Nonfiction book categories – and a cheerier Anne

Hello, dear friends —

Well, I’m in a much better mood than I was last week: I realized over the weekend that since I don’t own much of anything, it matters less if I’m sued over my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, than if I were well-to-do. If my publisher, which I believe IS well-to-do, isn’t taking the lawsuit threats particularly seriously, I suppose I should be even less concerned.

It did get me thinking, though, about the ironies of this business. When the marketing department came up with the title of my book, I was actually pretty annoyed: I had wanted to call it IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?. (Just so you know, first-time authors very seldom get to name their own books; I have it on reliable authority that there are publishing houses that automatically change EVERY title that they acquire, just to put their stamp upon the book.) “What does that title MEAN?” I asked, with some heat. “What precisely is dark about my family? And while we’re at it, can I at least beg for a comma, to create at least the illusion of its being grammatically correct?”

I never really got an answer, except to have it pointed out to me repeatedly that a movie based upon one of Philip’s books (A SCANNER DARKLY, which everyone should rush out and read immediately) is scheduled to come out approximately when my book does. The connection between my book and the movie, I gather, is to be almost subliminal.

In any case, I threw a fit over it at first. I told them that I could never bring myself to say it with a straight face. I argued; I complained; I believe I even whined, to no avail. A FAMILY DARKLY it was.

I’ve had the summer to get used to it, but to be absolutely frank, it didn’t really start to grow on me until I started receiving threats from the Dick estate. Actually, I had kind of liked Philip’s kids before that; I had thought we were getting along pretty well, until they decided that I was the Anti-Christ, for reasons I have yet to fathom. Many other writers have said far, far worse things about their father than I do, and yet I’m the only one that they’ve ever threatened to sue. Go figure.

They threatened first in early July, promising a bumper crop of demanded textual changes by the first week of August. The list of demands never came, however, so I thought, understandably, that they’d changed their minds. So the letter from their lawyer, delivered to my doorstep in early September, came as something of a surprise.

Turns out that one of their objections is that they believe that my book gives the false impression that they agree with my point of view. It doesn’t, but there’s no convincing angry people of anything that they don’t want to hear. In fact, the only thing in it that I can find in the book that might remotely be construed, if read backwards and upside-down, to indicate approval is a description of one lunch we had together, and one brunch at my house.

I don’t know about you, but I often eat meals with people who disagree with my opinions. I don’t feel it commits me to anything.

In any case, I’ve been revising like mad, to remove any vestige of an impression that these people and I ever agreed on so much as the time of day; unless I’m very much mistaken, the draft going to press will not even allow the reader to conclude that they were remotely civil to me. I hope they shall be pleased. (The funny thing is, it was not even hard to switch the tone: one of the complainants spent the first half-hour of her visit to my house rudely snooping around, staring at all of my possessions as if she were trying to value them for future sale. For all I know, she was: how am I to know if she was already contemplating a lawsuit, before she had even read the book?)

Now, I feel the title of the book is really, really appropriate: not to describe my family, but theirs. All’s well that ends well, right?

Okay, on to the promised topic du jour: the categories of nonfiction books. Again, the category belongs in the first paragraph of your query letter, as well as on the title page of your book and as part of your verbal pitch. Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. (The nonfiction categories are a much rougher indication of location than the fiction. Do be aware that the categories used in the publishing industry are not necessarily the same as those used by bookstores. In my own area, for instance, I have noticed that Barnes & Noble tends to shelve biography, autobiography, and memoir together; Amazon lumps memoir into the autobiography category.)

By telling an agent up front which category your book is, you make it easy for her to tell if it is the kind of book she can sell. Do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.

Fortunately, most of the categories are pretty self-explanatory.

ENTERTAINING: no, not a book that IS entertaining; one ABOUT entertaining.

HOLIDAYS: about entertaining people at particular times of year.

PARENTING AND FAMILIES: this includes not only books about children, but books about eldercare, too.

