Lucinda Halpern, GET SIGNED: Find an Agent, Land a Book Deal, and Become a Published Author

Lucinda Halpern, GET SIGNED: Find an Agent, Land a Book Deal, and Become a Published Author

Zibby interviews New York literary agent Lucinda Halpern about GET SIGNED, an incredibly helpful guide to elevating your storytelling, creating a timeless book, and launching your dream career. After describing her journey in the industry and demystifying the role of a literary agent, she delves into the evolving landscape of book publishing. She covers the importance of finding the right agent, crafting effective query letters, doing extensive market research, and building your own digital platform. If you’re an aspiring writer, you’ll gain actionable strategies and a renewed sense of confidence!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lucinda. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Get Signed: Find an Agent, Land a Book Deal, and Become a Published Author.

Lucinda Halpern: Hi. So good to be here.

Zibby: This is the book that so many people — I need to just hand it to them because everyone’s always asking, okay, I have this. I’ve written this. I’m forty pages in. I have a draft, but I don’t know what to do. I’m like, you need to find an agent first. They’re like, what do you mean? I’m like, I don’t know. Don’t send it to me. No, I’m kidding.

Lucinda: But you’re not kidding.

Zibby: I’m kidding/not kidding. Give the whole story, your whole story, the book, your background. Jump in.

Lucinda: I’m a literary agent, first and foremost. I’m that person that people are asking you about when they want to get published. What exactly is that person? The way I put it is, especially for moms, we’re like a doula when you don’t trust the doctor. We’re the person who is your midwife helping you birth this thing, which is nothing short of a labor, of a child that you’ve been incubating for so long. Mainly, we’re known for brokering a publishing deal. We’re helping you to get a book advance. We are looking out for your rights and your contract, but agents are so much more than that. We’re your first champions. We’re your therapists. We are looking after your business affairs so that you can keep your relationships and work creative, which is a really important part of the partnership. We’re your first editors. We’re shaping your work with you — when you think it’s done, it’s not done — before we send it out to publishers. We’re pitching you, so we have to share your vision. Then we’re with you for the entirety of your career. Long after the deal, we’re still being your cheerleader from the sidelines. We’re still mediating for you with the publisher. That’s the literary agent role.

Just backing up to the beginning, my personal story, it’s a résumé that’s a smattering of noncommitments, which ends up serving entrepreneurs really well. I got interested and got experience and a lot of things and then always felt like I was going to run my own company. Very young, I started to do that at twenty-seven after having really small periods of time at HarperCollins, which is the boot camp for everyone who wants to get in publishing; Scholastic, where I was learning online marketing and sales. Then one agent, who’s a very well-respected agent, Christy Fletcher — she’s now at UTA — took a flyer on me. She was like, “I like your hustle. I think you’ve got it.” Every other agent rejected me. I knocked on every door. I met with every agent. They were like, you’re cute. You’re young. Very cute, but you don’t have a list of clients to bring to the table.

Christy took a chance on me. That’s the story I love to tell beginning in this book because it really only takes one person to believe in you. What Christy did is she connected me with Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. I did some online marketing consulting for Gretchen. A few years into that career, I thought, I want to start something that marries the online marketing and publicity expertise that I now have with the fact that I’m a born editor and dealmaker. I want to be representing the careers of authors. I start Lucinda Literary, which is my firm, now thirteen years ago. Hard to be a female business owner, as you well know, Zibby. It’s not for the faint of heart. You’re often in a room full of men. We’ve pivoted so many times. We started a speaker’s bureau in 2016. We’ve since grown our team of agents. I’m doing this thing I love, which is coaching writers. I’m coaching, teaching. Now I’m writing this book, which is the craziest surprise and meta experience an agent could ever have, sitting at the author’s side of the table.

Zibby: Did you get yourself an agent, or did you represent yourself?

