal, it accelerates the speed at which an agent can acquire it and sell it, which makes it much more desirable at that first initial step.

Josh Steimle:

When somebody comes to you and says, hey, I want you to be my agent, how quickly can you tell whether this person has something worth looking at, or, if there's not a chance?

Wendy Keller:

So if they are in the category – so we use a portal now, because it's just too much. So, you know, ridiculous numbers of people approach agents that are successful, and I’m sure, that's true for all my peers. And because of the New York Times thing, and because of the speaker thing, and I’ve had a remarkable amount of success launching speakers, so, because of that, I tend they probably get a large number of proposals, not like CAA, but CAA isn't going to take most people. So for an independent agency, we get a lot of queries. So they go through a portal, and it's at kellermedia.com/query, and they fill out this thing, and they upload their material. So that material gets uploaded, and then somebody looks at it. If I do that myself, which I do sometimes, I can often tell in the first paragraph that they're wrong, and never going to sell it ever, not just with my agency, but ever. Yesterday, I got two queries through my LinkedIn, a lot of people connect with me on LinkedIn, and I saw their two proposals. And one of them was – she's a life coach, and she's naked, and there's a lot of naked pictures in the proposal of this young woman, and that's how she's going to be a life coach. And I’m thinking, probably not going to sell, especially not after the Me Too Movement. And who's going to do a four color spread of some unknown kid who's got no following? And so, that's probably not going to work. And then the other one was some guy who literally took a pen, and do stick figures of himself running up a mountain, talking about how hard life is. And that was a pretty easy no also. Obviously, those people get ripped out of the system quickly. We always try and be polite and respond and actually give them feedback. But then there's the number of people who are retiring, this is a big group of people who want to write, people who are retiring from one career and decided that they're so brilliant and so famous that they're going to write another business book, so that they can share their knowledge and become a speaker and consultant. And if your knowledge base is, you know, you were in Cleveland, and you were the assistant manager of a fast food restaurant, probably, even if you were the best manager ever, you probably aren't going to be able to write the business book on management that you would be able to write if you'd work for a Fortune 100 company for your entire career. So there's little self-perception which causes some problems, especially if you have no following. If that manager had 200,000 people in his network, he was doing podcasts, he was writing articles, he was a Forbes contributor, he had a mailing list, he had something the platform things that go with it, I would be all excited. But if you have no platform, and no real experience, and no content that I haven't seen 32 billion times in my career, then you got no chance, and I’ll figure that out in seconds.

Josh Steimle:

So what are some examples of clients you've worked with, who, or normal people, they're not the CEO of a Fortune 100 company or something, but they're normal people who came to you, but they had a great book, and you were able to take it through to a deal?

Wendy Keller:

So I had a lady come to me with a project about – comes to mind, because I've just sold it two months ago. She came to me with a really long book, I think it was like 180,000-word, nonfiction book on how to take care of your seniors, how to take care of seniors, your parents, so how to take care of your parents. And it was way too long, and we rejected it. I didn't personally see it. We have a system, and my system rejected it, it's way too long, it's a book and not a proposal, we need you to do a proposal. And one of the options I say is come to bookproposalworkshop.com, and you will have my team of editors and the whys and also, okay, fine. So she actually came, that's great, and she went through the process and I don't actually look at their material, I have editors for that, so I don't actually look at it, until the very end when it looks like a proposal because that's what agents do, we look at proposals. And it was really good, and I thought this woman has the right parts and we did some work together to build her platform, and I sold the book for more than she had paid for the course and for the business consulting. I sold it – it probably took me three weeks, I would say, from the day I listed it, to sell it. And she got more than her money back, and her consulting business is hourly, and it's tripled. So I’m like, that's a great success story. And she's just a nice lady who has some great ideas.
I have another guy who lives in Bern, Switzerland. He's a professor at Professor Emeritus at the psychology department at Bern University, and he came out with a really important book about suicide here, somebody who has no platform in the United States, but it was really fabulous content. He wrote a beautiful proposal, very, very clear, and his content is so incredibly unique. He didn't get a big advance, but it's an important book for society, so I took it on, even though it's not going to be a $50-100,000 advances I prefer. So he was able to do something, he's writing it now, it'll be out next year. Those are examples of people at two ends of the spectrum, one had a brilliant idea, one had a big, big hairy mess, and they had different potentials, they have different places. It used to be that I would only work with people with huge platforms and that's fine, but I think there were some important books I was letting slip away, that the world really needs to be exposed to. So there are certainly, now we do some midlist books too, if they come in clean.

