ASJA: “How to Write a Killer Book Proposal… For a Dead Tough Market.” Leading the conversation were veteran literary agent Marilyn Allen, bestselling author and freelance editor Bev West, and Gotham President Dan Gerstein.
Marilyn and Bev both agreed that the book market isn’t dead, but it is in a state of flux. Although it seems like advances are shrinking, editors are getting laid off by the score, and acquisitions are stalling all around, the truth is, if you know how to properly navigate the new publishing climate, there are more opportunities than ever to get your voice heard and back up your book ideas with solid market research that commands top dollar. The best news? Marilyn reported that last fall and spring she sold more books than ever.
So how do make sure your proposal gets to the top of the pile? Here are some tips from our panelists.
Before you type your first line…
Do your research and gather the data that you need to prove your market. Bev emphasized that one of the most important decisions to make before you ever set pen to paper is to clarify your brand message and define your target audience. Who are you writing for? What is the central message you’re trying to convey, and why will it appeal to your target audience? What’s already selling in your space, and what’s fresh about your project that those books don’t offer? Marilyn suggested reading the reviews of competitive titles to see if there are needs that aren’t being met. If you want to write a book about honey and you learn that readers of the bestselling honey books complained that they all lacked recipes, that’s your cue to write a book that includes honey recipes.
Be the whole package: “hook, book, and cook”
Marilyn said that when she’s considering taking on a project or client, she’s not just looking at the quality of the writing, she’s looking at the whole package. The hook: Why is this book about trees different than all the hundreds of other books about trees? The book: What is in this book that we a haven’t read before? The cook: What makes you the right person to write this book? Bev and Marilyn both agreed that building a platform that illustrates your unique expertise and your connections with your target audience is more important than ever in today’s market.
Get to know social media make the internet your BFF
We’re living in an internet-driven world. If you don’t have a social media presence, you might as well forget about getting a nonfiction project published. Bev said that agents and publishers look for a platform first. Before they even read a proposal, they check out your blog, your social media following, and how large your online footprint is. Marilyn suggested approaching your target community as if you’re networking at a cocktail party. Start by posting your content—and make sure you have something to say—and then mingle with your audience. Don’t neglect SEO when tagging blog posts—you want your audience to be able to find you. And remember: the internet is dynamic, not static, so you need to update your content and engage your audience regularly. Marilyn described how she found one of her latest projects, a book about Pinterest, by seeking out the “expert” who was blogging about it the most and the loudest. This level of audience engagement is very labor-intensive and can seem overwhelming. Dan suggested that one way to save time and energy is to tap into the glut of under-employed twenty-somethings and outsource the job of generating content to them.
Finally, here are ten tips for a pitch that packs a punch:
1. Start with a bang. Jump right in and keep them wanting more.
2. Provide a market overview with strong ad copy. Make it smart, funny, and relevant.
3. Describe your target audience: What are they like, what are they looking for, how are you connected to them already, and what’s your plan to engage them further?
4. Show that you already have a platform and access to your audience.
5. Sell yourself as part of your book package.
6. Do your competitive title analysis right. Don’t ever compare your project to Eat Pray Love or Marley and Me—name-dropping bestsellers is a sure sign of an amateur. Choose perennial favorites and align yourself with books that have staying power.
7. Make sure your chapter outline demonstrates the shape and arc of your book. Include sound bites and emphasize the hook.
8. Make sure your sample chapter(s) show off your voice and give a sense of what differentiates your content from the rest.
9. Be succinct and efficient: engage, educate, and entertain. Have empathy for the person who’ll be reading your proposal, and remember that yours isn’t the only proposal in the world.
10. Be professional. Make absolutely sure your proposal is proofread and typo-free. Avoid unnecessary bells, whistles, and nontraditional formatting.
The whole workshop is available as a streaming webcast over on the ASJA portal site. Check it out!
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