Let's say you have a great idea for a nonfiction book. Your wife thinks it's a great idea. Your parents think it's a great idea. Even your neighbor who hates to read thinks it's a great idea.
But will a publisher think it's a great idea -- like it enough to pay you an advance commission for you to write it, and then publish and sell it?
Everything will depend largely on your book proposal. Here's where you want to demonstrate persuasively that your idea has merit. Of course, even a solid idea and a great book proposal can't guarantee success, but they surely can tip the odds heavily in your favor. But if either the idea or the proposal is weak, your chances of a sale are can drop all the way to somewhere between slim to none.
It's no secret what book editors look for when reviewing book ideas and proposals. You'll improve your chances of winning a publisher's contract by testing your book proposal against the five key questions editors ask. Let's look at those questions and the best ways to answer them.
Writer's Digest correspondent Robert W. Bly is the author of hundreds of articles
and more than 40 books. His newest title is Getting Your Book Published: Inside
Secrets of a Successful Author (Roblin Press).
Is there a large enough audience interested in this topic to justify publishing the book?
The major New York publishing houses aren't interested in highly specialized books written for small, narrow interest audiences. If you want to write the definitive work on LAN/WAN internet working, for example, seek out a publisher of technical books.
A book aimed at a major publisher must appeal to an audience of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. To sell your idea to the editor, you must demonstrate that such an audience exists. In our proposal for How to Promote Your Own Business (accepted and published by New American Library), Gary Blake and I cited statistics showing there are more than 10 million small businesses in the US and 250,000 new businesses started each year.
One excellent source of market data is Standard Rate and Data Service (SRDS), a book listing US magazines that accept advertising and their circulations. SRDS is available at your local library or from the publisher (tel. 847/375-5000). If you're proposing a book on freelance writing, for example, you could look up writers' magazines and find that the two largest publications in the field have a combined circulation of more than 300,000; this is the potential market for your book.
But only a small percentage of the intended audience will actually buy your book. And a major publisher hopes to sell at least 5,000 copies of your book. So if you're writing a book that appeals only to the 44,171 branch managers working at banks nationwide (say, How to Manage Your Branch More Efficiently), and 2% can be persuaded to buy the book, you've sold only 883 copies not nearly enough to make the project worthwhile for either you or a publisher.
Is this a book or a magazine article?
At the onset of the 1991 recession, I came up with an idea for a book I thought would be a strong seller Recession Proof Business Strategies: Winning Methods to Sell Any Product or Service in a Down Economy. It was timely. It had strong media appeal. And it contained vital information readers desperately needed.
But, as my agent pointed out, there were two problems with the book. First, its timely nature. From conception to bookstore, it can take 18 months to two years to write and publish a book. If the recession was over by the time Recession Proof Business Strategies came out, the book would bomb.
The average nonfiction book is about 200 pages in typeset, published form, with approximately 400 words a page.
That's 80,000 words; about 320 double-spaced typewritten manuscript pages.
Your book might be longer or shorter, ranging from 35,000 words (a slim, 100 page volume) to 200,000 words or more.
Trouble was, when I finished writing everything I knew about recession proof business strategies, I had 5,000 words--too short for a book, too long for an article. The solution? I self published Recession Proof Business Strategies as a $7 booklet and sold several thousand copies. So a booklet not a book was the right vehicle for this material.
Many book ideas seem strong initially,
|A full-length nonfiction book typically has 8-15 chapters. If your outline has fewer, the publisher may think there's not enough information to fill a book on your topic. Shoot for an outline with at least nine chapters.
On index cards, organize all your research material by chapter. Then add the most important or interesting items as bullet points in your chapter outline to create a complete table of contents for your proposed book. Here's how my co-author and I described Chapter 15 in our proposal for How to Promote Your Own Business:
This type of detailed table of contents proves to the publisher that your topic is appropriate for a book, not just a magazine article.
What's different or better-about your book?
The first page or two of your book proposal must contain an overview of your idea. This describes what the book is about who its written for and what's in it.
Your overview must also tell the editor why and how your book is unique, different or better than other books already published on this topic. And you must do this within the first two paragraphs (if you don't, the editor probably won't read further).
The hook -the angle that makes your book different- can take many forms: It might be a slant toward a different audience, a better way of organizing the material, or inclusion of topics not covered in other books. The key is to make your book seem both different and better.
For instance, if the other books aren't illustrated, say that your book will be-and explain why thats important. If the other books are lengthy, promise to write a more concise book. If the other books are incomplete, describe the topics they omit-and tell how you'll cover them in your book.
When planning How to Promote Your Own Business, my co-author and I hoped to write a book on advertising that would appeal to small business owners rather than advertising agencies, PR firms and other advertising professionals. We used this as our hook; our proposal began:
We wrote a previous book, Technical Writing. Structure, Standards and Style, because we believed the existing technical writing books were too lengthy and dull to be suitable as references for working technical writers. We wanted to create a handbook for technical writers that emulated the concise, to-the-point style and format of The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White's popular style guide for general writers.