Josh Steimle:

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So when you say huge platform, what's a huge platform versus a smaller platform?

Wendy Keller:

I have the honor of representing Roger James Hamilton, who has like, I don't know, 16 million entrepreneurs around the world on his mailing list, and he's got a multibillion dollar company, he lives on his own island in Bali. I mean, he's like an amazing human being. Roger's book, The Millionaire Master Plan, he's a great client with a great platform. One of the producers for last year's, not last year, before COVID, I sold a book by Brant Pinvidic, who was one of the producers for the Biggest Loser, incredibly brilliant man about how to pitch quickly in Hollywood, he's got an enormous platform. I represented Jack Canfield, when he was just getting started, he had the first chicken soup platform. I represent Jeffrey Hayzlett. I represent a lot of people who came in and had a big platform, and I was able to help them grow it even larger. Because a book will bring a massive influx of new people, but if you don't have the system to capture them into your business or into your, whatever you're selling, your speaking, whatever, then you'll find that it has been a waste of time. People say, I’ll do that when the book comes out. You have to have it set up before the book releases, which is basically before I can sell the proposal. So if you set up a platform, you have good content, then you build the proposal, then I sell the book. Usually it takes me somewhere between four and six weeks to sell a book. You got the contract in your hand signed within that time period, then you have nine months to 12 months to write it. You better have a good piece of your platform, so the revenue and the new leads are already flowing in before you sign that contract with the publisher. Because once you're on schedule to write a book, it becomes this huge elephant sitting on your shoulders, it's really distracting.
So if you have those systems, then when you're writing the book, I have some little tricks I teach my authors where they can use the book to start to get whatever their goal is, more speaking engagements, more consulting, starting at that moment – I have a book that just released two days ago, Friday, book just released on Friday, and he's already getting inquiries to speak because of the way we positioned him in the market so that he's going to get that kind of following. Because the truth is, right now, the days when everything I sold was over $100,000 for the author, those days are largely gone unless you have a Roger James Hamilton platform. So for a regular author, who I assume will be most of your listeners, for a regular author, you're looking at 15-25,000 depending on your platform as a typical advance. So you better have a system that's going to make you money on the other side, [inaudible 00:24:46] wasting your life because you will be paying – being paid eight cents an hour for the time it's going to take the write and market this, if you don't.

Josh Steimle:

Got it.

Wendy Keller:

Long answer, short question.

Josh Steimle:

Yeah, that was my next question was, what are the trends that you've seen with advances, and you kind of answered that. But advances have shrunk over the past few years, right?

Wendy Keller:

So in prior, when I had the big office overlooking the beach in Santa Monica, and I had a training center for speakers and all this other stuff, and a big huge staff, I was selling 14 to 20 six-figure books a year, plus a couple of heart books that I really felt were important. And I had other agents selling the little bread and butter, crummy books, the little $15,000 advance books. And then in 2008, the world got shaken up by Amazon. Okay, so that changed the amount of money that the publishers are willing to pay, and I would say roughly by 50%. So an author for whom I could have gotten 300,000 now we get 150, and $150,000 offer now would get 75,000. And then last year, we have the pandemic, and so publishers again got screwed. And so, what I’ve seen so far this year is that those advances are down again. You're not writing a check for $10 or $20,000, like you will if you go to the better self-publishing houses, and they are creating content that you can sell back of room at a great price and get all the distribution, and editorial development included for free, and you get a check, which is a big asset. But advances are definitely lower than they were for sure.

Josh Steimle:

Now, we've seen a lot of change in the publishing industry in terms of consolidation as well – when you're pitching a book, when you're selling somebody's book, how do you decide where to go, and who to sell it to? And how much input does the author have on that, or, do the authors generally not have any idea why they should choose one over the other?

