Okay, back to my saga on the road to publication. Return with me now to those thrilling days of last year…
So there I was at the end of July, 2004, having promised a dozen agents a peek at my book proposal for IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK by the end of…well, not to put too fine a point on it, instantly. As in before everyone went on vacation, as in the habit in NYC publishing circles, for the second half of August and September until after Labor Day. (Yes, I’ve been harping on this vacation thing, but I know how writers with manuscripts out to agents tend to worry that any delay in hearing back is a Sign of Something. Trust me: it’s not you.) That meant that if I was going to keep my word, I needed to churn out a book proposal in just under three weeks.
For the record, I do not recommend attempting to write a book proposal that quickly, even with a chapter already written. It’s like trying to compress your entire junior high school experience into, say, a month. Yet since a good two-thirds of the published NF writers I know pulled theirs together that speedily, it is possible, if you know the ropes.
There are many good guides, and many more good agents, who will tell you precisely what they want to see in a book proposal, but what I have gleaned is this: it needs to read not only as though you have already written the book you are proposing, but as though you are the only person in the history of humanity who could possibly have written it.
A tall order, especially considering that literally every sentence in the proposal is a writing sample that you will be showing to people whom you wish to pay you to write the book in question. You’d be amazed at how many writers forget that. Most first-time proposers radically short-change the writing in the marketing sections, as though it were a 15-minute pop quiz where spelling and grammar did not count. As a professional writer, your sentences ALWAYS count.
For those of you not familiar with the constituent parts of the non-fiction book proposal, it should include AT MINIMUM:
(1) An overview of the proposed book, where you set out the topic and your platform. Make sure to include answers to these burning questions: what is the book about? Why are you writing it? Who are you, anyway, and why are you uniquely qualified to write this book?
Yes, these are questions that deserve a year or two of therapy to answer with any degree of reasonable honesty, but you need to deal with them all – in beautifully-crafted sentences, no less – in fifteen to twenty pages of anecdote-rich exposition.
Think of the overview as a distillation of the proposed book, not merely a summary. What are its most important themes? What argument will you be making?
Yes, you will eventually have a few hundred pages to make your argument in print, but the overview should present its essential outlines clearly enough that an editor who had read it only once could reproduce your argument at an editorial meeting. All too often, first-time proposers want to hold back crucial elements of their cases, to retain surprises for the book itself. Trust me on this one: agents and editors don’t like to be surprised in this way. If your book will be saying anything startling or controversial, the overview should make that plain; it’s a potential selling point, in fact.
Make sure every step of the argument is clear – and give some indication how you intend to prove your points. Will you consult experts? Interview witnesses? Perform extensive archival research? This is the place to mention your research methods, to establish you as THE expert to write this book.
(2) A discussion of whom you expect to buy your book. Who is your target reader? How many of these fine people are there out there?
It is very, very common for book proposals to skip this step, moving directly from the overview to the marketing plan. Yes, pretty much any editor who specializes in the type of book you want to produce will have a clearer idea than you do of how many, say, bass fishermen currently buy books. However, part of the point of the book proposal is to demonstrate to potential agents and editors that YOU have taken the time to do your homework – and thus are not going into the book-writing process without some idea of how the industry works.
(And yes, Virginia, part of the way the industry works is that writers tell agents and editors things everyone concerned already know.)
Include statistics, though, just in case your target agent and editor haven’t done a book on your subject recently. Yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a demographer. However, the average agent or editor isn’t a demographer, either; you do not want to run the risk that an uninformed guess at an editorial meeting will underestimate your audience. You’re better off telling stating the facts outright, so your dream editor can say to her colleagues, “Wow! Who knew there were that many people reading books whilst standing thigh-deep in rivers?”
If you can’t find the statistical information you need on the Internet, most large-city public libraries have a research librarian who can tell you where to start looking. Be very polite to this person: she may well help you so much that you will want to name your first child after her.
And please don’t forget to answer the all-important question: why will the targeted readers be interested in your book? What will your book offer these readers that no other book currently on the market provides?
(3) A few pages laying out a marketing plan, explaining how those readers could be reached. It’s largely guesswork, for most first-time proposers, but you need to do it anyway. Will you launch a website? Speak at organizations of bass fisherfolk? Haunt independent bookstores, accosting anyone who smells of fish?
Whatever you do, don’t make the single most common rookie mistake: limiting your marketing plan to pointing out to publishers the astonishing fact that bookstores occasionally allow authors to give readings; I promise you, they are already aware of that phenomenon. Tell them something they don’t already know, such as the fact that you have been a teacher for the past 26 years, so you have a wealth of public speaking experience, or that you belong to an organization where the members lunch together every Thursday nationwide, listening to speakers like you.
Be creative: what do you have to offer as a marketer? This is the place to mention, for instance, if you have given a magnificently successful reading at one of the PNWA’s The Word Is Out events. (Plug, plug.) You’d be astonished at how few prospective authors are bold enough to read their work in public – it’s invaluable experience that will serve you well at book signings down the road.
In tomorrow’s posting, I’ll go through the rest of the required elements of the book proposal: the comparative market analysis, the annotated table of contents, the clippings, and the sample chapter(s). I would finish it today, but I’m having a stress flashback, just from writing about those mad three weeks.
The moral of today’s story: give yourself time to do a good, thorough job, so you won’t end up like me, sweating bullets at the mere mention of the proposal process.
And keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini