For the last couple of posts, we have bent our collective gaze — steely, to be sure — away from the green pastures of manuscript formatting to turn our attention to the wind-swept plains of book proposals and their proper formatting. As we have seen in our brief sojourn amid the majestic buffalo and skipping lambs, while the text of a book proposal is formatted largely in the same matter as a manuscript’s, the various headings and subheadings are often different.
Before I move on, allow me to digress: did you notice how I dropped that running metaphor when it became apparent that it wasn’t working? That’s a good editing tip for any kind of writing: don’t force it if it doesn’t fly. An even better one: while proofing you work, make sure you read all the way to the end of every sentence; it’s the only way to catch metaphors abandoned mid-stream. (And yes, Virginia, I do see orphaned metaphors wandering about ostensibly well-revised manuscripts. All the time.)
As we saw last time, a professional book proposal contains a wide range of marketing materials, all written in the proposer’s best possible prose, cleverly fitted together in a manner to convince an agent or editor that not only is the proposed book an interesting idea that will appeal to a very specific (and, ideally, well-established) target audience, but that the proposer is the best (and, ideally, the only) conceivable person currently drawing breath to write this particular book. Or, to put it in the language of the industry, it’s a marketable concept presented by a writer with a great platform.
A thousand hands just shot into the air mid-paragraph, didn’t they? “Um, Anne?” many would-be proposers inquire nervously. “You didn’t really mean that bit about the proposal written in the proposer’s best possible prose, did you? After all, the proposal is just a formality, a series of hoops through which I have to jump before a publisher buys my book, right?”
Actually, no — although I can certainly see why you might think so. Unlike novels, nonfiction books (yes, even most memoirs) are sold not because someone falls in love with the manuscript, but because a prospective author has made a convincing case in a proposal that a book that does not yet exist will be marketable to a specific audience and that s/he is the right person to write it. Since the book concept and the argument for it are the primary sales pitch, most first-time proposers conclude that the writing in a proposal is of secondary importance.
They’re absolutely wrong. Every syllable of a book proposal is a writing sample — the only writing sample, in fact, upon which an agent or editor will base his or her conclusions about whether to pick up the book.
If you’ll join me in a wee flight of fancy, I think you’ll see why that absolutely must be the case.
Picture, if you will (and you will, right?), Maury the editorial assistant, diligently scanning the day’s submissions from agents for the next promising nonfiction project. He has reason to be careful: he needs to be very, very selective about what he passes on to his boss, the editor of your dreams. (Let’s call her Ermintrude, just for giggles.) If he simply sends Ermintrude every proposal that sounds as if it might make a good book, he’s not really doing his job, is he? It’s not as though she can offer a publication contract to every interesting-sounding project, after all; at most, even an extremely busy editor might be able to take on somewhere between one and ten a year.
Yes, you read that correctly.
It’s Maury’s job to prevent Ermintrude’s desk from becoming so over-stacked with proposals that she can’t find her phone. So yes, he’s going to weed out any proposal that doesn’t sound interesting right off the bat. He’s also going to reject those that don’t have a clearly-defined concept — which, in a screener’s world, means one that’s both grabbed his attention instantly and is comprehensible within the first few pages of the proposal — as well as those that either don’t define their target market well or do not strike him as likely to appeal to the readers already buying such books. Not to mention those that don’t seem to have a well laid-out marketing plan or chapters likely to deliver fully upon the premise of the proposal, or those proposed by writers who haven’t made a good case for their platforms to write the book.
That’s going to weed out most of ‘em. (I hate to be blunt about it, but because the book proposal is such a widely misunderstood marketing tool, Maury sees a whole lot of rambling proposals. And rambling, unprofessional proposals are most of what Millicent, his cousin who screens agency submissions, sees on a weekly basis.) But let’s be generous and assume that Maury’s had an unusually strong selection of proposals submitted this week: out of 300, 10 are fascinating ideas for books aimed for a well-established audience.
He can’t possibly send them all — ten is Ermintrude’s entire year’s allotment of books, even if she works nights, weekends, and funds the last two herself. So how does he decide which one or two to send upstairs to his boss?
Uh-huh. The ones where the writing screams, “Excuse me, but had you noticed that there’s some talent here?”
