I see a lot of non-fiction book proposals that are based on wishful thinking about whether the project is publishable. If writers asked some basic questions before beginning the process, they would save themselves a lot of time and grief. They would either refine their concept into one that is attractive as a commercial publishing venture, or they would realize that the idea is ill-conceived. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself.
1. How many books am I trying to write? You have no idea how often I speak to prospective authors who can’t decide which of their many fabulous ideas they want to write about. So they try to shoehorn all of them into a single book. I see short descriptions in proposals such as : “This book is a self-help book about curing back pain with elements of a memoir included.” My advice. Save the memoir for the next book. I always sense a problem when the proposal announces that the project “crosses genres.” Yes, there are some cross-genre books, but more often the author is just being lazy and is unwilling to choose what genre she really wants to write in. Publishers say they are looking for “fresh new approaches”, but if the approach is too fresh and too new, if the publisher can’t figure out what the book is about, if the bookseller can’t visualize what section the book will be shelved in, then they’ll just take pass on it. I know. I bought books at Cody’s for 30 years. When I couldn’t figure out where I’d shelve a book, I tended not to order it.
2. Is this a blog, not a book? Is this a long form article, not a book? I get a lot of rejection letters from publishers because of these concerns. A lot of us are blogging and we’d like to take our precious material and put it all together into something that will make us some money. There’s also the added benefit that the hard work has already been done, and it just needs a little slicing and dicing. Publishers don’t want books derived from blogs. Why would readers pay for stuff that is already available for free online? The question about whether the subject works better as a shorter journalistic piece is a little more complicated. But if your manuscript is less than 50,000 words, it probably is too short for a book. With e-books, publishers are exploring new formats and are doing projects with shorter word counts.
3. Who are my readers and what do they care about? A lot of writers don’t ask this question, but it is the single most important question that needs to be addressed in an effective book proposal. In the world of commercial publishing, the reader is sovereign. I once tried to sell a self-help book about how to deal with a variety of office injuries, written by an author with very good bona fides. It got rejected. Editors pointed out that readers who have back pain don’t really care about how to treat repetitive stress syndrome. The reader is selfish and self-absorbed. She wants you to speak to her concerns. That’s why she paid good money to read your book.
4. If there are no other books on this subject, is there possibly a reason for that? Most authors think that a great pitch is: “there are no other books out there like mine.” For publishers, this begs the question of “why aren’t there any?” And the answer for them is usually that there is no audience big enough to justify publishing on this subject. What publishers really want is a book on a subject that has been written about in other very successful books. But you need to prove that you have something special that will make this robust audience spend money to read what you have new to say.
5. How different is my book, really, from all the others on the subject? You need to ask yourself if the things which distinguish your book from all the others really make a difference to the reader. And this is important. You may have come up with an astoundingly original interpretation of Jefferson’s role in the expansion of the young American republic. And it may have led to much bloviation and vitriole amongst the Jefferson scholars at the convention of the American Historical Association. Publishers aren’t so subtle. Their evaluation of the proposal will probably begin and end with: “Sorry. We don’t need another book about Jefferson.” Or maybe something like: “Sorry. Barnes and Noble didn’t order our last book on Jefferson.”
6. Do I have “platform?” We have written at length about platform in this blog, because publishers are obsessed with platform in our media-driven age. In non-fiction genres, platform is very, very important. And publishers’ idea of platform is probably different from yours. I often tell audiences that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser (the latter is vastly preferable). Being a local tv personality with an audience of 500,000 viewers is not impressive platform. It’s “regional” unless your audience is in Manhattan. Then it’s national. Winning the Pulitzer Prize is good platform if your project is about the subject you won the prize for (and if it isn’t regional). A blog with 5000 views a month isn’t platform. A blog with 50,000 views a month also isn’t platform. Get the picture? Celebrities operate by their own rules. Nobel Laureates, presidential candidates, and Lindsey Lohan can write any nonsense they choose.
7. Wouldn’t this book make [a great profile in The New Yorker? ] [a great movie?] [a great subject for Oprah?] The answer is easy. “Maybe, maybe not. It probably won’t happen anyway, so stop dreaming and get realistic.”