Building a chair

The process for publishing fiction versus non-fiction could not be more different. A fiction writer puts it all down, complete, and then goes to prospective publishers (of course changes and editing follow). Genre fiction is a little more rote, but by and large there is not much to stop you from writing your masterpiece just as you see fit and then shopping it around.

I found to my dismay that non-fiction was much different. That, in fact, you could sketch out and scaffold a non-fiction work idea and shop your book proposal around while you were still working on that book. Indeed, you could just make book proposals and proceed only when you are green-lighted. This is not what happened to me. After four years of work, I was determined to get it published, even if I had to do it myself. It took me so long to sell my book that by the time I did, it was finished (with lots and lots of edits and corrections in the offing).

The job of selling, as important, and sometimes seemingly more important than writing the book itself, is to make your book idea irresistible. You have to think about what need the book fills, and who it is written for. Then you have to make your case to a long list publishers until you strike gold. Much was made of J.K. Rowlings’ initial 12 rejections; I sent my material out to 100 publishers. 100. Know which one got my book published? The hundredth. You just have to hunker down and sell, sell, sell.

This is a very unappetizing part of the business, especially considering writers are retiring, easily irritated, and like to be left alone at their keyboards, thrashing things out. However, you must embrace it or you won’t get published. Suck it up.

There are many components to a book proposal, and those components change from publisher to publisher. The writer has to hand-craft a proposal tailor-made to fit the needs of each publisher contacted. It’s like applying for a job, over and over. This takes a great deal of time and thought, but if you’re crazy and/or determined enough, it’s worth it.

Here are the components I prepared for my proposal. I used one, some, or all of them in each individual mailing to publishers, based on what they stated they needed from a writer. I used the good old Writers’ Market to find publishers that might take interest in my idea, then went to their web sites and figured out what they wanted a proposal to look like.

Competing titles – probably the most time-intensive part of the project. It should be the first thing you do. It is incumbent on the non-fiction writer to look at all the other books concerned with their specific subject matter. This means combing through libraries, book shops, and online sources to see if there are any titles that could conceivably rival yours. Has someone already filled the need for your book? A list of competing titles lists the competing works, summarizes them briefly, then lays out how your book is superior to them.

Cover letter – self-explanatory.

Overview and rationale – what’s your book about? Why should it be published? Who’s it for? It’s an extended elevator pitch that does not need to be longer than a page.

Unique sales angle – what factor or factors will make your book easier to sell? I wrote my book so that it would work for the curious reader, but for libraries and for educational institutions as well. I think it was in part the demonstration of such thinking helped me land a contract with a respected academic publisher.

Marketing plan – guess what, bubbe? The publisher is going to do what it does to sell your book, but it rightfully looks to you to do promotional work as well. That means contacting the media, book stores, libraries, places where interested readers might gather. That means doing interviews, writing promotional materials, staying on top of how to make it as easy as possible for people to buy your book. The days when publishers would do all the heavy promotional lifting are gone. You have to gird your loins and go out there and sell your work.

Table of contents – easy if you have your book mapped out. If not, it might be wise to develop a table of contents before proceeding.

Chapter summary – individual paragraphs that describe each chapter. It is very important to make these little synopses as tasty as possible!

Sample chapters – two are good. I used my first chapter, and my most compelling following chapter. If you are writing on spec, you can gin up a decent couple of chapters without writing the whole thing.

About the author – you have to brag about yourself. Yes, I know you’re uncomfortable with that, too bad. I wrote two “about the authors” – one three sentences long, and one almost a page in length, containing details about my life and work that might serve as good talking points for a potential interviewer.

I am building a one-page flyer that will contain some of all this material for use in sending out to the media. Of course, any additional promotional work requested by the publisher should be followed up on as well. But it’s really up to you. You are an artist, but you are also a craftsperson. You are building something useful, but you need to let people know about it as well.

Next time: the ecstasy of acceptance

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