In today’s entry on the Writing Life, I’m reprinting a review of Book Proposals That Sell and a Q & A interview which appeared in Andrea Campbell’s newsletter called Soup’s On. Andrea is an active member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (and other organizations). She’s got a wealth of experience and uses it to help writers. I recommend her free bi-monthly newsletter. Follow the link to read the full newsletter and subscribe.
“*** Terry Whalin’s Book: A Review ***
Book Proposals That Sell: 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success by W. Terry Whalin
I was excited to read Terry’s book since nonfiction book proposals are a big part of what I do in addition to teaching Mediabistro students my methodology. I study the discipline ad nauseum and hardly ever see anything new, although Terry’s book provides some great ideas for the novice, and managed to surprise me with some tidbits about the business end of publishing.
His statistics are particularly interesting. I didn’t know, for example, that “At any given time, 500,000 proposals and manuscripts circulate across the United States.” Daunting numbers those, but they still don’t seem to discourage writers from sending out the wrong material, in a nondescript or incorrect format, and worse still, with no clearly thought-out premise. For those folks, Terry’s book should be a staple. Not only does he explain the book proposal business through the eyes of an acquisitions editor, but he points out the misconceptions beginning writers have about the nonfiction book market in general, that they don’t consider from the publisher’s viewpoint: “Publishing is about managing risk.” He also takes us through an editor’s day: the options open to them for procurement, and then plunks us down in the boardroom for the publisher’s meeting and gives us a revealing glimpse into why books are rejected. Important stuff this.
Terry scares us again when he tells about a publisher he knows who received over 6,000 unsolicited manuscripts and proposals in a single year, but did not accept a single one! Yet, despite these hard-boiled truths, Terry still seems to talk to writer-readers in a nurturing way, helping them to understand the correct mindset needed if one is going to break through to publication.
After I devoured this book in two visitations, I decided to ask the author some questions.
Q.: Would you please tell Soup's On subscribers a little more about your background, your job, and who you are in a more personal vein?
I work both sides of the editorial desk--as a writer and an editor. While I majored in journalism at Indiana University, after college, for ten years, I left my writing and spent that time in linguistics work (primarily in Guatemala, Central America). About twenty years ago, I started writing for different magazines and my writing has appeared in more than 50 publications like Writer’s Digest, The Writer, BookPage, Publisher’s Weekly and many other publications. The bulk of my writing has been about the religious inspirational market. In 1992, my first book released which was a 32-page children’s book. Since then I’ve written more than 60 books for traditional publishers--all nonfiction for adults, biographies for youth and a few children’s books plus I’ve written collaborative books for more than a dozen people. I’ve been a magazine editor for publications like Decision (1.8 million copies each month) and others.
Over the last four years, I’ve been an acquisitions editor for two different book publishers. Currently I’m the part-time fiction acquisitions editor for Howard Publishing (a small family-owned publisher based in West Monroe, LA). It’s part-time because I only acquire six to eight full-length adult novels a year--where the typical acquisitions editor in a full-time capacity normally does 15-20 titles (and I did over 30 my last full-time year on the job).
As to who I am? I love to write and yet love to help others succeed. It’s why I often teach at writer’s conferences around the U.S. and Canada. Plus I launched a website loaded with free how-to material for writers called Right-Writing.com (in the top 1% of the 56.1million websites). Also I’ve tried hard in the midst of a busy publishing business to be a different type of editor--one who cares about his authors and works to meet their concerns--and who faithfully answers my email about submissions. As a writer, I dislike sending submissions and queries into the black hole--and never hearing anything from that editor--even “no thank you.”
Q.: Terry, what was the impetus for your writing Book Proposals That Sell?
Book Proposals That Sell came when I recognized a need in the marketplace for writers. Thousands of people are submitting book proposals and manuscripts to publishers--yet often they lack the critical material which a publisher needs to make a decision and issue a book contract. As an acquisitions editor, I was frustrated. I wanted to help these would-be writers to become successful--yet with the time constraints, I couldn’t help everyone. If a proposal arrives 80% complete, I could guide this writer the rest of the way. Otherwise, it was going to be outright rejected--with no reason. If you put forth a reason, then you invite dialogue with this writer (something I didn’t have time to accomplish). I’ve read and studied almost every other how-to book on the market about creating book proposals. None of these books was written from the insider’s perspective--the acquisitions editor.
Q.: What are some of the more egregious mistakes you see in material that crosses your desk?
It’s an old saying in this business but true: many writers fail to study the marketplace and understand what the editor needs. Incomplete proposals or filled with language that reeks of their inexperience would be the worst from my perspective. For example, in the marketing section they will tout their “willingness to appear on Oprah” or to do radio and television interviews. No fooling! Every author will be willing to appear on Oprah or do media interviews--or most of us should be to sell books. The question is more what innovative (yet cost effective) marketing strategies are you bringing to your proposal which shows you understand the partnership to sell books?
Or writers will not include a word count in their proposal. I’ll call or email and ask about the length of their book. They will eagerly write back asking, “How long do you want it to be?” No, the author intimately knows their subject and it is their responsibility to cast the vision for the project--not the editor’s job. I need that word count--because without it, I can’t do the cost analysis necessary to issue a book contract.
Or here’s another stock answer in proposals, “My idea is unique. There is no competition.” Every book competes in the marketplace--and to make such a statement shows the complete lack of understanding for such a writer.
In Book Proposals That Sell, I tried to educate the writer about the pressures of an editor and the necessity for the writer to come alongside and help--not stirring problems or difficulties.
Q.: Is there one area of a nonfiction book proposal that must not fail?
The title and the hook or overview must excite the editor from the minute they pull your proposal out of the package or open the email attachment. The strength of your words and concept must thrill that editor so this person will champion your cause throughout the company (editorial, marketing, sales and publishing executives). It’s not your paper or your package--it’s the words on the page--in the proposal and your sample chapters.
Q.: Your book is filled with hard truths. How do you feel about the state of publishing today?
Publishing like any other business has many challenges. There is high competition for people’s time to read books and get excited about the content within those books. It’s no secret the reading statistics point out these numbers. More books are being published each year through small publishers and self-publishers plus the huge competition for attention or “buzz” in the marketplace of ideas. It’s easy to get a book published--especially if you do it yourself--yet selling that book into the hands of readers is a completely different task that would-be authors need to understand.
While the challenges are ever present, it is possible. I know many editors and literary agents. Each one is actively reading their mail (paper and electronic). They are scouring those submissions for the next bestseller, the next sleeper book, which rockets to the top of the chart or helps people solve a key issue in their lives. It’s a matter of understanding these realities of the marketplace and meeting those challenges head-on with fresh and creative ideas.”
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