Think about that, any of you who were planning to toss together your book proposals over the next long weekend, or stuff them into the mailbox without running the text by another literate human being not already familiar with your book’s concept. (Word to the wise: if that literate human can’t tell you what the book is about and why you’re the best person on earth to write it by the time she is halfway through page 4, you might want to think about some serious revision. And if she doesn’t want to read the book by the middle of page 2, run, don’t walk, back to the drawing board to work on your prose and presentation.)
Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, let’s review the constituent parts of the book proposal — at least, the ones we have covered so far:
1. The title page
2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:
(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?
(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?
(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?
(d) Who is the target audience for this book?
(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?
(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?
(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?
Okay, okay, so I kind of slipped that last one up the back staircase, but it’s a great asset to a book proposal if it is written in the same voice (and with the same vocabulary) as the eventual book.
Those aren’t the kind of things you want to leave to Maury’s imagination, are they? As we discussed last time, a fantastic way to establish authorial voice and interest in the subject matter is to open with a vividly illustrative anecdote or other method of direct appeal to the reader’s reason and emotions. Opening with dry marketing material tends not to grab Maury’s attention anywhere near as well.
3. The competitive market analysis
This section, as I hope you will recall from last time, is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.
Sound familiar? It should here is where the proposer proves the contentions he made in the overview with hard data.
Which of the many, many contentions, you ask, and how does talking about your competition prove them? Well, for starters, who the target audience is for your book? Answer: the readers who have already bought the books listed in the competitive market analysis. (The implicit logic: if those books sold well, that means these people buy a lot of books — and might be eager to buy more.)
Yet another reason that you might want to say something nice about your competition, eh?
You can also use this section to demonstrate how your book is different and better than what’s already on the market — and yes, that can (and should) be done without running down the competition, as long as you’re specific. Think about it: if you mention the best points of the other books and can still make the case that your proposed volume will either do what they do, only more effectively (do you have a stronger platform than another author, for instance, or is the other book outdated now?) and/or not in the same way (what does your take on the subject offer that those other books do not?), your book is going to end up looking better by contrast than if you merely say that everything else is terrible.
Trust me on this one. If you can’t say something nice about a particular comparable book, consider contrasting yours to one that you can praise with a straight face.
Some of you have had your hands raised since yesterday, have you not? “But Anne,” proposers everywhere exclaim, rubbing circulation back into their exhausted arms, “one of the reasons I wanted to write my book in the first place is that there isn’t another recent book on the subject. So how do I come up with a list for the competitive market analysis? Make things up?”
Glad you asked, patient arm-raisers — there’s a pro’s trick to this. But first, indulge me in a short exercise in understanding your book’s appeal.
First, equip yourself with some scratch paper (the back sides of earlier drafts of your proposal, perhaps?) and a comfortable pen. I would suggest selecting a comfortable chair, too, because you’re not to budge until you come up with five different ways to describe your proposed book. And I’m not talking about descriptors like well-written, either — describe your book the way a clerk in a bookstore might to a potential reader.
Got that list firmly in hand? Good. Now hie yourself and your list hence to the nearest well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore. (Seriously, what I’m about to suggest is considerably harder to pull off online.)
Standing in the store, feeling silly for carrying that list around. Excellent. Ready, set — don’t find a book like yours.
Yes, really. Instead, go to the first descriptor on your list and find several books that could be described the same way. Proposing a memoir, for instance? Stand in front of the memoir section and keep pulling books off the shelves until you discover a few that are similar in some way to yours.
It can be a very, very small way. Is it a childhood memoir by someone who grew up in the same part of the country as you did? Start taking notes. Is another by a dog-lover, while two chapters of your proposed book cover your relationship with beloved Fido? Sounds close enough to me.
After you’ve ferreted out a few useful titles, move on to the next descriptor on your list. If your memoir set in the mid-1960s, find a few good nonfiction titles that cover similar aspects of the period. If your cookbook is for vegans, how about including as few of the well put-together vegetarian cookbooks out recently? Not too hard to see how your book would be different and better for vegan readers than those, right?
And so forth. The goal here is not necessarily to find a dozen books exactly like yours; it’s also perfectly permissible to devote a paragraph or two each to several different book categories into which your unique book might conceivably fall. By demonstrating that there is already a market for books that match your five descriptors — as there must be, according to industry logic, or those recently-released books would not be on the shelves* — the implication is that past readers of each of those types of book will be interested in yours.
(* Don’t waste your energies questioning this quite questionable assumption; you’ve got a proposal to write.)
Everyone clear now on the purpose and proper formatting of the competitive market analysis? If not, now would be a fabulous time to shout out a question or two. While I’m waiting with my hand cupped around my ear, let’s move on to the next section.
