Undulating Curves of Shifting Expectations

Steve Pressfield and I have worked together in one form or another for almost fifteen years. I’ve been his editor, his publisher, his manager/agent, and his business partner. In that time he’s written ten books—seven novels and three works of nonfiction.  In all of those years, he’s been in the dark about exactly how an agent sells a book to a publisher.

I learned this the other day when we were kibitzing on the phone. Since he started in this racket, he’s put his trust in the professionals he chose to work with and let them do their jobs without looking over their shoulder. I suspect he thought that it would be bad form to grill them about how they solicit offers.  There might be some secret handshake or good old time graft at play.

As most agents, I find the majority of my new writers through referrals from current clients. An agent always pays attention to a client referral because the agent knows that the last person that wants to drain his time and attention is a client. It’s human nature to protect someone working on your behalf. So clients only recommend a writer or project if it is of such merit that they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves if they didn’t help. Or they do it out of a familial obligation.

It really doesn’t matter about the clients’ motivations when they make a referral. As accomplished car mechanics tend to move in the same circles, so do writers. So chances are that most in your clients’ circle of friends know how to put together a sentence. Even a client’s Aunt Millie.

[Quick advice to all aspiring book writers in search of a traditional publishing deal…Spend time finding a connection to an established writer. If you win her over enough to recommend your project to her agent, that agent will be far more inclined to take you on than a cold call or email. Plus he’ll get back to you quickly.]

Steve told me about a possible project a while back. One of those, “I know you’re busy, but you should talk to this person…” kind of conversations. I talked to Steve’s friend and over the course of a year (YES, THAT’S RIGHT, A YEAR), we put together a proposal for a work of narrative (story driven) nonfiction. If Steve hadn’t recommended I make the call, I wouldn’t have been interested. It’s an incredible project and I never would have found and developed it without Steve.

On the phone that day, I thanked Steve and told him that I’d just sold his friend’s proposal at auction.

“What does that mean?”

“It means that more than one publisher was interested in the project.  The ones that wanted it ended up bidding against one another.”

“How does that happen?”

The way I see it, the more Steve knows about how I sell a book, the better he’ll be at knowing whether to recommend someone to me. And if it comes down to a competition between me and another agent to represent that writer (the competition to represent talent among agents is very keen), Steve will be able to “sell” me to the potential client far better than I will.

I walked him through it for a proposal for a nonfiction project:

The first part of creating enough demand for a property to warrant an auction is everything that happens before I make one pitch.  That is, the writer and I have to be convinced that the proposal (or novel) cannot get any better.   The material not only best represents the writer’s vision for the book, but it tells a story.  Not just one story…a whole bunch.

There must be a story that will personally appeal to the editor, a story that will make a marketing director know exactly what audience will come to the book and how to get to that audience, and a story that has virtually nothing to do with the book, but everything to do with off-the-book page coverage of the project for the publicity department—the author as story.

The editor, the marketing director, and the publicist, must be able to read the material and understand what the book will be and why the writer of the proposal is the only person on the planet to deliver that book.

Chime in if you’d like me to do a much more specific post on the “Art of the Narrative Non-Fiction Proposal” next time. Like Steve’s recent posts for DO THE WORK, a proposal follows the Foolscap method.

After I have the proposal ready to go, I prepare a submission list. An experienced agent comes in handy here. The longer an agent has been in the book business (no matter what roles he/she has played), the better. All of those lunches do have a purpose. The editor and agent learn about one another’s interests and as book nerds inevitably talk about the books they wish they had published or could publish in the future, an agent can glean what sorts of projects will captivate which editors.  This is priceless information.  If an agent picks the wrong editor who doesn’t care about the subject matter of his project, chances are the proposal will not make it past the editor’s inbox.

And the truth is that just about every editor will ask to read any proposal after an agent’s phone pitch. They do it so that they don’t alienate the agent…even if there is no way they would ever publish that kind of book. And they do it so that they remain a linchpin at the publishing house.

