In the first of this 3 part series, I explored a few basic truths about publishing kid’s non-fiction and why proposals are its key operating feature. The second entry looked at the proposal process from an editor’s point-of-view, cited 6 essential questions that proposals must successfully answer, and reviewed some of the standard headings in non-fiction proposals. In this final entry, we’ll look at 5 ways to tweak the proposal so yours stands out from its competitors.
First, though, a check-list of things you should do before you get to this spit-and-polish phase:
- Thoroughly research your topic. You must know the subject matter, have a vision for your book, and know just what slant and slope to give it.
- Think about the structure of the book and how the various pieces will tie together. Your proposal will need an outline and a sample chapter or two.
- Check competing markets. You should know what’s already been published on your subject, what’s hot and not, and how your book will be different. You will need to point that out in your proposal.
- Decide what you have to offer as an author and why you are qualified to write this book. Somewhere in the proposal you need to address this.
- Check publishers’ submission requirements on their websites. Note the subjects they publish and their submission requests. Scrutinize their books, too, and narrow down the field of likely candidates to those whose vision for the future matches your vision for the book.
Whew! Lot’s to do. But remember: non-fiction deals are largely won or lost based on a well honed proposal, and all this up-front work will pay off when a contract lands in your lap. Now let’s add sizzle and pop to get you that deal.
WOW! From the Start
Pack a punch with the first few paragraphs. Nothing defines your writing style, your subject matter, and your take on it quite like an evocative beginning. It’s not easy to capture your intentions in a short passage, but without a snappy opening the editor might not even turn the page to read the rest of your wonderful stuff.
Here’s how I started my proposal for At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times:
On a mountain peak, a climber debates whether to cut a rope that holds his partner, an act that will save his own life, but most certainly result in death for the other.…In the midst of a bloody civil war and with his own life in danger, a solitary man contemplates how to stem the slaughter….At an airfield, a youngster spots an ultra-light plane in trouble. Knowing a tragedy is about to unfold, he desperately looks for a way to prevent it.
At the edge, life hangs in the balance. Critical decisions must be made, drastic action taken…
Create a Terrific Title…Then Echo It
Great titles sell books and the just-right title at this early stage helps the editor to champion your book through the acquisition process. Best titles pack a punch in less than 5 or 6 words, but subtitles – common practice in non-fiction – can double that amount. General rule: the title should be snappy, memorable, elicit a strong reaction, and create immediate interest. The subtitle doesn’t have to be as witty or clever, but should clarify what the book is about and the benefits it provides readers.
In the case of At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times, both the title and subtitle were repeated throughout the proposal. Note the wording I used to echo the theme in my opening: At the edge, life hangs in the balance. Although titles and subtitles often change as the book heads through the publication process, this one survived all the way to the end.
Create a Memorable Tag
A tag line synthesizes the entire book in one concise sentence. A well-written one becomes a marketing tool that says in a few words just what the book is about and who it is for. The tag line helps everyone related to the project – editor, art designer, publicist – to set the same course. Here’s mine for Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery.
Using true stories as a backdrop, Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery whets the 8-14 year old reader’s appetite for treasure hunting and provides youngsters with tips, advice and descriptions showing where to look, what to look for, and how to proceed to find treasure of their own.
Beat the Marketing Drum
Since you’ve checked the market competition, you know what’s out there. Your editor hasn’t done the same research you have, nor should she have to, so drive the point home in a concise few paragraphs. Why is there a need for your book? Who will buy it? How will your approach be the same or different as other books in the marketplace, and why is there room on crowded shelves for yours?
Just because there might be a number of published books on the same subject, it doesn’t mean yours won’t stand a chance. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. It might mean that it’s one of those topics that is wildly popular. Take dinosaurs – so many books in existence, yet each year more are published. Just make sure you know how yours is unique and be sure to point that out.
Here’s a line from the marketing section of my proposal for S is for Scientists: A Discovery Alphabet that hints of its sales potential.
Taken together the 26 entries of S is for Scientists: A Discovery Alphabet paint a picture of exciting discoveries across a variety of disciplines – archeology to zoology – made by scientists, male and female, present and past, using skills and methods similar to those being taught in schools and modeled by children around the world.
Don’t Be Shy – Sell Yourself
Why are you qualified to write this book? Why should the publisher front money and trust you to do a smashing job of writing it, and then support its sales later?
Think in specific terms when preparing this part. Consider the subject. What is your connection to it? Do you have specialized knowledge or experience? If not, what will you do about it? For Mysteries of Time, I knew little about archeology, but I volunteered for a local dig to get some practical experience and mentioned this in the proposal to bump up my credibility. For Surviving the Hindenburg, I needed to convince the publisher that my account of Werner Franz’s escape would be accurate and unique. I mentioned the archival records and original footage I had located.
Besides competence and knowledge, publishers are also looking for characteristics such as resourcefulness, stick-to-it-iveness, professionalism, the ability to work with a team to hone the product, and, of course, willingness to promote and support the book afterwards. Mention your publication track record if you have one, but don’t throw in the towel if you don’t. Instead focus on other strengths and connections. Do you blog? Have a website? Spoken to groups on this subject? Belong to writers’ groups? Work with youth? Know someone in the know? Belong to organizations that dovetail with the subject you are writing about? Whatever they are, mention the specific attributes that connect you to this subject and the groups that will read and use your book.
So there you have it – 5 spit-and-polish suggestions for hitting a home run with your next proposal. Good luck. Now go ahead. Clobber it out of the park.