Author! Author! :: Anne Mini's Blog

Author! Author!

It’s all a matter of perspective, or, let’s move the piano over here. Wait — how would it look over there? And other tales of title page formatting.

May 15th, 2013

sagrada familia ceiling3

If you’ve been hearing the Muses tap-dancing on the floor of heaven today, I think I know why: at long last, Author! Author!’s epic behind-the-scenes site upgrade has officially drawn to a close. It’s still going to take me a while to go back through the literally thousands of pages of archival posts, making sure that they’re taking kindly to all of the new bells and whistles, but in theory, the bulk of my blogging time will no longer be sacrificed on the altar of the Internet Deity.

Who, I gather, does not hobnob much with the Muses. If s/he did — hey, who am I to impose gender norms on higher beings? — all of the formerly fuzzy page shots would have magically clarified themselves in the course of this upgrade. Please bear with me while I painstakingly go back and refocus ‘em.

In the meantime, let’s get back to the matter at hand: the proper formatting of book manuscripts. As Odysseus no doubt said to his sailors and soldiers on the way home from the Trojan War, I know that it feels as though we’ve been on this journey forever, but it can’t be much farther now.

But hark! Do I hear some discontented murmuring amongst aesthetes out there in the ether? “But Anne,” visually-oriented aspiring writers murmur under their breath, so as not to attract the wrath of their nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, “my objection is not so much to the sheer length of time we’ve spent going over the strictures of standard format for book manuscripts — not to be confused with the formatting norms for short stories, magazine articles, screenplays, or any other kind of writing intended for professional submission — but to what I feel these rules are doing to my personal style. The pages look so plain! These rules are stepping all over my right to creative expression.

“So I’m asking you as a friend, Anne: if I believe my writing looks best in a special font like Abadi MT Condensed Extra Bold, and it’s how I want my words to look in the published book, why shouldn’t I run with it in a submission? Surely, Millicent can look past a little originality of presentation while she is seeking originality in writing.”

That’s a good question, murmuring aesthetes. The short answer: because Millicent will take your writing more seriously if you format it as she expects to see it — that is, the way that professional book manuscripts are formatted.

And why might she respond better to that than a more creatively-presented set of pages, murmurers? Is it time to trot out the broken record again?

broken-record3 A manuscript should not resemble a published book in many important respects. Therefore, formatting a submission to reflect one’s publication preferences on matters like font (which is the publishing house’s decision, anyway, not the author’s) will not strike the pros as a creative choice, but a reflection of a misunderstanding of how publishing works — and an indication that the writer has not yet taken the time to learn the rules of submission.

What’s that you’re murmuring now? That this is a pretty sweeping set of conclusions to draw from something as simple as font choice or a title page graced with a photograph? Perhaps, but to someone who deals with manuscripts and/or book proposals all day, every day, for years on end, it’s not all that far-fetched. After all, it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of your dreams, would ever consider submitting your manuscript to an editor at a publishing house in anything but standard format; it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

An editor would be too busy staring at that remarkable font choice or non-standard indentation to pay close attention to what’s dearest to any writer’s heart, the actual writing. So in practice, discontented murmurers, presenting your original writing in standard format is more conducive to getting your creative expression into print, not less.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? That’s because you’ve been looking at the page like a writer, rather than an agent, editor, contest judge, or the Millicent lucky enough to screen submissions for any of the above. It’s all a matter of perspective. As international relations professors like to say early and often, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Don’t see why perception of writing talent, like beauty, might lie partially in the eye of the beholder? Okay, tell me: did I take the photograph gracing the top of this post while looking down into an abyss, sideways into an alcove, or up at an impossibly high ceiling?

Out of context, it’s hard to tell which way is up, isn’t it? (But here’s a hint: the purple stuff is flying dust.) Without some orienting landmarks, it’s difficult even to know for sure what you’re looking at, or from what direction.

That’s more or less the same problem the average aspiring writer faces when looking at her own first manuscript or book proposal with an eye to figuring out whether it is formatted correctly. Let’s face it, very, very few as-yet-to-be-published writers have ever seen a professional manuscript up close and personal; still fewer have had the opportunity to glance through a professional book proposal.

Oh, there’s plenty of advice out there on how it should be done, of course, but as many of you have no doubt noted with chagrin, sources differ. And surprisingly often, the sources most inclined to tell aspiring writers that they have no hope in Hades of landing an agent if their manuscripts don’t contain Feature X (because Millicents have, presumably, been trained to reject X-less manuscripts on sight, then rush to a national blackballing database, to urge every other agency in the country not even to open that writer’s queries) or if they do contain Feature Y (because not only is Y hopelessly old-fashioned, but spotting even a single instance of it will provoke gales of laughter from Millicent) do not pause in their warning spates long enough to explain why X is desirable in a submission or Y is not.

