To maximise your chance of getting published, submit your proposal to publishers in a way that is useful and acceptable to them.
Editors have huge piles of unsolicited proposals (the slush pile) to plough through. It's not a glamorous job and they soon slip into trigger-happy rejection mode. Unless well targeted and professionally presented, your proposal is unlikely to get more than a one-second glance before it hits the bin.
Here are some guidelines on presentation (for advice on the fundamentals of getting your book published, check out the 'Will I ever get published' FAQ).
Your target publishers and agents may also have their own submission guidelines (usually posted on their website, eg, www.whiteladderpress.co.uk and www.curtisbrown.co.uk). Also see 'Will I ever get published' FAQ.
Know Your Market
Your proposal needs to illustrate that you understand your market as well as how to access it.
Resist the temptation to airbrush competing books from your proposal. Ignoring your competitors might get you past the slush-pile editor but perceived rivals will be raised during the acquisition process, at the cost of making your would-be commissioning editor lose face. Being upfront now will show confidence.
To begin with, visit a couple of bookshops to get a feel for the way authors in your sector have presented their books. Things to note are:
- format (eg, hardback or paperback, size and shape)
- extent (number of pages)
- illustrations, diagrams and graphics (for non-fiction).
Ask the bookseller (in a quiet moment – never around lunchtime or at weekends) about other books in your area – then incorporate into your proposal why your book is not a ‘me-too’.
- Word-process on A4 plain white paper, one side only. Use a reasonable quality paper (eg 80gsm).
- Type sample chapters in double spacing.
- Leave wide enough margins (top, bottom, left and right) for an editor to make notes.
- Number each page (nothing more infuriating than an editor dropping your proposal and having to put it together again).
- Include your contact details on more than one page.
- Before printing, check spelling and consistency (eg, use capitals, hyphens, headings in the same way throughout). NB Spell checks are not infallible –
use a dictionary if you’re not sure.
- Avoid staples (an editor may want to photocopy your proposal).
- Do not fold your proposal in half – for the same reason.
- If you would like your proposal returned, enclose a SAE – otherwise it will be filed in the bin.
Keep a copy in any case.
If your target publishers do not have their own submission guidelines, here is a checklist.
Covering Letter return to checklist
Address this to the commissioning editor of the relevant imprint or list. NB Always address the editor by name, never as 'Dear Editor'. Keep it short - one page max.
Summary return to checklist
- Remember the one-second barrier. Your summary must enthuse an overworked/cynical/stale/risk-averse commissioning editor to read on.
- Be clear about what you want to communicate, make each word count and be ruthless about pruning adjectives – 'this fascinating, ground-breaking book' will have editors reaching for the bin.
- Include the 'Who, What, Where, Why, When, How' (WHO the book is aimed at, WHAT it’s about, WHERE it fits into the marketplace, WHY it is different from other books, WHEN would be a good time to publish and HOW it stands out from the rest).
- Address the key question: ‘Does it fit into your target publisher's or agent's list?'
Contents return to checklist
Applies to non-fiction books and is simply a numbered list of chapters and any other material (eg, appendices, index).
About the Author return to checklist
Not a CV but a one-page narrative, tailored to the target audience. Remember to include:
- brief biographical details such as age, education/career, where you live, whether you are married and have children, your hobbies or interests,
- writing experience, including any previous books, regular slots in newspapers, magazines and/or websites, and any awards,
- any media experience, such as radio, television or speaker events,
- a quirky fact or two, and,
- a photograph.
Target Market return to checklist
Your assessment of your target market and how to reach it. Include as much supporting ammunition as necessary, eg:
- photocopies of previous reviews,
- an endorsement by a well-known figure, and
- statistics or articles on the growing market for your book.
Sample Chapters return to checklist
A couple of sample chapters will do. If non-fiction, the chapters do not need to be sequential but should include all the elements that are to appear in the book (eg, quotes, tables).
Sample Illustrations return to checklist
Include photocopies of sample illustrations, photographs, diagrams, charts, etc and if possible, who holds the copyright.
Copyright/Permissions return to checklist
Include a note of any copyright/permission issues
(for both quotes and illustrations). Your prospective publisher needs to be aware of potential problems and possible costs.
Wordcount return to checklist
Include an estimated word count. Remember that some genres will have conventions as to minimum/maximum word counts.
Delivery Date return to checklist
This is the date by which you promise to deliver the finished manuscript to the publisher. Be realistic and build in enough revision time. Late delivery causes irritation all round.
Marketing return to checklist
This section is designed to reduce your publisher’s perception of risk. Throughout your proposal you will need to present yourself as an enthusiastic, professional, marketing-orientated author. A few concrete facts would also help. Factors that will help a commissioning editor in the context of the gladiatorial atmosphere of an acquisition meeting include:
- a note of the size of the market and customer profile/s,
- whether there are any non-traditional outlets to add to the usual sales channels,
- the existence of distinct consumer groups,
- sales figures of previous books, reviews, prizes or awards,
- relevant contacts who might endorse the book,
- US/translations/book club/serial rights potential – anything to spread the financial risk,
- your own blog, and,
- societies that might give grants,
- how you might support the book (eg, buying copies to sell at talks or events),
- societies or organisations that might promote the book,
- regular slots in newspapers, magazines, radio or online where you could run extracts or give yourself a plug.
After revamping your proposal, go through it a final time to weed out any errors of repetition, consistency, spelling and grammar. The Plain English Campaign website offers free advice in the form of downloadable pdfs on topics such as 'How to write in plain English', 'A-Z of alternative words' and 'Ten tips for proofreading'. We Recommend includes details of useful short reference books including OUP's 'onestepahead' series, with titles such as Spelling, Punctuation and Editing and Revising Text – all £6.99.
More hefty reference books include:
- Oxford Style Manual (OUP, £25.00, ISBN 0-19-860564-1). This combines in one volume the Oxford Guide to Style (based on the much-loved Hart's Rules) and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The former deals with conventions of setting text (a useful tool for self-publishers) as well as those relating to punctuation, numbers, use of italic, bibliographies and citations. The latter lists in A-Z format the accepted forms of words and phrases and conventions of capitalisation and hyphenation (eg, 'wellingtons not Wellingtons', 'ad nauseam not ad nauseum', phone-in not phone in).
- Cambridge Guide to English Usage (CUP, £25.00, ISBN 0-52-162181-X).
By this stage your eyes will be glazing over so, as a final precaution, ask a couple of friends to give your proposal a read-through. Now you are ready to send it off. DON’T FORGET TO KEEP A COPY.