If an editor receives a proposal that becomes a phenomenon in the industry, even if they don’t bid to acquire it, they will be seen within their company as an important industry player. There is nothing more powerful for an editor after being asked by a foreign scout or a movie scout or even another editor what they thought of the latest big deal project than to say “Yes, I saw that…I thought it was fine for what it was, but it reminded me of that book X which didn’t work at all. So I passed.”

As most books don’t work (only 2 out of 5 are profitable) and it takes at least a year or even two for a book to be published after it’s acquired, pooh-poohing a hot project after it’s sold is a pretty safe move. I confess that I occasionally did it myself when I was on the other side of the desk. It’s human nature to backlash against something that finds success. If you haven’t seen those brilliant “undulating curves of shifting expectation” graphics that New York Magazine creates, you should check them out. http://nymag.com/movies/features/68374/

There are six major adult trade publishing conglomerates (Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan) and several independent mini-majors.  Each of these conglomerates has anywhere from two to six “independent” imprints within their walls.  What that means is that these imprints compete against one another as well as outside the corporation for material.  But in most cases only one of the imprints at the major publishers will be able to participate in an auction.  That is, they won’t bid against one another. An agent’s best case scenario is to have one imprint from each of the six majors plus one or two of the mini-majors vying for a book.

If an agent understands each corporation’s particular particularities (each one has its own sort of political hierarchical landscape and its own unique culture) she’ll be in a better place to play one imprint against another so that a kinetic energy attaches to the proposal (or novel) from the very first submission.  The project has the potential to become “HOT.”

If the proposal is poorly written and/or adequately written with little originality, it doesn’t matter how much an agent knows or doesn’t know about the marketplace. The project will die. No traditional publisher will want to publish it. This was the great service big publishing provided before the digital revolution. The gatekeepers kept lousy or flaccid material from gumming up the works.

Now, there’s lots of gum (150,000 plus titles published a year in the U.S. alone)…which has only made the big publishing gatekeepers pickier.  Which I think is appropriate.  When mediocrity or even worse is abundant, the big mongo publishers (born and bred in scarcity) need to better define themselves to consumers as literary sieves.

We really do need trusted gatekeepers now more than ever when anyone can write a book and “publish” it online. I think this is the core service that publishers provide. And they should embrace this role. Advertise it. Take people into their factory and show them why they choose to publish the books that they do. Don’t keep it a secret. It’s what defines a publisher. Let readers get to know the people entrusted (editors) to sort the gold from the dross. Chances are if a reader likes one of that editor’s choices, she’ll like another. I suspect a reader’s best friend could be a likeminded editor/curator.

I remember when I was an editor at a big house. If an agent called me and intrigued me with an idea, when that proposal or novel came in, I’d read the first sentence. If that sentence held my attention, I’d read the next. If I didn’t have some interminable meeting, I’d close my door and read the whole thing right then and there.  (This still happens!)

If I was spellbound, I’d do an internal evaluation about whether or not I would put my butt on the line and ask my colleagues to read it too. If I was convinced the project was perfect for me, my publishing house, and the people who I would have to get to support it, I’d immediately call the agent and tell her not to do anything without me. Then I’d talk to the editor in chief and publisher about it.

When an editor calls an agent and says something like “don’t do anything without me” or asks “can I speak with the author?” the pace quickens.

The agent calls or emails all of the other editors who have the project to tell them that there is “interest” in the project.  “Interest” is code for “A competing editor has read the book already and is ahead of you. You better read this immediately.”

The fact that a competitor has already chimed in to say “This is Great!” only increases the enthusiasm around town. The influence of third party validation is alive and well in book publishing.

If HarperCollins loves it, we should take a long hard look at this, thinks Random House.

Now the agent is in a good place. Everyone in town is talking about her project.  She’s getting calls and emails from scouts all over the world as the buzz begins. What is on submission and who has it is the main topic of day to day life in the book world. Having a project that is part of that conversation is intoxicating.

Great, but no one has “offered” a penny to acquire publish the book yet.  How does the agent get that to happen? If she sits back and waits and lets too much time go by, like a homegrown piece of fruit, the project could ripen too quickly and rot.  Hey, if this thing’s so great, why hasn’t anybody made an offer yet? But if she presses editors and oversells, she could destroy all of the mojo.

Back to the undulating curves of shifting expectation.  At this stage the agent needs to figure out where the project sits on the curve and act accordingly. She needs to figure out when the proposal has hit the critical “saturation point.” This is the moment in time when she will want to “close” the project.  Closing a book means that due to all of the interest, the agent has decided to conduct an auction.  Everyone who wants the project is required to make an offer by a specified time. Industry standard dictates that it’s usually around 12:00 p.m. in the middle of the week.

Then the very hardest part happens. The agent and the client wait.  Just as the agent has finished her calls telling all of the editors the rules of the auction (these vary depending upon the agent’s evaluation of the “temperature” of the project), she gets a message.  Someone wants to make a “Pre-empt.”


Posted in


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"


A Man At Arms is
on sale now!

Don't miss out on exclusive bonuses available to early buyers!


  1. Seth Godin on May 6, 2011 at 4:43 am

    If you keep sharing all these secrets, Shawn, the industry will have no choice but to improve!

  2. JKL on May 6, 2011 at 6:25 am

    As a writer this is very de-motivating – it all seems so removed from art and so political, so chess game. Having just visited the Thomas Wolfe museum and read his very wordy but very lovely ode to spring on the back of the restroom door, I surmised that Mr. Wolfe would never be published in today’s market. Maxwell Perkins would not be employed and his string of brilliant but personally kooky and undisciplined authors would never have been given the light of day.

    Oh well …. in the modern world publishing seems more like the survival of the fittest on the plains of the Serengeti.

    • Jeffrey Tang on May 6, 2011 at 8:47 am

      Hmm… it had the opposite effect for me. I guess being able to see behind the scenes for a bit (knowing my enemy, so to speak) makes me a little more confident.

  3. Ulla Lauridsen on May 6, 2011 at 6:33 am

    Oh my god, you can’t leave us hanging like that!

  4. Randy Cantrell on May 6, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Shawn wins best guest blogger award!

    • Shawn Coyne on May 6, 2011 at 7:43 am

      You are too kind sir. Love your tweet too!

  5. Jeffrey Tang on May 6, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Aargh cliffhanger!

    Seriously though, excellent post. I love the behind-the-scenes stuff.

  6. Jeff on May 6, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Amazing stuff, Shawn. Great graphics, great insider content, and awesome cliffhanger ending. Can’t wait for next week. And, yes, please do that specific post on the “Art of the Narrative Non-Fiction Proposal” as soon as you finish off this oh-so-cruel cliffhanger!

  7. Jeremy Brown on May 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Talk about being spellbound! Love this stuff Shawn, keep it coming.

    I have a question about this part:

    There is nothing more powerful for an editor after being asked by a foreign scout or a movie scout or even another editor what they thought of the latest big deal project than to say “Yes, I saw that…I thought it was fine for what it was, but it reminded me of that book X which didn’t work at all. So I passed.”

    Do editors say this only in hindsight, or do they sometimes pass on projects because they suspect doing so will earn them status?

    • Shawn Coyne on May 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

      Hi Jeremy,

      Hmm. Editors never pass to “earn status.” Rather they feel the need to justify their pass so that they don’t “lose status.” Remember this is just my very subjective dime store psychology of the business, so take it with a grain of salt. I’m sure plenty of editors and agents would disagree with me. But I’m not one to be timid so here’s some more.

      What sometimes happens is that an initially enthusiastic editor ends up “passing” on a project they loved because they couldn’t get the support they needed from the publisher and/or marketing, publicity, etc.

      Instead of telling the agent something like “Man, I really thought this was amazing. I think it will be a bestseller, but I just don’t have the support here to make it happen. They’re a bunch of idiots, but they’re my idiots. Hope you sell a gazillion copies so I can say I told you so” they say something like… “After considering it more, I think it’s too much like X, which didn’t work, so I will have to pass.” The reason they do this is they want (and think they need) the agent to think that the editor was the final arbiter and decision maker.

      Why? Well, it’s extremely competitive for editors too. And giving an big agent with a hot property the impression that he/she doesn’t have enough influence at the publisher to make it happen (even if they don’t get full support) is considered a sign of weakness. If the agent gets that impression (and agents talk among themselves all the time) then maybe that editor will find themselves off of that agent’s future submission list. The editor next door gets the next big book from that agent, and they get shut out. You can’t publish a big book if you are never submitted a big book.

      A sizable portion of an editor’s life is spent courting hotshot agents so that they get the “good stuff,” not “mid-list slushy agent stuff.” So they want the big agents to believe that they are linchpins in their houses and capable of getting a “YES” quickly and/or getting the approval to bid a big chunk of money. These are the senior, executive editor levels, editors in chief, publishers etc. Some actually do have that juice. But most don’t anymore. That doesn’t mean they have no influence, it just means that book publishing has become more of a group/committee effort.

      In big publishing, editors need agents as much as agents need editors. It’s telling that tradition dictates that the editor pay for the publishing lunch. Buyers courting sellers is rather unusual (it’s usually the other way around), but when you look at it from the above point of view, it makes some sense.

      • Jeremy Brown on May 7, 2011 at 6:09 am

        Thanks so much for your time and thoughts on this. It resonates with me–and many others, I’m sure–as my agent and I have had a few editors who liked the work but didn’t find the necessary support higher up the chain.

        I’m happy that we still look to those editors when we submit new projects. They’re already fans, and it’s on me to put that big book in front of them. Onward!

      • Jeff on May 7, 2011 at 9:27 am

        Thanks for sharing that Shawn – it sparked another question, though: In B2B sales we often talk about “empowering the inside champion.” That means providing them with the right messaging, collateral, case studies, and so on to take to the CEO, CFO, etc to get buy in. The more you help them make the case for you, the better, and if you’re smart, you’ll design your Website with that firmly in mind. Is the book publishing version of that what you meant when you talked about the vision for the book needing to inspire not just one story but a whole bunch of stories?

        • Shawn Coyne on May 8, 2011 at 5:48 pm

          You are right on the money. This is the book version of your B2B example. What I think is incredible about publishing is that writers have the ability to make their case directly to all involved. That is, once they get past the first hurdle…getting the editor to get more “reads”…then his/her proposal is put in front of the entire chain of command. The writer doesn’t have to rely on the salesmanship of the editor (that helps of course but it won’t kill a project if the editor has no skill at making a pitch) because the publisher and the head of marketing and the head of publicity are actually reading the writer’s pitch and making their decisions based on that document. I’m not kidding. These people read the proposal, think hard about it, talk about how effective the writer was making his/her case etc. and while the editor is part of those discussions (and if the editor is really great she’s leading those discussions), she doesn’t have to be Zig Ziglar to get a deal done. If you knock the proposal (or novel) out of the park, the entire chain of command will respond.

          So, if you had the chance to put a document in front of Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Les Moonves, Jeffrey Immelt, or any other big cheese out there with the knowledge that they would actually carefully read and consider what you were presenting, how hard would you work to make that document stand out? This, despite all of the gargantuan amount of BS endemic in book publishing, is what I love about it. When push comes to shove, it’s about the words on the page.

          You know as well as I do Jeff, that you win the business or get your book deal done, in the days, weeks, months, and in some cases years (it took Steve at least 13 drafts and three very painful years until he was ready to put THE PROFESSION in front of his editor) before you get an official buy.

          Make the job easy for the editor or business associate and everyone else involved. Put in the time and tell great stories.

          • Jeff on May 8, 2011 at 7:11 pm

            Awesome stuff, Shawn. Thanks again for sharing all this with us.

  8. Paul C on May 6, 2011 at 11:20 am

    This inside baseball is interesting stuff. Sounds like good agents and editors are more important than ever in the digital deluge era, and both are wearing the Maxwell Perkins hat.

  9. Victoria Dixon on May 7, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Love learning the strategy behind the industry. Thanks, Shawn!

  10. Zeal~ on May 8, 2011 at 8:25 am

    *Chiming in~!(for more on “The Art of the Narrative Non-Fiction Proposal”)

  11. Thomas on May 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    “The gatekeepers kept lousy or flaccid material from gumming up the works.”

