Writing a Book Proposal – Yes? No? Who’s Right?

April 30, 2013

im sorry

An author told me that she noticed a few agents’ blogs were claiming that book proposals are passé, and authors need not write them. Instead, authors should treat their nonfiction like fiction, and just send the manuscript. I’m sure this works fine for agents, but what happens when an editor asks for one?

Maybe I’m a dinosaur and editors aren’t asking for them as much anymore. As Jurassic as I may be, I still always ask for a book proposal, and I know I’m not alone. Oddly enough, there have been a few agents who wrote back saying they didn’t have one. Period. No offer to cough one up. Take it or leave it. I’m always dismayed because I don’t see this as being advantageous to the author. Book proposals are standard for nonfiction, so is it a good idea not to be prepared? After all, publishers are the ones who are making the financial investment, and they still need that info in order to help make a decision.

It’s Not Just For Editors…

Book proposals play a whole other role in that they force authors to think of their books as a marketable product and to think like a businessperson. And believe me, prospective editors are thinking along those lines. Very often, I have questions that the agent will pass along to the author. If that happens to you, are you ready with a knowledgeable answer?

What’s frustrating is that authors rightly take their lead from their agents, so if they haven’t been told to write a proposal, then where does leave me? More importantly, where does it leave the author?

Book proposals take a long time to write, but I’ve yet to hear an author say that writing it was a complete waste of time. Instead, authors were amazed at how much they learned about their own book because they had to look at it from a different perspective. And even though novelists don’t need a book proposal, I still think it’s a good idea to write one because it forces you to think about your book from the side of an editor.

There are a ton of books about writing the perfect book proposal, I think these books are a waste of money because there’s no magic bullet to writing the perfect book proposal. Save your money. You want a reference? I wrote a post on book proposals that goes into further detail, so here it is for free.


Open Letter to Agents Addendum

August 24, 2011

I’ve heard a little bit of blowback from my Open Letter to Agents post. I never anticipated that I’d come through that post without some bruising, but I heard from a couple agent friends of mine whose prospective clients read my post and misinterpreted the part where I talk about the Book Proposal.

I’d like to clarify this point here and now:

AUTHORS – YOU SHOULD KNOW HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL.

Why? you ask? I’ll give you six reasons – all of them are previous posts that I’ve written about what book proposals are, why they’re vital, and how they can make you smarter, smell better, have whiter teeth, fresher breath, and will win you friends all over the world.

But the main importance of knowing how to write a book proposal is this:

IT WILL TAKE YOU FROM THE WORLD OF WRITING TO THE BUSINESS OF WRITING.

Don’t ever kid yourself – writing is a business. It’s not about fuzzy kittens and gooey mushy nothings over the phone. It’s hard work that involves icky things like marketability, competition, platforms, distribution. Writing a proposal forces you to think like a business person, not a doe-eyed author looking for rainbows, soft clouds, and warm muffins from your editor.

If your agent signed you without a book proposal (depending on genre, of course), then consider yourself lucky. Agents are all different, and some won’t sign a client without the author providing a book proposal. But if your agent tells you they need you to write a book proposal, then I cannot urge you enough to WRITE THE DARN PROPOSAL. You’ll learn a tremendous amount about your book, and you’ll make your agent happy. In turn, that agent will make me happy.

Your agent will use your proposal as a foundation to send off to scuzzy little robots like me – who scream bloody murder for proposals. If you have the temerity to go grouch muffin on your agent when she asks for a proposal then you’re revealing yourself to be a prima donna and truly not serious about your writing future.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – even if you write mainstream or genre fiction, it NEVER hurts to write a proposal because it consists of information that you’ll need at some point in your promotion.

What goes into a book proposal? I thought you’d never ask:

  1. COVER SHEET (title and subtitle of book; genre, word count, author’s name, address, phone, fax, email)
  2. CONCEPT STATEMENT (optional—briefly state the target audience, why they need this book, why your book is unique or timely, why you are an authority on the topic, and what your book offers that other books don’t).
  3. OVERVIEW (how you came to write the book—weave in attention-getting facts; this must be the most compelling part of your proposal!)
  4. PURPOSE OF THE BOOK (what will your book do? what need will it fill? how will it benefit readers?)
  5. THE MARKET/AUDIENCE (who will buy your book? why do they want or need it? give statistics)
  6. COMPETITIVE BOOKS (what else exists? where is it shelved? how is your book new and better? how does your book differ from all other books on this topic?)
  7. MARKETING OF THE BOOK (bookstores, book clubs, Internet, clubs, associations; if applicable—these are sales outside of a bookstore environment such as retail store chains, specialty stores, catalogs)
  8. PROMOTION & PUBLICITY (list newspapers, magazines, TV & radio stations that the publisher should contact)
  9. AUTHOR’S PROMOTIONAL CONTRIBUTION (list everything you’ll do to make the book successful; be sure to include all of your ideas for author appearances and events)
  10. COMPLETION OF THE BOOK (state that “x” months from date of contract you will deliver the manuscript—usually a 9-12 month period is allowed)
  11. SEQUELS (optional—list 1-3 other projects that interest you and that have a large audience)
  12. ABOUT THE AUTHOR (your background and experience; why you are the best person to write the book)
  13. THREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS (your first three chapters)

