Blogger: Mary Keeley
Writers communicate volumes of information between the lines and paragraphs in their proposals, both in terms of what is presented, and in what is missing. Today, I’m going to let you in on some of those things agents and editors notice.
Format and Style. Agents and editors struggle to keep up with what feels like a self-propagating stack of proposals. The formatting is the first thing an agent sees when he or she opens your proposal document. When I come across a proposal that maintains consist formatting and clear style of headers, subheads, indentations of bulleted lists—an orderly visual presentation—my first reaction is, Ah, this shows promise. If the writer has followed our submissions guidelines posted on our Books & Such website by including all the requested information and samples, the proposal will progress to my “Shows Promise—Read Further” pile. Why so quickly, you might ask, without first reading about the project itself? For several reasons:
- The orderly formatting exhibits your skill in business communication. Remember, a book proposal is your offer of a business opportunity.
- Compliance with submissions guidelines indicates publishing industry professionalism and the potential you will be pleasant to work with.
- The third reason, more subtle, is the writer demonstrated the effort and consideration to make the proposal easy for the agent or editor to read.
RECOMMENDATON: If you think you might need to brush up on formatting a business document, do it. First impressions matter!
Inclusions. Every literary agency and publisher has its own requirements regarding how much of your manuscript to include with the proposal and the information they want to receive. Rather than sending the same basic proposal document to all the agents you plan to submit to, tailor it in a separate document according to each agency’s specific guidelines. It reflects that you did your homework, which in turn reflects the possibility you did thorough research for your book.
Marketing Plan. Your marketing plan is one of the inclusions virtually all agents or editors require. But I’m mentioning it separately here because this is where I see problems most often; yet it’s one of the most important and revealing areas of your proposal. Along with the standard items agents and publishers expect (quantified social media numbers, organization affiliations that will market your book, online or in-person book launch parties, and so on), here are some RECOMMENDATIONS:
- Use declarative statements. For example: “I have contacted the following radio stations about my book, and they have agreed to interview me when my book releases” promises assertive participation in promoting your book. Saying, “I’m open to doing radio interviews,” is passive and lacks initiative and passion for your book. If you aren’t energetic about your book, no one else will be either.
- Be creative. Think of unique ways you can market your book. What is the setting for your contemporary romance? List the names of local businesses, restaurants, libraries, and tourist bureaus in that area that you will contact about promoting your book. What is the core message of your nonfiction book? List appropriate organizations you will approach to cross-promote your book.
- Be specific. Include a bulleted list of churches, libraries, bookstores, and organizations you have made contact with to schedule a book reading and/or signing.
Grammar, punctuation, spelling. I’ve harped on this subject enough. Anything less than stellar tarnishes your professional image.
RECOMMENDATION: If this is a weak area, study up and get help from a proofreader. It will be well worth it.
Submission. Agencies and publishers have their specific submission policies posted on their websites. For instance, electronic submissions are most common now, but usually following a request from a writer’s query. Some publishers still require hard copy submissions formatted in a specific way to save paper. Following guidelines to the letter reveals your business savvy and cooperative spirit. Conversely, not following them shows you (1) are such a newbie that you didn’t know to look for a prescribed procedure; or (2) think you are special and don’t need to follow the rules.
What hadn’t you noticed before in your proposals that could reflect positively or negatively on you or your project? Is there anything in this information that surprised you?
Mary, this is a an enlightening blog-post full of specifics I’ve wondered about–especially the marketing examples you’ve given. My newbie understanding had been to list similar books your book would mirror and the target audience for your work, such as age ranges.
I’ve never been to a book reading. So if I called the local libraries, I wouldn’t know what I was promising. I assume you chat about the characters, plot, theme and then pick a few segments to read aloud that represent your work, then answer questions?
Oh, and do you actually quote, “I have ….number of facebook followers, twitter followers, pinterest followers, blog traffic stats”?
Yes, Anne. Agents and editors want to see hard numbers. Putting them in a simple list will avoid wordiness.
Anne, your list of similar titles should be in a separate section under a header like “Competition.” It usually comes after your marketing plan. For each title list the author, publisher, year of publication, and ISBN. Comment on how the book is similar to yours and how yours is unique and fresh.
Your assumption is correct about book readings. Often, local libraries will be happy to have one of their own area celebrities do a reading of the first chapter or two, followed by discussion time.
Jennifer Major @Jjumping
This will most likely raise the flaming red flag of Newbieland (you should hear the anthem!), but do you have a link to, or an example of, the exact type of formatting you prefer?
Yes, yes, I know. I just outed myself as a complete NEWB.
Even though Wendy said that formatting was a matter of common sense, I’m still wary of querying and then *BAM! An email that says “do you have Stage Two ready?” and then I send in the Village Idiot version of my MS and poof, I’m back to folding laundry instead of living the dream.
🙂 *see how confident I am? 🙂
Is there a Complete Idiot’s Guide to CBA Formatting somewhere?
FOR ME, not for ANYone else here. I’m fairly certain I’m alone in the dark.
Jennifer, be encouraged; you aren’t alone in the dark. There is no standard proposal template when submitting to an agent or editor. That would be boring. Just make sure your headers for the main sections of your proposal (Synopsis-F or Chapter Summaries-NF, Marketing Plan, Competition, Potential Endorsers, Series Potential, and so on)are the same font and size and same margin. Sub-heads should be a different font and size with consistent indentation. Bulleted lists under headers and sub-heads should be consistent in their indentation.
When you are agented, the agency that represents you likely will have its own stylesheet for you to follow when preparing your proposal for the agent to shop to publishers.
Jennifer, life is a continual state of learning, and we’re all still learning everyday! Never be afraid to ask questions. When we quit asking questions, we risk stagnation. 🙂
Jennifer Major @Jjumping
As for setting up a marketing plan, I have no problem cold calling people or groups with whom there is a connection to the the book.
I’d cold call the president of the Navajo Nation and bring him a coffee (and some roasted pinon nuts, trust me) and set up a signing! It is interesting the amount of people I met on my research trip with whom marketing would be as easy as pie.
That’s a huge benefit for you, Jennifer! What a blessing to have been able to make those contacts. 🙂
Those contacts and marketing ideas will shine in your marketing plan, Jennifer.
You also brought out an excellent point about the value of research trips. Keep potential marketing connections on your radar and talk about the book you’re writing to people who represent marketing possibilities.
Jennifer Major @Jjumping
Mary, thank you, as always, for your excellent advice!
Mary, this is such a helpful post! I actually haven’t written a proposal yet, but I hope to in the next few months. 🙂 I think the thing that surprised me the most in your post today was how much you as an agent learn from how a proposal is formatted. It makes such sense. 🙂
Thanks for sharing the tips on marketing. I am a little intimidated about that aspect of the proposal writing process. Even as I read, I thought of a couple of ideas for my book. So, thank you!
I’m glad it was helpful, Jeanne. Keep note cards or a tablet with you as you write or do research. Chances are you’ll think of some ideas along the way if you have future marketing on your radar.
Very interesting and helpful information, Mary. I think I’ve struggled with the marketing section. I have no problem brainstorming possible ways to market my book, but actually calling people up and talking with them about a book that may never be published feels…premature. I’m not saying it is, it just feels that way. Any suggestions for how to talk to radio stations, newspapers, bookstores, etc., in a way that doesn’t promise anything but that you can have a take away of “yes, they said they’d help me out”?
Lindsay, the purpose of contacting local radio stations and newspapers now is to introduce yourself, in person if possible, and let them know you are writing a book about XXX. Ask them if they would be willing to consider doing an interview when the book is published. You can add a bullet point in your marketing plan that says, “The following radio stations and newspapers have agreed to consider interviewing me when the book is published.”
Regarding bookstores, include a list of the bookstores you will contact to schedule a signing. Once your book is contracted, visit bookstores in your area to introduce yourself as a local author who has a book releasing soon. Tell them about your book and ask about the possibility of doing a signing in their store. They’ll appreciate the time to plan ahead and place an order for your books.
Thank you, Mary! 🙂
Thank you for this excellent article.
You’re welcome, Vie.
Hi Mary. Great post!
I’m with Lindsay. Do we contact possible promoters, etc. even though we don’t have an agent or have a publishing contract? I don’t mind doing this, but it does seem premature.
Also I have looked over Books & Such guidelines multiple times and for novelists there isn’t a mention of a book proposal. Is the book proposal the next step after the initial query and the second step of sending in bio, synopsis and first three chapters?
I’m definitely a newbie (can’t you tell??) :D, but I am working hard to be prepared and professional. Does Books & Such have a sample of a proposal posted online or in a book that we could go by when creating a proposal for you?
I’ve looked for a proposal sample and haven’t found one, but I could have missed it. I am currently using a proposal sample from another agency, but I plan on querying Books & Such in the future and want to have my proposal prepared and ready by your guidelines.
Thanks! Sorry for all the questions! We, newbies, want to do our best. 😀 Have a great weekend!
Morgan, your initial contact is to introduce yourself as a local writer and would they be open to interviewing you when your book is published. Here are the benefits. You establish the connection early, and you can list those who agree to consider an interview in your marketing section. It shows your initiative that agents and publishers look for.
If the agent or publisher responds to your query requesting a proposal, he or she usually will tell you what to include in your proposal or will direct you to their guidelines. If not, it’s okay to ask for clarification.
Refer to my reply to Jennifer’s similar question regarding formatting of your proposal. Also, there are books available on how to write a book proposal. “Write the Perfect Book Proposal” by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman is one among a number of good resources.
I hope these tips help.