Lucinda: I made the critical mistake of not following what I prescribe in my book and not hiring an agent. I learned the hard way. I was like, I think I could do this myself. Similarly, I thought, I can write this book myself. I’ve always been an aspiring writer. I’ve learned from all these great folks. I couldn’t do any of these things myself. It takes a village. This book was what I feel to be the only real gift that’s been given to me that I haven’t driven myself. You drive results every day. You face all the naysayers. My own mother — hopefully, she’s not listening — said, “You shouldn’t run your own company,” when I was so young. That’s going to be tough. Similarly, I was going to self-publish this book because I was so devoted to it and believing in it, which is, again, a quality of all the authors that are successful that I take on. They’re going to do this hell or high water. There is a message they need to get out there. They’re going to do it with or without me. I was self-publishing this thinking, okay, that’s what this will be. That’ll be great. Then my friend, who’s a publisher at Hay House — I was having dinner with her. Third glass of wine. I’m like, maybe I should mention this book I’m writing. She said, “Don’t self-publish it. We want to commission it. We want to give you an actual deal for this book.” I just fell over backward. The lesson in that, again, for your audience and for writers — I think this applies to people at large. You talk about what you’re pursuing, even if it’s completely new and you might fail, with everyone because you never know what door is going to open for you. That was my real experience of that. It was a gift that they gave me. Then there’s a whole process of writing and launching the book. I don’t need to go on and on and on.

Zibby: It’s fascinating. Yes to, it’s tough to own a business, but also very rewarding.

Lucinda: So rewarding.

Zibby: I’ve realized starting a business is like raising kids, in a way, because just when you think you’ve figured it out, everything changes again. You have to totally rethink everything. Not everything, but you have to just always be ready to pivot. That’s part of the process. At first, I didn’t realize that. If I was telling someone who’s starting a business, just make sure you always feel like you have your finger on it, but then know it’s just about to change. Don’t frame anything. It’s all going to change.

Lucinda: Right, the experimentation aspect and the embracing the lack of control, which I think is so hard for people who do start businesses. I was literally sobbing last night. I took a video of myself talking about this moment because it’s been so pivotal. I try to tell my family and friends, who are so sick of hearing about the book. This is not the moment of self-promotion. This is the culmination of everything I’ve been believing in, driving toward, and experimenting with myself in this super scrappy way starting out as a solopreneur now to someone who has a small team of people, not huge, and believing in myself even when no one did and coming up with these creative concepts. I’ve got in the book, these four types of writers who get book deals. I remember back-and-forth-ing with my assistant saying, “Does this make sense, the ideator? Are people going to laugh at the everywhereist?”

Zibby: I love the quiz, by the way. The quiz is perfect. I love a good quiz.

Lucinda: Zibby, what are you? Which one were you?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, what was I?

Lucinda: I’ll recap for your audience. Do you remember?

Zibby: Wait, I have it.

Lucinda: You circled it.

Zibby: What do you think I am? What’s my type? Should I answer the questions for you? Select one question. What part of developing your book do you most enjoy? Research, networking, inspiration, brainstorming. Brainstorming, D. I am most comfortable when I am prepared, so that’s A. I think of myself as a strong listener, A. Although, actually, also C, happiest when I’m connecting with others. Actually, also D, happiest when I am in a room by myself being creative. Maybe also B, big personality and voice. Let’s forget that question. Let’s see. I’m going to go with D. I think D. Yeah, I’m D, ideator. I think I’m an ideator.

Lucinda: I think so too. I think you are. You’re now the everywhereist. Just for your audience who doesn’t know what these types are, the ideator is obviously a big ideas person. That’s kind of accessible. The everywhereist is an author who has a big platform, which we can also go into as well. The most sought-after author today in publishing is the person who has that built-in visible audience and feels really comfortable connecting with those people. The data collector is the person who’s doing all the research and figuring out what about their book is distinguished and different from what’s out there. Then the crusader is the person who will stop at nothing, who gets motivated by rejection, who comes up with the next idea, and keeps knocking on the door. Obviously, that’s the story. That’s what you have to be as an agent. Most writers feel like they are at least two types. Never do they feel they’re all four. The encouraging news in Get Signed is you definitely do not need to be all four. I’ve seen each of these types succeed. The key, which is further explained and refined in the book, is you need to know how to leverage your strength as a writer type and overcome that natural resistance or weakness that the skeptical agent, publisher, or reader on the other side is thinking, this won’t succeed for X reason. You have to make sure in your pitch letter that you’re one step ahead of that thinking by leading with your strength. Four types of writers, is this a science? Should you write your query letter to an agent and say, “I’m a crusader”? No, you absolutely should not, but you should use these characteristics to show why you are an author and why you have that potential.

