122: Lucinda Halpern – How to Write a Book That Sells to the Masses

It begins with finding the right agent!

Lucinda Halpern is the President and Founder of Lucinda Literary based in Manhattan, specializing in big idea and business books. She holds monthly virtual workshops helping entrepreneurs to identify their big idea, and package it for publishers. 

With over fifteen years of experience in corporate and agency publishing, Lucinda serves both sides of the literary and business worlds. In this episode, she helps us understand how we can put all this together, why would anyone seek a literary agent, and how you can get your book on the road.

Lucinda currently represents authors writing in the categories of business, health, lifestyle, popular science, narrative nonfiction, memoir, and upmarket fiction, including New York Times bestselling author Susan Peirce Thompson (Bright Line Eating amazon), Chris Bailey (The Productivity Project), Cait Flanders (The Year of Less), Paul Jarvis (Company of One), and the new work of New York Times bestselling author of The Nanny Diaries amazon, Nicola Kraus.

What We Discuss with Lucinda Halpern:

  • What a literary agent does
  • How a literary agent is involved in the book idea process
  • What literary agents are looking for
  • Where authors struggle
  • What it takes to get a book published
  • Signs of a good agent relationship
  • The process of acquiring an agent
  • Indicators that your book is a good one
  • What writers can expect when they attend Lucinda’s virtual workshops

[01:10] What a Literary Agent Does

A lot of people think that a literary agent is really there just to get you a book deal. Unlike plenty of literary agents who are just dealmakers, Lucinda Literary are really invested career partners. They help authors develop something editorially as well as in marketing the book later on. They’re thinking about the entire span of an author’s career – not just on the first book.

For a lot of our authors, a book is just one piece of their larger brand or their mission. 

Not every author is right for a literary agent. The things that might signal to you as you’re working on your book that you should be sticking with an agent would be:

  • You have a built-in audience. You really shouldn’t just approach an agent with a great idea. There are over 2 million books being published every year. What’s really important is to have more than the idea, but a vehicle for marketing that. For them, this is your proof of concept. Whether you have this blog or a social media platform or you do speaking events, there has to be a proof of concept that you’re ready to share with an agent. 
  • Once you’re ready to approach an agent, create a query letter that really succinctly and persuasively encapsulates your idea, why you’re the person to write it, and why the time is now or why that book feels really urgent. 

[04:04] How Involved is the Agent in the Book Writing Process

Agents have to reverse-engineer the manuscript into a 40-page book proposal to sell to a publisher. So if you’ve written the whole book, you might be on the wrong track. It would be more helpful to come up with the idea and a short bio of who you are, what your expertise is, who knows you, what your audience is, and let an agent marinate with all of that. 

Literary agents are going to evaluate what the best concept for a book would be. They look at your audience, who’s coming to you online, and what they’re most interested in. They’re also thinking about what they see is selling on the market, they’re relationships with the publishers, and what editors are specifically looking for. 

Have something very brief, sort of a one-sheet or a query letter about who you are and what your idea is, and then let an agent work with you from there to build it up.

[05:52] What Literary Agents are Looking For

Lucinda is looking for personality traits like work ethic, flexibility, and ability to take feedback. She gives a tough-love approach which can be brutal so she wants to know that someone is ready to work as hard as she is, as she’s also flexible in terms of her ability to take feedback.

Lucinda is at the point of her career where she’s not looking to take on very many authors. So she’s looking for those personality traits that she knows will be a good fit. Beyond that, she’s looking for the things that publishers are looking for such as:

  • A built-in audience
  • Recognition (ex. online visibility, some recognition on Google, or you’ve been featured in the press or you have a TEDTalk or other speaking events that have been publicized, etc.)
  • A really bold or controversial statement or a myth they’re busting or groundbreaking scientific research or a story that has received media or television attention.
There needs to be an existing proof that this person is poised to own a conversation and has credibility that readers are going to look to and respect.

[08:24] Where Authors Struggle

If what the author is writing feels too close to a memoir, especially if that memoir has been well-publicized already in the media, or your entire company knows about it, or if it’s already well-known, then a publisher or an agent is going to be much less excited about it. 

