Between Books: 10 Common Mistakes in Book Proposals

1408767_87215604I’m working on my next book proposal now while editing some proposals that clients have been kind enough to entrust with me. And I like doing this concurrently — anyone who has ever edited anything (or, really, read anything) knows it’s much easier to see missteps in others’ work than it is to see them in your own. Though I do see plenty in my own work when I read it over, even after writing three proposals thus far! Herewith, I give you the most common mistakes I’ve seen in my first drafts, as well as many other first drafts — maybe we can all work together to avoid these in the future:

1. Switching points-of-view. Book proposal examples are often written in third person. In other words, I would write: “In this book, Armstrong will expose the juicy details of what went on behind the scenes of Fraggle Rock.” (This is not my next book, but now that I made that up on the spot, I sort-of wish it were.) But this can feel unnatural, obviously, so many writers end up switching back and forth; in some parts they call themselves “me,” others they call themselves by their last name as if they’ve never met themselves. Because I write non-fiction about other people, I favor the last-name approach, weird as it feels. It lends authority, I think, and allows you to brag a little. (You know: “bestselling author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong …” or whatever. That’s also made up. For now.) But if you’re writing something closer to a memoir, in which you are a character, I advise using first person, lest things get very strange very quickly. (Are you going to write your whole book in third person?)

2. Lots of hype, little substance. Temper your hype with the old writers’ adage: “Show, don’t tell.” One is trying to excite potential agents and publishers about a potential book, so it’s tempting to adorn your prose with constant “fascinating”s and “mesmerizing”s as if you have already collected reams of effusive reviews. But you need to show those agents how fascinating your proposal is by telling them a fascinating story without the word “fascinating” anywhere near it. You need to show him or her how “popular” your blog is by revealing your traffic numbers, not by calling it “popular.”

3. Backing into the point. If you don’t get immediately to what is actually interesting about your book, agents and editors won’t bother continuing to read. They have a huge slush pile to get through. If you don’t catch them immediately, you’re going in the recycling.

4. Assuming too much. You’re the expert on your subject matter; the agent or editor is not. Don’t assume they know certain lingo, people, or historical events that are unique to the world you’re describing. Tell me why this particular horse trainer is a big deal, or this old-timey movie producer made a name for himself.

5. Presuming that the publishing business is easy and bestsellers are the inevitable reward for good storytelling. When you get to the marketing and promotion sections of your proposal, the idea is not to cavalierly assert that obviously this book, due to its inherent merits, will cause lines to form around the block at Barnes and Noble. I don’t know if this ever happened, but it doesn’t now (if your name isn’t J.K. Rowling). The book business is tough, you guys, and very few books get a concerted marketing push from publishers. Publishers simply can’t afford it. (Or don’t want to do it, or whatever. It doesn’t matter why; the point is that they don’t do it.) Instead of telling the potential publishers why you believe your book will be the one to turn around an entire industry, tell them what you plan to do to get your book into as many hands as possible. Tell them how you will plan promotional events, to whom you will send review copies personally, how you will finance your own book tour. (In case you’re wondering, the vast majority of “book tours” these days are just authors buying plane tickets and pitching themselves to bookstores where they’re flying.) That is what this part of the proposal is for; not for you to tell them they ought to get you on The Today Show.

6. Burying the good stuff. Oftentimes, under a lot of bluster about how awesome an author thinks his or her own potential book is, there lies some actual information that is important to selling the book. Flaunt your contacts, the high-profile people who will write your introduction, blurb your book, or tell their high-profile friends about you. Emphasize your own expertise. And get to the good part of the story. These will sell the book. The hype, quite frankly, makes you seem amateurish, and possibly even a little insecure. Ironically, the more you brag, the less confident and qualified you seem, whether or not that’s true.

7. Lacking basic knowledge of how the book industry works. This can show up a lot of places, some of which I’ve already mentioned. I’d recommend reading up as much as you can while you’re putting together your proposal. Publishers Weekly and MediaBistro’s GalleyCat are good starting points. Or you can just make friends with writers and then listen to them bitch. You’ll learn a lot, and we like to bitch about publishing. We can generally be found drinking heavily at small bars that host literary readings.

8. Thinking your book is unique. I mean, it is, but it also isn’t. Chances are you have not reinvented literature as we know it with this idea. The good news: That’s not really what sells anyway.

9. Thinking a broad audience is best. This is an easy trap that we all fall into: When it comes to the marketing section of the book, we are tasked with defining our audience and backing it up with numbers. You know, “This book will appeal mostly to professional, urban women under 35 who read Elle magazine, which has a circulation of 1.1 million.” It’s hard to resist the urge to make your audience as big as possible by adding, “But it also will appeal to retired men, and middle-aged women, and hell, there’s that one part I think tween girls will really dig.” You want to show the publisher/agent how much money you can make him/her. I know. But well-defined is actually better than universal, in this case. The publisher would rather get a clear idea of your ideal reader, the better to target-market.

10. Waiting until your sample chapters to give us the good story. Hit us with the best part of the story immediately in the proposal — don’t save the good stuff for the sample chapters to create suspense. Again, you’ll be in the recycling bin before they ever glimpse a word of those shining sample chapters.

For more on my proposal editing services, click here.

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