Zibby: I love that. Anything that gives you clear guidelines in an endeavor and a pursuit that feels so loosey-goosey, no rhyme or reason — I have the most-researched proposal ever with all these statistics. This must convince someone. Then it doesn’t. This is the most creative idea ever, and it doesn’t sell. This is a great novel, but no one thinks so. What do you do?

Lucinda: Going back to the research component, you’d be surprised how many people do not do their research. They’re in the ivy tower. They’re in the writers’ retreat. They’re writing the memoir. They come forth, and they’re like, I’ve got to get this out to agents and publishers. What they haven’t done is read in their category and see what’s selling on Amazon and then read an agent’s list, like the titles we represent, to see where that’s a fit. They’re not on Publishers Marketplace seeing what is selling in their category. That creativity and that passion is overriding the need for market research, which you have to do before you’re approaching an agent or a publisher. That’s the research bit. What do you do when you’re desperate? You’re getting lots of rejections. No one’s requesting your manuscript. Get Signed has a whole chapter on that, how to follow up constructively, how to elicit feedback that gives you a means for improvement. That begins with seeing yourself as on par with an agent. We’re not on a pedestal. We’re not better than you or holier than thou. There’s no hierarchy here. We’re looking for our next great talent. You’re fueling our business. This notion that, I’ve pitched an agent and I didn’t hear back, so I’m no good, I want to dispel that myth entirely. It’s not you. It’s your pitch. You’re not breaking through because you haven’t gotten that crucial aspect of this process right. Maybe you’ve just landed in someone’s spam filter. Maybe the intern quit that day. Maybe there was a childcare crisis. Happens a million times. You can’t believe that that one shot you took is enough.

Zibby: Who was I talking to? It was a couple years ago. I was talking about managing emails or something. They were like, oh, yeah, if someone doesn’t follow up with me, I assume it’s not that important. I was like, wait, what? That’s so rude. They’re like, no, I have too many emails. I just wait because I know then they come a second time, and I’m like, okay, fine, I’ll pay attention.

Lucinda: Zibby, how many times did I follow up with you to make this connection?

Zibby: You do, though. You do.

Lucinda: If you really feel the love, if you feel it’s going to be a connection — you really should feel deeply, it’s going to be that agent. It’s not slushing fifty people. I was listening to your last guest on the show, the author of More. She said, I slushed fifty agents. I should’ve gone to five. This is absolutely what I prescribe in the book. This is just what agents do. This book that’s disguised as how to query is actually about two other things. It’s about acting as your own best agent and advocate following all the shortcuts and strategies we do, because we are in your position too, and it’s about writing the foundation of a great book. The pitch letter pitch piece is actually the cosmetic detail that gets people in, but what you learn from it is so much more. These are the shortcuts agents are using. We’re not going to publishers we don’t know and have relationships with and have researched deeply and know what books they buy.

Zibby: I learned this, actually, in my first job after college. I was working at Idealab. I don’t even know why I’m thinking about this. I was the person who had to deal with all external vendors who were coming in who wanted our business. Sometimes they would come in and pitch me things. I’m like, but why are you pitching me this magazine you want us to advertise in? Do you know what we do? Why are you here? Why didn’t you take the time to read our website? You schlepped all the way here to Pasadena to meet with me. This doesn’t make any sense to me. Now it’s the same thing too. We get pitches, and I’m like, no, it says everywhere we don’t do historical fiction. This is based in 1400 or something. We say that. We don’t do sci-fi. Don’t send us a sci-fi. Even for the podcast, to your point, the pitches that get attention for anything, whether it’s a book or place an ad in a magazine or getting on a podcast or getting your book into a store or something, you have to know who you’re pitching. Otherwise, people don’t pay attention. If they’re like, I’ve noticed every single thing in your bookstore, and I think this would fit on the shelf, you’re like, oh, okay, you did your research. I’m going to pay attention to this.