 


Book proposals for nonfiction

May 30, 2011

We specialize in nonfiction, so this blog post on the Berrett-Koehler blog scratched all my itches. Go. Read. Learn. It’s the difference between a fabo proposal that makes my mouth water and my thinking, “ho-hum-dee-dum, bummer they didn’t know what they were doing.”

Here are the questions Jeevan brilliantly posed in his post. I’d like to add my .0002 worth because, well, I want to, and it’s my blog.

1. Is the book really needed? Boy, Jeevan hit squarely this nail’s head, and I’m currently blowing him kisses. This is a universal cry for every editor and agent who works in nonfiction because we see so many of the same things: divorce, midlife crisis, cancer, bipolar disorder, family issues, addiction, the list goes on and on. We would never denigrate anyone’s personal journey, but we do have to consider whether the book has a place on bookstore shelves and in readers’ libraries.

For instance, there are gazillion Alzheimer books in the marketplace. But when you look for Early Onset Alzheimer’s, the pickin’s be sparse. And that’s why Barry Petersen’s Jan’s Story is the go-to book for this topic. Sales back that up. So it’s all about what your book brings to a crowded banquet. And who doesn’t love a banquet with all kinds of unique foods that tickle the taste buds? So ask yourself, does the public need your book. If so, why?

2. Is your book tightly focused? You know those Ginsu knives commercial that make all kinds of claims about what they can do? Sweetcheeks and I usually insert our own additions to the usual cutting the Coke can in half. “But wait!” we scream, “the Ginsu knives can also wash your windows and cure cancer! It can clean earwax and invert your bellybutton!” Hell’s bells, a food knife is good for one thing…cutting food. Or if you’re Sweetcheeks, using it as a screwdriver. And no, he still hasn’t been forgiven for ruining one of our good knives.

My point is that it should have a central focus. Just lately, I had a discussion with an author about trying to say too much with her book. I knew she was in trouble when it took her fifteen minutes to sum up her book. I wanted to throw a sisterly arm around her and whisper in her ear, “Darling, you’re trying to say too much, and it’s killing the story.” She wanted her book to be inspirational, so she’d added lots of inspirational narratives. She wanted to inject a sense of mystery, so she added an extra plot twist to support that goal. Lastly, she wanted to give audiences a up close and personal travelogue of her country. No wonder it took her fifteen minutes to describe her book. I felt like I needed Cliff notes and a roadmap.

It’s a good idea to have a central theme that you can barf out to an agent or editor in a couple sentences. If you’re asking your book to do too much, no one is going to care.

3. Who is the audience for your book? Again, this is where I give Jeevan another big wet one. He’s right in that many authors say “Everyone will lurve my book.” Problem is, I don’t have “everyone” in my Rolodex. However, I do have Alzheimer groups in my Rolodex. I also have heart groups, cancer groups, dependency groups, religious groups, romance groups… you get the idea. Specificity is key because that’s how we have to sell it to our sales teams.

4. Are your qualifications, background, and knowledge directly related to your subject? Oh, this is so important. Nonfiction is quirky in that we need the authors to be experts in their subject matter. Obviously, one need not be an expert in writing romance or thrillers. But if you’re going to write about, say, heart disease, you need to have some sort of platform that qualifies you as the resident expert. And it’s not enough to have experienced heart disease because millions experience it, too. You have to be hooked into heart groups, have the support from heart docs, and be seen as an authority figure. That I can sell.

Those who sit at home and knit toilet paper doilies need not apply.

5. What are the competing titles? We need this information because it’s a frame of reference when classifying your book. “Oh! There is nothing like my book!” will only earn you serious eyerolls from the beagle and an express ticket to Noobville. Competing titles let us know that you understand your competition and have something extra to add. I’d like to also suggest that you not only know your competing titles, but that you appreciate how your book compares and contrasts. This is a vital marketing tool. If we can say that your book goes above and beyond the competition, and we’re able to say how, then this sets your book apart from the rest of the herd. Good stuff.

6. What will the length be and how will the layout look? Word count is vital. Many of us have word count minimums of around 45-50k words and maximums of around 100k words -depending on the topic. We do this because we have production costs and retail pricing mulling in the back of our melons. If you have photos, we need to know this as well because it impacts the layout. It’s frustrating to read an entire proposal and not have a word count. That means I have to ask. Argh.

7. How will you actively market and support the book? Jeevan hits the nail on the head with this. He writes:

Don’t tell the publisher that you are available to write articles, speak at events, and engage in other promotional efforts.

So, so true. Whenever I see this, it makes me believe the author is waiting for the book to launch their career – as Jeevan states. Nonfiction doesn’t have that kind of pull. You need to already BE embroiled in this stuff. Saying that you’ll “be available” means that you’re waiting for your publisher to make you a star. We can’t do that. What we can do is get your book distributed – but without your platform and active promo plan, few genre buyers are going to bite.

You must, must, must have an active, viable plan that you are already engaged in. Telling me that you’re gonna do this or that makes me think about my plans to take up ping pong and run the next NY Marathon…all, which are highly unlikely. However, the author who tells me they are already doing this and that is the author I want to work with. They’re already established.

Social Media

And may I say something about social media? I know much has been written about the pros and cons of Twitter, Facebook, etc. But I’m not swayed or at all convinced when an author tells me they plan on engaging on FB and Twitter. Social media takes a ton of time to gather followers. And at that, the number of followers don’t guarantee a hit book. Sure, the lovely thing about this medium is the lit match aspect, and I respect its power. But unless you’re attracting thousands of comments on your blog every single day, I won’t consider this a valid  element of your promo plan.

Publishing is tough and not for those with weak intestinal fortitude. The most successful authors are the ones who are prepared. For you nonfiction writers, I hope this helps. And truth be known…this isn’t a bad exercise for you novelists either.

In addition to the wonderful Berrett-Koehler blog post, I have a whole section on Book Proposals in my blog that you might find helpful.

*thanks to Janet Reid for my stumbling across the Berret-Koehler post.

NOTE: This is my last post for about a week. I’m going in early tomorrow for a hip replacement…yay! I think the docs will let me break out on Friday, so until then, I may be computerless – or not have any desire to post squat. Have a good one and don’t mess up the place while I’m gone.


Book proposals: She said I was a nut job…

March 20, 2011

…the author revealed this to me in a query – she thought I was a nut job. Now, normally I’d just hit the delete button and move on, muttering something under my breath which only the beagle can understand. But this was someone I’d spoken to at a writer’s con, so it’s only fair that I hear her out, right?

See…here’s the deal; when I met her, I suggested she write a book proposal. On a novel. Yah, book proposals are for nonfiction. Ok, ok, let’s all join in, shall we? “Pricey is a nut job, nut job, nut job!”

There. Feel better? Now, let me explain the method to my madness. A book proposal forces you to analyze your book in ways you probably hadn’t thought of – and this is a good thing because you’ll probably write a much better query letter and have a better appreciation/understanding of how and where your book now fits in the marketplace. I never learned so much about my own novel and its potential audience, message, and marketability until I wrote a book proposal on it.

And that is the point.

You’re in this game to sell yourself better than the writer next to you, and there is no better way to float your literary cream to the top than taking the time to write out a book proposal for your novel. I’ve written about book proposals before, but it was written with the idea of helping writers with the process. This post is about analysis.

Here is what a standard book proposal should consist of:

  1. COVER SHEET (title and subtitle of book; genre, word count, author’s name, address, phone, fax, email)
  2. CONCEPT STATEMENT (optional—briefly state the target audience, why they need this book, why your book is unique or timely, why you are an authority on the topic, and what your book offers that other books don’t).
  3. OVERVIEW (how you came to write the book—weave in attention-getting facts; this must be the most compelling part of your proposal!)
  4. PURPOSE OF THE BOOK (what will your book do? what need will it fill? how will it benefit readers?)
  5. THE MARKET/AUDIENCE (who will buy your book? why do they want or need it? give statistics)
  6. COMPETITIVE BOOKS (what else exists? where is it shelved? how is your book new and better? how does your book differ from all other books on this topic?)
  7. MARKETING OF THE BOOK (bookstores, book clubs, Internet, clubs, associations; if applicable—these are sales outside of a bookstore environment such as retail store chains, specialty stores, catalogs)
  8. PROMOTION & PUBLICITY (list newspapers, magazines, TV & radio stations that the publisher should contact)
  9. AUTHOR’S PROMOTIONAL CONTRIBUTION (list everything you’ll do to make the book successful; be sure to include all of your ideas for author appearances and events)
  10. COMPLETION OF THE BOOK (state that “x” months from date of contract you will deliver the manuscript—usually a 9-12 month period is allowed)
  11. SEQUELS (optional—list 1-3 other projects that interest you and that have a large audience)
  12. ABOUT THE AUTHOR (your background and experience; why you are the best person to write the book)
  13. THREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS (your first three chapters)

Aw, why, Pricey?

I know, it’s a lot to deal with, but this isn’t just busy work – this is information we need REGARDLESS OF GENRE because all this stuff goes to our distributor’s sales teams so they can pitch your title to the libraries and national accounts. If you increase your BIC (butt in chair) index and do a proposal, you can write a smashing query letter that whets an agent’s or editor’s appetite.

No, not all at once

You’re not going to send in a book proposal on your novel because almost everyone wants a query letter first. Besides, the industry at large doesn’t consider book proposals on fiction – which I think is dumb because we do need this info. Rather, this is Girl Scout time, and this means that you’re getting prepared should someone contact you to send pages. There have been any number of times when I’ve been on the fence about a work and wanted more information before I actually asked for pages. If you have that info already done, you are better able to sell yourself.

There is a lot of gray in our industry, and being prepared to intelligently advocate your book’s strengths is the difference between “send me pages” that may lead to a contract offer, or a “no thanks.” A book proposal can transcend your advocacy.

So getting back to the writer who told me I was a nut job…she thanked me for the suggestion because she learned all sorts of things about her story that she hadn’t considered before. And heck, that’s what it’s all about, right?


Writing a book proposal – you are in the driver’s seat

November 29, 2010

Depending on what you write, you might be asked to write a book proposal. This will probably come from your agent. So you’ll sit down and dutifully ploink it out. You’re attempting to do your very best, but hey, you’ve never written one before so you hope you’re doing it right. But then you remember that you have an agent who will check it over again and finesse whatever needs finessing. Glory be, thinks you, I’m saved.

I’m here to say that you’re not.

How do I know? Because I’m the beanbag reading the end result, and too many times I’ve been scarily underwhelmed.

Let me say it here and now: You are in the driver’s seat. Yes, I realize your agent has the car keys, but judging from the questionable quality proposals that sometimes pass over my desk, I wonder if said agents checked the proposal before sending it out, or whether they don’t know enough to realize it needs more work.

Either scenario doesn’t bode well for you because the quality of a query or proposal is a direct reflection on your agent. And you want editors to like them/you. However, while they have the keys to the car, you are the one supplying the gas, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that you always know what you’re doing. And that means writing an effective book proposal.

I blogged about what goes into a book proposal, so be sure to go look at it. But I want to point out some of the common problems I see in book proposals that leave me scratching my head.

Overview/Concept Statement/Synopsis

This goes by many names, but the important thing to remember is that it’s the raison d’etre of your book; the synopsis, and the how and why you came to write the book.

I recommend that you avoid the “we see Main Character do this, we travel with Main Character to blah, blah, blah, and we share the Main Character’s sadness/heartbreak/joy/brilliance blah, blah, blah.”
I’m not quite sure why I detest this whole “we” type of writing, but I think it’s because I feel like I”m being talked to by a tour guide:

“And on your right, we will see an errant beagle rip a query letter to shreds. If we wait a minute, we will see an editor come screaming out of her office…”

I don’t feel like I’m being pulled into the story. I’m being told, not shown. If you’ve pitched your story effectively, there’s no need to play the tour guide and tell me what “we” will see or feel because I’ll get it already.

Mechanics

Somewhere in your proposal, you need to include your estimated word count and estimated time of completion. This is vital. And by golly, if you estimate the project will be finished by thus and such date, then you better etch that on your forehead. Fear of missed deadlines are one of the reasons I drink.

Market

This is the section where you discuss the specifics of the intended market. It’s also a playground for all kinds of silliness, and it drives me buggy. When a proposal is filled with vague “people who love to be inspired/challenged/frightened blah, blah, blah,” it makes me wonder if the author (and agent) really know the intended market, or whether this has a market at all. I won’t do your homework for you.

Well…um…actually that’s not true. I will. When something piques my interest, I investigate the book’s viability like the beagle does when she gets wind of a good sale on tequila. BUT, it irritates me, so does that count?