Thanks so much, Mary! This advice definitely helps. Appreciate it. 🙂
Cindy R. Wilson
I love these proposal posts! Specifics are always really helpful to us writers 🙂
I could definitely be more creative with my marketing ideas. I like to write ideas at home for things I could do (even simple things on my blog or others blogs), but wasn’t sure how much of that kind of thing to include in a proposal. Thanks!
And these are some great questions in the comments here. I’m going to check in later to see more answers.
I’m glad it’s helpful, Cindy.
Well, as you know, Mary, I had quite the learning curve on the marketing section of my proposal. 🙂
Like Lindsay mentioned, I was mostly hesitant to contact people before having a book contract in hand. But once I took the step to reach out, I discovered people were more enthusiastic and open than I’d expected. And now I have those contacts at the ready for when I need them later.
Thanks for this excellent post. Hope you have a great weekend!
Sarah, thanks for sharing your personal success story of this process.
“….or, you think you are special and don’t need to follow the rules.”
Oh, do I pity the day agents start getting proposals from the generation brought up with “participation” trophies. 🙂
I hear you, Larry. Joy in the learning.
Hello Mary and company,
Great post – so helpful.
Really enjoy the community and sharing that happens here. Have been receiving the posts for some time and thoroughly appreciate the practical, inspiring an occasionally poignant offerings from you, all the Books and Such staff, and those who comment.
Great stuff and a blessing all the way ’round.
Micky, thank you for your kind words. I know I can speak for all the Books & Such agents and staff. We are honored to serve and share in the blessing.
I just took a page full of notes from the post and the comments. Hopefully, I’ll need them soon! I had the same question as Lindsay and Morgan. It seems a bit awkward to speak with radio stations and libraries about a book that MIGHT be published. But your replies, Mary, and others’ comments were helpful and reassuring. This extreme introvert just needs to step out of her shell. Thanks, Mary!
Meghan, let your passion and enthusiasm for your book propel you out the door to introduce yourself and your book to potential marketing and media connections. Once you’ve done it several times, it will feel more comfortable, and it will be good practice. You’ll need to do a lot more self-promoting when your book is published.
I’m printing this for future reference and subscribing. A friend keeps emailing me with “read this!”.
I especially appreciate your comments about marketing. I need to put my thinking cap on for innovative ways to get my book out there.
I’m glad it was helpful, Bonnie. Think creatively. If you are in a critique group, you might want to suggest setting one meeting aside for brainstorming marketing ideas for each other’s books. The-more-heads-are-better-than-one theory.
Thank you for the informative post! I didn’t know I should go into such detail about my marketing plans. I admit to having summarized where I should have itemized. I’ll know better next time.
I actually enjoy putting a proposal together. It’s like a big puzzle and I always liked puzzles. But I was a little punk as a kid and always stole a piece and sat on it so I could be the one to put the last piece in. I guess now I’m getting my comeuppance for that annoying habit. Invariably, right after I’ve sent a proposal in–one that I’ve gone over with a fine tooth comb–I will realize that I left something out. Not a huge thing like an entire section, but something like an author’s name who would be a good endorser or a professional association that would’ve been helpful for marketing.
But now, instead of gloating over that last piece I’m sitting on, I smack my forehead and wonder how lame it’d be to send a follow up email with that bit of information.
Evangeline, what you described is such a common occurrence. Here’s how to work that forgotten piece of information to your advantage. If it’s been two months and you haven’t received a response, use that detail as a reason to follow up about your proposal. It will be viewed as a professional move and a positive prompt for the agent or editor to look for your proposal in the stack and read it.
Oh, that’s a great idea! I’m so glad you shared that because I was thinking I’d lost the opportunity.
Wonderful post and helpful answers in the comments section, Mary. Thanks!
You’re welcome, Sally.
I always have my old English Professor take look over my writings. It helps me a lot.Sometimes he e-mails me to see if I have written anything else. That makes me feel confident. I would love to read my nonfiction book to kids at at my local Library. The kids would enjoy the ride of my characters. What a great feeling that would be to see those bright smiles.
Mary, thanks for a fabulous post! The section that helped me most was the marketing section regarding the way you frame your words regarding marketing opportunities. I will be checking for proactive word choices in future Proposals.
Glad it was helpful, Michelle.
Heather Day Gilbert
I honestly wish there were some kind of comprehensive online guide to formatting FICTION proposals for debut authors.
I’ve found tons of non-fiction samples online, as well as fiction proposals for already-published authors, but no NEWBIE proposal samples. I honestly had no idea what I was doing until my agent sent me a sample proposal of a real live book, which I was easily able to copy (one instance where copying isn’t bad!).
Someone needs to write a proposal-writing book! Now THERE’S an idea (and one I will NOT be doing! Hee!).
Heather, you’re right. There are books available on writing a proposal, but most focus on what to include and how to present it, rather than on formatting.
Heather Day Gilbert
So true, Mary! It’s a gap that needs to be filled.