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Michael Snell stands on the beach on Cape Cod

The literary agent

He spent 13 years at a college textbook publisher, rising to become an executive editor. But Michael Snell ’67 was bored.

It was the late ’70s, and he knew “there’s a writer sitting on every barstool in Cambridge.” But nearby Boston was bereft of literary agencies, so he decided to open one there. He relocated in 1986 to a town on Cape Cod since so much of his work was done remotely.

Over 44 years, he has shepherded more than 1,500 books to publication. Some were novels and children’s books, but his specialty is business books, including “The Oz Principle” and other bestsellers. His involvement was so extensive on some books that he merited acknowledgements and even some bylines.

Snell’s strong suit is project development, “the most important aspect of getting published,” he said. That can be as simple as copy editing or as extensive as wordsmithing. “Anybody can have a great idea, but developing that idea … takes time and patience and a lot of hard work,” he said. He requires those who query him – 50 to 100 a week – to submit lengthy proposals using his template, before he decides whether to represent them. They must provide details “on what the author is going to do – use websites, social media, speaking engagements, you name it – to sell books. Publishers like an author who can get out in front of the book and draw attention to the book. …

“The image of literary agents talking publishers into buying a novel or a nonfiction book over lunch – that’s just not the case,” he said. “It’s all done with book proposals – basically, business plans for books.”

Snell said “it’s dangerous to go to a cocktail party where people find out I’m a literary agent. … Writing a book is still a great dream for so many people, but for most people it’s not going to happen because they haven’t the wherewithal to do it.”

He tells the story of a client who heard from a reader that his 1995 book, “Finding Work Without Losing Heart,” persuaded the reader not to commit suicide.

“That epitomizes why people write books, why they should write books,” Snell said. “You write a book because you want to be rich and famous? It’s probably not going to happen. It has to be because you want to make an important contribution, whether it’s artistically or informationally, to the world.”

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