Formatpalooza, part XX: wrapping up the book proposal in style

Before I launch into today’s festivities, I am pleased to announce a reprieve for those of you who wanted to enter the Author! Author! Rings True contest, but have not yet found the time: the deadline has been extended to Monday, January 10th, at noon in your time zone. So if any of you literary fiction writers, memoirists, or folks who are just unsure about your book category would like some of my patented no-holds-barred feedback on the first page of your manuscript and synopsis, now is your chance!

Back to business. As today’s title implies, I’m going to be finishing up my whirlwind overview of book proposal formatting this evening. This exciting development (hey, everything’s relative) is, of course, merely a plateau in our continuing climb toward mastery of standard format for book manuscripts. In my next post, I shall be wrapping that up, too, via my favorite means: answering readers’ burning questions.

So if you’ve been holding back any, waiting for someone else to ask, now would be a dandy time to leap into the fray. The comments on today’s post, for instance, would be a dandy place to bring up any lingering concerns.

Before we launch into this last installment, let’s recap, shall we? (Yes, yes, I know, I’ve covered all this before, but you’d be surprised at how many writers in a hurry will read only the most recent post in a series like this.) Here, once again, are the constituent parts of the book proposal, in the order they should appear:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves both Millicent the agency screener and Maury the editorial assistant with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

3. The competitive market analysis

4. The annotated table of contents

Everyone relatively happy about all of those? Again, please pop a question into the comments, if not. As, indeed, incisive reader Laura did the last time I discussed the intricacies of book proposals:

Quick question about the table of contents. The book I am proposing is written in first and second person Should the Annotated Table of Contents be written in the same style or should it be a third person explanation of the chapters?

Great question, Laura: the annotated table of contents should be written in the third person, regardless of the voice of the proposed book. That is not true of the rest of the book proposal: the opening pages of book description (and, of course, the sample chapter) should be in the intended voice of the book. So while most nonfiction proposals are written entirely in the third person singular, all memoir proposals should be in the first person.

Everyone clear on that? Excellent. Moving on:

5. The sample chapter(s)
Usually, book proposals contain only one sample chapter — written impeccably and polished to within an inch of its life, naturally — but if the chapter you have in mind is less than 15 pages long, consider including more than one. As long as you keep the total sample under 30 pages or so, you should be fine.

Generally speaking, professional proposals use Chapter 1 as the sample chapter, rather than one from farther into the storyline or argument, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s usually easier for the reader to follow that way. However, that’s not strictly necessary: in a cookbook proposal, for instance, Chapter 7’s Thanksgiving feast may well wow Millicent more than Chapter 1’s general introduction to baking techniques.

Use your best judgment — but as always, be open to your future agent’s informing you that you judged wrong and that you must write another sample chapter before she submits it to editors at publishing houses. (Yes, it happens. Quite a lot, in fact.)

Whichever chapter you select, make absolutely certain that the chapter and the description in the annotated table of contents match. You’d be astonished — at least, I hope you would — how often the chapter does not resemble the description: it’s as though the writer wrote the chapter and the annotated table of contents at completely different times, and then didn’t bother to cross-check.

Which is, of course, precisely what happens, most of the time. That’s a serious proposal faux pas: how can a proposer expect Millicent or Maury to believe that those descriptions in the annotated table of contents are accurate representations of what will turn up in the eventual book if the one and only chapter presented as evidence does not adhere pretty closely to its description?

When making the decision about which chapter to include, bear in mind, too, that the sample chapter is where you’re going to provide the most direct evidence of the voice and writing style of the proposed book. Neither of which, in a good proposal, will come as a surprise to Millicent, because the entire proposal should be written in the narrative voice of the book.

Yes, even the dry marketing parts. Hey, you’re a writer — it’s your job to make even unquestionably dull stuff interesting to read. It all needs to be your best writing.

Which brings me back to that bit about the sample chapter’s needing to be written impeccably and polished to within an inch of its life. It never fails to astonish Millicent and Maury how often a good writer with a compelling book concept simply throws away the opportunity the sample chapter provides of demonstrating that s/he is a serious writer willing to take the time to present his or her work professionally. A sample chapter containing formatting errors, grammatical problems, or typos is simply not going to be impressive enough to catch an agent or editor’s eye.

Not positively, anyway. Why not? Because, lest we forget, a book proposal is a job application: in it, the writer is trying to convince an agent or editor that this is a compelling argument or story that a specific group of readers will want to buy, but that this writer and no other is the perfect person to hire to write it.

That’s true, incidentally, no matter how unusual your book concept is or how impressive your platform is to write it. Remember, being able to write well, clearly, and in adherence to standard format is the minimum requirement for a successful submission, not a set of fringe benefits.

What’s that you say, campers? This all sounds like a heck of a lot more work than simply throwing the necessary materials together and hoping that the sample chapter alone is enough to convince Millicent that your voice is right for this project? Undoubtedly. But a better marketing strategy than the far more common approach of composing the rest of the proposal in the faintly exasperated tone of the jumper through unnecessary hoops? Absolutely.

On the brighter side, for a well-prepared writer, the labor involved in incorporating the sample chapter into the proposal is comparatively light. How so? Well, hold your applause, but in a proposal, the sample chapter is formatted precisely like a chapter in a manuscript.

Okay, you can clap now. You know you want to.

That’s right — provided that as much of the book as you’ve written so far is already in standard format, you can simply copy and paste it into your book proposal at the proper juncture. This means, of course, that the first page of the sample chapter will have more white space at the top than any other page of the proposal. (And if you found that last statement mystifying, may I suggest that you review my earlier post on chapter openings and how they should look on the page?)

I hear some of you muttering and shuffling your feet. You want to see the difference between the first page of the sample chapter and any old page of the proposal, don’t you? Good plan.