Our proposal called our book "the Strunk and White of technical writing," which instantly communicated the key appeal of the concept. Our agent sold the book-within three weeks-to the first publisher who looked at it. Interestingly, McGraw-Hill also used the phrase "the Strunk and White of technical writing" in publicity and promotional materials describing the book.
Another section of your proposal that positions your book in relation to others on the same subject is the "Competition" section. Here you list and describe competing books; each listing should emphasize how your book is both different and better. Here is an example from our How to Promote Your Own Business proposal:
|Include in the "Competition" section those books that cover the same-or very similar-topics as your book; that are published by a major publishing house; and that are no more than five years old.|
|How many books you list in this section will be important. 'The presence of two to six competitive books shows there's a market for this type of book, while still room for one more. On the other hand, if there are seven or more books a publisher may think the field is overcrowded, and you'll probably have a difficult time making the sale.|
Will people pay $22.95 for this book?
The average hardcover nonfiction book sells for $22.95 or more; the average trade paperback for $12.95. Your book must be interesting or valuable enough to make readers part not only with their money (remember, they can always read your book for free at the library), but with their time as well (many people would rather watch TV, go to the movies or nap than read a book).
When it comes to nonfiction, readers typically buy books to learn something, for reference or to be entertained.
A how-to or reference book proposal should stress the benefits readers will get when they buy the book. Will it help them save time and money? Make money? Look beautiful? Feel young? live longer? If your book will make readers' fives better and easier, say so. In our proposal for How to Promote Your Own Business, we said:
If your book is biography, journalism, history, or any other form of nonfiction written primarily to entertain, your proposal should highlight some of the more fascinating details of the book. Your aim is to make the editor want to read the whole story.
Why should the publisher hire you to write it?
Your proposal must show why you're uniquely qualified to write the book. Such qualifications fall into two categories: writing credentials and expert credentials.
Writing credentials establish your expertise as an author. In an "About the Author" section of your book proposal, write a brief biographical sketch of yourself, being sure to include such information as:
Expert credentials establish your position as an authority in the topic of your proposed book.
Actually, you don't have to be much of an expert. The trick is to make yourself seem like an expert to the publisher.
For instance, author Wilbur Perry wanted to write about mail order. To make himself more appealing as a potential author for a book on the subject he started and operated a small part-time mail-order business from his home. This gave him the credentials he needed to convince John Wiley & Sons to publish two books by him on the topic.
In my experience, your expert credentials don't need to be in-depth. Editors understand you can research the topic, and they don't require you to know everything about it before buying your book. They just want to convince their editorial board-and buyers-that you know what you're talking about.
Of course, having a published book to your credit is one credential that always impresses publishers. And that's a credential I'm sure you'll soon have if you follow the five key points covered in this article.
|Writer's Digest correspondent Robert W. Bly is the author of hundreds of articles and more than 40 books. His newest title is Getting Your Book Published: Inside Secrets of a Successful Author (Roblin Press).|
A successful book proposal contains these sections:
A cover sheet. The book's title and the name of the author are
centered in the middle of the page. In the upper left corner, type
Book Proposal. In the bottom right, type your name, address and
phone number (or, if you have one, your agent's).
Summarize what your book is about: the topic, who will read it,
why its important or interesting to your intended audience, and
what makes your book different from others in the field.
Specify approximate word length, number of chapters, types of
illustrations or graphics to be included, and any unique organizational
schemes or formats (for example, is your book divided into major
sections or do you use sidebars?)
Tell the editor who will buy your book, how many of these people
exist, and why they need it or will want to read it. Use statistics to
dramatize the size of the market. For example, if your book is about
infertility, mention that one in six couples in the US is infertile.
Is your book a natural for talk radio or Oprah (be realistic)? Can it
be promoted through seminars or speeches to associations and clubs?
Give the publisher some of your ideas on how the book can be marketed.
(Note: Phrase these as suggestions, not demands. The publisher will be
interested in your ideas but probably won't use most of them.)
List books that compare with yours. Include the title, author, publisher,
year of publication, number of pages, price, and format (hardcover,
trade paperback or mass market paperback). Describe each book
briefly, pointing out weaknesses and areas in which your book is
different and superior.
A brief biography listing your writing credentials (books and articles
published), qualifications to write about the book's topic (for instance,
for a book on popular psychology, it helps if you're a therapist), and
your media experience (previous appearances on TV and radio).
Table of Contents/Outline
A chapter-by-chapter outline showing the contents of your proposed book.
Many editors tell me that a detailed, well thought-out table of contents in a
proposal helps sway them in favor of a book.
Copywriter, Consultant and Seminar Leader
|The first book by Bob Bly that I read was Secrets of a Freelance Writer. How to Make $85,000 a Year from Henry Holt & Co.. I don't know how many years I've had the book, but I do know I will not part with it for love nor money.|
|One of Bob's important articles for Writer's Digest was "Big Bucks in Business Writing: The Direct Route to High-Paying Writing Assignments" way back in the February '90 WD (which is not out of print yet and can be had for $2.75 sent to Back Issues, WD, 1507 Dana Ave., Cincinnati 45207).|
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