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Making Your Book Proposal Persuasive

Distinctives of Your Proposal

The toughest task of the non-fiction author is to come up with a book topic that is distinct and will fill an unfilled niche in the market.

Sometimes, for example, if you are writing from a Christian perspective and the comparable books are all secular, that is enough to set your book apart. An example of this would be a book I edited called Grieving a Suicide. There were other books in the general market, but this author was able to talk about key theological questions about the afterlife of one who commits suicide as well as why we suffer and how we understand God in the midst of pain. On the other hand doing a home-improvement book from a Christian perspective isn't a very strong distinctive. (Do we need to think theologically about how to fix a drainpipe?)

Another distinctive might be the particular perspective (gender, background, education and so on) that you bring to the topic. I recently heard Anne Lamott give a top ten list of "things you need to know" to a group of pastors. For example, "Preach better, more interesting sermons" was one of her tips. She suggested that if the pastor was lacking good material, then he or she needed to find more interesting friends (in non-competitive fields) and steal their stuff. As you may gather, her particular perspective on life brought a distinctive to a topic which if tackled by a homiletics professor would not be very fresh for that audience.

So get into a bookstore and study what's on the market. Find the weaknesses or holes in the field and tell the publisher what new angle you will bring to the topic.

Your Personal "Platform"

If you are a fiction author, your platform will probably be your publishing credits. Before submitting a novel, build some appropriate literary journal and anthology credits with short stories. If you write non-fiction as well, then work toward building a byline with magazine articles or a newspaper column.

If you are a non-fiction author, then magazine articles will also help you to build your platform. However, the non-fiction author who is strictly a writer is becoming a rarity. Generally, it takes something else to make a book succeed, such as doing regular speaking on related topics, having a career or ministry that involves helping people in related areas and/or being networked with high profile authors, speakers or pastors who will promote your book.

Personally, I think this "platform" thing stinks. I realize that many writers don't enjoy public speaking. My friend Barbara and I were at a writer's conference listening to an author talk about his book. His talk was a little quirky and random. She said to me, "Isn't it strange that we expect these writers who can go away for a year and thrive on writing in solitude to then come out and meet the public with a verbal presentation that's charming and compelling?" I think it is strange--and a bit unfair. I'd much prefer to judge a book simply by the quality of the writing and ideas. However, neither of us--author or publisher--is happy when a book only sells 2,000 copies. And this is what seems to happen without "platform."

Getting to the Top of the Pile

Yes, it is a pile, I'm sorry to say. The editor you have submitted your proposal to is also busy developing many manuscripts already contracted. He or she has obligations to many writers--and some of them may require quite a bit of "care and feeding." Nevertheless, here's what will help your proposal stand out:

Knowing or meeting an editor. This could happen through a mutual friend or a writer's conference.

Knowing someone the editor knows. It could be a well-known person who endorses the book or simply an author or colleague of the editor.

Having some type of platform (see above) that creates a ready audience for your book.

An excellent proposal or manuscript. Especially if you are writing fiction, don't submit until you've worked with the manuscript extensively on your own. It may also be helpful to get a professional critique, input from a writer's group or a writing workshop at a local college. I once heard Jerry Jenkins say that the key to selecting or rejecting fiction is that you should be able to pick up the manuscript at any point in the narrative and find it interesting reading. That means your stuff has to be near-perfect to get an editor's attention.

What will hurt your chances?

Multiple spelling and grammar errors. I actually received a proposal once in which the author noted the many errors and said, "I don't think spelling is important. I'll fix that later." Do not confuse an editor with a codependent parent. Turn on spell check and fix all the errors you can find before submitting your proposal.

Phoning the editor or editorial assistant to ask about the status of your proposal or manuscript. You do not want to send a signal that you are demanding or needy. If more than three months has passed without a response, then you may send an email or letter of inquiry. However, you still may not phone the editor. Remember, there is a pile in the editor's office. (And it is probably a source of psychological pain for the editor.) Your manuscript is most likely somewhere in that pile. The editor will probably not be able to answer questions about it on the spot.

Threats, demands or complaints. The editor has no obligation to you yet. However, editors do not gain pleasure from drawing out your suspense. He or she is in publishing for the love of books and writing. If an editor likes your project and thinks it's a good fit, then he or she will work like a dog to get you published.