Heck, most sets of rules don’t even specify to which kind of manuscript they’re supposed to be applied. No wonder so many aspiring writers labor under the false impression that all writing, anywhere, anytime, should be formatted identically, upon pain of instant rejection. Or, like our murmurers above, just assume that the welter of conflicting guidelines must indicate that Millicent is serious about only the elements common to most sets of rules. Like our murmurers above, they presume that as long as a manuscript is double-spaced and in 12-point type, anything goes.

As you may perhaps have gathered from my many years of revisiting this topic, I have nothing but sympathy for writers at both ends of the spectrum. How on earth is someone new to the game supposed to figure out which end of the manuscript is up, figuratively speaking?

The trick lies in remembering that the principles governing manuscript formatting are based upon practical and historical considerations, not purely aesthetic ones. Shall we wind up that Victrola again?

broken-recordA manuscript is designed to be easy for the intended audience to read, not for the writer to produce. Thus, while two-inch margins and a cursive typeface may strike a writer as the perfect expressive extension of the spirit of his novel, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, they’re just puzzling. And, frankly, distracting from the writing.

What looks right in a manuscript, in other words, depends upon the perspective of the person reading it. From where Millicent is sitting, non-standard formatting makes it harder for her to pay attention to the writing. Obviously, she reasons, a writer who presents his work in 14-point type or with half-inch margins, is either unaware that these choices are eye-distracting. So rather than impressing her with his creativity, he simply seems out of touch with how publishing works.

And why might Millicent’s drawing that conclusion from her first glance at page 1 prove problematic for the submission, campers? Out comes the broken record:

broken-record4 Because professional manuscripts and book proposals are always present in the same way, Millicent knows that her boss, the agent of your dreams, would have a hard time convincing an editor at a major publishing house to read even the first page of an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript. She also knows that taking on a manuscript by a writer unaware of that will be more time-consuming to represent than one already familiar with how submissions to publishers work.

That means, unfortunately for lovers of wacky typefaces everywhere, that a choice as small as a typeface can make an astonishingly great difference to how professional your work looks to the pros. That comes as something of a surprise to most aspiring writers — who, not entirely surprisingly, tend to regard that particular decision as a purely aesthetic one. “Why,” they ask, and not unreasonably, “should it matter? Good writing’s good writing, isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, good writing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. No, insofar as good writing tends to have less impact on the average Millicent when it’s presented in an unusual typeface.

To see why, let’s once again start at the top of the submission packet, taking a gander at the same title page in three different typefaces. Here it is in 12-point Times New Roman, one of the two preferred typefaces:

Title page 1

That’s what anyone sitting in Millicent’s seat would expect to see — and before we move on, would you join me in tap-dancing with the Muses over how much crisper that image is than any of the page shots I’ve been able to post within recent memory? Nearly brings a tear to the eye, that does. Should your emotional intensity be interfering with your ability to spot the small details, try holding down the Command key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Now that we have it in focus, let’s look at precisely the same information, presented in another font. Let’s assuming that Aunt Jane had favored 12-point Helvetica so strongly that she just couldn’t resist submitting in it:

Title page 2

The letters in this version are quite a bit bigger than in the first, aren’t they? Not enough so to appear to be rendered in, say, 14-point font, but large enough to make Millicent wonder whether the word count is accurate. (Estimated word count does, after all, vary by typeface: Times New Roman is estimated at 250 words/page, Courier at 200. More on that below.)

Honestly, do you want her speculating about your credibility before reading the first page of your manuscript? Now that we have seated ourselves firmly in Millicent’s office chair, we can see that Aunt Jane’s choice of Helvetica, while not a deal-breaker, does not necessarily present her manuscript to its best advantage. Even before the text starts, it’s distracting.

Does that increased volume of disgruntled ethereal muttering mean some of you are longing to see a typeface that would be a deal-breaker for Millicent? Happy to oblige. Very few of us who read for a living would be even vaguely tempted to turn the page and start reading this one.

Title page 3

Can’t really blame Millicent for regarding the entire manuscript with a jaundiced eye, can we? Despite containing all of the information that a title page should include — in the right places and in the right order, no less — this page simply screams that Aunt Jane has not thought about her future agent’s ease or comfort in reading. Clearly, she was so intent upon expressing herself via font that she neglected to consider the preferences of someone who might conceivably want to judge her writing.

Still resisting the concept? Okay, slip back into Millicent’s moccasins for a second, pretend you’ve been screening submissions for the last seven hours, and feast your eyes on this:

Title page 4

Ah, that one caught some of you originality-huggers by surprise, didn’t it? “But Anne,” those who want to stand out from the crowd protest, “I’ve been submitting my writing on slightly tinted paper for years. White is just so boring, and besides, everybody uses it. I’m merely being strategic: if every other submission Millie sees today is white, mine will automatically catch her eye, right?”

Well, yes, but not for the right reasons — and not in a manner even remotely likely to convince her that this submission, out of the hundreds she will be perusing this week, is the one that will wow her boss. Yes, regardless of how good the writing might be.

Why? Look for yourself: could the agent possibly submit this manuscript to a publishing house in this typeface and on this oddly-colored paper? Would it stand a fighting chance if she did?

And if it doesn’t, does presenting the manuscript in this manner make sense at any stage of submission?

The answers to all three of those questions is a resounding “By Jove, no!” And that’s sad, considering that the book this title page covers is, lest we forget, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. The moral, should you care to know it:

broken-record7Even the best writing can be placed at a competitive disadvantage by unprofessional presentation. Standard format is the good writer’s friend, not her enemy.

Is all of that ambient clanking is a thousand writers’ hackles being raised? “But Anne,” outraged voices thunder, “aren’t you making Millicent out to be pretty darned shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their blogs about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they often disclaim the notion with scorn. I’ve even heard a few of them say that they don’t care about issues like typeface, spaces after periods and colons, or where the chapter title lies — and that strikes me as significant, as I’ve never, ever heard one say it was okay to let a query letter run longer than a single page. Isn’t it the writing all that matters in a submission, ultimately?”?

Again, yes and no, hackle-raisers. Yes, the writing matters — and no, it’s not all that matters.

Naturally, the writing matters most in a submission, with freshness, audience-appropriateness, marketability, and fit with the agent or editor reading it jostling for second place. Equally naturally, and something that I often point out, individual agents, editors, and even contest judges harbor individual preferences as well and have been known to express them at conferences. Or on their blogs, Twitter feeds, and over drinks at that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any literary conference in North America.

One person’s pet peeve, however, may not be another’s. Since few aspiring writers have access to the industry-specific information required to find out the preferences of every agent to whom they are submitting, adhering to standard format minimizes the probability of running afoul of unknown annoyance-triggers.

Then, too, adopting the norms of standard format and clinging to them like an unusually tenacious leech will also help you preserve your sanity throughout the often-protracted submission process, for the reason I mentioned in passing above — have you seen how many conflicting sets of ostensibly authoritative manuscript formatting rules are floating around out there?

Honestly, trying to apply every single one of the expressed opinions to your manuscript will drive you 100% nuts. Don’t even try. However, because personal (and genre) preferences do exist, it’s always worth a submitter’s time to double-check an agency or small publishing house’s submission guidelines, just in case they call for something wacky. That’s worth throwing another record on the machine, surely.

broken-record2If an agent or editor to whom you are submitting asks for something different, for heaven’s sake, give it to her. If, as is almost always the case, the guidelines don’t specify, keep the presentation unprovocative and professional so that your writing may shine without visual competition.

In other words, it’s only prudent to adhere to the strictures of standard format, rather than assuming, as so many aspiring writers do to their cost, that the writing is the only thing that matters.

Remember, where you stand depends on where you sit. It’s a matter of perspective. And from both Millicent and the aspiring writer’s perspective, taking the time to present writing professionally is genuinely worth it.

Admittedly, one does hear of the mythical isolated case of a kind, literature-loving agent has looked past bizarre formatting in order to see a potential client’s, well, potential. One also hears of isolated cases where a manuscript rife with spelling and grammatical errors gets picked up, or one that has relatively little chance of selling well in the current market being recognized for the work of genius it is and swept to bestsellerdom. The age of miracles has not entirely passed, apparently.

Have you ever noticed, though, how seldom a specific book title comes attached to those stories? Or, when they do, it turns out on closer examination that the writer in question roomed in college with a major agent, or is married to a senior editor at a large publishing house, or used to be a Monkee? If one happens to fall into such a category, one might well encounter an unusual leniency. Ditto if one happens already to be a household name.