Here, for your comparing and contrasting pleasure, is a properly-formatted first page of a proposal. (You do remember, right, that the title page is neither numbered nor included in the page count?) As always, if you are having trouble reading specifics, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

overview1

That should look familiar by now, right? Because the sample chapter is a major section of the proposal, let’s review how a major section change would be designated in a proposal:

competitive market analysis3

Now take a peek at a minor topic change — which, too, should be old hat by now. (Where on earth did that perverse little expression originate, I wonder?)

subheading in proposal

As I would devoutly hope would be abundantly clear to you by this late point in a series on standard formatting, none of the above remotely resembles the first page of a manuscript. The first page of a manuscript should, of course, look like this:

first page of text

Quite a difference, is it not? Millicent could tell which was a page from a proposal and which had fluttered free of a manuscript from ten paces away. Now take a gander at the first page of the sample chapter in a proposal:

sample chapter opening

Those last two are remarkably similar, aren’t they? Pop quiz: see any formatting differences between this and the same chapter opening in the manuscript?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, exclaiming, “By Jove, Anne, the slug line clearly demonstrates that rather than starting pagination over again at page 1, the sample chapter’s first page shows where it falls within the book proposal,” congratulations: you have the eye of an editor. As you so astutely pointed out, the page numbers don’t start over at the beginning of the sample chapter; the entire proposal is numbered consecutively. For extra credit, would anyone care to guess why?

If you shouted, “To make it easier for Millicent to put the always unbound pages of the proposal back in order after she collides with someone in the hallway!” you’re really on a roll today. Help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash.

Otherwise, though, the sample chapter and the same chapter in manuscript form should be formatted identically. Realizing that, need I even add that part of what the writer is demonstrating in the sample chapter is a familiarity with the standards of this industry?

Not to mention the tone and vocabulary norms of the chosen book category. I probably should mention that, come to think of it, because many a well-argued and even well-written book proposal has gotten rejected because the prose in the sample chapter just didn’t sound like, well, a book in that category.

As always, if you’re not familiar with what’s currently being published in your chosen book category, why not? And how on earth did you manage to write a convincing competitive market analysis without being up on all the recent releases, anyway?

I’m most emphatically not kidding about this: from an agent or editor’s point of view, a book proposer’s being conversant with the norms, trends, and current market for the type of book she’s proposing is not an optional extra — it’s a basic requirement. It comes standard with the professional nonfiction writer package.

Don’t tell me you can’t afford to buy everything that comes out in your category, either: that’s what libraries and bookstores with comfortable reading chairs are for, after all. (Although a case could be made that the single best thing a first-time writer in any book category could do to help convince the pros that category has a solid fan base is to rush out consistently and buy new releases in that category. Particularly those by first-time authors.)

A couple of final words about the sample chapter before I move on to the remaining bits of the proposal: make absolutely sure that the sample chapter delivers on the promise of that chapter’s summary in the annotated table of contents. If there’s any doubt whatsoever in your mind about whether it fulfills that promise — or if it does not represent your best writing — either pick another chapter to use as your sample or start revising.

What does bearing out the promise of that description mean, in practice? If the chapter description contained an explicit question — or even an implicit one — the sample chapter had better answer it. If the description hinted at an exciting scene, the chapter had better deliver it. If the description made an argument, the chapter had better present evidence in support of it.

And it had better do so without repeating entire sentences or — sacre bleu! — paragraphs from the description. Or, indeed, from any other part of the proposal. Trust me, Millicent and Maury both have sufficient memory for phraseology to catch if you have used the same three consecutive words twice within the same book proposal, much less reused an entire paragraph from the annotated table of contents in the chapter. Or vice versa.

Seriously, proposers do this all the time — as do synopsis-writers, incidentally. When trying to break into a business that runs on uniquely-worded expressions of thought, it’s just not a very good strategy.

Do try, too, to pick sample material that makes your subject matter sound fascinating. That may seem as though it goes without saying, but cursory sample chapters are the bane of any proposal-reading Millicent or Maury’s existence, and for good reason: if their attention has been sufficiently grabbed by the overview and maintained throughout the middle part of the proposal, it’s a genuine disappointment to discover a sample chapter that just lies there. If they’ve read that far, trust me, they want — and expect — to be wowed.

At the risk of hauling out that broken record player again, they also expect that the sample chapter will demonstrate how you intend to flesh out the brief chapter summaries in the annotated table of contents, and rightly so. If the two parts of the proposal appear to be out of sync, M & M are going to wonder if your writing skills are up to the task of producing a consistent final manuscript.

Don’t tempt them to speculate on that score. Call me cynical, but I’ve seldom seen that type of speculation end well for the proposer. It’s not a screener’s job to give proposers the benefit of the doubt, after all.

Speaking of doing one’s job, it’s about time that I talked about the remaining elements of the proposal, isn’t it? Don’t worry; there aren’t many.

6. The author bio
Since writing a stellar author bio is an art form of its own, and one that we have discussed recently, I’m not even going to attempt to describe here how to write one. For an in-depth discussion of the subject, please consult the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list at right.

Again, this is a place where many first-time proposers skimp, thinking (erroneously, alas) that since they’ve already talked about their platforms earlier in the proposal, all that’s really necessary in the author bio is the kind of bare-bones, just-the-facts-ma’am author bios they’re accustomed to seeing inside the dust jackets of hardcover books. Do not, I implore you, be fooled by those brief paragraphs going by the same moniker as what’s required in a book proposal.

The purpose of an author bio in a book proposal is to provide a handy single-page summary of the writer’s platform for writing this particular book. That means, in practice, that a savvy writer may choose to use different author bio text — or even author photos — in proposals for different books.

Not sure why? Okay, tell me: if you were vacillating between acquiring two books on dog breeding, which bio would appeal to you more, one that simply lists the writer’s previous publications and credentials under a smiling head shot — or one that listed eight dog-related credentials under a snapshot of the writer with his arm around a happy Dalmatian?

No contest, is there?

Do not, for the sake of your own writerly happiness, leave constructing your bio to the end of the proposal-writing process. It’s hard; budget time for it. Why? Well, really apt author bios are hard to write — and most of us go through quite a few photos before we find one of ourselves that we like.

Don’t believe me? Okay, care to guess how many shots my quite gifted photographer friend Marjon Floris took before she caught the one in my bio?

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 800. With two cameras. (Thank goodness for digital technology, eh?) Admittedly, my whole family is pretty camera-shy — my brother’s wedding photographer actually burst into tears during the reception, so frustrated was he at the difficulty of catching candids of any of us wily Minis — but still, a good author photo often takes a lot of trial and error.

Speaking of the camera-shy, am I seeing some of you waggling your fingertips in my peripheral vision? “But Anne,” the photography-averse murmur, making faces at the camera, “I don’t want to include a picture of myself in my bio; believe me, my book’s appeal would in no way be enhanced by a photo of me clutching a Dalmatian, or indeed, any creature whatsoever, warm- or cold-blooded. Can’t I, you know, skip it?”

You’re not going to believe this, but the answer is yes.