HOUSE AND HOME: so you have a place to be PARENTING and ENTERTAINING your FAMILIES during the HOLIDAYS. This is for both house-beautiful books and how-to around the home. At some publishing houses, includes GARDENING.

HOW-TO: explains how to do things OTHER than house- and home-related tasks.

COOKBOOK: I suspect that you’ve seen one of these before, right?

FOOD AND WINE: where you write ABOUT the food and wine, not tell how to make it.

LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.

SELF-HELP: if you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah.

HEALTH: body issues for laypeople. If your book is for people in the medical professions, it should be classified under MEDICAL. Diet books are sometimes listed here (if there is a general philosophy of nutrition involved), sometimes under FOOD (if it is less philosophical), sometimes under COOKBOOK (if there are recipes), sometimes under FITNESS (if there is a substantial lifestyle/exercise component).

FITNESS: exercise for people who consider themselves to be out of shape.

EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape.

SPORTS: exercise for competitive people in all shapes.

HISTORICAL NONFICTION: Your basic history book, intended for a general audience. If it is too scholarly, it will be classified under ACADEMIC.

NARRATIVE NONFICTION: THE hot category from a few years ago. Basically, it means using fiction techniques to tell true stories.

TRUE CRIME: what it says on the box.

BIOGRAPHY: the life story of someone else.

MEMOIR: the life story of the author, dwelling on personal relationships.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: the life story of the author, focusing on large, generally public achievements. The memoirs of famous people tend to be autobiographies.

ESSAYS are generally published in periodicals first, then collected.

WRITING: technically, these are HOW-TO books, but editors love writing so much that it gets its own category.

CURRENT EVENTS: explanations of what is going on in the world today, usually written by journalists. Do be aware that if you are not already a recognized expert in a current event field, your book probably will not be rushed to market, and thus perhaps will not be on the market while the event you have chosen is fresh in the public mind. Bear in mind that most books are not published until over a year after a publisher buys the book. This really limits just how current the events a first-time writer comments upon can be.

POLITICS: About partisan ideology.

GOVERNMENT: about the actual functions, history, and office holders of the political realm.

WOMEN’S STUDIES: a rather broad category, into which history, politics, government, and essays related to women tend to migrate. Logically, I think it’s a trifle questionable to call one book on labor conditions in a coal mine in 1880 HISTORY, and call a book on labor conditions in a predominantly female-staffed shoe factory in 1880 WOMEN’S STUDIES, but hey, I’m not the one who makes the rules.

GAY AND LESBIAN: Much like WOMEN’S STUDIES, this category includes works from a varied spectrum of categories, concentrating on gay and lesbian people.

LAW: This includes books for the layman, as well as more professionally-oriented books. Some publishers compress this category with books about dealing with governmental bureaucracies into a single category: LAW/GOVERNMENT.

ARTS: a rather broad category, no?

PHILOSOPHY: Thought that is neither overtly political nor demonstrably spiritual in motivation.

RELIGION: books about the beliefs of the major established religions.

SPIRITUALITY: books about beliefs that fall outside the major established religions. Often, the Asian religions are classified under SPIRITUALITY, however, rather than RELIGION. Go figure.

EDUCATION: Books about educational philosophy and practice. (Not to be confused with books on how to raise children, which are PARENTING AND FAMILIES.)

ACADEMIC: books written by professors for other professors. Tend not to sell too well.

TEXTBOOK: books written by professors for students.

REFERENCE: books intended not for reading cover-to-cover, but for looking up particular information.

PROFESSIONAL: Books for readers working in particular fields.

MEDICAL: Books for readers working in medical fields. (Not to be confused with HEALTH, which targets a lay readership.)

ENGINEERING: I’m going to take a wild guess here – books written by and for engineers?

TECHNICAL: Books intended for readers already familiar with a specific field of expertise, particularly mechanical or industrial. Unless the field is engineering, or computers, or cars, or medical…

COMPUTERS: fairly self-explanatory, no?

INTERNET: again – speaks for itself.

AUTOMOTIVE: I’m guessing these aren’t books for cars to read, but to read about cars. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything remotely funny to say about this. I’ve had a really long day.)
FINANCE: covers both personal finances and financial policy.

INVESTING: finance for those with more than enough money to pay the rent.

BUSINESS: this is another rather broad category, covering everything from tips for happy office interactions to books on executive manners.

CAREERS: books for people who are looking to break into a field. Includes books on how to find a job, how to interview, how to write a resume…

OUTDOORS AND NATURE: again, rather broad, as it encompasses everything outside a building that does not involve SPORTS, EXERCISE, FITNESS…

TRAVEL: Books on how to get there and what to do when you do get there.

TRAVEL MEMOIR: First-person stories about someone who went somewhere.

PHOTOGRAPHY: both books about and books of.

COFFEE TABLE BOOK: Books with big, gorgeous pictures and relatively little writing.

GIFT BOOK: Impulse buys.

Looking at this list, it strikes me as rather incomplete set of categories to explain all of reality. However, these are indeed the major categories – and as with fiction, you definitely need to specify up front which your book is.

Boy, am I glad to be finished with this set of information! I’m not a big fan of lists, as reading matter goes. Tomorrow, I shall show you how to format a standard title page, which will be much more fun.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

Genre categories – and more of my saga

Okay, take a deep breath, boys and girls: we’re going to tackle the rest of the fiction book categories today. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that jolly interesting stuff about my memoir being the target for an ill-conceived lawsuit threat at the end of the post. I just didn’t want to leave all of you anxious queriers out there in the lurch, category-less.)

Yesterday, for those of you who missed it (I posted considerably later than usual), I went through the standard general fiction categories. Picking a category for your work is important, because (a) you only get to pick one, no matter how badly you would like to form hyphenate composites like Erotica-Western (and who wouldn’t want to read THAT?), and (b) the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their chosen categories.

Furthermore, you cannot dodge this kind of negative snap judgment by avoiding making a choice at all amongst the dozens of available categories, or by hiding your choice in the middle of your query letter. Oh, no: agents expect to see a straightforward statement of your category in the first paragraph of your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (I’ll show you how to format a title page next week, legal difficulties permitting), and in your pitch.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates into writing less polished than other fiction in professional minds. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are markers of where a book will sit in a bookstore, not value judgments. Naturally, agents and editors expect a book to reflect the conventions of books within the stated genre, but believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER, rather than just FICTION.

Case in point: I once had the misfortune to be assigned at a writers’ conference to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle mainstream or literary fiction, which is what I was writing. Since he had been good enough to read my first chapter and synopsis, I sat politely and listened to what he had to say. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, but he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two thirds of the way through the book, concerning the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He looked at me as though I had just told him that the sky was bright orange. “Then why are you talking to me?”

The rumor that genre carries a stigma has resulted in a lot of good manuscripts that would have stood out in their proper genres being pitched as mainstream or even literary fiction. Thus, queries and pitches have been aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your query landing on the desk of someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity. Many first-time genre authors make the completely understandable mistake of simply labeling their work with the overarching genre: MYSTERY, ROMANCE, SCIENCE FICTION, etc. However, did you know that each of these categories has many, many subcategories?

The more specific you can be, the more likely your work is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up your book. (Or so the professionals claim. Really, it’s a shortcut that enables them to weed out queries outside their area with a minimum of letter-reading; that’s why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost instantly.)

Let me state outright that the major genres all have wonderful writers’ associations which can undoubtedly give you more specific information than I can here. This list is intended to guide people’s first forays into picking a category.

Let’s start with SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, because it is the genre closest to my heart. My first writing teacher was an extremely well-known science fiction writer, so my first efforts at short stories were naturally in that genre. It may amuse those of you who write SF (the professionals NEVER call it Sci Fi, incidentally) that Philip, arguably one of the best-selling SF writers of all time, told me from the very beginning that he thought I should not write in his genre, no matter how well I did it: it was, he said, too hard for any good writer to make a living at it.

But times have changes substantially since Philip was writing, and if you write SF or Fantasy, you have many options within the genre. You can, of course, simply list SCIENCE FICTION or FANTASY, if your work does not fall into any of the subcategories.

SCIENCE FICTION ACTION/ADVENTURE: The protagonist must fight incredible odds or impressive beasties to attain his (or, less frequently, her) goals. Eek – is that an Ewok behind that tree?

SPECULATIVE SCIENCE FICTION (what if X were changed?) and FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION (what if my characters lived in a future society where X was different from now?) are often mistakenly conflated into a single category. Wait – is this a government plot?/>
ALTERNATE HISTORY: What if X had changed in the past? What would the present be like? Philip’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, predicated on the premise that the other side won World War II, is the usual example given for this subgenre.

CYBERPUNK: I have heard a lot of definitions for this subgenre, ranging from THE MATRIX to NEUROMANCER. Think technology-enhanced alternate realities with a dark twist.

DARK FANTASY: Fear skillfully woven into a what-if scenario. Until CYBERPUNK got its own following, its books tended to be marketed as DARK FANTASY.

COMIC FANTASY: Elves on ecstasy.

EPIC FANTASY: Wait – my friends the centaur, the half-human, half-canary, and a centipede have to save the universe AGAIN? If Tolkein were writing today, his LORD OF THE RINGS series would probably be marketed under this category.

If you are in serious doubt over where your SF/FANTASY book falls, go to any bookstore with a good SF/fantasy section and start pulling books off the shelves. Find a book similar to yours, and check the spine and back cover: the subgenre is often printed there.

VAMPIRE FICTION is sometimes categorized as fantasy, sometimes as horror. But there is something hypnotic…about your eyes…

HORROR is its own distinct genre, and should be labeled accordingly. Never get into a car without checking the back seat, and for heaven’s sake, if you are a teenager, don’t run into the woods.

Okay, take another deep breath, because we are now going to delve into the many, many ROMANCE subcategories.

EROTICA is not your grandmother’s idea of pornography anymore. (Well, I guess it might be, depending upon what your grandmother was into.) Sexually-explicit writing where arousal is the point.

HISTORICAL ROMANCE has a zillion subcategories, primarily because its subcategories are often specific to period and locale. A few of the biggies: REGENCY, SCOTTISH, MEDIEVAL, TEXAS, WESTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN. ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND.

TIME TRAVEL: You have given up on the opposite sex in your own timeframe.

INSPIRATIONAL: If your romance novel is informed by spirituality, it belongs here.

CONTEMPORARY: Having a current-affairs issue at its core OR a protagonist who is a woman deeply devoted to her career.

FANTASY and CHICK LIT are hyphenates within the genre: basically, the conventions of these categories are grafted onto the ROMANCE genre. Natural choices, I think.

MULTICULTURAL: Not all of the people falling in love are white. Seriously, that’s what this means. I don’t quite understand this euphemism, since generally books labeled MULTICULTURAL are about a single culture, but hey, I don’t make the rules.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: this used to be called Women in Jeopardy or, more colloquially, Bodice Rippers. No comment.

PARANORMAL and GHOST ROMANCE are divided by a distinction I do not understand. Sorry. Check with Romance Writers of America.

CATEGORY ROMANCE: This is actually what many people think of automatically as a romance novel – the Harlequin type, written according to a very rigid structure.

Okay, hang in there, because here comes the last of the many subcategoried genres: MYSTERY. Again, I would urge you to consult the excellent resources provided by the Mystery Writers of America, if you are in serious doubt about which subgenre to select.

HISTORICAL: Again, self-explanatory?

COZY: An amateur sleuth is solving the crimes. VERY popular: about a quarter of the mysteries sold in North America fall into this category.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: The people who are supposed to be solving the crimes are solving the crimes.

