Four Things You Shouldn't Say In Your Book Proposal

Over the years I have enjoyed the opportunity to review thousands of book proposals. I realize that every proposal must contain some sales pitch-type statements to make the project more attractive to publishing houses, but some of these declarations don't really help your case. Here are four statements to avoid in your proposals (and why):

1. "There's presently no other book that covers what my book covers." In some sense, this bodes true of everything anyone writes. We are all individuals and so each project presents a unique individual's voice and approach. Authors sometimes define the uniqueness of their work a little too narrowly. The truth is that there's little that is really new (if the Bible said it back then, it's truer than ever now). A book arguing how leaders must be visionaries first, practical second, and leaders third offers little different from another book arguing that leaders should be leaders first, practical second, and visionaries third. Authors shouldn't try so hard because publishers know that there is little that is truly new out there, but publishers do want to see how authors can take something and put a compelling and new spin on it.

2."I am a Pulitzer-Prize/National Book award/award-winning/award-nominated author." Using the word "nominated" in this instance involves some creative wordplay. Anyone can apply to win the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, or just about any book award as long as they cough up submission fees and submit an application. So, yes, authors could simply submit an application for their own work and then refer to themselves as nominees, but for the reason mentioned above, such a declaration carries little weight. If an author is a finalist (or winner, of course), then that is a different matter entirely. Also, the phrase "award-winning author" carries minimal weight unless the author specifies the name of the award so that the publisher can verify its prestige. There are no legal requirements as to what constitutes an award, so I could be the recipient of the "Frick Peacemaker Award 2011," which sounds impressive until you realize that Frick is my wife's last name. (Of course this is pure fiction because my wife would never deem me worthy of any awards.)

3. "Upon the release of my book, I intend to aggressively sell and market the work."
Author marketing plans often show great drive and acumen. However, such marketing plans represent statements of intent, not statements of fact. With no way of knowing whether such statements or actions will actually translate into book sales, we can't rely too much on them. But telling us what you have already done in terms of media appearances, writing articles, features, networks, presentations, speeches, conferences, and so on proves far more helpful. If someone comes to us with a solid book idea and a list of previous achievements and affiliations, we can deem this author's plans as realistic given his or her previous achievements. However, sometimes authors think that a book is just the thing they need to build a solid platform. Unfortunately for them, books don't launch movements and careers, careers and movements launch books.

4. "This book is for everyone between the ages of 19 and 75/working in any size business in America/all people concerned with the current state of the world/etc." The myth of the general nonfiction reader remains just that -- a myth. Just because an author addresses millions of middle managers/working mothers/frazzled leaders in America, it doesn't mean those intended audiences will immediately run out and buy that author's book. People who go into bookstores online or in person most often go to a particular section that interests them. Within this particular section, they'll seek out a favorite subject, and within that subject matter, authors they like. Almost all readers have their favored literary niches, and this fact only reaffirms the importance of writing for a particular audience rather than a general one. Besides, when have you or anyone else you know ever wandered into a bookstore and asked for a book that could be for, well, anyone?

Right, now you know!


What I Look for in Authors

Books and websites abound advising authors on how to craft successful book proposals. Thousands of agents can guide authors on securing an editor’s attention. The many available resources do a fine job emphasizing the need for original, quality content, research on competitive titles, and direct connections with the community the author hopes to serve. But what’s missing from these guidelines? Here, Johanna Vondeling, BK’s Vice President for Editorial and Digital, offers curiosity as the professional characteristic most likely to secure an editor’s attention:

Curiosity About the Reader. I am always attracted to authors who place their readers’ needs first. Authors who have carefully researched the readers they want to serve -- and who know concretely what challenges those readers face -- are much more likely to design a project that serves a real market need. The first question on our proposal guidelines is, what is the need for your project? I suggest that, rather than responding to this question with the argument that no one has ever written on this subject before, it's more helpful when an author identifies a particular gap or unfilled need in the marketplace. What’s the author's pain point, or yet-to-be-realized opportunity? Editors appreciate author prospects who can help educate them (and their marketing and sales staff) about the dynamics at play in the target community. The more information and research you can provide, the better equipped your editor will be to help you craft a project that will effectively serve the intended audience.

Curiosity About the Industry. A well-educated author is a publisher’s best friend. It’s always extremely encouraging when author prospects ask questions about how publishing works. Myths about publishing abound; at Berrett-Koehler, we find we collaborate most effectively with authors who are willing and able to distinguish fact from fiction. We always share our 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing, to help explain some of the harsher realities publishers and authors are up against, and I am always heartened when author prospects read the list carefully and pose thoughtful questions about what the recent and rapid changes in the industry mean for their hopes and efforts to serve readers.

Curiosity About Mutual Expectations. I am always glad to answer questions that help clarify mutual expectations, especially expectations that apply to process. Good questions include, Who are the decision makers in this process, and what do they value? How long does it take the average author to write a draft? What happens if I miss a deadline? Authors who have read our publication agreement (publicly available here) are encouraged to ask for clarification of any clause they might find confusing. Authors who suspect they might be better off self-publishing should ask, point-blank, what value the publisher would bring to the project.

For further guidance on BK’s expectations of authors and on our reciprocal commitment to them, please feel free to review our Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors.