Book proposals for nonfiction

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.

5 Responses to Book proposals for nonfiction

  1. Ludmilla Bollow says:

    Hip Hip Hooray to you Lynn. May the angels guide the doctor’s hands and sweetcheeks guide the nurses.
    Love and prayers – Ludmilla

  2. Lev Raphael says:

    All your advice about the proposal is spot on! People have to plan, plan, plan and work, work, work. Just one example for my memoir My Germany, out in 2009: I contacted probably about 150 German Departments and Jewish Studies Departments around the country with personalized PR about the book, and that generated dozens of paid speaking engagements, and some course adaptations. The PR kept changing as different things happened with the book so it was never canned, never one size fits all. I’m still touring this fall based on all of all. That will make two solid years of it.

    Good luck with the surgery!!

  3. Becoming your own personal public relations person is one of the keys, and adapting, as Lev discussed above. Great post.

  4. Marie says:

    About competing titles – how far back should one go? In my particular category, there have only been about 10 books published in the last 10 years on the subject, only one in the last 5 years. Should I include all of them? How do you decide which ones to mention or not?

  5. […] “Book Proposals for Nonfiction,” Lynn Price, Behler Blog: This publishing house editorial director lays out tips for pitching your nonfiction book, and reveals at the end that she won’t blog for a week because she has to have hip-replacement surgery. If she’s really back in a week, that’s dedication. (Related: Literary Agent = Book Contract?) […]

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