LEGAL: A lawyer misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PROFESSIONAL: A doctor, professor, reporter, etc. misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: A PI reads his or her job description correctly, and gets involved with solving a case.

PSYCHOLOGICAL or FORENSIC: A psychologist or forensic scientist plays around with his or her job description, refusing to leave the rest of the crime-solving to the police.

SUSPENSE: Wait, is ANYBODY going to solve the crime here? Hello? Is anybody else in the house? Hello?


HARDBOILED: There’s this guy, see, who lives by his own rules. He ain’t takin’ no guff, see – except maybe from a beautiful dame with a shady past. Often, she has legs that won’t quit AND go all the way to the ground. (A genre with surprising longevity: in 2003, hardboiled mysteries were 5% of the mysteries sold.)

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: This time, the beautiful dame with a past and the legs IS the protagonist.

COPS AND KILLERS: What it says on the box.

SERIAL KILLER: Baaad people.

CHICK LIT: With how much time the protagonist spends in bed, it’s AMAZING that she finds the time to solve the case AND coordinate her shoes with her Prada handbag.

BRITISH: You may be wondering why I asked you all here.

SPY THRILLER: You may be wondering why I have you tied to that chair, Mr. Bond.

NOIR: This loner drifts into town, where he collides romantically with someone else’s wife under magnificently moody lighting conditions. What’s the probability that he’ll get fingered for a murder he didn’t commit?

CAPER: The protagonists are non-career criminals, often with wacky tendencies. Can they pull it off? Can they?

The remaining genre categories, WESTERN and ACTION/ADVENTURE, speak for themselves. Or, more precisely, I don’t have anything smart alecky to say about them.

And that’s it. In my next posting, I’ll cover the nonfiction categories – and we’ll finally be done. Hurray!

To put my own adventures into perspective, the threat to my book, A FAMILY DARKLY, has now entered the LEGAL THRILLER stage of its development. Even as I write this, lawyers are scratching their learned heads over the puzzling allegations made about my memoir. Of particular interest is the issue of whether my telling the truth about a relationship that has been hush-hush since, oh, before the Bicentennial (yes, one of my claims to fame is that Philip K. Dick laughed like hell when I told him about having to dress up as a miniature colonial wife and wield a mean flatiron in an elementary school diorama on Housework Before Modern Technology) should seriously bother anyone now.

Also at issue: since the woman who, ahem, borrowed my mother’s first husband on a semi-permanent basis has written her own book about the break-up of one marriage and the establishment of the next, and Philip has written a fictionalized account of it, is there any logical or ethical reason that my mother’s side of things (as seen through my vision, darkly) should not see print? Can you, in fact, be a public figure and be selective about what is divulged about you after your death?

On the bright side, though, everyone concerned seems rather eager to get these issues resolved before A FAMILY DARKLY comes out, or to be more precise, before the marketing blitz for A SCANNER DARKLY begins. A big-budget film, I’m told, based upon Philip’s 1979 novel. Sort of the end of an era for me, to see concepts and characters I pictured in my head while Philip so much about during revisions, translated into big-screen images. Let no one say that the creative process isn’t often pretty surreal.

It may surprise you to learn – it surprised me, I’ll confess — that the author actually has very little to do with a lawsuit of this nature: it’s all handled by the publishing house and, at the moment, a wildfire of argument about whether my book should be censored amongst habitués of the many PKD fan sites. It’s actually rather maddening, to be stuck on the sidelines while discussion rages over what is after all my baby.

I shall keep you posted, of course, on what happens. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to Write a Book Proposal, Part IV: The Comparative Market Analysis

All right, class, is everybody ready? If you’re chewing gum, I hope you brought enough for everyone currently surfing the net.

The next section of the book proposal is the comparative market analysis, wherein you talk about who has written on your topic before and, ideally, convince your dream agent and prospective editors that your book can hold its own amongst the already-existing competition. The idea here is to show three things: that you are aware of the competition, that your book is different from and better than what is already on the market, and that the market could stand to have another book on your subject without sending readers running screaming out of bookstores everywhere.

After the marketing plan, the competitive titles section is the one where the most rookie mistakes are made. This is usually not the rookie’s fault: most guides are quite vague on what this section should entail. As a result, almost all first-time proposers give too little information, producing either a mere list (often with only a couple of titles) or a rapid overview that does not include any discussion of how the proposed work differs from those listed. In a rookie proposal, this section, like the marketing section, usually reads as though the writer resented having to do it at all.

Why is the Comparative Titles section necessary? Basically, its function is to give the acquiring editor an easy way to fill out the Title Information Sheet that is the first step toward buying your book. It is the Title Information Sheet, not your entire book proposal, that gets circulated to the non-editorial departments before an offer can be tendered, so the marketing department can figure out how the book could be positioned to optimize sales, the number-crunchers can figure out how much paper and ink it will take to print it, etc. The more legwork you put in here (within reason), the easier it is for the editor to do his or her job of proving to the rest of the publishing house that your book deserves to be acquired.

You’d be surprised by how few proposing authors do not check out the competition! If you are not already familiar with the market, try entering the search words you think readers will use to find your book into the Amazon or Barnes and Noble search engines, and take a gander at the top half-dozen titles that appear. Better yet, walk into a well-stocked bookstore and see what is sitting on the shelves. Wait for a lull in the business day, and ask an idling clerk to tell you what the three best-selling books in your section of the bookstore are.

You may already have a shelf bowed with the weight of tomes on your topic, but avoid the temptation of packing your comparative market analysis with books more than five years old — or ones that did not sell well. The publishing world is very oriented in the NOW, so try to list books that are still in the major bookstores. If a perfect parallel was published a decade ago, you may include it, of course, but if you list too many elderly titles, your topic runs the risk of looking dated.

Why is looking dated the kiss of death? Well, the fact is, most book proposals do feature dated competitive title lists, which means a truly well-selected, market-conscious list stands out from the crowd. If a significant book on your topic has come out within the last few months and it is NOT included in your comparative market analysis, it is an automatic red flag: editors tend not to be too crazy about authors who do not know their own markets. An up-to-date list brands you as a professional who is aware of the competition – and is willing to make sure the proposed book avoids the pitfalls into which the competition fell.

To appear even more professional, include at least one title with a very different philosophical, political, or regional perspective than your own. This shows the editor that you are not only reading books with which you personally agree, but that you have given some serious thought to how your book is going to differentiate itself from the rest of the market.

Six to eight currently-available titles is standard. List the title, author’s name, publisher, date of publication, and a one- or two-sentence description of each book.

It is vitally important that you include for each title a couple of ways in which your book will be different and/or better. Why will yours appeal to a broader audience than the current market leader? What fatal flaw did the comparative title have, and how will you avoid it? (This last is most effective when the comparative title in question was a major bestseller, of course.)

Be critical, but be concise: this is not a comparative literature final exam, where you will be judged on your attention to minor differences. Broad strokes are fine, as long as your writing is clear and you treat your potential competitors with respect. Try to mention at least one positive thing about every title.

Let’s say you are writing a book on pet training, entitled THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS. You think everything else on the market is absolute drivel, but as a professional, you do not want to show that. Instead, you concentrate on your competitors’ strengths. Your Comparative Market Analysis might look something like this:

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in interest in cat training. In August, 2005, an Internet search on Google brought up 1,234 hits. In the same month, listed 56 titles on the subject, as well as 78 titles on the related subject of ferret and rabbit training. Current titles include:

CAT TRAINING AND YOU, by Steve Smith (Ballentine, 2005)

The current bestseller, Smith’s book provides a broad overview of cat training techniques and advice, but little discussion of philosophy. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS will provide specific advice, broken down by breed, and a fuller discussion of the history of cat training.

