Posts Tagged ‘book proposals’

Questions to Ask Before Starting to Write Your Book

January 11, 2013

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.”


Gayatri Patnaik of Beacon Press Speaks About Publishing Books on Progressive Politics

August 19, 2010

Today we are going to interview Gayatri Patnaik, executive editor of Beacon Press. Gayatri  and Beacon publish books on social issues from a progressive perspective.  Recently Gayatri  became the editor for The King Legacy series. In May 2009 Beacon Press became the exclusive publisher for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work which gives them the right to print new editions of previously published King titles and also to compile Dr. King’s writings, sermons, orations, lectures and prayers into entirely new editions.  What an honor that must be!

 Beacon was founded in 1854 making it  one of the oldest publishers in America. From its earliest mission to publish and distribute books that would “explain and defend Unitarian thought and promote…more reasonable thinking,”  to the full flowering of its contemporary commitment to publish intelligent, eloquent answers to the pressing questions of the day, Beacon has been making publishing and intellectual history for decades.  One reason that Beacon Press has always been one of my favorite publishers is that it is independent and seems to march to the beat of a different drummer. During the years I owned Cody’s, I always felt an affinity with the Press. It seemed that we had a very similar sensibility.

Andy:  Gayatri, welcome to Ask the Agent. I teach a lot of classes about writing good  book proposals. I think it would be helpful if authors had a better sense of how editors think and what they are looking for in a proposal. Can you tell us?

Gayatri: In a book proposal, I’m looking for intelligent and informed-but accessible-writing. I’m also looking for writers who have a platform and a real commitment to being part of the book selling process. The truth is that every publishing house now needs active and engaged authors; and if I feel that a prospective author doesn’t have that kind of action-oriented mentality, I’ll probably pass on the book.


 Andy: How many proposals do you receive every week?

Gayatri: The number of proposals we receive vary but, including unsolicited material, we must receive 150 or so submissions a week.

Andy: Beacon has always focused on books about American society, politics, and culture. Are there any trends you discern? How has your publishing program changed over the years to reflect changing social concerns? And what sorts of subjects are you focusing on now?

Gayatri: Andy, as you know, Beacon has always been on the forefront of various issues, particularly related to race, class, gender and sexuality. In my time at Beacon, which is eight years now, I’ve seen us develop strong lists in education as well as the environment, both of which certainly reflect changing public concerns. One of the lists I’ve focused on in the last years are books on immigration, an issue I imagine will be deeply relevant for years to come. I’m also very interested in signing smart books on contemporary phenomena ranging from porn to the rural brain drain to gambling.

Andy: I first became aware of Beacon Press, because you published a book by one of my professors at Brandeis: One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. It was a book that had enormous importance in its time. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that it influenced the thought of an entire generation of political activists. But it was written in an impenetrable Germanic  academic style. I’m wondering if you were presented with that book today, would you publish it? Do you think it could find a home with any trade publisher?

Gayatri: Andy, great question! I’m imagining us debating whether to sign this book at a meeting and if I didn’t advocate for it, I’m hoping that one of my brilliant colleagues would insist on it!…but, honestly, who knows? As you note, it’s not the most accessible book. And while a university press might pick it up, I’m not sure I imagine many trade publishers being interested. When I asked my colleague, Amy Caldwell, about this, she had a very interesting response. She said that part of the issue is that readerships change and there are intellectual fashions.  She reminded us that there was a time during the 80s when money was made on the even more impenetrable prose of Derrida (though not by Beacon), and she doesn’t think academic presses are able to publish many books like that anymore, at least, with the expectation of making money on them.  And, of course, there may be a smaller readership for difficult works these days as well.

Andy: It seems to me that the publishing business is obsessed with blockbusters. I don’t think this is new. I know I have been talking about this for 30 years. But it seems to be getting worse all the time. As a publisher of books that probably won’t sell in the millions, are you concerned about this? Or do you feel that there is plenty of room for books like yours?

Gayatri: While I occasionally feel dismayed by the content of the blockbusters, I can’t say I worry about it too much vis a vis our books. I’m convinced there’ll always be room for the smart, relevant, and intellectually important and social justice oriented books we do.

Andy: I suppose since everyone in publishing thinks of nothing else, I should ask you about e-books. How do you think e-books are going to change our literary culture? Or are we going to have the same kinds of books, just a different delivery system?

Gayatri: This is really a question for our Director of Sales & Marketing, Tom Hallock! I’m reading, as I’m sure you are, predictions that e-books will eventually constitute 25% or more of book sales. Our sales at Beacon are currently a fraction of that, but growing, and we’re all curious to see where we end up. But to answer your question, I think it’s impossible to predict how e-books will influence the literary culture.  I’ll be very interested to see how Pete Hamill’s e-book will do. His book, They Are Us, will be published in the fall by Little, Brown & Co., and it’ll skip print and go straight to e-book.

  Andy: And finally, can you tell us about a few of your books that are in the pipeline that you are particularly excited about?

 Gayatri: Sure! I’m very excited about a book in The King Legacy which is called “All Labor Has Dignity.” It’s edited by activist and historian Michael Honey and will be published in mid-January, in time for Dr. King’s birthday. This is the first original book in the King series, which means it’s not a reprint but a book we actually created from the archives. And it focuses on an area that people don’t always associate with King: labor rights and economic justice. The reason I’m excited is that people forget, or perhaps never completely knew, that Dr. King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation

Another book which I think will be of great interest to many readers is When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years by journalist and former PC volunteer Stanley Meisler. Andy, as we know, since its inauguration, the Peace Corps has been an American emblem for world peace and friendship and did you know there are 200,000 former volunteers (including many high profile ones? Paul Theroux, Chris Dodd, Donna Shalala, Bill Moyers, etc.) Anyway, few Americans realize that through the past nine presidential administrations, the Corps has sometimes tilted its agenda to meet the demands of the White House. In this book, Meisler discloses, for instance, how Lyndon Johnson became furious when volunteers opposed his invasion of the Dominican Republic; how Nixon tried to destroy it and how Reagan tried to make it an instrument of foreign policy. It’s fascinating—and important!