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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