As a former acquisitions editor at a publishing company, I well remember the ritual wherein executives gathered in a conference room armed with their tabbed notebooks. Once a month, department leaders—including those in editorial, marketing, and sales—and key sales representatives arrived for the pub board meeting. As a new editor, I had my spot on the schedule to present several books from my authors. Authors, retailers, librarians, and others in the publishing business never see or attend these sessions. I could feel the tension and intensity in the room. Each person knew the high stakes built into these meetings. Every book involves cost and risk to the publisher, and the pub board is where individuals are held accountable for their choices.
To get on the pub board agenda, a book passes through a number of checkpoints. An agent or the author pitched the book to the editor (me), and if I believed the proposal had merit for our house, I presented the book to our editorial team. They had to agree with my assessment before it was added to the agenda. Finally, editors prepared specific P&L documents for the pub board, to highlight our reasons for the book to be acquired before we made our in-person presentation to the department heads.
For decades, before attending pub board, I had been writing books for various traditional publishers. Until I joined a publishing house, I had never witnessed how they made the acquisition decisions. My experience was eye-opening and at times brutal. Occasionally, when I began to present a book and author, the COO would pipe up: “Terry, we could sell two of these books. One to me and one to someone else.” His statement was a deal killer for that book. We were looking for bestsellers. My presentation for that book was finished.
As I presented books at pub board meetings, there were many instances when writers missed an opportunity to get the attention of the board because of poorly written book proposals. While there isn’t an industry standard proposal, each should include an overview, author background, potential buyers, author marketing plans, competing books, and possible endorsers. Some agents have proposal templates for authors to submit and refine before going to publishers.
Often author pitches I saw were missing key elements in the competition section or were filled with untrue statements like, “My book is unique and has no competition.” With thousands of new books entering the market every day, the competition within publishing is fierce. There are no unique books—every book competes. Writers need to complete this section and detail their competitive titles. Imagine their books in bookstores. Which titles are beside them? These competitive titles need to be included.
Every author should treat a proposal as the book’s business plan. Authors should take their time in developing a proposal to ensure they make all of the points they want to make. A solid proposal typically runs 30–50 pages and can be the difference between getting a contract or losing a deal.
In 2004, I was a frustrated editor who wanted to get better submissions from authors. After reading many submissions, I wrote Book Proposals That $ell, 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success, and my book has since helped countless writers find a literary agent and a book deal. The publishing world has changed a great deal over the past 17 years. For example, one of my “secrets” was to always include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). At that time, publishers received and processed piles of paper submissions. If the author didn’t include the return postage, they did not get their submissions returned.
Today, submissions are received electronically, but even these require care to avoid sending viruses and malware. In my attempt to get rid of typographical errors in submissions, another secret was never to trust a spellchecker. Instead, one should read one’s work aloud before submitting, since the ear is less forgiving than the eye.
After deciding to update my old book, I completely revised the text, created a new cover, developed a new trailer, found a new publisher, and created a new launch team. In addition, I gathered a series of new endorsements from bestselling authors, agents, and editors.
When literary agent Steve Laube read my revised edition, he said, “You fixed a key flaw in your original book, which was it only focused on nonfiction.” Every book needs a proposal or business plan. To succeed, the proposal has to reach the right publisher at the right time with the right content. It takes persistence and a bit of luck for those “rights” to line up. Even the Chicken Soup for the Soul authors were rejected 140 times before finding the right publisher.
W. Terry Whalin has written more than 60 books. The revised Book Proposals That $ell was released October 5 by Morgan James.