Wendy Keller:

Most of the time, people who come to me and say I’ve already pitched my book, or, I had an agent pitch my book, they got some young person who started an agency because they got fired as an editorial assistant at Joe's publishing house and grill somewhere, and now they're going to be an agent. And that sounds really arrogant, but that's kind of what happens. And/or it's some author who says you know what, I really want Charlesbridge to publish my book, and I’m like, well, okay, but you're writing a business book, and Charlesbridge only does juvenile – I know, but just call them for me. Right? So my experience is they're usually 15ish editors for any book. Those editors like just saying, okay, this person did a leadership book, there are so many factors that an author would never imagine exist. The leadership book, for instance, if you're representing that, has this editor acquired more than one leadership book is the leadership book that they acquired long enough in the past so that if they acquired a new one, it won't be influencing their willingness to acquire another leadership book from you, or your author. And also, have they acquired anything which an author could never find? Have they acquired anything in the last six months that they have in development, that's going to compete with your book – because an editor is not going to compete with their own list. And did their boss decide last week that leadership books are so yesterday, right? So an agent's job is to have a very small number of editors, and to know their dog's name, their kid's name, when they go on vacation, where they're going, to remember to send them a birthday card, I mean, all that stuff.
So it's really about the agent's experience and relationships with those individuals who are in the acquisition process. And you have to start with an editor and an editorial relationship in order to move it to the top of the pile, so that I can, like, for instance, at this point in my career, I can call vice presidents and executive editors. But when I was leaving Hollywood, even though I was speaking to the big shots in Hollywood, I had to start at the bottom again. And so, I was working with editorial assistants, oh please tell your boss to take a look at this, oh please, please. Right? I was begging. Well, now those editorial assistants are executives, so I can talk to the executives. I think it's really hard to start and people say, oh my agent is new, and he's so excited, he's really enthusiastic, he said my book is going to be huge – and I’ve looked at it and I’m like, it isn't even going to sell, you know, it isn't even going to sell. So I think it's a matter of having relationships with the editors, a massive amount of experience, figuring out who wants what, when, and then having the perspicacity really to take the time to really think about each editor, is this the best person in portfolio, is this the best person at Harper Leadership – there's a difference between, for instance, the publisher at Harper Leadership who acquires some kinds of books and the person who acquires, for instance, books on finance. Right? So they're different people, they do different things, but, as an author, you probably wouldn't know that distinction, and an agent lives by those distinctions. My success is based on my attention to the vagaries of each editor's preferences, and that's true for all agents, it's not just me.

Josh Steimle:

How much does it help or not for an author to come to you and already have been an author, whether they've been published, self-published or published through a publisher? Is that a big deal for you?

Wendy Keller:

Great. If their book has sold 5000 copies within any 12-month period, that'd be awesome. If they've sold fewer than that, no. People come to me and say, hey, in 1986, I had this book published, and I’m up to 2000 copies already, yay, go me! That won't even – I won't – they won't get through – they won't even get to me. They will be screened out immediately. So if they've got a book that's out, and it's done well, and it's within the last decade, and they're writing on the same topic, and not that they want somebody to take it now that they sold it [inaudible 00:30:30] there's garbage, then there's a chance. But for the most part, previously published, previously self-published authors tend to fail, and there's no excuse I can give to Penguin Random House on why you failed when you were making all the money and you had as many brain cells as you have today, maybe more. So I can't lie to a publisher and go, well, he just didn't know what he was doing, because even if that's the truth, that's not going to fly. So I would rather have a virgin author with a great idea, than a – virgin as publishing – but I’d rather have a virgin author who has never self-published, and if they – like, yesterday, I told someone whose book I really love, really, really, really love this book. And he published in the 80s, he published six books on the topic. Loosely, he's a prominent scientist, now retired. When he was an active scientist, he published these books, they are all failures, they probably didn't sell more than 100-200 copies. Back then, he published a whole series of them. Well, he's learned a lot since then about publishing. I said, you're going to have to go and pull all of those off Amazon before I’m going to even tell you how to build a proposal because you can't – I can't sell it when you've got this albatross around your neck.

Josh Steimle:

That's interesting.

Wendy Keller:

More often than not, self-publishing becomes an albatross, because people don't – they're just like, my book is so wonderful, out of these 33 million people, they're totally going to find my book and buy it, because people like me. And like, no, they don't, out of 33 million, they'll never find you, the algorithms were not set up, they're not set up to help self-published authors, even if you publish through Amazon.