Lucinda: This comes back to dating. Do you want to look desperate? Most queries look desperate. I need you to make this real. Something else I talk about in the book is, don’t talk about, I’ve written, but talk about the book that will be. “This will be” or “this is,” it’s much more authoritative than talking about a book that you’re hoping will do — I’m hoping you’ll like me.

Zibby: What are signs of a desperate pitch?

Lucinda: Just as you said, it’s knowing the wrong category. It’s that hoping quality. A crucial mistake, if we got into platform and how important that is for authors, is they’ll say, I’m going to build a social media following. This is the best. I’ll be happy to do any media or book tours that my publisher puts me on. It’s like, yeah, everyone would be happy to have that. What are you doing now? What are you doing now to prove that you have that conviction and that audience? What are the signs of a desperate pitch? That’s a great question I haven’t been asked on a podcast before. It’s that sloppy subject line. You’d be surprised. Some writers query a mass list of agents and their colleagues, even in open CC. Can you imagine? It’s usually from an AOL address. I’m not going to lie. It’s someone who is living in a different sort of — I say that this business, even when I started fifteen years ago, you used to be able to mail manuscripts to an agent’s desk. Their assistant’s desk was a mile high. You would think that would be a bad thing. Actually, someone had to open those manuscripts. Someone had to take a peek. Now everything’s on your email, so there’s so much weight on how you got that right. Trying to answer your question more clearly. What are the signs of a desperate pitch? A sloppy subject line. An overly long synopsis. It doesn’t actually tell us what the book’s about; meaning, why we would care, why someone new to your work would care. We see so many memoirs — I’m sure you do too — that have this really compelling, moving story of loss and grief and trauma and affliction and cancer and sickness, wild, really upsetting stories. Nothing in that, unfortunately, is telling me why anyone who doesn’t know you, why a cold reader is going to come to your work. What are they going to take away? The pitch letter is not a summary of what your book is. The pitch is, why your book now? Who are you to write it?

Zibby: That’s such good advice. Wow. What if people don’t know? That’s a really good question. I don’t know. Because I wanted to write it. I think that’s such a good thing. Also, I don’t think people know how to, necessarily, build a platform if they don’t have anything to build it around. Let’s say they’re just at home, and they write a novel. You say, what are you doing now? They’re like, what am I going to market? My cat?

Lucinda: That is this entire chapter in the book called Get Seen. It’s about the importance of road testing. Meaning, you go onto social media. It’s daunting, but it’s a tool for you. I’ve tried to make it less daunting in how I’ve talked about it. I’m doing it. It’s hugely vulnerable. I am fearful about doing it every day, putting yourself out there. What it gives you is you can identify the content and the voice and what you have to offer, what I call your VCO, your voice, content, and offering, that people look to you distinctly for, what they’re resonating with. If you’re paying attention to what’s popular not only in your sphere, but what you are uniquely providing, you’ll now have the clue of what should be in your book. Using myself as an example, I wanted to be a literary fiction writer sending my short stories to The New Yorker. I’m writing poetry. You never in a million years would’ve told me that I’d represent business books by entrepreneurs, that I’d write one myself about — it’s so wild. Why is that perfect for the market? Because it’s what I know. It’s my expertise. It’s the wisdom I can lend. I see memoirists come in, and when we coach them, they end up self-help writers. They’re not Prince Harry. They’re not Britney Spears. They’re not Zibby Owens. You need some other takeaway that is your distinct perspective to make this a contribution on a crowded shelf.

Zibby: I had a really hard time with my memoir.

Lucinda: You did?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Lucinda: We have a whole podcast on just you. I’m sure your listeners know, but I need to understand this.

Zibby: It was rejected a million times. I had to redo it and redo it. It took forever.

Lucinda: Then it’s worth it, right? It’s worth it, or you pivot, just as we were talking about in the beginning.

Zibby: I pivoted. I kept changing it. Do you think that everybody should be published who wants to be published?