Before anyone raises his hand, though, we’ve all heard offbeat How I Got Discovered Stories at conferences. But — and this is a BIG but — these cases get talked about because they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. (They also tend to have happened before the mid-1980s; agents used to take chances on long shots more often.) 9,999 times out of 10,000, though, a submission’s tumbling into any of the pitfalls we’ve been discussing will result in, if not instantaneous rejection, then rejection upon Millicent’s lighting upon the next problem in the manuscript.

Those pesky hackles are clacking again, aren’t they? “Okay,” the hackled concede, “I can understand how Millicent would be tempted to skip reading submissions presented like the last two examples, where she’s likely to strain her eyes. But if presentation is so darned important, why don’t aspiring writers hear about it more often at conferences, in articles about submission, or even just in discussions amongst ourselves?”

Excellent question, h-raisers. I can’t say for sure, of course, but it wouldn’t be going out too far on an interpretive limb to speculate that a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect might be slightly reluctant to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me, okay?” Having once seen a well-meaning agent tell an indignant crowd that he only took query letters seriously if they came from writers he met at conferences (yes, really; there were many, many witnesses), I can tell you precisely what would happen if some honest soul did take this astounding step: instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE; HE’S MEAN.

Which would rather defeat the agent’s purpose in coming to the conference to recruit new clients, would it not?

As a veteran teaches of writing and formatting classes, I can think of another reason that a speaker might want to be careful about such pronouncements: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything she says about submissions is likely to be repeated with the ?clat of a proverb, to borrow a phrase from Aunt Jane, for years to come amongst the writing community.

You might be surprised how often it happens. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, particularly if those comments happen to relate to the cosmetic aspects of querying and submission. 5-4 Supreme Court decisions are routinely discussed with less vim and vitriol. Some particularly vehement agents’ pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that last is a slight exaggeration. My point, should you be interested, is that the very notion of from-the-horse’s-mouth rightness carries such a luster that such speakers are constantly in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I must admit, I occasionally experience qualms about presenting the rules of standard format here at all. On the pro-regulation side, we are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical. (Yes, really.) On the con side, literally nothing else I talk about here consistently raises as much writerly ire.

The very topic of manuscript presentation seems to be emotionally trying for a lot of writers — disproportionately so, from where Millicent is sitting. Tell an aspiring writer that his dialogue is turgid, or his pacing drags, or he’s left a necessary section out of his book proposal, and most of the time, he’ll be at least curious about why you think so. (If a bit defensive.) If you tell him that his protagonist’s sister is Ruth for the first 72 pages, and Ren?e thereafter, he might actually thank you.

Yet suggest to the same writer that he might be better off reformatting his manuscript to include such niceties as paragraph indentation or moving his page number to the slug line, and a good quarter of the time, he’ll look at you as though you’d just kicked his grandmother. Thrice.

Go figure, eh?

Presentation issues definitely do matter. Which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and again, this is a BIG but — as we’ve discussed, rejection decisions are more often than not made on page 1 of a submission. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. If a manuscript is hard to read due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, Millicent may just pass on reading it at all.

While these phenomena are, in fact, quite widely recognized as true, the person who announced them this baldly from the dais at a literary conference would swiftly find herself covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat. Metaphorically, at least. Which is why I’m going to keep saying it until I’m blue in the face and you die of boredom:

broken-record-150x150From the perspective of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it more likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

They can’t fall in love with your good writing until they read it, can they? So don’t you want to do everything within your power to convince them that your manuscript is the one that deserves more than a cursory glance?

Of course you do. Instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

“Okay, Anne,” lovers of Bauhaus 93 sigh. “What fonts would be the least, you know, Millicent-provoking for me to use?”

I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, both on the title page and in the manuscript. These are the standards of the industry, and thus the least likely to raise Millicent’s ever-knitted eyebrows. Like other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: from where she is sitting, word count estimation is always predicated upon one of these typefaces.

Why is the question of estimating relevant on a title page? Again, we must look to Millicent’s perspective: unlike word counts in articles or short stories, word counts in book manuscripts are generally estimated, not based upon the actual number of words. For short stories and articles, use the actual total.

Was that giant gust of wind that just knocked my desk over your collective gasp of astonishment? I’m not entirely surprised; a lot of aspiring writers are confused on this point. “But Anne,” they shout, and who can blame them? “My Word program will simply tell me how many words there are in the document. Since it’s so easy to be entirely accurate, why shouldn’t I be as specific as possible? Or, to put it another way, why would an agent or editor ask for the word count, then expect me to guess?”

Would you fling something at me if I said once again that this is a matter of perspective? From Millicent’s seat, the answer is pretty obvious: industry practices dictate how manuscripts are handled, not the whims of the fine folks at Microsoft. The Microsofties I know are sterling human beings to a man, but they’re hardly experts on the publishing industry’s requirements.

And really, why should they be? Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, just because Word is set up to allow certain things — giving you an exact word count, for instance, or access to 147 different fonts — doesn’t mean that the publishing industry wants writers to do things that way. (And if you doubt that, consider the doubled dash vs. the automatic emdash Word favors.) Word processing programs came into use long, long after standard format for manuscripts, after all; why should agents, editors, and Millicents allow computer programmers to dictate what strikes them as professional?

Perspective, people: which makes more sense, assuming that the word count on your title page will be read by Millicent — or Bill Gates?

I cannot, naturally, speak to Mssr. Gates’ views on the subject, but here is why Millicent would care on the estimation front. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is estimated to be roughly 100,000 words if it’s in Times — something Millicent should be able to tell as soon as she claps eyes on the submission’s title page, right? — and 80,000 if it’s in Courier.

Wondering why anyone would estimate at all? Since word length vary, and because manuscripts shrink around 2/3rds in the transition to published book, the number of pages is actually a better measure of how much it will cost to print and bound the thing. So if your title page says that your baby is 86,250 words and it’s in Times New Roman, a pro will just assume that it’s 345 pages (345 x 250= 86,250) rather than flipping to the bottom of the stack of papers to check. If it’s in Courier, she would conclude that it is 431 pages — and that your math skills are not particularly good.

Now, in the world as we know it, a 400-page manuscript in TNR is usually closer to 115,000 words than 100,000; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program so kindly provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400-page novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject, either (as one might expect, the inmates of agencies tend overwhelmingly to have been English majors), but she can do third-grade multiplication in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript. That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be these days; at around 450 pages, binding costs rise significantly.

In other words: next!

Boy, those hackles are getting a workout today. “But Anne, why would Millicent want to estimate at all when she has a submission in front of her? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number?”

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture. She has a hard job, truly. In practice, the answer is far less personal than practical: because the word count is right there on the title page.

Tell me, hackle-raisers: why should she doubt its accuracy? Unless, say, the title page were in a non-standard typeface like Helvetica, she’s going to assume that an aspiring writer familiar enough with standard format to include the word count on the title page would also know how to estimate it accurately.

I know, I know: from a writer’s perspective, that’s kind of a wacky assumption. But her chair boasts a different view than ours. Besides, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50, without resorting to some pretty impressive maneuvering through time and space?

I’m aware that I’m running long today, but in the interest of clarity, let’s invest another few minutes in turning to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman. Just for giggles, I’m going to use that notorious editorial nightmare, the opening paragraphs of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

2 cities good

Now let’s take a peek at the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:

2 courier

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Just kidding — you want to see why it’s a good idea, don’t you? Okay, take a gander at the same first page, not in standard manuscript format. See how many differences you can spot:

example for spotting

Fascinating how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? As with our earlier title page examples, it’s exactly the same writing, but it just doesn’t look as professional. To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the last three examples could not be clearer.

And yet, if we’re going to be honest about it, there were really very few deviations from standard format in the last example. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

In all probability, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format would strike our Millie as serious enough to cause her to toss a submission aside as soon as she noticed them. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long opening sentence ol’ Charles managed to cough up — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

broken-record-150x150It’s never in your best interest as a writer to tempt a professional reader to draw the wrong conclusion about your devotion to your craft. Remember, where a manuscript stands depends upon where the reader sits.

Before any hackles start racing skyward again, I hasten to add: where the submitting writer sits often makes a difference to a reader’s perception, too. Her reception of that last example is very likely to be different before Dickens became a household name or after. Once he was established, he could get away with more.

Unless you happen already to be famous, though, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk. (And if you do happen to be famous, could I interest you in writing a back jacket blurb?)

In fairness to Millicent, it’s highly unlikely that it would even occur to an established Charles to deviate this markedly from standard format. Experience working with an agent or editor would discourage it. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

Come to think of it, that sense of fitness may well be the reason that discussions of formatting tend to become so vitriol-stained. We all like to be right, and propriety is in the eye of the beholder. After all, each of us is most familiar with the view from her own chair.

Pulling back from one’s own perspective can be most helpful. There’s a reason that it’s called the bigger picture, people.

