or, Book Proposal 101
A few days ago, I
received an e-mail from a person who is uncomfortable being called a
"writer," but who feels compelled to write and share a very personal
story. The e-mail briefly outlined the situation and the person's
involvement in the story. It then asked my advice on the viability of
this non-writer undertaking such a project.
of letters are not uncommon. I routinely get several e-mails a month
from "non-writers" who want my opinion on whether or not a project that
they are crazy about has merit.
(Book industry joke: Q: How does a book get published?
A: Someone forgets to say "no.")
On the other hand, my advice is rarely full of warm fuzzies, either. Here, in a nutshell, is the gist of what I suggest...
firmly believe that the most important thing for any book, movie, or
other undertaking is a passion to see it through to completion. That
must drive every project. With it, every project has a chance of
success. Without it, every project -- no matter how valid or potentially
interesting -- is doomed.
If you hope to write a
successful book or screenplay, you must have a real passion for it. If
it is a non-fiction project, you must want to share your experience with
others in the hope that you can benefit those who identify with you and
who share your experiences. If you have such a passion, then I would
encourage you to follow this project through. (If not, drop it. Now.)
The only thing that makes a person a "writer" is that
the person writes. You don't need to be a fast typist or an eloquent
speaker. If you have a great story to tell, you owe it to people who
could benefit from that story to tell it.
Some advice on the writing aspect of producing a non-fiction book:
what you want to say. Since your story is true, it will have a very
personal feel to it. Decide how closely you will adhere to the truth and
where you wish to change names, dates, places, times, or anything else
you feel the need to change in order to protect your privacy or the
privacy of those you love.
As you develop this project,
keep in mind your reasons for writing it in the first place. Articulate
these. Keep them before you as the project progresses. They will help
keep you focused and on track.
One of your first
priorities is to construct a working outline. Don't let this scare you.
Jot down 10 to 15 topics that you want to talk about in your project.
Underneath each topic, make a list of the things you'd like to discuss
about it. Each of these, then, will become a chapter. Your outline will
become your working Table of Contents.
Then, write a
short paragraph explaining what each of the other chapters would be
like. Explain what their contents would be, giving examples where
When those two steps are done, you have the
beginnings of a book proposal. You’ll have outlined the entire project
AND you will have written one complete chapter.
next step in the process is essentially writing up a marketing plan to
show the publisher, editor and / or agent how timely, viable, and
salable your book is. Again – don’t let this scare you. You can finish
it in a day, but it’s not the place to begin… Don't do this until you
have proven to yourself that you really do have something to say about
this subject, and that you can make yourself write at least one chapter
-- a good one -- that is worthy of publication.
Now, some comments on marketing -- the other half of the book business:
can sell a non-fiction book on the proposal. The book does not have to
be completed before it is sold. As you develop the project, however,
bear in mind that the thing publishers really look for is a platform.
They want to know how an author is going to get the word out about a
book, and how the author can help drive sales. (Publishing is a
business. It’s all about the bottom line.)
you write a book just by yourself, no matter how good it is, you will
need help getting the word out. But if you have a well-known speaker,
or national organization, or advocate for your topic in your corner who
will gladly tell the world about how wonderful and important your book
is, publishers will sit up and take notice.
list of people who might give you a written endorsement (those blurbs on
the covers of books only get there because someone asked someone else
to write them). Start another list of people who you wish would give
you a written endorsement. Start educating yourself about the realities
of the publishing industry. The more familiar you are with it, the
less likely you are to be intimidated by it or to be taken advantage of
by unscrupulous predators.
In my experience, people are
often amazed about how involved they need to be in the business and
marketing aspects of their books. Those who are aware of the need for a
platform early in their projects often have a leg up on those who have
drafted a manuscript and then find themselves swimming in a sea of "Now
In short, I tell writers (and non-writers with
good ideas) that if you have a great idea, you owe it to that idea to
give it an audience. That means educating yourself about both the craft
of writing and the business of marketing. Then, act on that knowledge
and make it happen!