At least in a book proposal; it’s more or less de rigueur these days in a bio accompanying a manuscript submission. Hey, both Millicent and Maury will want to be able to tell their bosses if the new writer they’ve just discovered is photogenic — like it or not, it does sometimes make a difference in marketing these days.

Without an author photo, a proposal bio is simply another double-spaced single page of text with a title at the top. Here, for instance, is the super-serious bio I used a few years ago in the proposal for the political book I’ve been using as an example all day:

author bio

7. Relevant clippings, if any
This is another platform-proving exercise: if you have written articles, or even other books, it’s customary to include beautifully sharp photocopies of a few of them at the end of your book proposal. Similarly, if you happen to be famous enough for articles to have been written about you and your subject matter, feel free to include ‘em here — provided, in this second case, that they relate to your platform for this particular book.

Since our primary concern in this series is formatting (although I suspect that salient fact may have slipped all of our minds while I’ve been chatting at length about the content of a good book proposal; hey, I’m chatty), I’m going to leave to another time in-depth discussion of how to generate clippings. For now, I’ll content myself with urging you to make sure that the copies are pristine, with nice, clear, readable type.

Oh, and one other thing: do yourself a favor and scan each of the clippings, or have a computer-savvy someone do it for you. Not only will this enable you to submit your proposal to agents and small publishers who prefer online submissions (still relatively rare for nonfiction, but growing in popularity by the day), but it will also save you quite a bit of time down the line, once you’re working with an agent.

Why? Well, it has become quite common for agents to submit book proposals electronically to editors. Unscanned clippings can’t go into a virtual proposal, right?

Pant, pant, pant. Don’t stop running now — we’re practically at the end.

8. The proposal folder
I’ve written about this fairly extensively in the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL series (conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list at right), so I’m not going to delve too deeply into the particulars. Except to say: in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders.

Period. Don’t even consider trying to get fancy — and whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript.

Well, not quite the same: tuck the pages (neatly please) into the folder, items 1-4 on the left-hand side (i.e., everything prior to the sample chapter), items 5-7 (the sample chapter and beyond on the right).

Don’t label the folder on the front, either; keep it plain. What Millicent, Maury, and everybody else in the industry expects to see coming out of a submission envelope is this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. Seriously, proposals in the wrong kind of folder will just look unprofessional to the pros.

And that — whew! — is a lightning-swift (for me) discussion of how to format a book proposal. Congratulations on absorbing so much practical information so rapidly, campers, and for being professional enough to take the time to learn the ropes before you submit.

Next time, it’s back to the rigors of standard format for manuscripts — and to answering more readers’ trenchant questions. (But to save all of you question-askers some effort: I am already aware that there are a lot of sources out there making a lot of claims about how manuscripts should be formatted; you don’t need to keep telling me. There is absolutely nothing I can do about the plethora of odd advice out there on the web. I know that those of you who long for consensus are frustrated that every single source you consult doesn’t say precisely the same thing, but as I have said early and often throughout this series, my goal here is to give you enough of the logic behind what I advise for you to be able to judge for yourselves. For some tips on how to tell the good advice from the bad, and the informed from the just guessing, you might want to check out the HOW CAN I CHOOSE BETWEEN COMPETING ADVICE category on the archive list at right.)

Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XIX: constructing a proposal an agent or editor would like to accept

Sorry about the uncharacteristically long silence, campers. Although you may have concluded that I had withdrawn, discreetly, in order to allow those of you who write literary fiction, memoir, and work that just doesn’t fit neatly into a pre-established category some extra time to prepare your entries in the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition — the deadline is Saturday at midnight in your time zone! — I was, alas, flat on my back.

Or rather resting at an incline, sniffling my way through one of the most annoying flus ever to work its way through the hapless citizenry of this part of the country. Normally, I can work through the haze of such contretemps, but this one was a lulu. I shall post through the weekend, though, to make up for the lost time.

Why the hurry? I know that some of you are eager to polish off — and polish up — your nonfiction book proposals.

Toward that laudable end, we have been bending our collective gaze — steely, to be sure — away from the green pastures of manuscript formatting to turn our attention to the wind-swept plains of book proposals and their proper formatting. As we have seen in our brief sojourn amid the majestic buffalo and skipping lambs, while the text of a book proposal is formatted largely in the same matter as a manuscript’s, the various headings and subheadings are often different.

Allow me to take a brief pause in the midst of all of that stirring imagery to sneeze violently.

Before we resume, did you notice how I dropped that running metaphor when it became apparent that it wasn’t working? That’s a good editing tip for any kind of writing: if it doesn’t fly, don’t force it. An even better one: while proofing you work, make sure you read all the way to the end of every sentence; it’s the only way to catch metaphors abandoned mid-stream.

Why, yes, Virginia, I do see orphaned metaphors wandering about ostensibly well-revised manuscripts. All the time. It’s one of the species markings of the Frankenstein manuscript.

As we saw last time, a professional book proposal contains a wide range of marketing materials, all written in the proposer’s best possible prose, cleverly fitted together in a manner to convince an agent or editor that the proposed book an interesting idea that will appeal to a very specific (and, ideally, well-established) target audience. Not only that, but that the proposer is the best (and, ideally, the only) conceivable person currently drawing breath to write this particular book.

Or, to put it in the language of the industry, it’s a marketable concept presented by a writer with a great platform.

Pardon me while I wrap myself up warmly — the thousand hands that just shot into the air created quite a draft. “Excuse me, Anne?” many would-be proposers inquire nervously. “You didn’t really mean that bit about the proposal written in the proposer’s best possible prose, did you? After all, the proposal is just a formality, a series of hoops through which I have to jump before a publisher buys my book, right? All that really matters is a great book concept.”

Actually, no — although I can certainly see why you might think so. Unlike novels, nonfiction books (yes, even most memoirs) are sold not because someone falls in love with the manuscript, but because a prospective author has made a convincing case in a proposal that a book that does not yet exist will be marketable to a specific audience and that s/he is the right person to write it.

Since the book concept and the argument for it are the primary sales pitch, most first-time proposers conclude that the writing in a proposal is of secondary importance. They’re absolutely wrong.

Why? Because every syllable of a book proposal is a writing sample — the only writing sample, in fact, upon which an agent or editor will base his or her conclusions about whether to pick up the book.