In that spirit, let’s take a longer view of our original photo, to situate ourselves:

sagrada familia ceiling

Substantially simpler to tell up from down now, isn’t it? Taking a broader perspective, you can see that the green light on the left is coming from a stained-glass window; on the left, there’s a decorative support beam. From the myopic tight shot, it was far less obvious that this was a cathedral.

Making sure your writing is framed properly can have a similar effect. Keep up the good work!

13 Responses to “It’s all a matter of perspective, or, let’s move the piano over here. Wait — how would it look over there? And other tales of title page formatting.”

  1. comment number 1 by: Dave McChesney

    I’ve always understood that much of what a manuscript should look like is from the days when nearly all of them were produced on a typewriter. With a few exceptions, perhaps writers should simply ask if what they want to do could have been done in those days. If not, then that feature should not be included in the manuscript.

  2. comment number 2 by: Greg

    Hi Anne,

    I’m so very grateful for this website and all of the effort and time you’ve put into answering so many questions and anticipating so many that *should* be asked, but aren’t out of ignorance about the granular details of this process (count me in that group) of writing a book proposal.

    I’ve published a history title for a major academic press, but didn’t have to write a formal proposal, which in retrospect has made my current endeavor much more difficult.

    My current project falls into the category of rock biography, which has raised some questions in my mind about how to set up parts of the proposal. I’ve put together my lists of 1. complementary titles and 2. competitive titles and was advised that while a standard narrative overview and annotated TOC would of course be appropriate, for the types of agents and/or presses I’m considering, bullet points for each book and my analysis of each of them would be the right way to go.

    Unfortunately, I keep having this sinking feeling that I’m about to make a major error in doing so after poring over your writings on book proposals.

    What do you think? I guess the same question could be asked about the marketing plan. Bullet points with explanation and analysis or no bullet points?

    Again, my sincere thanks for what you have presented here.


  3. comment number 3 by: Jen J

    Long lost hello, Anne! After hearing Lydia Davis won the Booker Prize today, I remembered a writer you’d mentioned oh so long ago. I flipped through your archives of recommended books and came across Rachel Ingalls, who looks remarkably like Ms. Davis and seems to share her “creativity and an unusualness,” too–well represented in the photo. I’ll head back out and buy more of their work. Thanks again for all the information you share! Sorry to hear about the server-transfer issues. I see some odd characters have popped up in your old posts, too. I hope you can get everything straightened out, over time, and not painfully.

  4. comment number 4 by: Anne

    Unfortunately, my blogging program does not allow either commenters or me to post photos in the comments section; you can imagine what kind of images it’s trying to keep out. I get hundreds of spam comments every week, and sometimes every day, as it is.

    I’m amused at the idea of deciding which authors to read based upon their looks, though. How fortunate I am that my family’s been in publishing since the 1920s.

  5. comment number 5 by: Anne

    That would make sense, Dave, but if agencies each posted their own guidelines, then it would actually be easier for Millicent to reject most submissions at first glance. As anyone who has read manuscripts for a living could tell you, not following posted guidelines is the norm, not the exception.

  6. comment number 6 by: Anne

    You’re right to have a sinking feeling, Greg — I’ve seen very few book proposals that contained bullet-pointed lists for anything but a one-page summary of selling points. Otherwise, it’s expected that the whole proposal will be written as narrative prose, in paragraphs. There’s a good reason for that: part of what you’re selling in a book proposal is your ability to write narrative prose, right?

    It sounds as though you’re working on an incomplete description of what is required in the Competitive Market Analysis section of a proposal, though. The point is not just to produce lists of other books that are on the market; the goal there is to talk about comparable books released within the last five years, talk about their selling points, and demonstrate how your book will appeal to the readers that bought those titles. That’s typically done through fully fleshed-out paragraphs, not bullet points. I have no idea what you mean by a complementary title, though: all that matters is the competition.

    To be fair, a lot of aspiring nonfiction writers are under the impression that all that’s required is to prove that there have been other books published on the subject, but honestly, what would be the point of that? Any agent with the connections to sell your book, as well as any editor at a publishing house that routinely brought out that kind of book, would already be aware of what’s already on the market, right?

    Since the logic of the book proposal can be kind of counter-intuitive, I would urge you to check out the posts under the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list. That will give you an explanation of each of the constituent parts, as well as some formatting and troubleshooting tips. You might also find some useful information in the individual categories under the NONFICTION category.

