Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
If you follow the Books & Such Blog you may have been expecting to hear from our fearless leader, Janet Kobobel Grant, this week. Because of her schedule, Janet will be taking the week off and I’ll be blogging in her place but let me hasten to reassure her faithful readers that she’ll be back dispensing her signature wisdom next month. In the meantime. . .
I’m going to be talking turkey about book proposals this week. (I can almost hear the collective groan.) I wish I had a dollar for every time a writer has confessed that he hates writing the proposal. I’m guessing I’d be close to paying for a cruise with those dollar bills. Last month Janet touched on this subject with her post on Magical Thinking but I want to take it further. This week we’re going to do a mini proposal clinic here on the blog. Today I will answer the perplexing question “why do I have to write a proposal?” Then the next four days we’ll talk about the four major parts of a proposal.
Let’s start with first things first. What is a proposal?
- Your book proposal is actually your business plan. Like a traditional business plan it will outline the “product”– that is, the book itself; identify the “customer”– better known as the reader; profile the author, giving his past sales history; sketch out a marketing plan; analyze the competition; and offer a sample of the product.
- The book proposal is the blueprint of choice in publishing. Many an author wishes he could just submit his book and let the work speak for itself. Publishing is a business however. When an author submits his book to a publisher he’s asking for a business partner– someone to help him manufacture the product, market and distribute it. It’s going to require a significant investment of money on the part of the publisher. The proposal answers, in advance, all the questions the decision makers will need to ask.
- Much of the content of the proposal is the raw material the publisher will eventually use in marketing the book. The author bio, the book descriptions, the hook, the back cover copy– all come from the proposal.
- The proposal ensures that your brilliant idea is communicated through layer after layer of decision makers. Let’s say you want to skip the trouble of a formal proposal and you communicate your vision verbally to an agent. That agent then communicates to an acquisitions editor. The editor must sell the editorial team and then the pub committee. If the book is acquired, the information needs to be communicated to marketing department and then to the sales team who will have to sell the book to the buyers who need to explain the book to the store personnel who will finally hand sell the book to the reader. That’s nine layers. If just a little excitement or detail leaks at every layer you’ll hit ho hum long before the sales team. A powerful proposal carries that excitement through every layer of the publisher and provides the detailed information the marketing department needs to take it the rest of the way.
Why do we write a proposal?
- For agents and editors. This goes without saying. This is how we make decisions.
- For the author. This may surprise you but the proposal is invaluable to you. Many a book has been reshaped or abandoned during the process of detailing the competition. As you do the hard work of building the business plan for the book, it helps to creatively shape it, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. The work you do on this end of the project will save you much aimless wandering on the other end.
What does a good proposal do?
- It answers all the questions a pub committee might ask
- It gives a solid overview of the book
- It tells why the book is needed
- It tells why the book is unique
- It tells why the author is the person to write the book
What is the magic formula?
- Is there a standardized proposal format? There is no shortage of books on how to format a proposal. At our agency we’ve developed a Style Guide for our proposals. We feel it’s important for all Books & Such proposals to have a certain format, a recognizable look. We like to think that when an editor gets a proposal in our signature format it makes them smile, thinking of all the great books they’ve bought from us in the past that have looked similar. But if you are creating a proposal on your own, just make sure it has all the important parts and looks professional
- Can we get creative? It’s always a risk. We’ve all seen too many “fancy” proposals that have no substance. But if your book calls for some creativity and you are willing to take the risk. . .
What if I’m “beyond having to do a proposal” in my career? I think Janet answered this one in her post on magical thinking. The proposal is a tool, as much for you as for the agent and the editor. It’s like a builder saying, “I’ve built so many houses in my career, I don’t need a plan or blueprints on this one. The subs all know what I do more or less.” Scary.
Your turn: Do you agree? How do you feel about writing proposals? Do you feel like the proposal practice saps the creativity out of writing? Has the process of writing the proposal ever highlighted potential problems with the book long before you ever submitted it?
This week of posts is very timely for me, Wendy, since I’m in the process of finetuning my proposal with my agent.
I’m one of the weird ones who loves developing a proposal. I love stepping back to see the big picture, to think of marketing ideas and to see how my idea stacks up against other books. I love that you pointed out how it benefits the author. I’ve certainly found that to be the case for me. Now I’ll see what my wise agent has to say about what I’ve drafted! 🙂
While I’d much rather be writing the book itself, or the next book, I don’t hate writing proposals. I understand their importance, to the author as well as the agent and editor and pub house. They’re a challenge to write, but some part of my creative brain gets a kick out of tackling a bit of writing I’m not %100 sure I can pull off.
But I like _having written_ a proposal even better.
Cindy R. Wilson
I’m looking forward to gleaning some great information from the topic this week. I am not a huge fan of proposals, probably because I haven’t written a ton and don’t quite have the process down yet. But the synopsis and individual bits that do belong in a proposal have helped me immensely before, during, and after writing a particular novel.
I haven’t had the opportunity to write a full proposal yet. I have to admit they seem daunting, even if I understand why they are necessary.
One question I have is about book sales. What if you don’t have concrete data? I feel so in the dark about this information and it’s infuriating not to know exactly how many have sold.
Thanks for a great article. I’m sure I’ll learn a great deal this week.
Wendy, this is honestly the best explanation of why a proposal is important that I’ve seen. Past explanations seemed to say simply, “We need to know all the details about your project in order to make a decision.” However, when viewed as a business plan and a source of marketing information, the purpose makes much more sense.
In the past I’ve viewed proposal-writing as about as exciting as technical writing: dry and unexciting, but a necessary part of the game. Suddenly, your detailed explanation makes me see these as tools with exciting potential for capturing the imagination of everyone who gets to vote yea or nay on my book. (Now I wish I’d seen this post a couple weeks ago. It would have injected more energy into my recent proposals!)
I’m sharing this bit if insight on my Facebook and Twitter accounts today. Thanks Wendy!
I hope you will be differentiating between non-fiction and fiction this week.
Cheryl, the only way to have concrete data is from your royalty reports. You would say, as of June 2011, xxxxx books sold. The reader will understand there may be more sales than that, or there may be returns coming. If it’s too early in a book’s life to have any numbers you’d just note that or give (honest and realistic) anecdotal information, like, “[pub house] reports the book is in it’s fourth printing already but no concrete numbers yet.” Or “the book made it to the CBA fiction bestsellers’ list but no concrete numbers yet.”
David, I will definitely differentiate. Much is the same in a proposal for fiction and nonfiction but there are distinct differences. So glad you understand. I see confusion all too often.
I write grants in my day job, so my book proposal felt pretty familiar. And itt turned out to be a huge help to me in really understanding what my book is about. I could talk much more intelligently about it after having written the proposal. Not exactly fun, but hugely valuable.
I wrote my first proposal probably 3 yrs ago and I’ll admit it wasn’t easy but when I got me a copy of Michael Larsen’s book on creating proposals, it steered me in the right direction. (Thank you Michael!)
As long as I had an idea as to what I needed to accomplish, I had fun putting it together.
I think it forced me to come up with a marketing plan (on paper) along with other things that every writer should know about their project. The first one may seem like a lot of work but once you get the first one down, the next one is easier.:)
I think they are well worth the effort.
I agree with Sarah. Though I think a problem many writers might share is the balance between giving too little and too much detail in their proposal.
After having written a manuscript clocking in at anywhere between 80,000 to 100,000 we writers can forget sometimes that not everything we write has to be as long as War and Peace. The fear is that we might tread too much in communicating elements of a strategy that agents or editors have heard a million times before and sound lacking creativity regarding how to get people to actually buy what we have worked on, the innovative elements being lost in a sea of text.
The “too little” part comes in perhaps not communicating that we recognize the market and are familiar with what has proven effective already, or not going into much detail about innovative strategies fearing that we appear to not know the market at all.
How strange it is that we are all in the business of communication, yet that itself at times becomes an impediment to our goals.
Wendy, I’m looking forward to what you have to say. I’ve done one proposal and really did enjoy it. But I set novel writing aside while I worked on that proposal. The two types of writing are so different, and I think focusing on one for the few weeks (thanks to the little ones in my house who look like my husband) helped me get a better feel for it.
But I know there’s so much more to learn. Bring it on!
A mini-workshop on proposals–genius! *rubs hands together* Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. I like putting proposals together, but I am always looking for ways to improve them. Will be bookmarking this for sure!