Picture, if you will (and you will, right?), Maury the editorial assistant, diligently scanning the day’s submissions from agents for the next promising nonfiction project. He has reason to be careful: he needs to be very, very selective about what he passes on to his boss, the editor of your dreams. (Let’s call her Ermintrude, just for giggles.) If he simply sends Ermintrude every proposal that sounds as if it might make a good book, he’s not really doing his job, is he? It’s not as though she can offer a publication contract to every interesting-sounding project, after all; at most, even an extremely busy editor might be able to take on somewhere between one and ten a year.

Yes, you read that correctly. Believe me, if Ermintrude had her druthers, she would be publishing at least 30 times that many, but her druthers are, alas, constrained by economic realities and marketing trends.

Please think about that, if were planning to toss together your book proposals over the next long weekend, or stuff them into the mailbox without running the text by another literate human being not already familiar with your book’s concept — or, sacre bleu! if you have already sent off a New Year’s resolution-fueled submission packet. Even though it has historically been quite a bit easier to land an agent and sell a first nonfiction book than a debut novel, the competition is still extremely fierce.

So when you see an agency’s submission guidelines seemingly casually asking nonfiction writers to query with proposal, this is not a requirement to approach lightly. The Millicents who screen those proposals for agents are expecting not a thrown-together, paint-by-numbers, bare-minimum document; they are expecting to see a polished, professional presentation of a terrific book concept written in beautiful, clear prose.

Why set the bar that high? Let’s wend our way back to Maury’s cubicle to find out.

It’s Maury’s job to prevent Ermintrude’s desk from becoming so over-stacked with proposals that she can’t find her phone. That means, in practice, that he’s going to weed out any proposal that doesn’t sound interesting right off the bat. He’s also going to reject those that don’t have a clearly-defined concept — which, in a screener’s world, means one that’s both grabbed his attention instantly and is comprehensible within the first few pages of the proposal — as well as those that either don’t define their target market well or do not strike him as likely to appeal to the readers already buying such books. Not to mention those that don’t seem to have a well laid-out marketing plan or chapters likely to deliver fully upon the premise of the proposal, or those proposed by writers who haven’t made a good case for their platforms to write the book.

That, frankly, is most of ‘em. I hate to be blunt about it, but because the book proposal is such a widely misunderstood marketing tool, Maury sees a whole lot of rambling proposals. And rambling, unprofessional proposals are most of what Millicent sees on a weekly basis.

In both cases, the response is the same: “Next!” Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of submissions, it’s likely to be “Next!” for quite a few well-written ones, too.

Why, you cry in tones of anguish? Let’s be generous and assume that Maury’s had an unusually strong selection of proposals tumble onto his desk this week: out of 300, 10 are genuinely fascinating ideas for books aimed for a well-established audience.

He is facing a dilemma, right? Obviously, he can’t possibly pass them all along to his boss — remember, 10 is Ermintrude’s entire year’s allotment of books, even if she works nights, weekends, and funds the last two herself, and this is only the first week of the year. So how does he decide which one or two to send across the hall to her?

That’s right: the ones where the writing in the first few pages screams, “Excuse me, but had you noticed that there’s some talent here?”

Yes, I did indeed say the first few pages; as with a novel, if the opening doesn’t shine, a professional reader is unlikely to read on.

Don’t pout — this information is potentially empowering, because it can steer a nonfiction writer toward specific, helpful revisions. If a literate person like Maury can’t tell Ermintrude what the book is about and why you’re the best person on earth to write it by the time he is halfway through page 4, you might want to think about some serious revision. And if he doesn’t positively long to read the book by the middle of page 2, run, don’t walk, back to the drawing board to work on your prose and presentation.

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, let’s review the constituent parts of the book proposal — at least, the ones we have covered so far:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being currently possessing an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

Okay, okay, so I kind of slipped that last one up the back staircase, but it’s an important question to consider when evaluating whether your book proposal is strong enough to head out the door. Let’s face it: most book proposals are very, very dry. That makes some sense, given that for even the most enthusiastic book proposer, comparing books currently on the market and talking about methods for reaching a target audience are not inherently exciting topics.

As a result, many a book proposal reads like a book report: all of the necessary parts are there, but the writing is perfunctory and, well, dull. Quite apart from the very real risk of boring Maury and Millicent — who, after all, read quite a few proposals in any given day, if their bosses handle nonfiction — a just-the-facts-ma’am proposal runs another risk: conveying the impression that the book being proposed will be sketchily or uncompellingly written as well.

But this is a marketing document, right? Why not use those pages to give Millicent and Maury a strong foretaste of what the book will be like? Or, to phrase it as an axiom: it’s a great asset to a book proposal if it is written in the same voice (and with the same vocabulary) as the eventual book.

Especially if you can do it excitingly within the first few paragraphs of the proposal. As we discussed last time, a fantastic way to establish authorial voice and interest in the subject matter is to start the proposal with a vividly illustrative anecdote or other method of direct appeal to the reader’s reason and emotions.

Opening with personality-free marketing material tends not to grab Maury’s attention anywhere near as well. Unless you would rather try to thrill him with a hook focused upon last year’s sales statistics?

3. The competitive market analysis
This section, as I hope you will recall from last time, consists of a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied in each case by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

Sound familiar? It should: here is where the proposer proves the contentions he made in the overview. Preferably, with hard data.

Which of the many, many contentions, you ask, and how does talking about one’s competition prove them? Well, for starters, who the target audience is for your book?

Answer: the readers who have already bought the books listed in the competitive market analysis. The implicit logic: if those books sold well, that means these people buy a lot of books — and might be eager to buy more.

Remember, this should not be a list, but a compare-and-contrast essay, presented in standard format. The essay format is actually to your advantage: while you’re comparing and contrasting, you can demonstrate how your book is different and better than what’s already on the market — and yes, Virginia, that can (and should) be done without running down the competition, as long as you’re specific.

Think about it: if you mention the best points of the other books and can still make the case that your proposed volume will either do what they do, only more effectively (do you have a stronger platform than another author, for instance, or is the other book outdated now?) and/or not in the same way (what does your take on the subject offer that those other books do not?), your book is going to end up looking better by contrast than if you merely say that everything else is terrible.

Trust me on this one. If you can’t say anything nice about a particular comparable book, consider instead contrasting yours to one that you can praise with a straight face.

Some of you have had your hands raised since last time, have you not? “But Anne,” proposers everywhere exclaim, rubbing circulation back into their exhausted arms, “one of the reasons I wanted to write my book in the first place is that there isn’t another recent book on the subject. So how do I come up with a list for the competitive market analysis? Make things up?”

