Speakers who want to place their books with major
publishers may have difficulty connecting with decision-makers –
specifically acquisition editors – in the big houses. After all,
editors review between 300 and 1500 submissions a year and select only
a small percentage to publish. They’re often too busy for phone
So here’s an opportunity to learn how five acquisition
editors answered key questions you might ask them face to face.
Do you ever work directly with authors or always through a
Laura Shepherd (Avery Publishing – an imprint
of Penguin Putnam specializing in health-related topics) says her
company works directly with non-agented authors for about 50% of new
titles. “But it’s much easier to work with literary agents because the
proposals and manuscripts usually come to us in better shape.”
Mary B. Good (Dearborn Trade Publishing, specializing
in business, finance, real estate, entrepreneurial titles) works both
with agents and directly with authors, though she finds the process
goes smoother when first-time authors have an agent. “The key is an
author’s comfort level in negotiating contracts,” she says.
Jennifer Enderlin of St. Martin’s Press
(pop-psychology, self-help, relationship topics) adamantly prefers
working with agents; so do Lauren Marino of Broadway Books (business
and general interest nonfiction) and Jackie Johnson of Walker &
Company (history, science, self-help, children’s, fiction).
Notes Lauren, “There are many reasons for working with
agents. They negotiate the deal and can step in to represent the
author during difficult parts of the process. This allows the author
and editor to have an unsullied collaborative and creative
relationship. Agents and editors have long-term working relationships,
and come to understand one another’s tastes and styles. Also, I don’t
read proposals from agents I’ve never heard of because doing so makes
my job more difficult and time-consuming.”
What criteria do you apply when evaluating a book proposal?
Editors want the proposal to include the
Author’s Credentials and Platform
Lauren puts ‘author’s credentials and platform’ at
the top of her list of criteria. “If I’m looking for a spiritual or
self-help guru, I want to know he/she is out there building an
audience, conducting workshops, speaking in all the right places.”
That’s definitely a strength for active speakers.
Mary believes professional speakers who have
established a large following bring a benefit other authors don’t
have. “However, I make sure the book is written for the same audience
the author already speaks to…and not a new group. So the proposal
needs to reflect how many people are already being reached.”
Adds Laura, “We love it when authors are already ‘on
the circuit.’ The ability to find contacts and expand to bigger
audiences is important to the sale of the book.” That means the book
proposal must include a comprehensive marketing strategy that shows
how the author will attract a high volume of sales. While publishers
take care of distributing the books, they want authors to get their
own titles out in the world – creating appeal and name recognition
that leads to sales.
Says Lauren, “If you’ve self-published books that
have sold well, that’s going to help. If your last book bombed, it’s
going to hurt. First-time authors have an advantage in that they have
a clean record.”
Does having a track record mean editors look for a lot
of writing experience? Jennifer says not necessarily. “An author’s
experience can range from none to tons. That part doesn’t matter. What
matters is: Can I sell this book?”
Mary believes having a book already can be a blessing
or a curse. “If a current book hasn’t done well in the marketplace,
it’s important to document the reasons with data. Then we ask,
‘Through our company, can this new book do better?’”
“Be sure to present the sales figures for previous
books, include copies of the reviews, and list media appearances or
print interviews. If you’ve published articles on the subject, send
only one or two of them,” advises Jackie.
Doing extensive research before writing a book
proposal is critical to the persuasion process. “You need to know
what’s already out there,” says Jennifer. How? Scour bookshelves.
Check on-line booksellers for available titles. Suggests Laura,
“Subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly, a magazine that talks about what’s
happening in the publishing industry. On-line, check out Publisher’s
Advises Mary, “Your information needs to support market
demand for your idea and highlight why readers would pick up this
book. If there are no direct competitors, list current books on this
topic that come closest to yours. Do not simply write ‘there are no
competitors.’” Says Lauren, “Even if there’s no such thing as a fresh
idea, you must take a great idea and express it with a new angle or
with new research so it reads like it’s fresh.”
“Make your proposal as comprehensive and specific
as possible,” advises Mary. Indeed, some speakers/authors spend far
more time fine-tuning their proposals than writing their manuscripts.
In addition to spelling out the above elements, your
proposal should include a brief description (content of the book and
its intended market) and a three-paragraph summary of its purpose,
approach, organization and content. Be sure to mention why you wrote
the book. Include any special editorial features (e.g., forms, case
studies, charts, photos, research references, etc.), an outline of the
book (chapter names, subheads, brief explanations, appendices,
glossaries, etc.), project status (e.g., length of manuscript, date to
be completed) and a sample chapter that represents the heart of your
NSA members Michael Larsen and Jeff Herman have written
excellent references for writing proposals: How to Write A Book
Proposal, Michael Larsen, AAR (Writer’s Digest Books) and Write the
Perfect Book Proposal, Jeff Herman and Deborah M. Adams (John Wiley &
This is key. In Lauren’s words, “You would think
this goes without saying, but you wouldn’t believe some of the things
I’ve had to read. If you’re writing non-fiction as an expert but
aren’t a natural writer, hire a ghostwriter or freelance editor.”