I need to know that you understand the marketplace and that you know you have a large reader potential, AND that you know where they are. Why do they want it? Why do they need it? See, what you’re doing is convincing/proving to me that your book has wings and can fly straight to the bestseller list. Me likes that. Me accountants likes it even more.

Comp Titles

Oboy. This is an itchy issue because this requires you to know your competition. I’m amazed at the number of people who have no clue as to their competition. At some point in your writing career, someone is going to ask. How would you feel if Katie Couric is interviewing you and asks, “Say, Brilliant Author, who would you say is your closest competitor?” Sorry, but sucking your thumb with a deer-in-the-headlights look doesn’t translate well in front of millions of viewers.

But before you ever get to that stage, your editor is going to ask because her sales teams are going to ask – because the genre buyers ask them. It’s Dominoes, and it all flows back to you. If your comp title section fails to list any comps and instead says something like, “there have been any number of books on Topic A, but they are of a political/humanistic/artistic flavor…so they don’t really compare,” then this is a Title Comp Fail.

And. I. Will. Be. Cranky.

First thing I’ll do is go over to Amazon and prove you wrong because I fail to accept there are NO BOOKS that remotely compare to yours. You might be very good, but there is always a book that compares to yours. That an agent would allow you to get away with this in your proposal makes me wonder if they have rocks in their heads. And yes, I’ve seen this numerous times.

If you do include comps, then I want to see how your book compares and contrasts. After all, if the book doesn’t contrast, then why bother? That book already exists. What is that something new that you bring to the party?

Additionally, make sure that your contrasts are compelling. If you wrote about police addiction and your contrast is that your book deals with short, bald cops with police addiction, then that’s hardly compelling. You’re picking nits, and we’ll bust you for it.

Stamp this on your forehead: Wimping out on comps is not acceptable. If you can’t provide comps, then you have some serious reading to do.

Marketing and Promotion

Book proposals must, must, must have a promo plan. If you or your agent didn’t include one, my mind will be officially blown. And this shouldn’t be anything like, “I will be available for book events.” That’s like saying you’ll use soap in the shower. Duh. In my particular world of nonfiction and limited fiction personal journeys, I”m looking for authors who have a platform that will command attention. And I’m not unique in this endeavor.

Avoid generalities like, “Brilliant Author travels all over the US and will feature the book at her talks.” What talks? Where is she going? To whom is she talking? How large are her audiences? 10? 50? 100? 1,000? It makes a difference.

Statements like, “Brilliant Author has contacts at several major and local newspapers,”  also make myblackened heart shrivel up because there aren’t any specifics. You may as well tell me you know the president because how can I verify that? Besides, telling me you know people doesn’t equate a promo plan. I’ve seen cases where Big Names were promised to offer a foreword or public support, and those plans mysteriously disappeared. Unless an author already has it in hand, I’ve learned to be leery.

A promo plan is just that – a plan. It things like:

  • “Ms. New York Times columnist has already agreed to write a review/interview when the book is released.”
  • “ABC Talk Show Host has agreed to have me on her show.”
  • “Several Mr. Huge Radio Personalities have scheduled interviews.”
  • “I have a regular column with HuffPo that deals with the same issues in my book.”
  • “I am scheduled to speak to Audience ABC in New York, Los Angeles, etc. while on a X-city book tour.”
  • “Sooper Dooper Magazine has accepted three excerpts from my book for their Pick-A-Month issue.”

These are specific plans that name names and takes numbers. These are plans my sales teams can take to the libraries, indie stores, and genre buyers when they ask, “what is the author doing to support book promotion?”

We look to see how many people know you. Yes, Virginia, writing is a business these days, and those who reach the top are those who are properly prepared and sufficiently educated about the industry.

A book proposal is a vital piece of information that we need to sell your book to a lot of people. If you have an agent, that’s great, but you can’t necessarily depend on them to ensure your proposal rocks. Some agents are incredible, but not all are, so make sure that you’re sitting squarely in the driver’s seat and can pop out a fabulous proposal that will have editors jumping on their desks with joy joy thoughts.

And may I also suggest that novelists would be well-advised to write a book proposal. If nothing else, it forces you to think about the true worthiness of your book in ways you hadn’t thought of before. The more you know, the better advocate you are for your book.


Mainstream vs. Genre

October 4, 2010

“Mainstream fiction rules, and genre drools!”

“Genre rocks and mainstream fiction eats dirty socks!”

Kids, kids, calm down. There’s room for everyone to play. Or is there?

“Yah, you go, Underworked and Overpaid Editor! You tell ‘em! We can’t sell our mainstream fiction!”

Um…that’s Overworked and Underpaid. Geez, have they been talking to the beagle again?

I agree that genre works like romance, mysteries, SF, and fantasy sell well because they have loyal audiences – they’re a cohesive unit. They have their own conferences and it’s easier for new authors to maximize their exposure. But what about mainstream fiction? There’s no conference for that. So how does one rise above the loud voices of their competitors?

You’ve seen it yourself, editors are very careful about buying mainstream fiction these days because it’s the biggest genre around. I’m equally as guilty. It’s harder to sell, and not just for the small trade publisher.

So what do you do if that’s your particular love? How do you get our attention in a way that makes us jump on our desks and say, “By golly gosh, I can sell this beast!” After all, we get tons of queries every day.

The author as salesperson

Yes yes, I realize many of you are reaching for your flame throwers with the intent of singing my eyebrows. “I’m a writer, dammit, not a door-to-door Hoover vacuum salesman.”

Times have changed, baby. Especially in the U.S. Writing is no longer a solitary endeavor where we can send our words of brilliance off to an agent for that instant six-figure deal. We. Must. Sell. Ourselves. Add the blowback of vanity presses rising from the steamy cow pastures of Middle America, and there are more books than ever. Writers are smart to be prepared to differentiate themselves from the rest of the herd.

Book Proposal

I know people who would rather have root canal without drugs than write a book proposal. “Ah, thank the Cosmic Muffin! I write fiction and don’t need a book proposal.” I happen to believe this is wrong.

Book proposals got their start as, well, a proposal; the book wasn’t yet written. It was a well-formed spark of an idea -  a “hey, I have this idea for a book, whaddya think?”

Editors would reply, “Before I entertain such a notion, prove to me that it’s marketable. tell me who your competition is, and who you are.”

Book proposals force authors to consider all the elements of where and how that book will behave on the marketplace. I have a complete rundown about the book proposal here.

All the information that comprises a book proposal is pertinent regardless of genre or level of completion. Marketing, promotion, audience, competitive titles, purpose of the book – all these elements help us decide the sea legs of a story – so why should it only be relegated to nonfiction?

A book proposal forces you to separate your mainstream fiction from everyone else because you have to think about your story’s unique qualities and pitch them in a convincing manner.

I know what you’re thinking; “How do I do that?”

Look for a socially relevant theme

Here’s how you can tongue waggle your genre brethren. See if you can’t pull out universally appealing elements. It’s one thing to tell me that your book is about five women who, for years, have been getting together for a week of catching up with each others’ lives, laughs, and too much drinking. Meh, another buddy book. Where’s my hook? What’s the universal appeal that makes me care?

Look to the characters for that universal appeal. Let’s say one of the characters is a well-known writer whose son was just killed in Afghanistan and, in her grief, she considers canceling her book contracts and hiding away from life. Her friends drag her to their weekend getaway and slowly start to bring her back to life.

The idea of death – regardless of where and how it happened-  is something that has touched all our lives. It’s universal.

See how the story takes on a whole different feel? The first one sounds light and fluffy because it’s all description. And let me tellya, description is what makes up 80% of my query letters. I can’t get enough information out of description. I need specifics so I can say, “send me pages.”

What if I don’t have any socially relevant elements?

Yanno, I get that question a lot. And I don’t believe it. If I was able to bring out something marketable in a surfer dude fantasy, then you most certainly can find something that makes your book universally appealing. If you don’t, are you sure you have a marketable book? Ask yourself why someone would want to read your book. It may be that you do have a marketable book, but I do have to ask the question here because you can be sure I will if you query me.

Authors who write mainstream have a tougher road to travel, and those who take these steps of preparation are the ones who get my attention. They’ve shown me they understand the business because they didn’t make me dig and ask a ton of questions. They were good Girl Scouts – always prepared. Or is that the lifeguards?

I would love to sign more mainstream because I enjoy being taken into someone else’s world where the possibilities are endless. But in order to get an editor’s attention, you have to know how to sell your story.

So, yah, mainstream does rule in my book. Just make sure you show me why. Take my advice – try writing a book proposal. It’ll clear your head.

Or make you drink heavily…


The crowded genre: sending stuff to an editor is never a wasted effort

April 22, 2010

I read a query the other day that sounded intriguing, even though it was written in a crowded subgenre – cancer. Normally I pass on these queries because cancer/addiction of any flavor/domestic abuse/child abuse/midlife crisis/divorce/bipolar [I could go on all day] have been done to ad nauseum. Bookshelves are lined with these books. In fact, I can almost hear my distributor’s brain exploding at the mere mention of undertaking any of these categories. I’m a small publisher, and I appreciate my limitations to make an impact within the marketplace. If I’m going to take on a crowded genre, I need a lot more than just a good book.

The query was well-written and alluded to a higher than normal quality of writing. Pricey, I thinks to meself, get the full proposal and see what the author is made of. Of course, I already know that the writing has to be off the charts amazing and the author needs a good platform. So I request the proposal, which includes the first couple chapters.

I wasn’t too disappointed with the writing. It was well-written and kept my attention pretty well. Totally on the fence with this. So I go to her title comps, which are the usual suspects, then I move on to her platform. And this is where I jumped off the fence and wrote her personalized rejection that included my likes and my reasons for turning it down. The long and short of it is that I felt her writing is good, but her topic is heavily impacted and I didn’t have the confidence I could sell the book to the stores based on her platform.

End of story, right? Wrong.

The Great Dismay

She wrote back expressing dismay and frustration. “If you knew this was a heavily impacted category, then why did you make me go through the hassle of sending you my proposal in the first place?”

I understand what she’s saying. She wants to know why I asked to see her proposal if I was pretty sure I was going to reject it. She’s mildly pissed at what she saw as a waste of her time. That much came through. And if she is, then it’s a sure bet others are as well when it comes to this roller coaster ride we call publishing.

Riding the Literary Seesaw

What the author doesn’t take into account is that queries are the fulcrum to the publishing seesaw. Just like the fat kid who always threw me off my side of the seesaw because he outweighed me by at least 1,000 pounds, a book can do the very same thing. Sure, cancer is an impacted category, but until I see more of the story, how do I know which way that seesaw is going to go – toward the fat kid or toward an empty seat.

The author assumes that I think impacted topic = instant rejection, and that’s not the case at all. When super agent Paul Fedorko sent me a query about Alzheimer’s, I thought, oh no, not another one. Had I prescribed to this author’s methodology, I would have rejected it on the spot. Rather, I was pulled in by the query, which included a short passage written by the author. Holy bran muffins, thinks me, I must see this. I nearly drank myself into a coma after I read the full proposal. “Good Gracey Goosebumples,” I screamed at the beagle. “We done hit us the motherlode.” We couldn’t sign Barry Petersen fast enough [personal website here].

This has happened time and again with many of the authors I’ve signed. There was something that nipped my nose in the query, even though the subject matter had a lot of competition. But it was their proposal that tipped my personal seesaw.

So to the author who was exasperated at having sent in her proposal even though I knew at the outset hers was a heavily impacted subject, I say chill out. Nothing is ever a wasted effort because there is always another side of that seesaw, yanno? Rather than finding fault with me, perhaps she could use my comments to further cement her position by meeting the reality head on. What do I mean by that?

Tip the seesaw in your favor and head ‘em off at the pass

If you write in an impacted category like the ones I mentioned above, admit it. Understand it. Deal with it. Confront it. I always think of Kate McLaughlin [personal webby here] when I talk about this subject. She sent me a query that instantly caught my eye, even though the subject was bipolar disorder. Oh no, sez me, not another one. But Kate, no neophyte, headed me off at the pass and never gave me a chance to complete the thoughts that were knocking against my brain cells.

She whacked me over the head with her title comps and did a comprehensive compare and contrast of each title – proving the unique qualities of her book. It was as simple as, “This is what title ABC covers, but it doesn’t address issues X, Y, and Z. Mine does, and here’s how.”

She confronted the issue that her book had a ton of competition, but she convinced me that her voice was unique. Indeed it is. Kate’s Mommy I’m Still in Here is the Great Yoda for families suffering bipolar disorder because of her unusual and fabulous perspective.

But I would have never known that had she not told me. Proven it to me.

No Whine Zone

So authors are invited to pick their poison. Do they allow frustration to creep in when an editor tells them they write in a crowded genre, or do they head it off at the pass and realize they have a higher hill to climb and must work harder to be accepted. Hopefully Ms. Rejected Author will pick up the seeds I dropped in my rejection letter to her. If she does, she can crank out a proposal like Kate’s.

Or…she can tell me I wasted her time. Who’s the winner here?


The Book Proposal . . . Will you marry me?

September 16, 2009

Oh come on, work with me here. The book proposal is the same as the “happily ever after” version because author and editor work together very closely. The proposal’s raison d’être is to convince a flighty, nervous editor to take the plunge and whisper a breathy “yes, darling, give me more.”

But there is a lot of consternation over book proposals because of their sheer length. What does a proposal consist of, and what is its purpose? The question has come up any number of places; the latest was last Friday when I had the pleasure of speaking at the Laguna Woods Writer’s Group. What a wonderful, lively, intelligent group! But I digress.

Proposals are requested by the editor or agent on the heels of a query. I say that, but it’s not always the case. I know a few agents who won’t entertain anything but a proposal. To protect your vulnerable hide, always check the submission guidelines.

Now many of you, upon seeing the request to provide a book proposal, rush to the bookstore and comb the shelves for writing the perfect book proposal. I can hear your cries of frustration from here. “ARRGH! I don’t wanna write a big ol’ proposal! I don’t even know how, and there are so many ‘How to Write the Perfect Proposal,’ I can’t see straight.” Relax, Dr. Proposal is here to the rescue.

Here be da basics:

  1. COVER SHEET (title and subtitle of book; genre, word count, author’s name, address, phone, fax, email)
  2. CONCEPT STATEMENT (optional—briefly state the target audience, why they need this book, why your book is unique or timely, why you are an authority on the topic, and what your book offers that other books don’t).
  3. OVERVIEW (how you came to write the book—weave in attention-getting facts; this must be the most compelling part of your proposal!)
  4. PURPOSE OF THE BOOK (what will your book do? what need will it fill? how will it benefit readers?)
  5. THE MARKET/AUDIENCE (who will buy your book? why do they want or need it? give statistics)
  6. COMPETITIVE BOOKS (what else exists? where is it shelved? how is your book new and better? how does your book differ from all other books on this topic?)
  7. MARKETING OF THE BOOK (bookstores, book clubs, Internet, clubs, associations; if applicable—these are sales outside of a bookstore environment such as retail store chains, specialty stores, catalogs)
  8. PROMOTION & PUBLICITY (list newspapers, magazines, TV & radio stations that the publisher should contact)
  9. AUTHOR’S PROMOTIONAL CONTRIBUTION (list everything you’ll do to make the book successful; be sure to include all of your ideas for author appearances and events)
  10. COMPLETION OF THE BOOK (state that “x” months from date of contract you will deliver the manuscript—usually a 9-12 month period is allowed)
  11. SEQUELS (optional—list 1-3 other projects that interest you and that have a large audience)
  12. ABOUT THE AUTHOR (your background and experience; why you are the best person to write the book)
  13. THREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS (your first three chapters)

What’s that? Am I still hearing you scream? Oh, knock it off already. We really do need this stuff. I stake the beagle’s blender of margaritas on it. And besides, you gotta be tough to be in this business.

Look at it from my side of the desk

Proposals are done mostly for nonfiction, so applied because many nonfiction books are incomplete when sold to an editor, and we need to have as much information as possible to see the book’s potential. But lately, book proposals are creeping up in fiction as well, and fiction, as we all know, are always completed works (except in rare cases).

I like it quite a bit because these lovely gems o’ love tell me everything I want to know without having to ask. In this ecomonic climate, editors are a lot more choosy about what they buy, and it’s not enough (sadly) to simply have a great story. We have to be able to sell it and promote it. If I have an author who sits home and knits toilet paper doilies and has an abject fear of crowds, I am unlikely to review to book any further. And yes, I’ve let good books go for that very reason.

Because writing a book proposal takes serious thought, time, and research, it’s a great way to weed out the serious writers from the hobbyists and noobs (noobs=authors who don’t know and don’t care). It tells me, “Hey, you. I’m lookin’ to get married, and this shows I’m serious about my intentions.” What better way to flatter a gal? Even the beagle’s margaritas don’t have that kind of zing.

And face it; all the information that goes into your proposal is stuff you have to have at some point in your submission stage, so why not save yourself the trouble and write one now. It makes my teeth itch when I ask for a proposal and the author either asks me what that is, or gives me a, “uhhh…can you hang on while I write one? I gotta research my title comps.”

What? [anguished cries peel the paint off the office walls]

Look, if you don’t know your title comps or who your target readership is, then you have no business trying to convince me to read your work because you have no idea whether your book is unique or not. You, plainly, haven’t done your homework. This spells noob to me. The beagle eats noobs during her midmorning snack time.

I talked a while ago about being a good Girl Scout, and that goes for every aspect of querying. Once you’re ready to hit the streets, you need to be prepared for unexpected. It’s a good idea to say at the end of your query letter that you have a full proposal prepared and would be happy to send it. If I like the query letter, I always take the author up on their invitation.

It may happen that no one ever asks for your proposal, but if they do, you have it. There now, don’t you feel better about yourself? As for my breathy “I do,” that’s for another post.


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