    I’m always on the look-out for good proposal-related blogging topics, so do let me know if you have questions after reading through the HOW TO… series. As I said, there are a lot of minimalist guides to writing book proposals out there; I like to try to clarify things where I can. Best of luck with it!

  7. comment number 7 by: Greg


    Thank you for that clarification. I am going to re-read your posts again and get to work revising. I think the truest words you’ve written on this blog concern the fact that there really is no resource where authors can see actual book proposals in their finished form. Sure, there are various published guides (I have read some of them) but they don’t offer anything close to what you have posted in terms of actual pages that show and tell what the big picture goal is here, which is:
    1. Title Page.
    2. Overview
    3. Competitive Market Analysis.
    4. Annotated TOC
    5. Sample Chapter
    6. Bio

    I do have the one-page bulleted selling points which follows the overview opening “hook.” I will keep those. And now based on your guidance I will collapse the two categories of competing titles together and re-write in narrative form.

    A couple of other questions, if I may. From your posts, it looks like it is not customary to include a “marketing section” that would describe the audience for the proposed book. I have written such a section which seeks to reaffirm the importance of my subject in more detail that what the overview offers and to flesh out the demographic that could be expected to purchase the book. Should this be folded into the “Competitive Market Anaylsis”?

    And I also have a promotion plan which describes in detail my strategy to raise awareness in the weeks leading up to release and then to help drive sales upon release. This includes discussions of how I will use my blog, FB, Twitter to promote and which reviewers, bloggers, podcasters I will reach out to when release is imminent. Does this not belong in a proposal at all? Before I became a regular reader of this blog, I was under the impression that such info *must* be included.

    My thanks again, and I hope you’re having a nice holiday weekend.

    PS, I do have an idea for a blog post for you which would fill a gap that I think exists at Author! Author!, which I will offer here in a bit as a way to say thanks.

  8. comment number 8 by: Anne

    You’re quite right that there are not a lot of good sample proposals floating around out there. Usually, successful ones don’t see the light of day outside of agencies and publishing houses. For reasons of confidentiality, if nothing else. There are quite a few good books out there on how to write a good nonfiction proposal, though, and if it’s any consolation, nonfiction agents have been known to share other clients’ strong proposals with newly-acquired writers. So it isn’t at all improbable that you would be able to see examples before you had to finalize your proposal so your agent could present it to publishing houses.

    I share your frustration, though, because most aspiring writers would find it incredibly useful to be able to read through a couple of proposals for similar books — and not only to gain a sense of the type of argumentation that acquiring editors for that type of book have been favoring lately. Every book category has its own norms and expectations, and nonfiction proposals tend to reflect that. And, if you don’t mind my mentioning it, even just seeing that the sections of a proposal are not typically mentioned within quotation marks might have saved you some proofreading effort.

    I’m happy to answer your follow-up questions, but before I do, may I ask that in future, you will ask questions related to book proposals in the comment sections of posts on the subject of book proposals? Yes, those who read the top posts as they go up may see this, but actually, most writers looking for specific information read posts in the archives, sometimes years after I have written them.

    Since this post isn’t about book proposals, there’s virtually no chance that any other nonfiction writer who shares your concerns will see this exchange. And that would be a shame, because I’m quite sure that other proposal-writers would enjoy seeing clarification on some of these points.

    So let’s dive right into them, shall we? Actually, there does need to be a marketing plan section; where did you get the idea that I was suggesting otherwise? If you look under the various How to Write a Book Proposal posts, though, I’m sure you’ll find discussion of it, if not posts dealing with it alone. Is it possible that you’ve only been reading the posts about how to format a proposal, which might not have mentioned it specifically?

    Just to set your mind at ease, I’ve never advised any aspiring nonfiction writer, anywhere, anytime to skip this section, so it might be helpful if you could name a specific post in which you think I did it. I’d be surprised if any serious guidelines for a proposal anywhere omitted mentioning this section, as the proposal would not be complete without it.

    The goal of this section is not quite as you have stated it, however. The intent is not so much to make the case that the book’s subject matter is important — that’s the job of the overview — as to demonstrate that there is a readership out there for this book and explain why this book will appeal to them. I usually break it up into three parts: a section identifying the target audience, a section on why this particular book those readers will want or even need this book (which is a bit different from what goes on in the Competitive Market Analysis), and a section on how to reach those particular readers (into which your promotion plan would presumably fit.)