Jennifer emphasizes that the book must have a clear, distinct voice
and an entertaining tone.
Says Mary, “Make sure the proposal itself is well
written. A proposal rarely comes in fully polished, yet it’s the only
tool I have to the sell the concept to my team of decision-makers at
Dearborn.” She wants to see documentation that verifies facts and
figures as well as print and media clips so the team can get a sense
for how to position your book in the media. “And when I read a
proposal from a speaker, I need to see that the author recognizes and
appreciates the difference between what works in the written word
versus the spoken word,” she cautions.
Bringing these points together, Jackie looks for
answers to these questions: What is unique about the proposed book in
the defined marketplace? How have similar books fared? What is the
author’s experience that documents expertise in writing about this
topic? Has the author persuaded me there’s a good market for the book?
What is the author willing and able to do to promote the book – apart
from the publisher’s efforts?
What are some pet peeves about working with authors?
Bypassing the publisher’s marketing
department by contacting producers and potential reviewers on your
Getting too wedded to a title or cover
concept. “Best to defer control on these issues to the expertise of
the publisher,” says Jackie.
Unrealistic expectations. “It’s a problem
when authors complain about the publicity effort. They’re
disappointed if their books don’t land on Oprah. But publicity can
be slow going. If an author makes a name locally first, then
regionally, it goes smoother for everyone involved. Developing
on-line promotions helps, too,” comments Laura.
What can authors do in partnership
with the publisher to have a top-selling book?
Choose a slant that hasn’t been “done to
Stay in tune with manuscript deadlines,
production and marketing schedules.
Make yourself available and willing to
seize publicity opportunities as they come along.
Work synergistically with the marketing
and sales team so we don’t duplicate our efforts. Allow the
publisher’s marketing professionals to take the lead.
Provide information that convinces
booksellers to order your book in strong numbers. For a book about
stargazing, for example, provide statistics showing a steady
increase in telescope sales.
Take time to understand the editor’s point
of view. Notes Lauren, “It takes years of reading submissions and
watching what’s working in the market, reading bestsellers, doing
research and working with mentors to develop this taste (in
acquiring books). Choosing books to acquire isn’t purely arbitrary –
cream will rise to the top.”
Even after years in this role, editors
enjoy its rewards. In Lauren’s words, “When I find something I feel
excited about, I know right away. I become very alert, my eyes open
wider, my heart beat accelerates.”
Is that your proposal she’s reading?
Barbara McNichol, a professional writer/editor, works with speakers
to polish their manuscripts and perfect their proposals and marketing
materials. She publishes an email newsletter called Word Trippers to
clarify words that trip you up. Contact her at 877-696-4899 or
Bonus article -
How to Think Like an Editor*
*a copyeditor, that is
Writers are divine translators – we take our
observations of the world, spin a few metaphors, draw a few
conclusions, and translate them into words and concepts on paper (or
When you are wearing a “writer's hat,” you express your
thoughts in words. On the other hand, when you put on an “editor's
glasses,” you hone the words you've written to make sure they
communicate with your intended audience.
As a writer, you need to develop your ability to think
like an editor. Why? To make sure your writing hits its target and
gets your message across.
Thinking like an editor means reading your piece as if
you have never seen it before. An editor examines every word and asks:
Is it NECESSARY?
Is it CLEAR?
Is it CONCISE?
If the answer to any of these questions is
no, get out your red pen. Writers often fall in love with their words;
editors objectively weed them out so the flowers have room to grow.
Rules of Thumb
Keep this handful of rules in mind as you edit your
writing. They cover about 90% of the most common writing problems.
Use the active voice.
Passive: It was decided that everyone would take the class.
Active: The principal decided everyone would take the class.
Make subjects and verbs agree.
Incorrect: A group of writers were in town. ("Group" is
while "were" is plural.)
Correct: A group of writers was in town. ("Group" is the subject
here, not "writers.")
Use parallel construction.
Weak: We've learned to read, write, and we're making sure
information is shared.
Stronger: We've learned to read, write, and share information.
Make the subject obvious.
Yucky: Driving down the highway, the new stadium came into
(Who was driving down the highway? The stadium?)
Better: We could see the new stadium as we drove by it.
Use specific, vivid verbs and nouns.
(Don't overuse adverbs and adjectives.)
Dull: I saw some really pretty yellow daffodils.
Interesting: I reveled in a riot of daffodils.
Tell the whole story.
Stories, like plays, are usually told in three acts. (Act One
– set up
the situation. Act Two – develop it. Act Three – resolve it.) Make
you have a third act; otherwise, you've just got an incomplete
anecdote. Also, write the end of your story to echo its beginning
it will feel complete to the reader.
So put on your
editor's glasses and clean up your copy. Make sure every word counts.
And when you can't stand it anymore, call in a professional editor to
lend an objective eye. Your readers will appreciate it.
- Barbara McNichol & Lynn Grasberg