WHAT, ME TRAIN MY CAT? by Tom Jones (Random House, 2002).

Jones provides a very basic guide to cat training, illustrated sparsely by line drawings. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS, by contrast, will feature many full-color pictures, as well as three times the number of tricks.

ONLY MANIACS TRAIN CATS TO SWIM, by Clarissa Lovelace (Putnam Penguin, 2001)

Lovelace’s work is the best of the recent spate of books arguing against cat training on moral grounds. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS answers these concerns by presenting a wide variety of humane training techniques, as well as discussion of the current swimming controversy.

ME AND MY FLUFFY, by Paul McCartney (Coffee Table Books, 2003)

While this is primarily a celebrity photo book, it does include a chapter on the former Beatle teaching his cat to play rhythm guitar. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS approaches the topic more seriously than McCartney’s book, and limits itself to training cats to performing tasks of more interest to the general cat owner.

THE HIPPIE’S GUIDE TO CAT TRAINING by Peace Loveshine (Harmony Press, 1972)

The enduring classic on cat tutelage, this book’s frequent references to former President Richard Nixon render it unappealing to the current generation of readers. By providing a solid, apolitical treatment of the topic, THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS will not render itself obsolete in five years’ time.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? You needn’t spend three months reading to put such a list together, or spend a mountain of money buying up every book that exists: instead, spend a weekend seated in front of the appropriate shelf at a megastore, seeing what is cutting-edge in your topic, take good notes, then come home and write. If you are really at a loss for something critical to say, check out the formal and readers’ reviews on Amazon for ideas.

While you’re in the bookstore, you might want to take notes on what publishers tend to publish in your area – and how good those publishers are at getting shelf space for their authors. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but those little tables at the front of big bookstores that hold fat piles of bestsellers-to-be are almost never purely the result of avid bookstore employees pushing their favorite new releases: some clever marketer has generally exchanged hard cash or favors for that placement. Ditto with which books are placed face-out on the shelves, as opposed to spine-out; face-out books sell far better. Ideally, you would like a publishing house that can place your work well.

One final piece of advice: do be measured in your critique. Don’t praise any competitive title beyond its deserts; no matter how bad the competition is, try to avoid being too scathing. Since editors move around so much, it is not beyond belief that someone who worked on the book you chose to excoriate might end up reading your proposal – and offended editors seldom acquire books.

I speak from personal experience. The quality of research in the many biographies of Philip K. Dick currently on the market ranges from excellent to laughable, so necessarily, I had to point out in my book proposal that one of the recent offerings was stuffed to bursting with flat-out fabrications. This bio had made me very angry when I read it — the author had made gratuitous and untrue attacks upon my mother, a playground fighting situation if there ever was one – but I reined in my feelings and wrote a politely critical review. And in truth, my brief critique in the comparative titles section was far less harsh than, say, the NY Times review of the noisome volume had been.

I did, however, mention in passing that the latitude the author had allowed himself had made most of us who had actually known Philip pretty furious. When my proposal fell under the eyes of the editor who had handled the U.S. version of the book, he naturally felt that my criticism cast a negative reflection upon the two years he had spent working on the book’s translation from its original French. He felt, again naturally, that he would prefer not to work with an author who questioned the research methodology of his authors, even with good grounds. Ultimately, my agent got an earful about it.

Yes, this was an unfortunate coincidence, but note what happened here: since I had been respectful in how I presented my critique of this genuinely loathsome book, the editor did not simply throw my proposal into the trash. Instead, he took the time to call my agent and discuss the matter. I ended up with useful feedback, rather than an unexplained no.

Your book proposal is bread cast upon the waters, my friends, a message in a bottle that you hope will wash up on kindly shores. You cannot necessarily anticipate the tastes and pet peeves of the beachcombers who might pick it up – but by being respectful, professional, and clear, you can minimize its chances of being roasted over a fire by angry cannibals.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini