With the relentless traffic of unsolicited proposals, editors are looking for an excuse to reject you.
DON’T GIVE THEM ONE.
Three things are important.
|First, target the right publishers or agents (see our FAQ How do I choose a publisher?).
|Second, prepare your proposal in a way to appeal to your target audience.
|Third, prepare your proposal professionally.
The third is the easiest thing to get right – but something which is often overlooked. The aim is to project the image of a rational, professional author. So no clever gimmicks, overselling or rose-festooned paper for a start.
|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, hypens, headings in the same way – do not chop and chagne) and not just by running the spellcheck.
|Don’t use staples (an editor may want to photocopy your proposal).
|Don’t fold your proposal in half – for the same reason.
|If you want your proposal returned, enclose a SAE – otherwise it is likely to be filed in the bin.
|Keep a copy in any case.
Know your market…Know your market…Know your market…
|A typical mistake made by new authors is to airbrush competing books from their proposal. Even if this approach gets you past the slush pile editor, the existence of competing books will be raised later in the acquisition process, at the cost of making your commissioning editor look stupid. Much better to be upfront.
Before submitting to a publisher, check out their website for guidelines. If in doubt, here is a fairly standard checklist.
|Covering letter – nb always address the editor by name, never as ‘Dear Editor’.
|Contents (if non-fiction).
|About the author.
|Marketing thoughts + photocopies of previous reviews or endorsements if you have them. General articles on the growing market for your type of book or equivalent are also useful.
|A couple of sample chapters. 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).
|If the book is to contain illustrations, include sample photocopies.
|A note of any copyright/permission issues.
|Approximate wordcount and the date by which you can deliver the manuscript to the publisher.
Spend time browsing in bookshop to get a feel for the way authors in your sector have presented their books. Price and format (eg hardback or paperback, size) are important, also the extent (page length) and if non-fiction, use of illustrations, diagrams and graphics.
Do any books jump out at you and which tell you to put them back on the shelf (as you can tell, we are great believers in ‘always judge a book by its cover’)
Ask the bookseller in a quiet moment (never around lunchtime) for the names of the bestselling books in your sector and incorporate into your proposal how your prospective book will differ. Why it’s not a ‘me-too’.
For Fiction Authors
Well, have revised this section recently after having working with the supposed poisoned chalice of authors – a FIRST-TIME AUTHOR. Moreover, this author (Sue Rann – Looking for Mr Nobody, published by No Exit Press) fell into the awkward category of a crossover book (AS Margaret Atwood does, except the dirty ‘SF’ word tends to be avoided by mainstream reviewers…). So, although still subscribe in theory to the notion of non-fiction author being more likely to secure a contract on proposal than a fiction author is, feel a little more optimistic here than I used to. Sue Rann shortly to add a paragraph of the ‘don’t give up yet’ variety.
Until then, what should a fiction author do (assuming no famous parents or the like)? First tip is to be assiduous in cutting your teeth on the many outlets spread across magazines and websites: Buzz, Cadenza, The New Writer etc are all receptive to new talent. And do check out the the guide to small presses listed in our ‘We Recommend’ section.
You also need to get into the habit of stepping outside yourself, and thinking like a publisher or agent. Unlike non-fiction, where you may have a built-in special interest group, fiction is much more complicated, and it is a non-starter to present yourself as a ‘brilliant debut novel’ or the like – booksellers and the press hear this at every turn. So treat fiction like non-fiction and find a means to differentiate yourself. If goldfish feature in your plot, contact the UK goldfish association, and so on. And THINK LOCAL – your county’s booksellers and press are likely to be more receptive than the more pampered national outlets. And they are often more fun to deal with…
Here are some further points to consider.
|The one-second barrier…Your summary has the job of enthusing an overworked/cynical/stale/risk-averse commissioning editor to read on. The ‘slush pile’ is not considered glamorous, so don’t make the job of rejection easier.
|Be clear about what you want to communicate, make each word count and be ruthless about pruning adjectives – ‘this fascinating, ground-breaking book’ etc (leave that to inexperienced publicists).
|Be sure to include the ‘Who, What, Where, Why, When, How’ – ie who the book is aimed at, what it is about, where it fits into the marketplace, why it is different from other books, when you believe would be a good time to publish and how it can be made to stand out from the rest.
|Address the key question: ‘Does it fit into the publisher’s list?’
|This page applies really to non-fiction books and is simply a numbered list of the book’s prospective chapters, together with any other material (eg appendices, index).
About the Author
As this section is often lifted for the cover/jacket author blurb it makes sense to refine your copy to project the image your readers will identify with. Above all, keep it relevant. Academic credentials may well be a deciding factor for readers of serious military history; but not for those of Smiths’ summer fiction selection.
A few standard categories include:
|Brief biographical details such as age, education/career, where you live, whether you are married and have children, your hobbies or interests.
|Anything relevant to the book – eg academic credentials, membership of a related society or organisation.
|Writing and/or media experience.
This section is all about reducing perceived risk. It encompasses size of the market, your extensive network of contacts, the fact that you are an enthusiastic, professional, marketing-orientated author. Here are some areas which will help alleviate the concerns of worried publishers…
|The size of the market and customer profile/s.
|Any non-traditional outlets to add to the usual sales channels?
|The fact that you can identify several distinct consumer groups.
|Sales figures of previous books, reviews, prizes or awards.
|Influential contacts who might have their arms twisted to endorse the book.
|US/translations/bookclub/serial rights potential = anything to spread the risk.
|Societies which might give grants.
|How you could support the book (eg buying a certain number of copies to sell at talks or events).
|Societies or organisations which might promote the book.
|Regular slots in newspapers, magazines, radio or internet sites where you could run extracts or give yourself a plug.
|After revamping your proposal, check for consistency and repetition (errors often creep in at this stage). For fine-tuning your typescript, if you can stretch to one book we would recommend The Oxford Style Manual (OUP, £25.00, ISBN 0-19-860564-1). This is very much a publishing insider’s book, combining 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 dictionary lists in A-Z format the accepted forms of words, phrases, capitalisation and hypenation conventions… (eg ‘wellingtons not Wellingtons’, ‘ad nauseam not ad nauseum’, phone-in not phone in). The style guide deals with conventions of setting text (so a useful tool for self-publishers) as well as those pertaining to punctuation, numbers, use of italic, bibliographies and citations – you get the gist.
|Get a friend or two to do the same, as their eyes are likely to be fresher than yours.
|AND DO KEEP A COPY.
This may seem like hard work. It is. But then again, when a publishing house takes on a book it invests much more than the initial advance. The time you put into creating a well-researched, marketing-orientated proposal will not be wasted.
|Would-be authors swim in shark-infested waters! Never spend money on editorial services unless you are sure that a commercial publisher is the right choice for your book. Even then, do not go for whole manuscript editing – as every publisher is likely to have a different take on what needs to be done.The US site Writer Beware gives a helpful explanation of the differences between vanity, subsidy, commercial and self-publishing, as well as of the danger signs to look out for. If in doubt, the Society of Authors can also help. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with taking the self-publishing or subsidy route, provided you know exactly what you are letting yourself in for, and what the publisher is contractually obliged to provide. But do read the small print. Vanity publishers are best avoided altogether – self-publishing will always offer a better deal.Check out the ‘Will I Ever Get Published?’ FAQ for further pointers.