Glad you asked, patient arm-raisers — there’s a pro’s trick for handling this. But first, indulge me by participating in a short exercise in understanding your book’s appeal.

(a) Equip yourself with some scratch paper (the back sides of earlier drafts of your proposal, perhaps?) and a comfortable pen.
I would suggest selecting a comfortable chair, too, because you’re not to budge until you come up with a list to take with you to a bookstore.

(b) Brainstorm five different ways to describe your proposed book.
And I’m not talking about descriptors like well-written, either — describe your book the way a clerk in a bookstore might to a potential reader. Is it a memoir about your childhood spent following your mother as she worked as a gold-panner in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 1920s? Then your list might run like this: memoir of 10-year-old girl, treasure-hunting, mountain living, 1920s, and women in unusual occupations.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s try another one: the proposer of a self-help book aimed at mothers with children suffering from life-threatening illnesses, illustrated with abundant real-life case studies might generate a list like this: self-help for mothers, terminal illness, medical memoir, parenting books, dealing with the prospect of death, and mourning.

Got your list firmly in hand? Good. Now…

(c) Hie yourself and your list hence to the nearest well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore.
Seriously, what I’m about to suggest is considerably harder to pull off online.

Standing in the store, feeling silly for carrying that list around? Excellent. Ready, set…

(d) Don’t find a book like yours. Instead find a couple of books that match one — and only one — descriptor on your list.
Yes, really: while it would be terrific to discover a book similar enough to yours that you can perform a direct point-by-point comparison, it’s actually not necessary for your book proposal. Instead, go to the first descriptor on your list and find several books that could be described with the same term.

Proposing a memoir, for instance? Stand in front of the memoir section and keep pulling books off the shelves until you discover a few that are similar in some way to yours — not identical, but exhibiting some subject matter or approach overlap.

It can be a very, very small way. Is it a childhood memoir by someone who grew up in the same part of the country as you did? Start taking notes. Is another by a dog-lover, while two chapters of your proposed book cover your relationship with beloved Spot? Sounds close enough to me. If your memoir set in the mid-1960s, find a few good nonfiction titles that cover similar aspects of the period.

After you’ve ferreted out a few useful titles, move on to the next descriptor on your list. If your cookbook is for vegans, how about including as few of the well put-together vegetarian cookbooks out recently? Not too hard to see how your book would be different and better for vegan readers than those, right? If your memoir features a chapter on the day your big brother ran away to join the army, wouldn’t it make sense to grab a couple of military memoirs, to check which dealt with family issues?

And so forth. The goal here is not necessarily to find a dozen books exactly like yours; it’s also perfectly permissible to devote a paragraph or two each to several different book categories into which your unique book might conceivably fall. Chances are, you’re going to find more books than you actually need. When in doubt, go with the ones that sold better and/or were released by major U.S. publishers; while a book from a smaller press, or one that sold only a few hundred copies, might actually be a better fit, it will provide less evidence to Millicent and her boss that there are editors at major houses already eager to buy books like yours.

Once you have come up with a dozen or so titles, you are ready to begin writing your competitive market analysis.

(e) Instead of trying to draw overall comparisons between your proposed book and each of the titles on your list, focus instead on the single point of overlap — and show how your book will address that particular point in a better way or with a different take than the already-published book.
Try not to fall into the trap of hyper-literalism here. If your book is about being raised by bears, and you are contrasting it with a memoir about being raised by wolves, you’re not going to get a lot of mileage out of saying, WOLF CHILD completely ignores the problems of the bear-raised human, so my book, CUB SCOUT, will appeal to the wild-animal/family market more.

Well, of course a book about wolves would not address bears; it’s not reasonable to expect otherwise. By concentrating upon more positive points of comparison, it’s easier to make your book’s legitimate selling points clear: like the best-selling WOLF CHILD, CUB SCOUT is a first-person account of being raised by wild animals. Wolves, however, have a long history of taking in abandoned human children; I was the first child in the Cascade region ever to have spent significant time with the grizzly without ending up a corpse.

See the difference? Again, the point here is not to convey the impression that you consider every similar book out there your competition, and therefore its author an enemy to be discredited. By demonstrating that there is already a market for books that match your five descriptors — as there must be, according to industry logic, or those recently-released books would not be on the shelves* — the implication is that past readers of each of those types of book might arguably be interested in yours.

(* Don’t waste your energies questioning this quite debatable assumption; you’ve got a proposal to write.)

Everyone clear now on the purpose and proper formatting of the competitive market analysis? If not, now would be a fabulous time to shout out a question or two. While I’m waiting with my hand cupped around my ear, let’s move on to the next section.

4. The annotated table of contents
It’s not surprising that this section falls flat in so many proposals; many, if not most, proposers don’t seem to understand the purpose of the annotated table of contents. Many, many proposers labor under the misconception that what agents and editors expect to see in this section is simply a list of chapter titles, accompanied by guesstimated page numbers. Many, many other proposers assume that they should devote a page to each chapter.

Or even several. For my sins, I’ve seen proposal drafts with 20-page annotated tables of contents. Believe me, Maury was far from pleased.

Avoid that dreadful fate in yours; keep it brief, but substantial. One to two paragraphs on each envisioned chapter is about right — remembering, of course, that everything in a book proposal is a writing sample. At the risk of repeating myself, show, don’t tell.

How does one pull that off when covering so much territory in so short a space as a paragraph or two? The same way you came up with the descriptive paragraph of your query letter, ideally: instead of trying to summarize everything that happens in a chapter in general terms, pick a particularly interesting scene or argument and present it in vivid terms.

In other words: be specific, not general. If you can possibly manage it, try to include details that Maury is unlikely to see in another proposal.

Again, you’re going to want to write this as narrative, not a list, but this section of the proposal has some odd conventions, ones that tend to come as a surprise to most first-time proposers. To see them in action, let’s take a gander at out example from the other day. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Notice anything here that might offend the muses of standard format, were this a novel? How about the fact that the title of the book appears at the top of the page, as if Annotated Table of Contents were a subtitle? Or the phenomenon of adding a section break between each chapter’s description? Or that the descriptions were in the present tense, like a synopsis?

Actually, there’s a pretty good explanation for the first two of these conventions. (Sorry; you’re on your own for the last.) Remember how I mentioned earlier in this sub-series that unlike a manuscript, book proposals are often broken up into their constituent parts on the reading end, so folks working in different departments at publishing houses may take a gander at ‘em?

