In a previous piece (Batting 1000 with Kid’s Non-Fiction: 1 – The Basics), I compared some of the key differences between fiction and non-fiction, and how these differences impact the way authors submit book-length material. Unlike fiction, where deals are often sealed on the basis of an already completed manuscript, usually non-fiction writers must convince publishers that they have an exciting idea worthy of a contract before they write the book. For non-fiction, it’s all about the sales pitch and the author’s promise of what he or she can deliver.
Entire books have been written about book proposals and later in this blog I’ll recommend a couple that have been very helpful to me. My intention here is not to cover the same ground, but to switch perspectives. Imagine for a moment that you are an editor at a publishing house that accepts unagented material. What is like to be on the receiving end?
As an editor you are a busy person. Heaps of fiction and non-fiction proposals arrive weekly. Generally, they are of two types. Some have been sent by writers riding blindly on luck who haven’t queried first. Unless the publishing house specifies in its submission requirements that it is acceptable to send proposals without first gaining query permission, this is akin to crashing a wedding party.
Because you are a time-strapped editor of a firm that expects queries, you skip the uninvited proposals. Instead, you dive into the second pile: the query-screened ones. Based on promising material in the query, you have granted them privileged status. But do they deliver? The publishing house releases only a handful of new titles each year so the competition is stiff.
Finding winning new titles is one of your editorial duties. Somewhere in this pile you hope to discover a gem: a non-fiction book that you can champion at the next editorial meeting. Having done this hundreds of times, you have an innate sense of what you are looking for in a new property. It boils down to 6 basic questions that you ask yourself. They are essentially the same questions you ask of any new product, fiction or non-fiction, but there are fine differences in the wording and what qualifies as acceptable answers. The 6 questions are the same ones that your colleagues at the editorial meeting will ask of you if you bring the product to their attention. They are also the same questions the acquisitions department will want answered later if the book receives a nod from the editorial group and moves on to the contract phrase.
1) Is this an exciting concept?
If, as an editor, you are not excited by the idea, if you are not whipped into a whirlwind of interest in the opening paragraphs, what is the point of reading further? It will be a difficult slog to try championing something that doesn’t grab your attention from the get-go.
2) Is this a subject and approach that will interest our target audience?
The idea might be exciting, but is it one that will interest readers, too? Put another way, will readers (or their parents) be fascinated enough to shell out money for this?
3) Is this book a standout in the market place?
Bookshelves are crammed with titles all vying for attention. What is special about this one? What distinguishes it from its competitors? Does it have an unusual take on a subject? Does it venture into uncharted territory? Is there something different about the author’s approach – a vibrant writing style for example, or a twisted sense of humor that kids will love?
4) Does this book have market-tie-ins?
As an editor pitching a product, I know that profit margins matter to the acquisitions department who will screen the book proposals I champion, and this is especially true for non-fiction. Will this book sell well in regular mass market outlets? Does it have school curriculum connections? Does it tie into an upcoming event that will help propel sales much like the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy did in 2012?
5) Is this book a proper fit for this publishing firm?
Like other publishing firms, yours is casting its net into future waters, looking for material that will be released in one, two or more years. Do the topic and its approach match your firm’s publishing mandate? Does it deal with a topic the firm hasn’t broached before? Is it compatible with the firm’s objectives? With its ethics?
6) Is this author a proper fit for this publishing house?
What does this writer bring to the table? Why should we commission this person to write this book for us? Does he or she have specialized knowledge or skills, connections that will increase sales, a proven track record for reputable work, ideas that might lead to future books?
As a busy editor, you are grateful to writers who offer concise proposals that clearly address all of these questions. The truth is that editors like you shouldn’t have to go hunting for the answers. They should be evident in the proposal. And this is why winning proposals often follow a well-honed format and contain common elements such as these:
- An enticing hook or opening that grabs interest while at the same time clarifying scope and slant of the material
- A title that ‘tells and sells’
- The book’s intended market
- An explanation of why someone would want to buy the book
- A review of the competition
- Information about the author
- Resources and sources the author will need or use
- An outline of the book’s contents
- A sample chapter or two
There are other elements that non-fiction writers can include, and for guidance here are two books that I can recommend:Back in the day when I was struggling to get my first book published, an earlier version of Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal pointed me in the right direction. The revised version is even more comprehensive than the one I used then, and it offers up-to-date information on the entire process of getting a book published, from initial idea to query to proposal to contract negotiations and beyond. Concise, clear, comprehensive – highly recommended.
Author 101 Bestselling Book Proposals: The Insider’s Guide to Selling Your Work covers much the same ground as Larsen’s, but also offers insider tips from editors, agents, publishers and others in the industry. A valuable tool for anyone wanting to know what goes on behind-the-scenes and how to navigate through the system.
For more about adding zing to your proposal, check out Batting 1000 With Kid’s Non-fiction: 3 .