Book publishing is run like real business now. The six largest publishers are all owned by multimedia conglomerates. The corporate bosses have very high expectations for return on investment, far higher than in the old days when book publishing was a cottage industry. Accordingly editors are under intense pressure to acquire books that will make money, a lot of money. In those old days, deals were made informally over the famous three martini lunch. Personal relationships were key to getting a book published. At least that’s the conventional wisdom on the way things were back then. I’m not sure if it was ever true. Now the acquisition decision is primarily based on the material contained in the book proposal. A bad book proposal can kill a good book idea. Well, maybe if you are Kim Kardashian, you can get away with a lousy proposal or none at all. But gentle reader, don’t fool yourself. You are not Kim Kardashian. A good book proposal is an honest book proposal and one that will address the concerns of the editor and give her confidence that the book will meet her expectations and requirements. Put yourself in her shoes for a minute and it will help you write a better proposal.
1. A book proposal is a business plan. You have probably heard the old saying that publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. At the moment the relationship is sort of S/M with commerce holding the whip. Never forget that an editor’s acquisition is a business decision and your proposal must convince the editor that your book is not just great writing. It is good business as well.
2. Get the editor hooked right out of the gate. An editor’s life isn’t all that glamorous. She works in a 10′ x 10′ office all day, every day. She has to attend boring acquisition meetings with a bunch of other fatuous editors who are pitching their pet projects for the same slot as hers. The publisher, the sales director, and the marketing manager are all there too. Maybe they have read your proposal. Maybe they have only read the first page. Maybe just your agent’s pitch letter. Everyone in the room including your acquisition editor has a busy life leading to attention deficit disorder. If you can’t get them excited in the first two paragraphs, I’m sorry, but you are probably sunk. Make sure your writing in the first paragraph is sparkling. Make sure you can say what the book is about in one or two sentences. If you can’t, you probably haven’t figured that out yourself. And remember, you have a lot of competition. Every acquisition editor gets 20 proposals a week. Every one of those proposals has been heavily vetted by agents. Every one of them will have a very compelling reason to get published. What will make yours pop out?
3. Don’t play the editor for a fool. Editors have seen every kind of hype that you can think of many times over. Just remember this. Don’t mention Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t mention Oprah and while you are at it, don’t mention Terry Gross. Don’t mention The New Yorker. Don’t mention Spielberg either. When you talk about your promotion opportunities, don’t use the word “might” ( as in “I might get on Oprah.”) Editors will read this as “might not” or more likely “doesn’t have a chance in hell.” This kind of hype sends a message that you are either dishonest or deluded. Neither of these are good messages to send.
4. Focus on your competitive analysis. A lot of writers gloss over the competitive analysis and treat it as if it were an unpleasant exercise that one must get through in order to please her agent. Don’t fool yourself. Editors look very carefully at this, because it gives them important information about the potential audience for the book. The editor is looking to see if there are other books on the subject that have had impressive sales. But they also want to know that you have something new and important to say on the subject. Make sure you use comp titles that will be useful to the editor in evaluating whether there is an audience. Use books from major publishers that were successful. Don’t use books that flopped. Don’t use books that are so old that they are irrelevant to the editor’s analysis. Don’t use books that aren’t truly comparable. And, for God’s sake, don’t use self-published books. And, one last thing, remember: never say that your book is totally unique and the only book on the subject. That means to the editor that there’s probably no audience for it.
5. Make sure your audience analysis is realistic and robust. The audience analysis section of the proposal is also an area that authors give short shrift to. When an editor looks at a proposal, the first question she will ask herself is, “Is there an audience for this book?” In the audience analysis section, you need to answer this in a compelling manner that shows you mean business and are not acting under your own illusions or just blowing smoke. I get a lot of proposals about health related topics. Frequently the author will define the audience as “everyone between 20 and 70 years old interested in health.” This is not an audience. This is a demographic. The editor doesn’t want to know how many billions of people in the world might think about your subject area from time to time. She wants to know what specific and discrete groups of people will be motivated to pay $25 to buy your book. The editor wants you to get real or get lost.
6. When writing your bio, think like an editor. The editor will read your bio and be looking for these things. 1) Does the author have the authority to be writing about this subject? and 2)What kind of platform does the author have that will allow her to drive sales? This should not be a curriculum vitae (although if you have one, you may include it in an appendix). You will have to describe the work that you do in the real world. You will have to include a modest list of important books and articles –if such a list exists — that you have written and published. You should include media connections past and present. You must mention major venues where you have spoken and will be speaking, and any significant awards you have received. Don’t put in filler material that will not impress anyone. Don’t say that you will teach a class on the subject at your local junior college. Don’t say you came in 3rd in an unknown literary award. Don’t pretend you have a platform when you don’t. [See #3 above]
7. Impress the editor with a solid, realistic, effective and honest marketing and promotion plan. The marketing and promotion section of the proposal is another area where authors have difficulty and sometimes try to wing it. Don’t. Editors will be able to see whether you have a sophisticated understanding of marketing and promotion, whether you will do an effective job flogging your product, or whether you are callow and naïve. Show the editor that you have a good plan. Go into some detail. Don’t say “I will do Internet marketing.” Say exactly what you will do. Don’t say, “I will try to get interviews on my local radio station.” Tell them exactly what media events you will realistically be able to line up – and don’t lie about it. Don’t mention that you will have book signings at local bookstores. They know that already. Don’t say your mom will host a publication party.
8. Don’t suffer delusions of grandeur. This is primarily for those of you out there who are writing memoirs, but it applies to everyone. Don’t get me wrong. Memoirs are a very popular genre but they are hard to get published. I usually advise memoirists that it is best to look outside themselves. I have no doubt that your life has been dramatic, even the stuff of legend. Everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. But this doesn’t mean that there is an audience who will want to read about it or a publisher who will see it as a marketable commodity. By all means, write your memoir. It will give you a deeper understanding of your life and your place in the world. But try to be realistic about the chances of getting published. Again, think like an editor.
9. I want to say one word to you, just one word: “transparency”. This is my golden rule of proposal writing. The editor must know when he has finished the proposal that everything in it is true and deliverable before and after publication and that the author is who he says he is and has the authority, connections, and savvy to make this book sell. I need to trust my author just as she needs to trust me. And the editor needs to trust both of us. There is probably an agent out there who will be able to get you a contract based on some fancy footwork. But that isn’t the way I do business, and it isn’t the way the agents I respect do business either.