4. The annotated table of contents
This section has some odd conventions, ones that tend to come as a surprise to most first-time proposers, so before I launch into a discussion, let’s take a gander at out example from the other day.
Notice anything here that might offend the muses of standard format? How about the fact that the title of the book appears at the top of the page, as if Annotated Table of Contents were a subtitle? Or the phenomenon of adding a section break between each chapter’s description? Or that the descriptions were in the present tense, like a synopsis?
Actually, there’s a pretty good explanation for the first two of these conventions. (Sorry; you’re on your own for the last.) Remember how I mentioned earlier in this sub-series that unlike a manuscript, book proposals are often broken up into their constituent parts on the reading end, so folks working in different departments at publishing houses may take a gander at ‘em? Titling the annotated table of contents renders it easier to get those pages back into the right proposal. And skipping a line between chapters makes it simpler for an editor to find the chapter she is seeking when she’s in an editorial committee meeting or arguing with your agent about what will be in the final book.
Oh, you weren’t aware that editors often ask writers to change the proposed chapters? Happens all the time, so gird your loins and prepare to play ball.
If the very notion of being asked to remove your meticulously-researched chapter on steam engines (in order to replace it with a similar section on cotton gins, about which the acquiring editor did her undergraduate thesis at Columbia) or to reduce your seven intended chapters on your life prior to the age of 17 into as many paragraphs (so you may concentrate at greater length on your four subsequent years as a sword-swallower) causes your skin crawl in revulsion, do not despair. You actually do have a means of making sure your favorite chapters pass the editorial test: write about them brilliantly in the annotated table of contents.
Seriously, if ever there was a time to show, not tell, this is it.
Why, you ask? Because the vast majority of first proposals just summarize what’s going to be in each chapter, instead of using each chapter to tell a compelling separate story. Because you’re selling your talents as a storyteller here, as well as the subject matter of the book, right?
It’s not surprising that this section falls flat in so many proposals; again, many, if not most, proposers don’t seem to understand the purpose of the annotated table of contents. As we discussed the other day, many, many proposers labor under the misconception that what agents and editors expect to see in this section is simply a list of chapter titles, accompanied by guesstimated page numbers. Many, many other proposers assume that they should devote a page to each chapter.
Or even several. For my sins, I’ve seen proposal drafts with 20-page annotated tables of contents. Believe me, Maury was far from pleased.
Avoid that dreadful fate in yours; keep it brief, but substantial. One to two paragraphs on each envisioned chapter is about right — remembering, of course, that everything in a book proposal is a writing sample. At the risk of repeating myself, show, not tell.
How does one pull that off when covering so much territory in so short a space as a paragraph or two? The same way you came up with the summary paragraph of your query letter, ideally: instead of trying to summarize everything that happens in a chapter in general terms, pick a particularly interesting scene or argument and present it in vivid terms.
In other words: be specific, not general. If you can possibly manage it, try to include details that Maury is unlikely to see in another proposal.
If you just muttered to yourself, “Hey, might this not be an amazingly good place to demonstrate just how my book is different and better than the ones I was discussing in the last section?” congratulations — you’re thinking like a pro. Especially in a memoir or cookbook proposal, this is the precise spot to work in mention of how your book is uniquely yours:
And if you eagerly shot your hand into the air as you glanced over that last example, eager to point out that this example was formatted slightly differently than the one before it, congratulations again — your eye is sharpening. The last version is in the version my agency prefers; the desire for bolding and all caps is not universal.
Just thought you might like to see both. And if I haven’t said it often enough yet: if the agent of your dreams wants you to format your proposal differently from what I advise here — in, for example, clearly laid-out guidelines on the agency’s website — for heaven’s sake, give him what he wants. In the book proposal as well as the manuscript, the average agent is looking for evidence that a potential client can follow directions.
Don’t see why that would be an essential quality in a book-proposing client? Okay, let me ask you: if you were an agent, would you rather represent the writer who says, “Lose my Chapter 13 and dumb down the book’s vocabulary to an 8th-grade reading level? Can do, Editor!” or the one who flies into an uncontrollable fury?
Oh, come on — you didn’t really hesitate over that choice as long as you pretended, did you?
I’ll be wrapping up book proposal formatting next time — literally: I’ll be talking about the folders that encase them. Until we meet again in that happy, not-too-distant future, keep up the good work!