Titling the annotated table of contents renders it easier to get those pages back into the right proposal. Skipping a line between chapters makes it simpler for an editor to find the chapter she is seeking when she’s in an editorial committee meeting or arguing with your agent about what will be in the final book.

Oh, you weren’t aware that editors often ask writers to change the proposed chapters? Happens all the time, so gird your loins, nonfiction-proposers, and prepare to play ball.

If the very notion of being asked to remove your meticulously-researched chapter on steam engines (in order to replace it with a similar section on cotton gins, about which the acquiring editor did her undergraduate thesis at Columbia) or to reduce your seven intended chapters on your life prior to the age of 17 into as many paragraphs (so you may concentrate at greater length on your four subsequent years as a sword-swallower) causes your skin crawl in revulsion, do not despair. You actually do have a means of making sure your favorite chapters pass the editorial test: write about them brilliantly in the annotated table of contents.

Seriously, if ever there was a time to show, not tell, this is it. The more vividly-depicted specifics you can work into those chapter descriptions, the better. Think of it as an opportunity to let Maury and Millicent know what a great storyteller you are.

Why is that especially important in the annotated table of contents, you ask? The vast majority of first proposals just summarize what’s going to be in each chapter, instead of using each chapter to tell a compelling separate story. Because you’re selling your talents as a writer here, as well as the subject matter of the book, that’s a serious faux pas.

If you just muttered to yourself, “Hey, might this not be an amazingly good place to demonstrate just how my book is different and better than the ones I was discussing in the last section?” congratulations — you’re starting to think like a pro. Especially in a memoir or cookbook proposal, this is a great spot to work in mention of how your book is uniquely yours:

annotated table of contents2

If you eagerly shot your hand into the air as you glanced over that last example, eager to point out that this example was formatted slightly differently than the one before it, congratulations again — your eye is sharpening. The last version is in the version my agency prefers; the desire for bolding and all caps is not universal.

Just thought you might like to see both. And if I haven’t said it often enough yet: if the agent of your dreams wants you to format your proposal differently from what I advise here — in, for example, clearly laid-out guidelines on the agency’s website — for heaven’s sake, give him what he wants. In the book proposal as well as the manuscript, the average agent is looking for evidence that a potential client can follow directions.

Don’t see why that would be an essential quality in a book-proposing client? Okay, let me ask you: if you were an agent, would you rather represent the writer who says, “Lose my Chapter 13 and dumb down the book’s vocabulary to an 8th-grade reading level? Can do, Ermintrude!” or the one who flies into an uncontrollable fury and comes weeping to the agent, demanding to cancel the book contract?

Oh, come on — you didn’t really hesitate over that choice as long as you pretended, did you?

I’ll be wrapping up book proposal formatting next time — literally: I’ll be talking about the folders that encase them. Until we meet again in that happy, not-too-distant future, keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XVIII: checking off all of those boxes, or, how to format a book proposal

How’s everybody doing out there? Are all of you nonfiction writers excited that I’ve been talking about writing specific to your book categories, or is everyone still too burned out from New Year’s festivities that you’re sitting there, glassy-eyed, silently willing the first Monday of 2011 to be over, already? Or — and I sincerely hope this is the case — are you paying attention to this post with one part of your brain, while another delightedly plots how to polish up your entries to the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition? There are both fiction and nonfiction categories this time around, folks, so I hope all of you memoirists who just dropped by for the formatting tips will at least consider entering.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what you’ll send in. As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while may have sensed, I honestly do like to see what my readers are writing.

And, of course, to know how I can help you present your manuscripts and proposals more professionally. If you have a question about standard format, or something for which you would like to see more practical examples, by all means, let me know. That’s why the comment function is there, folks!

Seriously, it’s to everybody’s benefit if you ask; trust me, if you have been wondering, so have hundreds of other writers. The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers have never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript or book proposal, after all. I would much, much rather you asked me than took a wild guess in your submissions.

Readers’ questions also allow me to fine-tune the archive list at right — I want to make it as intuitive as possible for a panicked aspiring writer to use. (Speaking of which, since no one has commented yet on last November’s rather radical rearrangement of the archive list, am I to conclude that (a) most of you are finding it easier to use than its previous incarnation, (b) most of you are finding it harder to use, but are too polite to say so, (c) despite the monumental effort of rearranging it under subheadings, the result is precisely as user-friendly as the simple alphabetical list it replaced, or (d) nobody has noticed? It would be quite helpful for me to know.)

I’m particularly interested in finding out what pieces of information are comparatively difficult to find in my frankly pretty hefty archives. Why, only last February, eagle-eyed reader Kim was kind enough to point out a fairly extensive omission in my twice-yearly examinations of standard format for manuscripts: although I had been providing illustrations of same for several years now, I’d never shown the innards of a properly-formatted book proposal. In fact, as Kim explained,

Anne — Thank you for this glorious blog. It is a wealth of information. I am putting together a submissions package (requested materials, yea!), which includes a book proposal. After searching through your site, I still can’t find a specific format for the thing. For example, should the chapter summaries be outlined? double-spaced? Should I start a new page for each subheading? Also, my book has several very short chapters (80 in total). Should I group some of them together in the summaries, lest it run too long? Or is it better to give a one sentence description of each? Thanks again.

My first response to this thoughtful set of observations, I must admit, was to say, “No way!” After all, I had written a quite extensive series entitled HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL (beginning here) as recently as…wait, did that date stamp say August of 2005?

As in within a month of when I started this blog? More to the point, since before I sold my second nonfiction book to a publisher? (No, you haven’t missed any big announcements, long-time readers: that one isn’t out yet, either.)

Clearly, I had a bit of catching up to do. Equally clearly, I am deeply indebted to my intrepid readers for telling me when they cannot find answers to their burning questions in the hugely extensive Author! Author! archives.

The burning question du jour: how is a book proposal formatted differently than a book manuscript? Or is it?

In most ways, it isn’t; in some ways, however, it is. Rather than assume, as I apparently did for four and a half years, that merely saying that book proposals should be in standard manuscript format (with certain minimal exceptions), let’s see what that might look like in action.

In fact, since I’ve been going over the constituent parts in order, let’s go ahead recap from the beginning, talking a little about what purpose each portion of it serves. Here, ladies and gentlemen of the Author! Author! community, are the building blocks of a professional book proposal, illustrated for your pleasure. As you will see, much of it is identical in presentation to a manuscript.

1. The title page
Like any other submission to an agent or editor, a book proposal should have a title page. Why? To make it easier to contact you — or your agent — and buy the book, of course.

As we discussed in our last ‘Palooza post, once a writer has landed an agent, the agency’s contact information belongs on the title page, so the editor of one’s dreams may contact one’s agent easily to acquire the book. Prior to either the happy day of an offer on one’s book or the equally blissful day one signs with an agent, the writer’s contact information belongs on the title page.

2. The overview
First-time proposers often shirk on this part, assuming — wrongly — that all that’s required to propose a nonfiction book is to provide the kind of 1-, 3-, or 5-page synopsis one might tuck into a query packet. In practice, however, a successful overview serves a wide variety of purposes:

(a) It tells the agent or editor what the proposed book will be about, and why you are the single best person on earth to write about it. Pretty much everyone gets that first part, but presenting one’s platform credibly is often overlooked in an overview. (I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if an agent or editor makes it to the bottom of page 3 of your proposal without understanding why you are a credible narrator for this topic, your proposal is going to fall flat, no matter how inherently interesting your topic may be.

(b) It presents the central question or problem of the book, explaining why the topic is important and to whom , amplifying on the argument in (a), couching it in larger terms and trends. Or, to put it another way: why will the world be a better place if this book is published?

No, that’s not an egomaniac’s way to look at it. Why do your readers need to read this book? How will their lives or understanding of the world around them be strengthened or reshaped by it?

(c) It demonstrates why this book is needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history. That one is self-explanatory, I hope.

(d) It answers the burning question: who is the target audience for this book, anyway? To reframe the question as Millicent’s boss will: how big is the intended market for this book, and how do we know that they’re ready to buy a book on this subject?

(e) It explains why this book will appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market will. (In other words, how are potential readers’ needs not being served by what’s been published within the last five years — the usual definition of the current market — and why will your book serve those needs in a better, or at any rate different, manner?

(f) It shows how your platform will enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might conceivably write this book. Essentially, this involves tying together all of the foregoing, adding your platform, and stirring.

(g) It makes abundantly clear the fact that you can write. Because, lest we forget, a book proposal is a job application at base: the writer’s primary goal is to get an agent or editor to believe that she is the right person to hire to write the book she’s proposing.

Yes, there should be separate sections of the book proposal that address all of these points in detail. The overview is just that: a quick summary of all of the important selling points for your book, presented in a manner intended to entice an agent or editor to read on to the specifics.

In the interest of establishing points (a), (b), and (g) right off the bat, I like to open a book proposal with an illustrative anecdote or direct personal appeal that thrusts the reader right smack into the middle of the central problem of the piece, reducing it to an individual human level. Basically, the point here is to answer the question why would a reader care about this subject? within the first few lines of the proposal, while showing off the writer’s best prose.

For a general nonfiction book — particularly one on a subject that Millicent might at first glance assume, perish the thought, to be a bit on the dry side — this is a great opportunity for the writer to give a very concrete impression of why a reader might care very deeply about the issue at hand. Often, the pros open such an anecdote with a rhetorical question.

overview NF page 1

The opening anecdote gambit works especially well for a memoir proposal, establishing both the voice and that the memoir’s central figure is an interesting person in an interesting situation. While it’s best to keep the anecdote brief — say, anywhere between a paragraph and a page and a half — it’s crucial to grab Millicent’s attention with vividly-drawn details and surprising turns of event. To revisit our example from last time:

overview1

overview2

As we saw in that last example, you can move from the anecdote or opening appeal without fanfare, simply by inserting a section break — in other words, by skipping a line. While many book proposals continue this practice throughout the overview, it’s visually more appealing to mark its more important sections with subheadings, like so:

subheading in proposal

Incorporating subheadings, while not strictly speaking necessary, renders it very, very easy for Millicent the agency screener to find the answers to the basic questions any book proposal must answer. If the text of the proposal can address those questions in a businesslike tone that’s also indicative of the intended voice of the proposed book, so much the better.

Please note, however, that I said businesslike, not in business format. Under no circumstances should a book proposal either be single-spaced or present non-indented paragraphs.

This one confuses a lot of first-time proposers, I’ve noticed. “But Anne!” they protest, and not entirely without justification. “A book proposal is a business document, isn’t it? Doesn’t that mean that it should be in business format?”

The short answer is my God — no! The not-so-short answer is: not if you want Millicent to read it. An aspiring writer who does not indent her paragraphs is presumed illiterate.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the publishing industry does not use business format, even in its business letters; always, always, ALWAYS indent your paragraphs.

3. The competitive market analysis
The competitive market analysis is probably the most widely misunderstood portion of the book proposal. What the pros expect to see here is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

But that’s not how you’ve heard this section described, is it? Let me take a stab at what most of you have probably heard: it’s a list of 6-12 similar books.

Period. The sad, sad result usually looks like this:

competitive market analysis bad

Makes it pretty plain that the writer thinks all that’s required here is proof that there actually have been other books published on the subject in the past, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, to Millicent’s critical eye, such a list doesn’t merely seem like ignorance of the goal of the competitive market analysis — it comes across as proof positive of the authorial laziness of a writer who hasn’t bothered to learn much about either how books are proposed or the current market for the book he’s proposing.

To be fair, this is the section where first-time proposers are most likely to skimp on the effort. Never a good idea, but a particularly poor tactic here. After all of these years, the average Millicent is darned tired of proposers missing the point of this section: all too often, first-time proposers assume that it has no point, other than to create busywork.

As you may see above, the bare-bones competitive market analysis makes the writer seem as if he’s gone out of his way to demonstrate just how stupid he thinks this particular exercise is. That’s because he’s missed the point of the exercise.

The goal here is not merely to show that other books exist, but that the book being proposed shares salient traits with books that readers are already buying. And because the publishing industry’s conception of the current market is not identical to what is actually on bookstore shelves at the moment, the savvy proposer includes in his competitive market analysis only books that have been released by major houses within the last five years.

That last point made some of you choke on your tea, didn’t it? Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before the first time you proposed?

Even when proposers do take the time to research and present the appropriate titles, a handful of other mistakes tend to mark the rookie’s proposal for Millicent. Rather than show you each of them individually, here’s an example that includes several. Take out your magnifying glass and see how many you can catch.

competitive market analysis 2

How did you do?

Let’s take the more straightforward, cosmetic problems first, the ones that should immediately leap out at anyone familiar with standard format. There’s no slug line, for starters: if this page fell out of the proposal — as it might; remember, proposals are unbound — Millicent would have no idea to which of the 17 proposals currently on her desk it belonged. It does contain a page number, but an unprofessionally-presented one, lingering at the bottom of the page with, heaven help us, dashes on either side.

Then, too, one of the titles is underlined, rather than italicized, demonstrating formatting inconsistency, and not all of the numbers under 100 are written out in full. Not to mention the fact that it’s single-spaced!

All of this is just going to look tacky to Millie, right?

Okay, what else? Obviously, this version is still presented as a list, albeit one that includes some actual analysis of the works in question; it should be in narrative form. Also, it includes the ISBN numbers, which to many Millicent implies — outrageously! — a writerly expectation that she’s going to take the time to look up the sales records on all of these books.

I can tell you now: it’s not gonna happen. If a particular book was a runaway bestseller, the analysis should have mentioned that salient fact.

There’s one other, subtler problem with this example — did you catch it?

I wouldn’t be astonished if you hadn’t; many a pro falls into this particular trap. Let’s take a peek at this same set of information, presented as it should be, to see if the gaffe jumps out at you by contrast.

competitive market analysis3

Any guesses? How about the fact that the last example’s criticism is much, much gentler than the one immediately before it?

Much too frequently, those new to proposing books will assume, wrongly, that their job in the competitive market analysis is rip apart every previous book on the subject. They try to make the case that every other book currently available has no redeeming features, as a means of making their own book concepts look better by contrast.

Strategically, this is almost always a mistake. Anybody out there have any ideas why?

If it occurred to you that perhaps, just perhaps, the editors, or even the agents, who handled the books mentioned might conceivably end up reading this book proposal, give yourself three gold stars. It’s likely, isn’t it? After all, agents and editors both tend to specialize; do you honestly want the guy who edited the book you trashed to know that you thought it was terrible?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you do not. Nor do you want to insult that author’s agent. Trust me on this one.

No need to go overboard and imply that a book you hated was the best thing you’ve ever read, of course — the point here is to show how your book will be different and better, so you will need some basis for comparison. You might want to avoid phrases like terrible, awful, or an unforgivable waste of good paper, okay?

I had hoped to get a little farther in the proposal, but as I’m already running long, I’m going to sign off for the day. But since you’re all doing so well, here’s one final pop quiz before I go: what lingering problem remains in this last version, something that might give even an interested Millicent pause in approving this proposal?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, shouting, “I know! I know! Most of these books came out more than five years ago, and of those, The Gluten-Free Gourmet is the only one that might be well enough known to justify including otherwise,” give yourself seven gold stars for the day.

Heck, take the rest of the day off; I am. Keep up the good work!

The dawning of a new day, or, a word of advice to queriers and submitters who make New Year’s resolutions

change of day on the beach

Happy New Year, everybody! I’ve logged in bright and early on this very first day of 2011 neither to add another entry to our ongoing Formatpalooza series (although what could be a better way for an aspiring writer to start off a new year of querying and submitting than learning how to format a manuscript professionally?) nor to urge you to invest a bit of time in entering the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition (ditto, and the deadline is a mere week away). No, I set finger to keyboard today in a last-ditch effort to talk you out of kicking off the year with a querying and submission mistake that literally millions of aspiring writers make every January 1.

I’m referring, of course, to the formulation of New Year’s resolutions.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with making yourself a promise or two about writing more — or writing more often — in 2011 than you did in 2010. Or in committing yourself to finishing that book or book proposal you have been meaning to complete for eons now. In fact, that would be laudable: forming a practical, incremental plan to work toward a much-desired goal is a reasonable way to move toward it.

But those are not the kind of New Year’s resolutions most aspiring writers make, are they?

Here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her new year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Why on earth do we writers do this to ourselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning encourages us to believe that it’s easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year. We buy this, even though our bodies tell us the opposite: not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spend today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, stuffing those requested materials into envelopes, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

So again, I ask: why do writers impose New Year’s resolutions on themselves that dictate sending out queries or submissions on the first Monday of January — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1?

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript‘s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

Although were I advising in any individual case, January 1 — or 3, since that’s the first business day of this year — would not be the day I would pick.

Then, too, the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. The NYC-based publishing industry more or less shuts down between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day; with so many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again. Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it.

For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to my earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “About that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing — mind if I ask why that might be the case? Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’”

An excellent question, oh nervous quaverers: why might the rejection rate tend to be higher at some times than others?

To answer that question in depth, I invite you yourself in the trodden-down heels of our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria. At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk.

Was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing? — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries — or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If that seems like a cop-out, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries they need to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than most submitters assume: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since her desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. They were rhetorical. (But if you’re new to this blog and are curious about common query, synopsis, and manuscript red flags, you might want to invest some time in going through the Querypalooza, Synopsispalooza, and Formatpalooza series.)

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 3!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right? If not, you might want to take a gander at my recent How to Find Agents to Query series.) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions: the average one lasts less than three weeks.

But let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?

This is the primary reason, in case I had not made it clear enough over the last couple of months, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year. Let Millie dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

She’s particularly likely to be in a take-no-prisoners mood on Monday mornings, by the way — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated aunts, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask eagerly, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 18. The average New Year’s resolution lasts about three weeks, so it would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off around then. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1? Two reasons.

First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America has spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It was also the first year that there were roughly the same number of self-published and print-on-demand books published as those produced by traditional publishers. Admittedly, the average self-published book still sells less than a couple of hundred copies, but in terms of sheer volume, that was a hard blow to the publishing houses. My sources tell me that in 2010, three times as many books were self-published or produced via print-on-demand than by traditional U.S. publishing houses.

It’s probably safe to assume that the mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing such dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that people who work in agencies tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, those of you who each year stubbornly reject my annual admonition to eschew writing-related New Year’s resolutions will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter.

Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the requested materials. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks.

If you must make a New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one that you can pull off without burning yourself out quickly. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off.

Next time, I shall be talking about the ins and outs of formatting nonfiction proposals — but if you have more general manuscript formatting questions, please keep posting them in the comments. I’m far from done talking about how to get the best out of a manuscript.

Just let me get all of these New Year’s resolutions out of the way first. Keep up the good work!