Many thanks to Jeevan Sivsubramaniam, Managing Director Editorial at Berrett-Koehler Publishers and a speaker at the San Francisco Writers Conference for this first-rate handout:
Many people have great ideas for books to help change the world politically or socially, or to help individuals grow in spirit and purpose. Keep these seven questions in mind when writing your proposal:
1. Is your book really needed?
Authors often write books that they feel people need to read, but that does not mean people will read them. More and more people are getting cancer, recovering from mental illness, overcoming addictions, or getting sick of the economy every year, but there are already 1,001 books on these subjects. Why is yours different? What makes your book especially compelling? If you have teenage children or nieces and nephews, pitch your book to them and gauge their interest –you’ll receive the same response from the marketplace.
2. Is your book tightly focused?
Too many people want to write a world-as-I-see-it-and-how-it-should-be type of book in which they comment on all aspects of a particular subject. These sprawling works hold little appeal for most book buyers. Readers don’t want a grand vision or blueprint for a new government or economy or behavioral model, unless you are an influential world leader who has the clout to make these changes happen. Exhaustive books are just that–exhausting. If you can’t sum up your book’s core premise in two sentences, it’s too scattered.
3. Who is the audience for your book?
Don’t look for overly general markets and say that your book is “for everyone concerned about “the environment,” ” democracy,” or “spirituality.” In nonfiction, there is no such thing as a general reader. Be specific and carve out a niche for which a sizable yet specific audience exists. No one walks into a bookstore and asks for a book about “something that could be for everyone.”
4. Are your qualifications, background, and knowledge directly related to your subject?
There are doctors who write about politics, politicians who write about economics, and economists who write about spirituality. The problem is that these people lack the qualifications and professional consulting and speaking experience in the subject they are writing about. Are professional qualifications the only measure of authority on a subject? No, but if you needed surgery, would you go with someone who has conducted a lot of independent research and learned a lot about medicine or a board-certified surgeon? You can disregard everything above if you are a celebrity, which explains why Tori Spelling can write a New York Times bestseller about parenting.
5. What are the competing titles?
This question is related to question number 1. Who else has written on this subject and what other books are already out there? How does your book differ–again, in a compelling way–from those? Be realistic and don’t list books by Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Thomas Friedman, and Malcolm Gladwell as competing titles, unless you are as famous as they are. Then again, if you’re famous, you can write about anything you want.
6. What will the length be and how will the book look?
Be aware of parameters that affect your book. Books are getting shorter, so you will run up against more reservations once you pass the 200-page mark. (Book pages are different from 250-word manuscript pages.) Color photographs and other graphic elements increase the costs for most publishers, so they will have to price the book higher to recoup costs. Inserts such as CDs or other materials also drive up costs. Be mindful of factors like these.
7. How will you actively market and support the book?
Books don’t launch movements; movements launch books. A book doesn’t launch an author’s career and build visibility; an author’s career and visibility are what launch a book, so don’t expect a book to kick-start your career. Don’t tell a publisher you are available to write articles, speak at events, and engage in other promotional efforts. You should already be writing, speaking, and consulting. Have an audience ready to buy your book before you start it so you have a base you can market and sell it to.
A Final Suggestion
Be careful when making assumptions about publishers and how publishing works. Publishing is an industry unlike any other, and the rules that govern other businesses don’t apply. Learn the lesson that Borders learned. The company’s last five CEOs did not have a publishing background and tried to run the company like their previous businesses. What could have worked wonders in other arenas drove a great store to bankruptcy.
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The 10th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 14-17, 2013/www.sfwriters.org / firstname.lastname@example.org / http://sfwriters.org/blog /@SFWC/ www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference
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