    And yes, it’s quite proper to include a section on web promotion and social media in the marketing section — it does not belong in the Competitive Market Analysis. It’s kind of hard to imagine how one would work it into the latter, actually: the CMA does not deal with book promotion; it is devoted to analyzing the current market’s offerings and comparing them with the book being proposed. It might be helpful to think of the CMA as being about the various books’ content, rather than how they have been marketed.

    The marketing plan section, by contrast, talks explicitly about how the author intends to reach the book’s target readership. Usually (although not always), this is explained without reference to similar books. I realize that it may be tempting to say something like, “Oh, my book can be marketed as Book X so successfully was,” but remember, part of what a writer is demonstrating in a book proposal is familiarity with various aspects of how nonfiction books reach readers. Trust me, if Book X’s marketing plan would work well for your book, too, you will win more Brownie points by explaining each step within it and why it will be beneficial to take than if you (quite reasonably, from the writer’s perspective) write the marketing section as though the agent and acquiring editor should already know how to market this kind of book.

    It’s great that you’re so social media- and web-aware; that could be a great selling point for your proposal. Do make sure, though, to include at least a small scattering of more traditional means of reaching your target audience. This is the place to discuss anything that you as the author will be investing your time or money in to promote your book, after all. Unless you are aiming at a group of readers that has a history of buying books only online — or based upon online recommendations — an agent or editor is going to want to know what else you are planning to do.

    With respect to your P.S., I’d be pleased if you suggested a subject for a post, but just as a heads-up for when you are taking your book on a blog tour, I don’t think I’ve ever met a blogger who would consider a request to write a post on a specific topic in the light of a thank-you gift. Like most informational bloggers (and pretty much everyone who blogs for aspiring writers), I regard such suggestions as requests for assistance.

    That’s okay; I started this blog to help writers, and I am always trying to improve it. But writing any post takes quite a bit of time, and I do have quite a lengthy backlog of terrific readers’ questions upon which I would love to spend a post or two when I have the time. It can take a while, in part because just answering questions in the comments entails quite a bit of time. You might be startled to know how often I come to the site intending to write a new post, but end up spending the time I had scheduled for writing a new post to answering a great question in the comments.

    If you have something you’d like for me to write about here, though, please feel free to bring it up. No need to warn me in advance; just post it in a comment. I’ll add it to the stack!

    Again, though, if what you have in mind relates even vaguely to book proposals, please post it on a blog post relevant to that topic, rather than here or on a subsequent post. Since the search engine on the site does not allow searching comments, only nonfiction writers who happen to be reading this series will have any chance at all of finding this discussion. Generally speaking, readers only look at the comments on posts related to their interests, rather than going trawling at random. So if you can help me maximize the probability that proposal-writers will find what I hope will be a stellar suggestion, as well as any follow-up questions I may want to ask before writing about it, I’d appreciate it.

  9. comment number 9 by: Greg


    Sorry for posting in the wrong spot! I read the most recent post and then just dove in with my comment. In the future I’ll be sure to comment in a more appropriate place. :)


  10. comment number 10 by: Anne

    Thanks so much, Greg. I’d hate for other book proposers to miss your good questions!

  11. comment number 11 by: Greg


    Thanks for your reply. Upon reflection your point that book proposals aren?t circulated for reasons of confidentiality makes perfect sense, and it is good to know that agents will share them in certain cases.

    Regarding the marketing plan section, my misinterpretation of your guide stems from not seeing an actual section heading (i.e., Overview, Competitive Market Analysis, Annotated TOC?) under which such content would go when I read the posts related to book proposal formatting.

    But in looking back on this post – – I now see the page scan with the subheading Why will No Fear appeal to readers?, which seems to be the marketing plan in question and to my eyes, it looks as if a good place for such a subheading would be after the Competitive Market Analysis and before the Annotated TOC.

    The breakdown you provided above ? ?a section identifying the target audience, a section on why this particular book those readers will want or even need this book (which is a bit different from what goes on in the Competitive Market Analysis), and a section on how to reach those particular readers (into which your promotion plan would presumably fit.)? ? makes perfect sense.

    I did ask for a bit more assistance in regards to clippings and what should be included by an anuthor and I think this time I asked my question in the appropriate place. Thanks again for your patience with me.

    Oh and I sent you an email at your anne at annemini dot com address.

    Best regards,

  12. comment number 12 by: Kylie

    Greatly written, and it cleared up the questions and conflicting internet ideas on manuscripts. Found it on a search, and glad I continued reading. Sorry my comment may be over a year late, but I only found it today. Thanks for insight and help,

  13. comment number 13 by: Anne

    Thanks, Kylie! I always like to hear from my readers!

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