Josh Steimle:

When you sign up a client, and you're working with them already, what are some of the mistakes these authors make during that process that make you say, oh please, please, don't do that – are there common mistakes that you see?

Wendy Keller:

So all I have is a recipe that works. Right? So I don't have time anymore to make mistakes, especially, since advances are down. Right? So if I represent 10 books, and I don't sell nine or all 10 of them, I take it really badly. So if I get an author, as I have over the years, who says, you have no clue, okay, I’m telling you, then we're going to probably part ways pretty quickly, because I don't have time to argue, this is the system, this is how it works, if you put your content – that's what I do in book proposal workshop to, it's like, if I tell you this system, and you choose it and say no, I don't like how the – then I’m not going to deal with a two-year-old. Okay? I’ve already raised kids. We're done. So I want them to do it, just adapt to the method that works in publishing, not change your content, not sell your soul, just this is the system that works, just do it. It's not optional. Right? It's like if you took your car to a mechanic, and he was like, you know what, I think we can probably do this with some – we'll pour some slime on your engine, and maybe we'll spray-paint it, I think that will solve your problems. That's not going to work. There's a system for fixing a car. There's a very, very, very, very specific system for becoming successful as an author, especially, if you're trying to be an author-speaker, or author-consultant, or author-therapist. It's not volitional. It's not. You bring your content, we put it in this box, we sell it, it gets on the conveyor belt, and it comes out as a successful book that generates revenue. If you choose not to follow that system, I don't know any agent in this time, who would want to work with you. You're a crackpot. You're not going to tell us how it works. We already know.

Josh Steimle:

This is great.

Wendy Keller:

I'm not known for being nice necessarily, I mean, I really love my authors, but it's like, it's black or white, it's not volitional. There's no art and all – you keep the art after I’ve got my check for selling the damn thing, you can do all the art you want, and then the publisher will tell you no, that's not my job anymore. But to get this thing sold, there is a system, there is enough and the way is straight and narrow, basically, to be successful as an author-speaker-consultant, whatever. It's not open to interpretation.

Josh Steimle:

This is a good point to bring up, which is how do you get paid for the work that you do?

Wendy Keller:

Oh, all agents in America get 15%. So I get 15% for the book, and the rights that come from the book, if I sell those. If I sell secondary rights, which could mean, for instance, I withheld the audio, or I get you a deal with Procter & Gamble and they buy 50,000 copies to distribute to everybody who buys some related product or whatever, those are called special sales, I get 20% of those deals that I make. All agents in the US get 15%, many agents don't do all the secondary rights, audio and courses and all the other kinds of rights they find amusing to sell. I also sell a lot of foreign rights, that's how I ended up with the bestsellers plus hundreds of deals outside the US, so that gets 20% also. And then 30% of a book, if I book you as a speaker. So if I bring you the gig or you have me negotiate, I take 30%, because I run a bureau, and that’s how it works. A lot of agents don't do the speaker part, and a lot of agents don't do the secondary rights part, but I really enjoy the diversity.

Josh Steimle:

But all of this is commission, which just adds to the point that if somebody is not following your directions, and you're telling them, hey, you need to do it this way, you're not going to have much patience with that, because, hey, you only get paid if they cooperate and work within the system.

Wendy Keller:

Right. So strangers pay for book proposal workshop, and people hire me to consult them on building their platform. Right? It's a six-month program. It's very labor intensive. I bring in all these contractors, and we can take anybody with a good idea and build their platform, so they have enough people to make a publisher interest in. But most of the people I represent, don't even know I offer those things, and they're just straight commission, because I know, you know, I have an instinct now, I can see it and I can say, okay, I love this, and we can adapt it – like the book I’m so crazy about where he has to pull his stuff off, it's on quantum physics, which is a subject I am personally passionate about, and it's brilliant. And the nice thing about that is he does his proposal completely. So I’m going to make him do a good proposal on it. He's going to have to either way, and he's going to do a good proposal and then I’ll be able to sell it in that six-week window, typically. But he's got brilliant content, and so, he's just going to basically be put on the conveyor belt, not to be disrespectful, but the only thing that changes is the content and the personality of the author. So yeah, they do have to have the willingness to say, this person is joining my team volitionally and is my cheerleader. I love most of my clients, not all of them, but I love most of my clients. And in many cases, they became friends, and 10 years later, one of them, she told me, and I still can't believe this, one of my clients and I were talking last week, and she said, do you know – and I’ve sold five books for her – she said, do you know you sold my first book 26 years ago. And I was like, that's crazy, and I still love her. So that's the great part of it, I get to deal with really smart people like you, I get to deal with really smart people every single day, and that makes it so much – and people who care about changing the world, that makes it really rewarding, more than the commission.

