Blogger: Mary Keeley
The fact there is more competition for fewer publishing slots makes the goal of getting your book published by a traditional publisher more challenging. So let’s address that elephant in the room right off the bat. My word for you today is: Don’t linger on that thought and let it discourage you. You have the power to make your proposal and your book and YOU stand out from the crowd if you’re patient and willing to do the hard work.
An editor commented to me this week that good books the publisher might have said yes to five to ten years ago are no longer getting contracts. But you’ll continue to have opportunity with traditional publishers as long as they are still acquiring. I say that tongue in cheek because of course they’ll continue to acquire new books. Repackaging their backlist will never bring in enough revenue to keep them in business. Publishers have to remain competitive, just as writers do. They look to agents to help them find those rare gems to which they will offer contracts. There are three criteria for you to master that will make your work get the attention of an agent.
Personally, I would rather receive a formal proposal than a query at the outset. It’s a time-saver. A scan through a proposal provides more information for an initial impression. It tells me if the writer has done his or her homework by researching the Books & Such website and following our agency’s posted submission guidelines for content and delivery.
TIP: Follow the unique set of guidelines for each agency you approach. Don’t assume they are the same for all. Agents review many proposals and can spot a lazy shortcut.
An agent can also tell if you have invested time in your writing career by following professional and author blogs, have attended writers conferences, and/or have read how-to books to learn what is involved in creating a professional book proposal. How? You’ll have picked up publishing language and presentation terminology and used it accurately in your proposal. You’ll exhibit an understanding of the business aspect of the industry.
TIP: The business portion of your proposal is often the first section an agent looks at, especially if you are a nonfiction writer. Agents receive many proposals, and time constraints force us to go to these quick indicators of your readiness for representation:
· A great title
· A hook that makes me sit up straight and forget what I was doing a minute ago
· A brief description of a fresh, new idea within the appropriate genre
· A well-organized format free of typos, grammar and punctuation errors
· A marketing plan that shows you have done the pre-submission work to grow relationships with your reader audience for your novel or a broad platform for your nonfiction book and have prepared for creative ways to promote your book.
Continue doing the hard work of writing draft after draft until every word is perfectly chosen and necessary, the story line and plot weave seamlessly to achieve a complete and satisfying resolution at the end. Granted it will probably take you longer than you’d hoped to achieve your publishing dream. It may help to remove self-inflicted pressure by adjusting your goal from getting your book written by a certain date to consistently improving until you are convinced, through editor or critique feedback, that your manuscript is the gem agents and publishers are seeking.
When I’ve come to know a writer through our Books & Such blog community or was impressed by the writer’s professional presence at a writers conference or received an impressive proposal and well-crafted manuscript, I’ll schedule an initial phone call and consider representation if:
1. I the writer demonstrates teachability and a commitment to his or her writing career long-term,
2. the nonfiction writer has a competitive platform or the novelist has already grown an audience for the story,
3. I sense we would work well together and I have a passion for the writer’s work.
I occasionally take on a new client before the manuscript is ready to submit. If the other two criteria are present and compelling, and I have a gut feeling about the writer’s promise of success, I have been known to prayerfully take the risk. Now if publishers would be more open to taking qualified risks too, it might revitalize the industry.
Which of these criteria do you need to work on? What steps have you already taken to meet the challenges of getting published? How are you doing at attracting your audience or building your platform?
Three criteria for assessing the impressiveness of your book proposal. Click to Tweet.
Carol McAdams Moore
My goal is to create that manuscript “gem” for each idea. I don’t want to publish something that is just okay. With fewer slots in publishing, the opportunities to reach the reader (in that way) are also fewer. I want to continue to polish my writing so that I can offer my best. To that end, I have my eye on an upcoming SCBWI character workshop.
That’s the attitude, Carol! Rising to the challenge.
Great post, Mary. I’m chuckling because I just asked Rachelle yesterday what makes for an effective proposal. You gave me some great answers here. 🙂
Thanks for the reminder to not focus on the fact that there are fewer publishing slots. And instead to concentrate on doing what I can do to claim one of them. This is something I can control.
The thing I need to work on most is probably building my platform. I’m working on doing this but I’m also working to make sure at this pre-pub stage that my writing is a main focus, if that makes sense. 🙂
Question: Do you have suggestions for a good book to read about writing great proposals?
Exactly, Jeanne. You are in control of the quality of your proposal. And a manuscript that sings will always get an editor’s attention.
Regarding books on writing proposals, a fairly recent book is How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen (2011) or Book Proposals That Sell, by Terry Whalin (2005). You can also click on “Book Proposals” under Categories in our Books & Such archives (in the right column here) to read past blogs our agents have posted.
What a clear, informative post! Thank you so much for this.
I suspect that a lot of writers have had the feeling that “we’re expected to do the publisher’s work” when it comes to the business aspect, especially promotion. I know I did.
But the fact is not that the publisher doesn’t want to do this stuff. They can’t do it, and still remain competitive.
And…the writer’s not doing the work FOR the publisher. It’s for their own book, on their own account.
Shifting my perspective has made the whole process easier, and I can look at all of the work I do on a daily basis as part of the dynamically growing proposal.
Because in the end, the proposal…is me.
“Because in the end, the proposal…is me.” Yes! Publishers would love nothing more than to receive those gems that fit their publishing slots. It’s your opportunity to provide your ultimate package.
Harvest A. Rich
“And…the writer’s not doing the work FOR the publisher. It’s for their own book, on their own account.” What a fantastic perspective. I have never minded the business aspect of writing, but I find your statement a compelling reason to keep pushing forward.
I’m polishing right now, Mary, and I appreciate your advice to keep reworking it until it shines. Sometimes I get frustrated with myself when I spot lazy writing and I’ve already been through a few rounds of revisions! Ugh!
My local writer friends have given me great ideas on how to market my books. I try to have coffee with them at least once a month to exchange ideas.
Try not to get frustrated with yourself, Jill. Being human, the writing and re-writing is a normal part of the process. Where another writer might stop and be satisfied with “good,” you are doing the extra work needed to create your “best.” You’ll never regret it.
Good plan with your writer friends. It’s a rare writer indeed, who can produce his or her best work in a vacuum.
Forgot to add something – Steve Laube published two posts recently that should be quite useful in the proposal-development-and-writing process. Most of y’all have probably seen these, but for those who haven’t –
“How to be a Publisher’s Favorite Author” at http://stevelaube.com/how-to-be-a-publishers-favorite-author/
and “How to be a Reader’s Favorite Author” at http://stevelaube.com/how-to-be-a-readers-favorite-author/
Cheryl C. Malandrinos
I love posts like this because proposals seem so imposing to me. I really struggle with book titles. I also don’t read a ton of craft books. I own them, I just don’t always read them. That’s something I hope to change this year.
Good plan, Cheryl. Read those craft books for enjoyment. When you go back to your writing, you’ll find you’ve absorbed more than you expected. I suggested two books on writing proposals to Jeanne (above), and you can also look in our blog archives for past posts on creating proposals.
Great post, Mary. Appreciate your specifics and helpful tips.
I’m in the process of polishing–feel a bit more like a surgeon than a writer at the moment. :)But there is something very satisfying about going through the manuscript and cleaning out the word clutter. Not the first time either and won’t be the last, however, each edit produces a better work.
Am also working on my platform. And that feels like donning the ‘hat’ of the architect and construction laborer.
As usual, a week of excellent posts all the way around! Thank you. 🙂
Micky, thanks for that reminder that the hard work of improvement in each edit is an investment worth every minute it takes.
“…like donning the hat of an architect and construction laborer” is a good simile for platform building…really, the entire business portion of your proposal.
“Each edit produces a better work”. Thanks for this nugget of a reminder Micky.
Mary, thank you. Right now, I’m working on making every word purposeful in my current manuscript. I’m also allowing myself to be available as God leads for speaking engagements (on my last manuscript). I’m excited to be speaking tomorrow night at the Hilton in Rockwall, Texas! It’s always hard going out of your comfort zone as a writer … enjoying behind the scenes … but it’s also amazing to see God come through for you. He helps us do what we can’t do on our own.
Shelli, it’s great that you’re stepping out of your comfort zone to take advantage of the speaking opportunity God provided you. Speaking is good exercise for writers, who can spend so much time alone with their writing. The personal connection you’ll have with attendees will surely add readers to your following too.
Thanks for these great tips! I’ll be pinning this post.
I’m one of those who never expected that it would take so long to get my manuscript just right, let alone try to publish it. But I’m resolved that if I’m going to write a novel, I’m going to submit my very best work.
That’s the attitude geared for success, Jennifer. I love the energy behind your words.
Keep polishing Jennifer. It can get tedious, but it’s time well spent.
Ohhh, love your thoughts, Mary!
I can relate to Jill concerning revisions. What I once feared, I now enjoy (well… mostly)! I can wield that sharp knife and laugh at earlier mistakes because I’ve learned so much more. Which, BTW, is key. In this ever-changing industry, an open mindset and a teachable spirit are musts. If writers refuse to learn and grow, what’s the point?
Blessings on your day!
You’re so right, Cindy. Your teachable spirit and commitment to your craft and career will pay off.
Blessings on your day too.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Thanks Mary. I need to go over my proposal again. I just did a serious revision of my query with my crit partner, making all the sentences less than oh…10 or 15 words or something and I reread it and think I made it much worse! Argh, back to the drawing board. At least it is good to hear that all of this reading of blogs and reading of writing books shows up in our proposals. It is nice to know that this is noticed on the other end. Well, back to work for me. And thank you for the help.
You’re very welcome, Kristen. Yes, a writer’s hard work to do what it takes to make your proposal, your manuscript, and you shine your brightest is definitely noticed by agents. We can tell the difference pretty quickly.
One thing that should be kept in mind in submitting a proposal is that it should stress the value you can add, both to the agent’s ‘stable’ and the publisher’s list.
The ‘value added’ perspective is something that takes the author from being a supplicant to being a team player.
The best way to add value is to be professional in terms of respecting others’ time (honoring deadlines, and not being a phone clinger). For both a publisher and agent, time defines their livelihood.
This can be communicated in a proposal by making it as user-friendly as possible, in terms of organization and readability. Like…include a table of contents, page numbers, and distinct section headers.
Next, be an ambassador for your agent and for your publisher. Let the face others associate with them be a face that’s open, friendly, and helpful.
Put it into a proposal for an agent by showing (through your ‘comps’) that you’re familiar with the authors represented by the agency. It shows that you’ve done your homework, and that you want to be a part of something wonderful. Can’t be a valued part of that which you don’t know or understand. (For a proposal directed to a publisher, the same principles would apply.)
Finally. demonstrate that you’re ready and willing to help carry the load. Make it clear that you have an established blog and/or website, and show that your use of social media is RELEVANT to your writing. Not ‘about writing’…about the thesis and worldview which define and animate your work.
Wise words, Andrew. Every single point you added. The YOU criteria is well-prepared. Thanks once again for your contributions to our community discussions.
Andrew, I do believe I’ve written enough quotes from you in my quote book that I can call them Andrewisms. 🙂
I appreciate how your post today, Mary, follows up from Wendy’s check list for pre-pubbed writers from a couple of days ago. If we’re checking off Wendy’s suggestions, I would think it would shine through a proposal. Thank you for such an informative post.
Wendy and I didn’t plan our blogs this way, but I’m glad the natural follow-up was helpful.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
What makes me impressive? My Olympic gold-medal levels of self-absorption, my truly stellar levels of procrastination, and my un-achieved by any other human alive skills at not dusting.
Oh? You meant impressive in a GOOD way?
Well, I guess I’m willing to work hard. Like, really hard. As hard as it takes, then more. Then pass me a cup of Earl Grey, give me a minute, and I’ll get back at it.
As for platform, a very wise CP pointed out that the fanpage we joined, for a certain TV show, is not just a fun place to hang out, but as she very wisely stated, it’s a potential gold mine in terms of readers.
Many of the fans, are >>EXTREMELY DEDICATED<<, which is a polite way of saying the line between real person and TV hero is pretty much gone.
Did I join this group to drop the fact that I write historical fiction? No. It didn't occur to me at the time, I simply did it for fun. But if asked what I do, I will tell them. All 2500 and counting.
Oh yes, I will.
I think you need to be a little more determined, Jennifer. Seriously, you demonstrate that balancing fun with determination along the journey is important. Thanks.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I firmly believe in the “party on” side of The Force, that fine line between smoking Alderaan, and behaving all the time. Basically, the band in the cantina…and why I’m using old Star Wars references, I have NO idea!!
This post was so timely for me. I don’t want to rush this process. I keep reminding myself that quest for excellence takes time and it will be worth it. I’m saving this post! Thank you.
You won’t be sorry you took the time needed to get your manuscript into sparkle shape, Jennifer.
Excellent list and great tips, Mary. I feel like I’m doing fairly well in these areas, but now it’s a matter of hard work, persistence, and dedication to my writing and my dream. I like what Jeanne said about controlling our proposals. I can’t control the industry, or change the reality of traditional publishing in 2014, but what I can control is my writing and what I can change is my attitude when I’m frustrated with the reality. I want my writing to be the very best it can be, so I’m okay with the increased competition to fill a coveted spot. It challenges me to dig deeper and work harder.
Winning goal + winning attitude = prescription for success in the areas within your control. Accepting the challenge, rather than being discouraged by it, is so important.
Mary this was so encouraging to read. I met with you last June at Write to Publish and you encouraged me to submit my manuscript to you. But I knew it wasn’t ready yet. I am still working on it and in fact following the advice of several published authors have recently revised it. My goal is to keep learning and when it is ready, submit it. I don’t want to waste your time or the opportunity to submit it before it is polished. You have affirmed for me to keep working.
Jean, that’s a good plan. I hope you are enjoying the process.
“Now if publishers would be more open to taking qualified risks too, it might revitalize the industry.”
Can you expound on that Mary, if you have time? I’ve grown up on Christian fiction–literally. I started reading it in junior high and now I’m, well, older. 🙂 The vast majority of what I’ve read has come from the Christian market. But it does feel like in the last year publishers are almost going backwards, playing it very safe and not selling fiction that deals with real life issues Christians face today. Do you believe that’s the case? And if so, do you see it changing?
Over the last six months, I’ve found myself connecting with people who might be called mavens or connectors. In every case it wasn’t something I did on purpose but something that just happened. But I’m not at a point where I can put that on a proposal. How would I address that issue?
Of necessity, publishers have had to be cautious about what they acquire since the economic downturn in 2008, along with the many changes in the industry that were happening at the same time. In the years since, they continue to take the safe route to maintain. We’re waiting to see them more willing to risk new opportunities for promising authors. There is no growth without qualified risk.
You could list your mavens and connectors as potential influencers on your proposal if you are confident they will agree to it.
Thanks for the suggested sources for proposal helps, Mary. I need to get mine polished before the ACFW conference. What I have doesn’t seem to be helping. Especially noteworthy is to custom make proposals for the different agents/editors. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Terri.
Thank you for keeping it upbeat for us, Mary, and presenting these tips in bite-size pieces. You’re a gem, and your guidance—along with that of the other Books and Such agents—provides me with enough reasons to sit at this computer every day. And keep dreaming.
I’m glad it was helpful and encouraging, Heidi. That is the heartbeat and goal of the Books and Such agents. Your continuing hard work will pay off.
Great encouragement to me, thank you. It has taken me longer than I imagined, but I’m excited to see the progress and hope the day may come.
The fact that you are taking the time and seeing progress shows you are on the right track, Lisa. Keep at it. You won’t regret doing the hard work.
My completed manuscript has had many pairs of eyes on it, which I very much appreciate, but then comes the task of hunting through the critiques and comments with a sharp eye and writing utensil so I can make adjustments that ring true for the genre I write.
I need to work at not rushing this process. The Lord is ordering my steps, and I want to walk in tandem with Him, not gallivant ahead.
Good way to approach it, Jenni. (Love the word gallivant 🙂
Though I am generally skeptical of “establish a platform” advice, (mainly because your platform does not necessarily translate to sales of your work), your post leads me to view platform advice with fresh eyes: I am not “building a platform” to establish a committed buyership, but to demonstrate a market exists for my work. Thanks!
You’re welcome, Karen.
I’m polishing…and polishing…and polishing…and hoping the sparkle will blind someone soon. 🙂
Great post, Mary!
I’ll have my sunglasses ready, Sarah 🙂
Such a blessing. I have been writing for years, and have two manuscripts ready for the proposal stage, or at least I thought I had two. Now I think one needs more polishing, in order to become a brighter gem.
Thanks again for the great advice, will return for more.
You’re welcome, Serenity. We look forward to having you back here again.
Arrival is not an option! That is something I live by, the day I quit learning is the day I die. One of my favorite things is to see a ninety-year old go back to school.
When things feel difficult I have a note posted by my desk that says, “It’s not brain surgery.” That would be my motivator to quit complaining and get back at it.
Thanks for continuing to encourage along the way, Mary!
Michelle, we share the love of learning. It’s what keeps the blood flowing in our veins. It’s the asset that will get you to your arrival.
I’m not to the proposal state yet, Mary. I’m still rewriting and rewriting and doing it again. In that “Motion to Continue” you signed for me at conference, you were right that it would take me a year. I’m much more pleased with it now, but know I have to keep at it. THEN, I’ll worry about the proposal.
Alice, it’s encouraging when you can see your consistent improvement. Great motivation to keep on keeping on. Celebrate each improvement.
Thanks for another great article Mary!! When sending in a general query, do all the agents read it or does it get forwarded to just one?
Thanks, Ellen. Queries should be sent to email@example.com, where they are forwarded to agents. If you want a particular agent to receive it, note that in the subject line or greeting.
My inner guidance has led me to this website – truly, I do not recall how or why this link is on my ‘work computer’ but I found it today!
I do love how God works! My manuscript is jumping for joy that I now feel more confident to share….I am grateful for each of the writers her that so openly offer ideas. Thankyou
You’re most welcome, Patsy.