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April 03, 2013

  • The business of writing book proposals
  • A question I get a lot from future or would-be authors is “How do you propose a book to a publisher?” Now when it comes to fiction, I have no idea. As near as I can tell the answer to that is: “submit your manuscript, get rejected, rinse, repeat, revise until someone says yes, if ever.”

    With non-fiction though, it’s a more interesting process. Whereas with fiction you need to have a completed manuscript (or at least some killer sample chapters) to sell the book, with non-fiction you can get away with a little more. You can often simply submit just a proposal; some will require some sample chapters, but fewer in my experience.

    In the case of Robert and my work in non-fiction writing, we have day jobs which require us to know how to write a proposal (Robert’s an academic who has to apply for grants; I work for a non-profit and often do fundraising writing), so we just try to describe in vivid terms the context, the basic idea, the basic outline for the book and some marketing ideas.

    The other thing we try to realize when we pitch a book is this: publishing is a business.

    You’d be amazed the number of people who don’t get this. People who think that a proposal is “Well I’m kind of interested in cabbages so I want to write 140,000 words on cabbages. Give me the money to write my book about cabbages” That’s not how it works.

    No one is in the publishing business as a hobby. And if they are, they should get out now. There are all sorts of business elements to publishing I dreamed of as a writer, ranging from making the book shorter so money can be made in foreign markets (they’re more apt to translate a work if it’s shorter) to coming up with a cover that major book chains will buy the book to having the product the right trim size so shipping it is easier.

    A publisher will sink thousands of dollars into a book before it goes to market: paying the author (and they bloody well should), paying the editor, paying a designer, paying a cover artist, paying people to market the book. Even if one person does many of these tasks (as often happens with small presses) there’s still a major outlay of cash. The question before any author writing a proposal should be: what is it about this book that is going to make a publisher risk several thousands of dollars to produce this book?

    If the best you can do is “I want to write a book about cabbages” don’t even bother.

    A proposal for a non-fiction book is a business proposal albeit a creative one. You’re basically giving a business case why they should publish your book.

    A proposal should be like the back cover copy of the book, only a bit longer: it needs to articulate what it’s about, where it will go and why it’s unique in a crowded market. (And if you can—this was an innovation of my editor Jen Hale—state how you can help market the book). All this should make visualizing what the end product will be like easy for the reader.

    There needs to be a simple distillation of what the book is about. With Who is the Doctor, Robert and I said, “This book is an episode guide of Doctor Who that’s fun.” With Outside In, Robert’s pitch to ATB Publshing was “This is not your father’s collection of Doctor Who reviews”. Who’s 50 was “What Classic Doctor Who stories should I watch if I’ve never seen it before?” All of them had a unique selling point articulated as part of the pitch.

    Everything has to be conveyed in a way that grabs the reader. I remember 10 years ago I showed a friend who was a former senior editor for McClelland and Stewart (and now teaches publishing at Humber College) a proposal for a book I wanted to write on Canadian TV (it never went anywhere both then and when I revived it 7 years later; some topics are just death for publishers). She took all my stately prose and rewrote it into something far better that began with “Did you know: One of the most watched Canadian TV series globally is… The Littlest Hobo?”  My friend was right. And while my proposal never went anywhere I did get feedback that my proposal did get read.

    Unless you want to self-publish (and I don’t honestly recommend that), you need to abide by the rules of business to get a book published. Chief among them is making any potential investor feel like you’re going to be something they can get a return on their investment.

    Basically, what I’m saying is… yeah, it’s a bit like Dragons’ Den. Good luck with that.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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