Lucinda: Another great question. So many people believe they have a book in them. The answer is very immediate for me, and it’s no. That’s not a bad thing. We’ve seen people go off to self-publish and be very successful at that. It doesn’t need to be a traditional deal with one of the big five publishers. Maybe you have a podcast instead because that’s the best format for your content. Maybe you have a YouTube channel. Maybe you are just writing articles. Something I tell memoirists to do, novelists to do, take your — this is another form of road testing to see if something works and something has an audience. Take the nut of what you want to write about — if you’re a novelist, the very best scene. Place that as an essay. See if people respond to it. Then we know you’re onto something. Maybe you should just be writing essays for Medium or for some other format, Substack, and still make money doing it. Maybe make better money. Maybe grow more of a following doing it than attempt the brave and difficult world of book publishing. No, it’s not for everyone at all. It really comes down to not only your talent on the page, but the gap in the market that you’re filling. Get Signed, no one was an agent who had written a book about how to get published. Plenty of coaches and authors have. The books are also years old, and the landscape has really changed. My publisher said, someone needs to do that, and we’ll take a flyer on you. That’s what this is about, identifying the gap in the market, making that case clear to an agent.

Zibby: That’s so true.

Lucinda: If you want to be Glennon Doyle — we get so many, I’m the next Glennon Doyle. I’m the next Untamed. Read the Amazon reviews from what she didn’t deliver in her book, what people are seeking as the follow-up or the question they wish she had answered. That’s your clue that something’s missing that you can provide.

Zibby: I love that. Oh, my gosh, such good advice. Do you feel like now you’re going to get eight trillion pitches?

Lucinda: Thank you. Do you have an idea for what to do with that? Here’s the pitch for the business that I’m really excited about, is the coaching side of this. Incidentally, I went to dinner with an editor two nights ago, and she was like, “Writers who are represented by agents need coaching because we’re now all in a volume business.” Editors are requiring more than they can physically do. There’s not the support for them. Agents are oversubscribed. The advances are smaller. They’re throwing spaghetti at the wall, which means there is less time for writers to get the editing and the coaching that they need. What I’m going to do with these eight million queries that come in — we, already, as a small agency get fifty a day before this book even launched. We’re a small agency, so imagine the rest. We can talk about how to choose between solo agencies and big agencies. What I imagine is going to happen is we’re going to see eighty percent of those need more of the coaching that teaches them, what’s your big idea? That’s the kind of books we represent, big-idea books. That can apply to novels too. That’s not just a nonfiction formula. They need that before they’re going to agents.

Zibby: They really need to know that you have to not go straight to publishers.

Lucinda: Oh, I know. I know.

Zibby: If you could try to get that — . What I think you should do — this is my two cents here.

Lucinda: Tell me.

Zibby: Instead of them just piling up in an inbox, because they are people out there who are desperate for connection and knowledge and all of that, I think you should take all of them and put them in a Facebook group together so that they make connections. It’s almost like the waiting room. It’s like, here’s the waiting room. Why don’t you chat online while you’re waiting to get in the door at the doctor’s office? Here’s our big waiting room. Put them all in there. Have them meet each other. Then put on a giant conference. Have them all come. I was actually thinking of putting on a conference for aspiring authors where you bring in speed dating and blah, blah, blah. That’s a gold mine to have all those aspiring authors. Or put them all on a mailing list.

Lucinda: Yes, we’re doing that.

Zibby: You can market to them. You can have other people market to them. You could say, I have this list. Would you like to advertise on my list? You’re a business owner. I shouldn’t even tell you. I’m sure you’ve thought of a million things.

Lucinda: I’m doing everything. The interest in that for my clients is that I’m being their guinea pig. I’m experimenting with all of these gorilla marketing strategies that are actually working. Now I can tell them for their book launches, this is what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. That sort of knowledge coupled with the compassion piece that I never had — I can just admit I never understood what it was. I was like, come on, suck up and go get blurbs. How hard is this to write a letter to an author that you know and ask for a blurb? It was the most vulnerable moment for me when I first had to do that. Adam Grant blurbed this book. I had to write someone I admire so much and say, this tiny baby book — you get a thousand queries a day. You write a really personal letter. Yes, authors have to be thinking of a book as part of a much greater puzzle and career because we’re not in it for one-hit wonders, and neither are you. You’re envisioning the career in this.