    As evidenced by the numerous rejections of works by (just off the top of my head) Emily Bronté, James Joyce, Frank Herbert, etc., the gatekeepers have also almost kept superb classics from gumming up the works. One shudders to think about how many writers of would-have-been classics did not have the persistence of Bronté et al.

    The paper publishing pipeline exists to ensure that the supply of titles is kept to a number that prevents the buying power of the market from being spread too thin across too many authors/agents/publishers for any of them to make a living.

    As long as the only “reading device” was the printed paper page, that gatekeeping function was possible. Now it isn’t. You’re perfectly right there’s lots’n lots of crap being published, but the web has helped us sift gold from crap in lots of other areas, so personally I’m not worried about quality. I AM worried about writers making a living (no, I have not written or e-published any novels, but there’s a few writers I’d LIKE to be able to make a living, since I want them to keep writing). Not only is the money being spread thinner and thinner, prices are racing towards free. I hope I’m wrong, and I hope someone can figure out how to help good writers make a living, but preaching to the choir about the noble gatekeeper role of legacy publishing is not going to do the trick, no matter how interesting the sermon is in and of itself. That battle is lost already.

  12. Becca (www.ModernAthena.com) on May 8, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Wow, this was totally fascinating…and for me, quite inspiring. I am looking forward to reading the second half and would also be interested in reading a “Art of the Narrative Non-Fiction Proposal.” Thank you for sharing your insights and experience!

  13. Rich on May 8, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Shawn, what an interesting look into the behind-the-scenes world of publishing. Thanks for the effort. I look forward to the next part. All I can say is “don’t do anything without me” 🙂

  14. Katrina on May 9, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Thank you for explaining this! I can’t wait to read more. I’ve spent the last decade in the business world, and the publishing world is a bit baffling to me.

  15. Marianne on May 9, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    The timing of this post couldn’t be more perfect for me. I just got an email from my agent this morning saying she is ready to start making her pitch calls on my narrative non-fiction book.

    You’ve just answered all the questions I haven’t asked her because, like Steven, I figure she knows what she’s doing (and because I want her to spend all her time selling my book, not explaining to me how she’s going to sell it!)

    Thanks so much for taking the time to set this all out. Although, now you’ve got me dreaming of a bidding war for my book – my own undulating curves of shifting expectations!



  16. Colleen Hannegan on May 9, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    No matter what, who, how,when or why, how much, how long, how difficult or who knows who knows who….or how tough it all is or how many other writers are nearby, hoping nd wishing and praying to publish….it’s reassuring to me, finishing up my first non-fiction book, that self-publishing is a satisfying alternative to never being published at all. When it comes to giving birth to one’s art, the day comes when you scream bloody murder….PUSH!!!!!!Andat last, you give birth to a part of yourself no one can say was not worth bringing in to this world.
    Good discussion here~~~~

  17. James Schulman on May 9, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Very interesting Shawn. It’s a shame that words on the proverbial page won’t be enough for a no-name writer like me to get a foot in an agent’s door…but a fact is a fact and thanks for the heads-up.

  18. Joel Gates on May 11, 2011 at 7:02 am

    I really like the insight. In one way I agree with the earlier comment that says this information is a bit demotivating, but I think that might always be the case when art is reduced to business (and it has to be for publishers).
    I don’t find it necessarily demotivating, but I find it motivating to go my own way. Maybe the industry as it stands right now does not match my writing. I know that sounds like a million other small publishers (the “dross” you talked about) but Seth talks about rejecting the tyranny of the “picked”. Maybe there is something to that. Pick yourself.

  19. skip on May 11, 2011 at 11:23 am

    i just did a double take as per your chart…i use the same “sine wave on its side” kind of chart you show here when lecturing about the emotions of the stock market!…for us in the world of trading, the bottom of the chart is “despair”, the rising left leg is “optimism”, the top is “euphoria” and the right declining leg is “hope”…basically put, you buy optimism, sell in euphoria, short-sell hope and cover the short sales in despair……sr

  20. Jonah K on May 12, 2011 at 9:55 am

    That post was better than most novels I have read recently, add a few characters and you have a bestseller (you will need an agent to handle that for you…)
    Can’t wait for the follow up.

Leave a Comment