Josh Steimle:

So you have a whole course on this, but can you give us some of the high level points of what makes a good book proposal?

Wendy Keller:

Yeah, book proposal is five parts plus two sample chapters in most cases, that's the overview, the author's bio if that's – you need an author's bio, but that may not be the order [inaudible 00:38:10] depends on certain factors; the competitive analysis where you show that there are other books that are successful like yours; the chapter summaries where you outline the book so the publisher sees that you have sustainable, refreshing original content throughout the proposed book; and the marketing plan, what you're going to do to partner with the publisher and your agent to make sure that the book becomes successful. Those are the five parts and you slap on two chapters, not necessarily chapters one and two – in fact, that's not even recommended, usually chapter one, plus the most prescriptive or descriptive book. There are two types of books – in nonfiction, there's prescriptive, which is do this and this is my most recent book, the Ultimate Guide to Platform Building, it's really super specific on how to build a platform, we have a whole online courses, really cheap online courses that people can do to get to learn to implement it, whatever. But the point is that it's really prescriptive, do this, get this result, whether it's how to lose 30 pounds, how to build a platform as an author, whatever. So really prescriptive books get published a lot of them, and then there's also the theoretical books, Good to Great is a theoretical book. Right? Thinking Fast and Slow is a theoretical book. It's not really designed to help you actually implement page by page. You have to think about it, extrapolate, and then apply it to your own life. Those are theoretical. So those two kinds of books that determines a little bit what order you put your proposal together in, as does the size of your platform, and also whether you're doing one or the other, and also what your long term goal is. So the first question, if somebody actually speaks to me, which means they've already passed the screening process that I am rarely involved in, then the first question I’m going to ask is, what do you want from this book and [inaudible 00:39:55] and I often, depending how much time I have, I’ll often say, I already know you want to save the world and all that other stuff, now, what do you want out of it, do you want to grow a speaking business, do you want to start a speaking business, where are you – so that I can understand. And that gives the authors clarity that I’m the agent who talks about the business of becoming an author, not about, you know, I really love that sentence on page nine, because I don't. I may never even read it, frankly.

Josh Steimle:

Wendy, this has been such a great conversation. There's so much value here, not just for the authors who do want to go the traditional publishing route, but I’m thinking even about the people who do want to do self-publishing, there's so much of value here in this interview for those people as well. Now, the website again, for people who are interested in your course on book proposal writing, what's that, again?

Wendy Keller:

That's bookproposalworkshop.com. If you want to see whether or not your book is something we are likely to represent, you're welcome to submit it at kellermedia.com/query; and if you're looking to build a platform, you can go to strategicvisibilitymarketing.com. I have a bunch of super cheap courses there. There's even a test you can take for free that will tell you what kind of personality you have, and therefore what kind of platform you could build most easily and without stressing yourself out too much. My goal is to help as many writers as possible who have worthy content, make it to market, however, I can move them along that path. And I think that – I want to say this because it's important that I think agents and publishers have a really sacred duty to society, because we're the ones who are being the gatekeepers to allow new ideas to enter the market primarily. And that's a really big deal, it allows us to help people who have something to contribute to really get it there in a way that is permanent, and that 20 years from now, someone can still be absorbing it unlike possibly YouTube or whatever. And I take that responsibility, a sacred responsibility very seriously, and I think so do most of my colleagues at one level of awareness or another. So thank you for the chance to share with your audience. This has been amazing, Josh.

Josh Steimle:

It's been amazing for me. Thank you so much, Wendy, for being on the show today.

Wendy Keller:

Thank you.

Josh Steimle:

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