What they’re more excited about are the practical takeaways for people. So if you’re planning for your book proposals, later on, think about:

  • Who is your singular reader? 
  • How is that person motivated?
  • What does he or she need from your book?

If you’re speaking to that one reader on every page, you’ve succeeded. It’s not thinking about your who’s going to read this book or the colleague that you’re trying to impress or those people in your inner circle. 

It’s thinking about the people who need your book most, and what you can offer them.

[13:52] Reasons to Consider the Traditional Publishing Route

1. Book Distribution

Publishers are still producing those books and placing them in bookstores. They are professionally packaging, editing, and bringing whole data science to this along with their years and years of expertise with all kinds of authors. So you’re really getting a whole team and you’re getting all of that support that you wouldn’t get when you’re self-publishing something. 

2. Media Credibility

Major media like the New York Times, NPR, or the morning shows are not looking at self-published books. So if it’s important to you as a business author to have that media recognition, or as a brand and as an entrepreneur to open your doors to a different kind of client, the media is going to be such a vehicle for that. 

[16:06] The Book Is Not a Get Rich Quick Scheme

A book is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme. It could take two years before your book is on shelves. It’s a long and arduous process to get a worthwhile one.

Look at it as the beginning of something else on the backend. This could be what launches your courses or what gives you access to that major speaking client or consulting client because they heard about you on NPR. 

A lot of the time, the money actually follows the book based on the credibility and the review attention that’s received. 

[18:45] The Process of Acquiring an Agent

Do your research. Lucinda recommends Publishers Marketplace, which is the best tool for looking into what kinds of deals agents are doing and what they’re taking on.

This is very much like a marriage so you want to be very careful about who you’re trusting to deliver.

Then write them a very personal note and that you’re writing because you have a really similar book you think they’ll be interested in. Agents respond to that kind of personal attention. 

[22:06] Indicators of What Could Be a Book

A TED talk is an elevator pitch for who you are, what your idea is, and it will continue to sell your book. The book is going to provide the opportunity to do a deep intricate dive and have plenty of takeaways for the reader. But the TED talk is that wonderful framework.

TED talks are what publishers are looking for as an indicator of what could be a book.

Then figure out that secret that you’re ready to unveil in your book. And the teaser exists online – whether that’s the TED Talk, or media or your podcast. Both of those ingredients really, really need to exist. 

With thought leaders and CEOs and entrepreneurs, the inclination is to show ourselves in the best light. But readers want to see you in your darkest light. They want to see how vulnerable you are and how human and relatable you are.

You need to tell human stories. That’s how books get remembered and how they get talked about and how they sell. 

[31:06] Testing Your Book Ideas

Listen to your heart and your instinct. Road-test your ideas. You can publish it on a very popular blog site like Medium or put it as an op-ed or a public forum. Then see what kind of traction or response you’re getting. Then come up with a proposal out of that. You have to have a sense of what your audience wants. 

What makes the right agent is a great listener. It’s knowing what that person is burning to communicate, and then helping them fashion that for the general public or in a way that’s most accessible to readers. 

The secret sauce of all of the book development is knowing how to engage. 

[38:01] Marketing Strategies and Advice to Aspiring Writers

It’s important that an author comes equipped with a strategy for marketing and selling their book as if they were self-publishing. But if you can give yourself the opportunity to have a real team behind you, and your goal is to sell for years and years and to accumulate thousands of readers and media attention, traditional publishing is going to be the route to go.

This is a literary product so you’ve got to tell a story that is visceral and which gets people on a personal level. Keep in mind that publishers and agents are natural skeptics and everyone is buried in email and materials. The way you can break through that muck is to have a story that gets someone personally or a new sort of thinking you’re teaching that a publisher is going to want to put into practice.  

Episode Resources:

Lucinda Literary workshops

Lucinda Literary

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Book Mentions:

Susan Peirce Thompson (Bright Line Eating amazon)

Chris Bailey (The Productivity Project)

Cait Flanders (The Year of Less)

Paul Jarvis (Company of One)

Nicola Kraus (The Nanny Diaries)

Publishers Marketplace

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