Zibby: I feel like we could talk about this for a hundred years.

Lucinda: I want to talk about you. I want to talk about your whole career.

Zibby: No, no, I just mean the state of the industry and what you can do because it’s so hard. Then after you get the deal, it’s still hard.

Lucinda: It’s harder. It’s harder, right?

Zibby: Yes.

Lucinda: No one book journey is the same. That’s what keeps it exciting for agents and publishers, in a way. It’s also, how many conversations are we going to have about how the jacket sucks? How many conversations about how the publicist didn’t deliver? My editor didn’t respond in a timely way. Authors, I feel your pain. I feel that firsthand now. It’s tricky.

Zibby: It’s tricky. It is very tricky.

Lucinda: So much is generated by the author, as you know. The author has to do everything.

Zibby: But this is it. This is what the world is right now.

Lucinda: Should I be saying that?

Zibby: Yes, you should because then people aren’t disappointed and surprised or whatever.

Lucinda: Or that they think this publisher is a great gift. Again, it’s this false notion that an agent or a publisher is the greatest gift I could receive. No, you are the greatest gift we could receive, but there’s a lot of pressure on you to hustle and to work hard. It’s just reframing that.

Zibby: Gone are the days of sending in something and then sitting back and becoming reclusive and famous.

Lucinda: Donna Tartt. Barbara Kingsolver. You can’t do it anymore.

Zibby: I had Barbara Kingsolver on my podcast.

Lucinda: Oh, wow. She’s a favorite.

Zibby: I’m just saying nobody can do it. John Irving, I had on my — they’re legends.

Lucinda: What?

Zibby: Yeah. They used to just be hiding. No one can hide. Everybody has to be out there, whether you’re John Irving or you’re the person who just got over a horrible diagnosis and wants to write about it. Everyone’s out there. That’s just the state of the world. You can either keep complaining about it or find ways to manage it.

Lucinda: How do you deal with all the engagement around social media that you have to…?

Zibby: I wasn’t on social media until I was trying to sell a book. They were like, you have no platform. I was like, okay, I guess I should start an Instagram account, literally. It’s a full-time job. I do it for hours, still, every day. I’m always like, okay, this isn’t working. This isn’t working. What’s happened? I feel like this growth is — let me test this out. You can’t stop. I’m always, every minute — I’m sure you are too. How is it working? Where is this landing? Who should I pitch my book to? Bookstores, that’s a whole other thing. That’s why I’m saying we could go on and on. All to say, your book is so important because everyone needs to start, at least, on the same page. This is like What to Expect When You’re Expecting. At least, read that, and then go to the doctor.

Lucinda: I love that. Thank you. I love that. Every author started as an unknown. We all started in the same place having an idea and a desire to write, but there’s so much more to it.

Zibby: Unless you’re a massive celebrity. For most of us who are not celebrities, that is not what it’s like at all. Really great. I’m going to be recommending this all the time. Thank you for taking your time out of your busy work life to help all the people who really need the book.

Lucinda: Thank you. I hope it helps people. I just want people to come in way more educated when they’re querying agents. It doesn’t have to be our agency. It applies to the market. It’s just what publishers are looking for, what readers are looking for because we’re all thinking like readers. If you haven’t identified what’s in it for the reader, you just won’t pass that first test. Anyway, I could talk all day with you.

Zibby: I know. So true. Everybody, Get Signed, Lucinda Halpern. Go get it now.

Lucinda: Thank you, Zibby. Take care.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m sorry that it took us so long to schedule and connect. Thank you for your patience.

Lucinda: No, I’m so thrilled. We need to have more conversations. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Yes, let’s stay in touch in the neighborhood. Bye.

Lucinda: Bye.

Lucinda Halpern, GET SIGNED: Find an Agent, Land a Book Deal, and Become a Published Author

GET SIGNED: Find an Agent, Land a Book Deal, and Become a Published Author by Lucinda Halpern

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens