How to Write a Book Proposal, Part V: The rest of it

Here at last is the final segment of my ongoing series on how to avoid the most common pitfalls menacing the first-time NF book proposer. I have just spent the weekend running a garage sale, which is an apt metaphor for today’s set of advice: it is well worth the effort to take the time to set out your book’s wares thoughtfully and attractively. If you don’t set the sweaters and old plates out where prospective buyers can see them, but instead leave them in poorly-marked crates, buyers will have to expend a lot of energy to dig through the dross and packing material to get to your treasures.
If, however, you polish your silver vases and arrange Great-Aunt Matilda’s rhinestone jewelry where it can glint in the sun, even a prospective buyer casing your wares at a dead run will notice them. Heck, once we had our goodies displayed beautifully, one sharp-eyed woman bought our chest of drawers by the simple method of slamming on her SUV’s breaks and shouting a bid for it out the driver’s side window. Marketing is marketing.

Agents and editors, alas, tend not to have the time to dig through the boxes at the back of your garage, intellectually speaking — you need to make sure your book’s top selling points are not buried in the middle of 27 pages of exposition. Even if your book is the best marketing idea since THE PETER PRINCIPLE, if the presentation is not competent and professional (not synonyms, in this instance), chances are the ultra-fast skim most proposals are given will not make the market potential so obvious to you leap out at an editor.

I bring this up now, because by the time most newbie proposers reach table of contents section of the book proposal, they are so exhausted that they put the barest minimum effort into it. Please don’t make the pervasive mistake of simply reproducing the table of contents you expect to see in the finished book, where only the titles of each chapter are listed, with perhaps some impression of corresponding page numbers. All such a submission tells an agent or an editor is whether you are talented at coming up with chapter titles, which misses the point of this section: your goal here is to give a chapter-by-chapter overview of what will be in the finished book.

The key phrase to keep in mind here is ANNOTATED table of contents. Each chapter heading should be accompanied by a 2 – 3 sentence description of what will be in that chapter. Keep it concise, but do provide enough detail that a reader can see how one chapter’s argument leads naturally to the next. Yes, you will have already presented the overall argument in the overview section, but here you are showing what plank of your platform, so to speak, falls in each chapter.

In accordance with the advice of my marvelous agent, I am honor-bound to add here: don’t go to town. Limit yourself to a couple of sentences per chapter, and try not to have the whole table of contents run longer than two pages.

The next piece of the book proposal is the sample chapter (s). The rule here is simple: it should be absolutely your best writing, polished to the nines. If the chapter is less than about 20 pages, consider submitting a second sample chapter as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the chapter submitted need not be Chapter 1 – and that should come as a relief to you. In most NF books, the first chapter carries the heavy burden of summarizing the rest of the book, and thus is often the most difficult to write. If you have an interior chapter that is already in apple-pie order, include that instead. Don’t bother to provide an explanation for why you chose that chapter – everyone concerned will understand that you felt it was your best work.

In selecting your sample chapter, bear in mind that the object here is to show that you can execute in elegant, readable prose the promises you made in the overview and annotated table of contents – and do so in a style that will appeal to the target market you have identified. If your favorite chapter does not meet ALL of these criteria, consider choosing another that does.

And please, please promise me that the chapter will be in standard manuscript format, in the same typeface as the rest of the book proposal. No fancy fonts, no funky spacing, nothing that will make your work seem anything but rock-solid professional. (For those of you not familiar with precisely how standard manuscript format differs from the format one sees printed in books, hang onto your proposal for a few more days. I’ll do a write-up on standard format later.)

After your chapter, include an author bio. Basically, this is a slightly longer version of the biographical blurb we’ve all seen on the back inside dust jacket of hardcover books. No need to start with your birth or go into superlative detail — your bio should be 250 words, max, so you will only have room for the high points.

I know that it may seem a trifle redundant to include in the book proposal, given that you will have just written extensively in the overview about who you are and why you should be hired to write this book, but you need to include a one-page summary of your life. This isn’t like P.E., where you could fake massive cramps to get out of playing volleyball — yes, this is an annoying requirement, but there’s no getting out of it. Sorry.

If you prefer, you may write a single-spaced half-page, and include an author photo on the top third of the page. (The expense of this is less massive than it sounds: a good color copier will enable you to reproduce the photo page en masse for the 20 or so copies of your book proposal that your agent will eventually want you to produce.) I would highly recommend this route if you have a nifty recent photo of yourself engaged in an activity related to the topic of the book: if you are writing about firefighting, by all means let the photo show you in a firefighter’s uniform or surrounded by flames.

The tone of the bio should echo the tone of the book, if possible – not all bios are deadly serious. Mention in the last sentence what your next project is (you should ALWAYS say you are working on your next book; it brands you as a professional writer, not a one-shot author.)

In our bio, make sure to include your educational background, any awards won (ever, for anything), what you do for a living, etc., even if you think these aspects are neither representative of who you are as a writer or even remotely relevant to your topic. Don’t be afraid you will sound pompous if you list your credentials at length here — potentially, they are all selling points. Personally, like many graduates of Ivy League colleges, I tend not to mention in casual conversation where I went to school: as the old Radcliffe joke goes, the fastest way to get rid of a lecherous man in a bar is to tell him you went to Harvard. But is it prominent in my bio? You bet.

Also prominent in my bio is the fact that I grew up on the top floor of a Napa Valley winery, literally in the middle of a vineyard. Zinfandel, to be precise. Is that relevant to my book? Only marginally, but it is undeniably memorable — and part of the object of the bio game is to make darned sure that some aspect of your personality sticks firmly in the mind of everyone who reads it. I’m pragmatic: I don’t mind editors referring to me as the winery girl, as long as they are passing my proposal from hand to hand while they are doing it.

Make yourself sound interesting; you wouldn’t believe how dull and businesslike most bios are. If you have a wacky hobby, definitely mention it. Part of the point of the bio is let agents and editors know that you are a fascinating person with whom they might like to have a conversation in future. Remember, you are not just marketing the book you are proposing; you are marketing yourself as a contract employee of the publishing house.

“Yeah, right,” I can hear you scoffing. “Like they’re interested in me as a human being.

Bite your tongue, oh ye of little faith, for I have an anecdote to share. The bio in my book proposal presented me, if I do say so myself, as a pretty darned interesting human being. I am one of the world’s leading authorities on a minor political theorist, for instance, a fact appreciated by about five worthy souls scattered around the planet, and I once spent a summer running away from wild animals whilst researching for an impecunious travel guide. Oh, and I mentioned that I was working on my next book, a humorous novel about the adult lives of kids who had grown up on a hippie commune, because I went through grammar school with quite a few commune kids.

None of this had even the vaguest relationship with my memoir, which is about my relationship with a science fiction writer in my youth. Scarcely a grapevine mentioned. Yet when my agent was shopping my proposal around, an editor who passed on my memoir called her up and asked to see my novel. Why? Because, the editor said, she had liked the voice in my sample chapter –and my bio had intrigued her.

I just mention.

At the end of your proposal, include a sampling of your clippings, if you have any. If you have ever written anything for a magazine, especially a nationally-distributed one, photocopy it and include it here, even if the topic and tone have absolutely nothing to do with the proposed book. Ditto with any credited newspaper articles, short stories, and book excerpts.

This is a stumbling block for a lot of new authors, and rightly so. If your book is about thermonuclear war and your most recent clipping is about rose husbandry, it may seem disproportionate. After all, having written a few newspaper or magazine articles doesn’t necessarily mean that you can write a book, any more than having written a good short story means that you can instantly write the Great American Novel. However, including clippings tells an editor two things: you can meet a deadline, and someone else has taken a chance on you before (if you have been trying to find an agent for any length of time, you may already have noticed that nobody in the publishing industry likes to be the first person to recognize a new author’s work — but they love being the second).

If you don’t have any clippings, don’t worry about it. A good proposal will speak for itself. But you might want to consider, for the sake of your future projects, volunteering to write a book review or two for your community paper, or offering to write an article gratis on some item of local interest, so you have clippings later on. Even a small venue is worthwhile, and it doesn’t matter a particle whether you were paid to write the piece in question: what matters is that it saw print.

Are you rolling with laughter yet at the picture of me trying to scrabble all of this together in under three weeks? I believe I speak for my family, my friends, my neighbors, and my pets when I say: for everybody’s sake, take a little more time.

One last thing: proposals are not bound in any way, so do not stick yours in the kind of three-hole punched folder you used for reports in high school. Use a folder with pockets, and nestle your work inside. And make sure the folder is either black (the safest) or dark blue.

Yes, your work will stand out more on a cluttered desk if it is in a tiger-striped magenta and silver folder. But in the conservative publishing industry, which equates standardized presentation with professionalism, standing out in that way is a drawback. Believe it or not, a non-standard proposal folder will seldom even get opened.

Please feel free to ask me follow-up questions about any of this, via the COMMENTS feature. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to Write a Book Proposal, Part IV: The Comparative Market Analysis

All right, class, is everybody ready? If you’re chewing gum, I hope you brought enough for everyone currently surfing the net.

The next section of the book proposal is the comparative market analysis, wherein you talk about who has written on your topic before and, ideally, convince your dream agent and prospective editors that your book can hold its own amongst the already-existing competition. The idea here is to show three things: that you are aware of the competition, that your book is different from and better than what is already on the market, and that the market could stand to have another book on your subject without sending readers running screaming out of bookstores everywhere.

After the marketing plan, the competitive titles section is the one where the most rookie mistakes are made. This is usually not the rookie’s fault: most guides are quite vague on what this section should entail. As a result, almost all first-time proposers give too little information, producing either a mere list (often with only a couple of titles) or a rapid overview that does not include any discussion of how the proposed work differs from those listed. In a rookie proposal, this section, like the marketing section, usually reads as though the writer resented having to do it at all.

Why is the Comparative Titles section necessary? Basically, its function is to give the acquiring editor an easy way to fill out the Title Information Sheet that is the first step toward buying your book. It is the Title Information Sheet, not your entire book proposal, that gets circulated to the non-editorial departments before an offer can be tendered, so the marketing department can figure out how the book could be positioned to optimize sales, the number-crunchers can figure out how much paper and ink it will take to print it, etc. The more legwork you put in here (within reason), the easier it is for the editor to do his or her job of proving to the rest of the publishing house that your book deserves to be acquired.

You’d be surprised by how few proposing authors do not check out the competition! If you are not already familiar with the market, try entering the search words you think readers will use to find your book into the Amazon or Barnes and Noble search engines, and take a gander at the top half-dozen titles that appear. Better yet, walk into a well-stocked bookstore and see what is sitting on the shelves. Wait for a lull in the business day, and ask an idling clerk to tell you what the three best-selling books in your section of the bookstore are.

You may already have a shelf bowed with the weight of tomes on your topic, but avoid the temptation of packing your comparative market analysis with books more than five years old — or ones that did not sell well. The publishing world is very oriented in the NOW, so try to list books that are still in the major bookstores. If a perfect parallel was published a decade ago, you may include it, of course, but if you list too many elderly titles, your topic runs the risk of looking dated.

Why is looking dated the kiss of death? Well, the fact is, most book proposals do feature dated competitive title lists, which means a truly well-selected, market-conscious list stands out from the crowd. If a significant book on your topic has come out within the last few months and it is NOT included in your comparative market analysis, it is an automatic red flag: editors tend not to be too crazy about authors who do not know their own markets. An up-to-date list brands you as a professional who is aware of the competition – and is willing to make sure the proposed book avoids the pitfalls into which the competition fell.

To appear even more professional, include at least one title with a very different philosophical, political, or regional perspective than your own. This shows the editor that you are not only reading books with which you personally agree, but that you have given some serious thought to how your book is going to differentiate itself from the rest of the market.

Six to eight currently-available titles is standard. List the title, author’s name, publisher, date of publication, and a one- or two-sentence description of each book.

It is vitally important that you include for each title a couple of ways in which your book will be different and/or better. Why will yours appeal to a broader audience than the current market leader? What fatal flaw did the comparative title have, and how will you avoid it? (This last is most effective when the comparative title in question was a major bestseller, of course.)

Be critical, but be concise: this is not a comparative literature final exam, where you will be judged on your attention to minor differences. Broad strokes are fine, as long as your writing is clear and you treat your potential competitors with respect. Try to mention at least one positive thing about every title.

Let’s say you are writing a book on pet training, entitled THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS. You think everything else on the market is absolute drivel, but as a professional, you do not want to show that. Instead, you concentrate on your competitors’ strengths. Your Comparative Market Analysis might look something like this:

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in interest in cat training. In August, 2005, an Internet search on Google brought up 1,234 hits. In the same month, Amazon.com listed 56 titles on the subject, as well as 78 titles on the related subject of ferret and rabbit training. Current titles include:

CAT TRAINING AND YOU, by Steve Smith (Ballentine, 2005)

The current bestseller, Smith’s book provides a broad overview of cat training techniques and advice, but little discussion of philosophy. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS will provide specific advice, broken down by breed, and a fuller discussion of the history of cat training.

WHAT, ME TRAIN MY CAT? by Tom Jones (Random House, 2002).

Jones provides a very basic guide to cat training, illustrated sparsely by line drawings. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS, by contrast, will feature many full-color pictures, as well as three times the number of tricks.

ONLY MANIACS TRAIN CATS TO SWIM, by Clarissa Lovelace (Putnam Penguin, 2001)

Lovelace’s work is the best of the recent spate of books arguing against cat training on moral grounds. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS answers these concerns by presenting a wide variety of humane training techniques, as well as discussion of the current swimming controversy.

ME AND MY FLUFFY, by Paul McCartney (Coffee Table Books, 2003)

While this is primarily a celebrity photo book, it does include a chapter on the former Beatle teaching his cat to play rhythm guitar. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS approaches the topic more seriously than McCartney’s book, and limits itself to training cats to performing tasks of more interest to the general cat owner.

THE HIPPIE’S GUIDE TO CAT TRAINING by Peace Loveshine (Harmony Press, 1972)

The enduring classic on cat tutelage, this book’s frequent references to former President Richard Nixon render it unappealing to the current generation of readers. By providing a solid, apolitical treatment of the topic, THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS will not render itself obsolete in five years’ time.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? You needn’t spend three months reading to put such a list together, or spend a mountain of money buying up every book that exists: instead, spend a weekend seated in front of the appropriate shelf at a megastore, seeing what is cutting-edge in your topic, take good notes, then come home and write. If you are really at a loss for something critical to say, check out the formal and readers’ reviews on Amazon for ideas.

While you’re in the bookstore, you might want to take notes on what publishers tend to publish in your area – and how good those publishers are at getting shelf space for their authors. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but those little tables at the front of big bookstores that hold fat piles of bestsellers-to-be are almost never purely the result of avid bookstore employees pushing their favorite new releases: some clever marketer has generally exchanged hard cash or favors for that placement. Ditto with which books are placed face-out on the shelves, as opposed to spine-out; face-out books sell far better. Ideally, you would like a publishing house that can place your work well.

One final piece of advice: do be measured in your critique. Don’t praise any competitive title beyond its deserts; no matter how bad the competition is, try to avoid being too scathing. Since editors move around so much, it is not beyond belief that someone who worked on the book you chose to excoriate might end up reading your proposal – and offended editors seldom acquire books.

I speak from personal experience. The quality of research in the many biographies of Philip K. Dick currently on the market ranges from excellent to laughable, so necessarily, I had to point out in my book proposal that one of the recent offerings was stuffed to bursting with flat-out fabrications. This bio had made me very angry when I read it — the author had made gratuitous and untrue attacks upon my mother, a playground fighting situation if there ever was one – but I reined in my feelings and wrote a politely critical review. And in truth, my brief critique in the comparative titles section was far less harsh than, say, the NY Times review of the noisome volume had been.

I did, however, mention in passing that the latitude the author had allowed himself had made most of us who had actually known Philip pretty furious. When my proposal fell under the eyes of the editor who had handled the U.S. version of the book, he naturally felt that my criticism cast a negative reflection upon the two years he had spent working on the book’s translation from its original French. He felt, again naturally, that he would prefer not to work with an author who questioned the research methodology of his authors, even with good grounds. Ultimately, my agent got an earful about it.

Yes, this was an unfortunate coincidence, but note what happened here: since I had been respectful in how I presented my critique of this genuinely loathsome book, the editor did not simply throw my proposal into the trash. Instead, he took the time to call my agent and discuss the matter. I ended up with useful feedback, rather than an unexplained no.

Your book proposal is bread cast upon the waters, my friends, a message in a bottle that you hope will wash up on kindly shores. You cannot necessarily anticipate the tastes and pet peeves of the beachcombers who might pick it up – but by being respectful, professional, and clear, you can minimize its chances of being roasted over a fire by angry cannibals.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to Write a Book Proposal, Part III: The Marketing Plan

I have already gone through the overview and the target market in previous postings. Now on to the marketing plan, the part of the book proposal that both strikes the greatest fear into the hearts of first-time proposers, as well as the part that most often gets a cursory treatment. Agents and editors see a LOT of rather lame marketing plans, ones that make it absolutely clear that the author deeply resents having to do this vital research at all.

In practical terms, this is a mistake, because today, even a very enthusiastic reception from an editor and a big advance do not necessarily equal a publisher’s commitment to promote a book. Most potential authors still assume that their publishing houses will set up personal appearances and readings for them. Many small houses still do, but nowadays, most large houses only set up tours for their top sellers. So you need to demonstrate that you are perfectly capable of marketing this book yourself, if they cannot spare you any publicity resources.

So what is a marketing plan? At its most basic level, it is a few pages that explain how the target audience of readers could be reached. For most first-time proposers, this section is largely guesswork, but you need to do it anyway. Don’t think of it as yet another instance of telling publishing professionals how to do what they already do so well: think of it as your single best opportunity to demonstrate to prospective agents and editors how VERY committed you are to this project.

The most direct way to demonstrate that commitment is to fill your marketing plan with activities that YOU intend to perform just before and just after the book comes out. Yes, you want the publisher to book you into speaking engagements and book signings, but what will you do on your own? Editors love writers who will commit to spending serious time on book promotion. Are you a member of any large organizations that might allow you to send promotional postcards to their mailing lists, or allow you to write a piece on your topic in their newsletters? Are there magazines that you could query with articles broken out of book chapters? If so, which chapters? Does your college alumni magazine publish book reviews? Remember, every clipping counts toward sales, in the long run.

Some standard means that don’t get mentioned much in proposals are:

• — Contacting regional independent bookstores yourself to arrange readings and signings.

• — Giving seminars at regional writers’ conferences or other gatherings devoted to either writing or your subject matter.

• — Creating a column for a magazine or newspaper (tell them this is already in the works; it sounds better). Even if you do this gratis, it’s good promotion.

• — Meeting with book groups to discuss your work.

• — Establishing a website to promote your work.

• — Creating a professional press kit and sending it to potentially interested news sources.

Make sure that in addition to standard marketing techniques (such as author readings and signings), you list at least a couple of means of reaching your target group specifically. Mention any regional or national groups to which members of your demographic belong. If you are pushing a book on bass fishing, will you speak at organizations of bass fisherfolk? Name these organizations, and say how many members they have. Will you haunt independent bookstores, accosting anyone who smells of fish? Tote copies of your opus to fishing holes, and give away free flies with every copy?

Think broadly and creatively. Don’t be afraid to be a little wacky; ideally, you would like your dream editor to chuckle while reading this section, murmuring, “Wow, that’s a great idea.”
Do be aware that the publishing house will actually expect you to perform what you promise here, however, and whatever you do, don’t make the common rookie mistake of limiting your marketing plan to pointing out to publishers the astonishing fact that bookstores occasionally allow authors to give readings. I promise you, they are already aware of that phenomenon. Tell them something they don’t already know, such as the fact that you have been a teacher for the past 26 years, so you have a wealth of public speaking experience, or that you belong to an organization where the members lunch together every Thursday nationwide, listening to speakers like you.

Be creative: what do you have to offer as a marketer? This is the place to mention, for instance, if you have given a magnificently successful reading at one of the PNWA’s The Word Is Out events. (Plug, plug.) You’d be astonished at how few prospective authors are bold enough to read their work in public – it’s invaluable experience that will serve you well at book signings down the road.

If you feel that this section looks a little thin, pull out the stops and tell them you are willing to hire a professional publicist yourself, if necessary. This is becoming a more common practice than you may think. And even if you ultimately decide not to hire a professional, remember, paying a high school student to stuff envelopes for you on a Saturday is technically hiring promotional help, if push comes to shove.

Tomorrow, we move on the comparative market analysis. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to write a book proposal, part II: identifying your target audience

Okay, today I have a fan trained in the direction of my feverish brow, my feet up on a big block of ice, and a bevy of maidens singing softly in the background, to calm my mind as I recall the hectic proposal-writing process of last summer. Today, I am going to talk about the second part of the book proposal: a discussion of whom you expect to buy your book and why.

It is very, very common for book proposals to skip this step entirely, moving directly from the overview to the marketing plan. In fact, a significant minority of books and articles out there on how to write a proposal either advise limiting this information to a line or two in the marketing section, or ignore the issue entirely. If an idea is good enough, everyone will want to buy the book, right? No need to descend to the sordid mention of submarkets and demographics.

Certainly, the proposal is less work if you omit this section, and it’s definitely easier on the writer’s ego not to wonder about who is going to buy the book in the future. Let’s face it, quite a lot of us writers truly want to believe that there are charming people out there who will rush out to buy a book simply because we have written it. I’ve met many an aspiring writer who has actually become angry when I asked who their target market was, as though the very question implied that their work has something less than universal appeal, or as if pausing to consider market forces for even an instant somehow compromises that quality of the writing as Art.

Let me let you in on a secret: this is not a question that troubles career writers. I have literally never met a successfully published writer of either fiction or nonfiction who didn’t have an awfully good grasp on who buys her work and why. Marketing a book is simply too hard for a prudent person to leave to random, uniformed chance.

And, frankly, to professional eyes, the omission of a specific section on the target audience can look like fear that there might not BE an audience for the proposed book; agents and editors tend not to be too impressed by prospective writers who haven’t done their homework. Even the artiest editor, even the least worldly agent keeps a very close eye on market demographics. This is just common sense: otherwise, they would go out of business rather quickly.

If you do not identify the target market, your agent will have to, in order to sell the book to the editor, just as the editor will have to explain your book’s market appeal at editorial and sales meetings prior to buying it. If you have given a lucid, well-researched presentation of your target market in your proposal, both the agent’s and editor’s job become substantially easier.

So don’t listen to the seductive calls of self-love, laziness, or fear: there are very good reasons to take some time to picture the people who will be reading your book. Think of it as an act of respect to your reader: how will your book improve this reader’s life? Will it add pleasure, knowledge, practical tips on how to do something? The target audience section is the place to demonstrate how the book will accomplish this.

But first, you will need to identify your target reader. Oftentimes, it is someone very like the writer herself: in a pinch, you can always identify your own demographic, or the demographics that apply to the people in your case studies.

Allow me to use my own book as a practical example. For my memoir about my adolescent relationship with SF author Philip K. Dick, it was significant that there were 44,800 websites devoted to him and his work, and that between 5 and 12% of the U.S. population suffers from agoraphobia, as Philip did: naturally, these startling statistics made it into my book proposal. However, it is also significant that I am a Gen Xer: there are 47 million Americans in my age group, 40% of whom have divorced parents. Obviously, not all of them will be interested in Philip’s work, but almost 19 million people in my demographic have watched their parents deal with their exes. Since my memoir deals in part with the unusually cordial post-divorce relationship between Philip and my mother, I could legitimately identify these people as potentially interested readers.

Do include statistics if you possibly can, just in case your target agent and editor haven’t done a book on your subject recently. Yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a demographer. However, the average agent or editor isn’t a demographer, either; you do not want to run the risk that an uninformed guess at an editorial meeting will underestimate your audience. You’re better off telling stating the facts outright, so the dream editor for your bass fishing opus can say to her colleagues, “Wow! Who knew there were that many people reading books whilst standing thigh-deep in rivers?”

If you can’t find the statistical information you need on the Internet, most large-city public libraries have a research librarian who can tell you where to start looking. Be very polite to this person: she may well help you so much that you will want to name your first child after her.

When you are hunting up your statistics, give some thought to not merely the ideal reader, who is already out there buying books on your topic, but also the more casual reader, whose interests may abut your topic. While my memoir is not primarily about mourning, it does discuss several important deaths of people close to me that occurred during my adolescence. By dint of doing a bit of research, I learned that in 2004, 8 million people in the US suffered deaths in the immediate family; of those, 400,000 of the survivors were under the age of 25. Before they are old enough to vote, more than 2% of Americans have lost at least one parent. Didn’t these people have life experience that might lead them to be interested in my book?

Keep brainstorming until you come up with several categories of reader. Even if your book is primarily geared to a genuinely huge demographic (the kind politicians target, such as soccer moms or NASCAR dads), including a few smaller groups in your target market discussion will demonstrate that you have given the matter thoughtful consideration. Quite simply, it will make your proposal look more professional than those that identify a single demographic group.

Once you have identified a few market segments, you will need to show many of these fine people are there out there, and how they may best be reached. If there has been a major bestseller that targeted any of your target markets, mention its sales here.

Yes, if you are writing on a common topic, pretty much any editor who specializes in the type of book you want to produce will have a clearer idea than you do of how many sales a particular bestseller racked up. However, part of the point of the book proposal is to demonstrate to potential agents and editors that YOU have taken the time to do your homework – and thus are not going into the book-writing process without some idea of how the industry works. You, by implication, will be a well-informed joy to work with throughout the whole process.

(And yes, Virginia, part of the way the industry works is that people tell one another things everyone concerned already knows.)

Tomorrow, I shall delve into that bugbear of proposers everywhere, the marketing plan, but for now, my ice is melting. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

Doing your homework

I received an excellent question from a blog reader the other day:

I’d be interested in how you went about doing your research for any background, setting for your work. I’ve had some essays published on family stories and in addition to talking to family members (sometimes the stories are different POV), I made sure that any historical or political and culture matters were also correct. What do you do?

First, good for you for being brave enough to write up your versions of your family stories. Too many of us think of family history as set in stone, doubtless due to the frequent repetition of family lore around the holiday dinner table. Sometimes, it feels as though Uncle Ernie has told the story of how he got his first job as a longshoreman so many times that everyone in North America must have heard it by now, right?

Actually, family stories are far more ephemeral than even the most fleeting joke bouncing its way via e-mail from workstation to workstation. At least the jokes are written down. Uncle Ernie may well have told that same story every day for the last thirty years, but the very fact that he has told it so often probably means that no one in the family has ever taken the time to write it. Thus, when Uncle Ernie is no longer able to tell it, the story may well pass out of family lore.

If you are hesitating about writing about your family, consider this: some day, it may be the only record left. Those telling little details of yesteryear may survive in your work alone.

Even academics now recognize that there is distinct historical value in personal and familial historical accounts. It has gone out of fashion to thank Marxists for anything, but in the 1960s, a group of Marxist social historians revolutionized the way scholars studied history: instead of concentrating upon monarchs, presidents, and huge social and economic movements, they started paying attention to how the ordinary person lived. Before, the day-to-day details were left to newspapers and novels to record, but now, your Uncle Ernie’s timeworn story might be just the piece of oral history evidence that allows a social historian to piece together the early days of the longshore union.

My questioner is already doing the most important thing: listening to her family members. Even if you have heard any given family anecdote five hundred times before, it is worth asking to hear it again – and, taking a page from the new social historian’s rulebook, asking pertinent questions.
It is also worth asking other members of the family and family friends to give their renditions of the story; you may be surprised at how different Aunt Rose’s view of events actually was.

To give those of you new to interviewing fair warning: Uncle Ernie may be thrilled at first that you are so interested in his life story, but he may well appreciate it less when you interrupt the flow of his story to ask follow-up questions. He may think you are doubting his word, especially when he learns you have also asked Aunt Rose for her version.

Here again, use the social historian’s methods, and treat your interview subject with care, for an angry Uncle Ernie may not only refuse to talk to you again, but also take some steps to dissuade Aunt Rose. Once the rumor is afoot in your family that you are going around shaking closets to dislodge well-concealed ghosts, you may find it rather hard to get the people you want to interview to talk to you, out of fear of offending the complaining relative. Tread with care.

The simplest way to sidestep issues of belief is to allow Uncle Ernie to tell the story uninterrupted once, making appreciative noises and taking copious notes on questions you would like to ask. Then tell him, “I love this story, but I’m going to be writing it for people who have never met you. I want to make sure that I capture your wonderful wit/incisive analysis/technique for loading boxes onto a ship accurately. Do you mind if I ask a bunch of very nit-picky questions?”

Few interviewees will respond with hostility to being told they are fascinating, but if Uncle Ernie says no, let it drop. Pay him the courtesy of asking if you can talk to him again later, even if you think he has told you every detail of his life in excruciating detail. Remember, by providing you with background information for your writing, he is doing you a favor. Respond accordingly, and make it clear that you are enjoying listening to him.

It would also be polite to ask him to recommend any other family members or old cronies who might be able to tell you more stories about the period or the event. Volunteer to take him to visit an old coworker he hasn’t seen since 1962, or for a walk along his old waterfront stomping grounds, so he can tell you stories as familiar environments prompt his memory. The more you can make your interviewee your partner in the research process, rather than merely a passive subject for your pen, the less likely you are to provoke a negative reaction to your snoopiness.

Try grouping together different combinations of speakers – and make sure you give each interviewee an opportunity to speak when no one else is listening but you. Aunt Rose may well have kept her opinions about certain aspects of the event you are researching to herself for the last fifty years; she probably will not just blurt out her reserved views in front of others.

If your interviewees will allow it, consider tape-recording these conversations. This may seem a tad professional for an informal family chat, but believe me, you will be happier if you do not rely upon your memory or your notes alone. First, you may not remember accurately: the shock of ever-quiet Aunt Rose’s revelation that she was a steamy chanteuse in a speakeasy may well throw your listening skills for a loop. Second, the most important detail revealed in any given conversation may not be immediately apparent. With a recording, you can always go back through the conversation again. Third, and most important for the sake of intra-family tranquility, you will have an easy, non-judgmental way to defend yourself if Aunt Rose later denies ever having told you about her days as a gangster’s moll.

Before you launch on your interviews, it is a good idea to read up on the period your writing will cover, both for background and so you can ask intelligent questions. Please don’t assume that you already know, even if the period was relatively recent. Pop culture has a way of distorting the life of the times.

You know how annoying it is when a movie about a period you know well fills the screen with nothing but clichés? As someone who was a teenager in the 1980s, it drives me nuts when crowd scenes set then (particularly when those scenes are set in high schools) will show Izod-shirted preppies chatting with guys with safety pins through their noses and mohawks: those two groups would have studiously avoided each other. Similarly, most films about the 1950s feature the same ten songs and every woman decked out in poodle skirts or Chanel couture; all to often, films purporting to depict Vietnam protests depict Abbie Hoffman arm-in-arm with Timothy Leary and flanked by Black Panthers, feminists, and if it’s an Oliver Stone film, a few pointlessly topless young women to signify bacchanalia. It is not how people who were there remember it.

It is equally annoying to someone being interviewed about his experiences when the interviewer’s notions of what life was like is primarily based upon the big movements and fads. Not everyone who lived in the 1920s had a raccoon coat, Charlestoned, or got drunk with Scott Fitzgerald; do be sensitive about implying that you interview subject should have. Traditionally, most fashions and the bulk of the fads have been beyond the financial reach of most people: I, for one, could not have afforded a pet rock when those were the rage.

Try to keep in mind that life during any period of history was complex, hard to reduce to universally-shared experiences. Be open to stories that buck the prevailing views. Grace Metalious’ PEYTON PLACE (1956) and William S. Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH (1959) were written within a few years of each other, but no one could argue that they showed the same aspects of the 1950s.

My point is, your sense of any period will be better if you do not rely upon a single source to learn about it. Generally speaking, I would advise reading four or five history books and/or well-researched novels written during the period you are writing about (not just books SET in that period) for background. My long-ago academic training was as a political scientist, though, so my instinct is to research to the hilt. If you want to be really thorough, read books from the period with opposite political slants – what each side considered appalling should provide you with a wealth of socio-political detail. Ask Aunt Rose and Uncle Ernie what their favorite books were back then, and read them.

Of course, you should always check facts, particularly dates, which often become confused in the memory. A good history textbook or encyclopedia will help you here. I know many people swear that the Internet is the best and fastest way to gain information, but I would advise against relying upon it exclusively. There are very few controls, and even fewer truth monitors, governing who can post what. You do not know if the person who posted that very informative timeline on Abraham Lincoln (born 1242, died 1968?) was a genuinely credible history buff or someone with an oddly historically-based sense of humor. Double-check the facts, and keep records on where you obtained pertinent information.

If you are looking to check an obscure fact or are having trouble confirming a date, call your public library and ask the reference librarian for research guidance. The Seattle Public Library boasts a terrific Quick Information Line, where the nice operator will either look up odd facts for you or refer you to someone who can. I love this service – when I was writing a novel about a scholar who specialized in Eastern European studies, the Quick Information people found me (for free) an expert who happily talked to me for half an hour about common linguistic mistakes made by people in the early stages of learning Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. It would have taken me months to find comparable information on my own – but there was my beloved city, stepping up to provide me with exactly what I needed.

This may seem like an awful lot of work for the sake of a few family anecdotes, but doing solid background research will help elevate your writing from the all-too-common temporal truisms and into the realm of the real. To a writer, there can be a more important praise from someone who lived through the incident she’s written than, “Oh, my, that feels so true!”

Thanks for the great question – and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Post-conference etiquette

Many of you are no doubt busy prepping your work to send out to agents and editors that you met at PNWA, or perhaps are gearing up for a second round, or working up nerve to send out queries before the end of the summer, so I thought it would be a good time to pass along some do’s and don’ts for presenting requested material. This may be old hat to some of you, but this is precisely the sort of wisdom that tends to be passed only by word of mouth amongst writers.

DO write REQUESTED MATERIALS — PNWA in big, thick pen strokes on the outside of the envelope. As you probably know, agents and editors receive literally hundreds of missives from aspiring writers per week. If they asked for your work, it belongs in a different pile from the five hundred unsolicited manuscripts and query letters.

DON’T write REQUESTED MATERIALS if they did not actually request your work. Instead, write PNWA with the same big, fat pen on the outside of the envelope, so they know you’ve been professional enough to attend a conference and have heard them speak.

DO write PNWA – FINALIST/PLACE WINNER (CATEGORY) on the outside of the envelope if you did get honored in the contest. Both the fiction winner and I (the NF winner) did this in 2004, and every agent thanked us for it. It kept our work from getting lost in the piles.

DON’T send more material than the agent/editor asked to see. (A big pet peeve for a lot of ‘em.) This is not like a college application, where sending brownies, an accompanying video, or a purple envelope will get you noticed amongst the multitudes: to NYC agents and editors, wacky tends to equal unprofessional, which is the last label you want affixed to your work. And don’t spend the money to overnight it; it will not get your work read any faster.

DO send a polite cover letter with your submission. It’s a good chance to show that you have appropriate boundaries, and that you are professionally seasoned enough to realize that even a very enthusiastic conversation at a conference does not mean you’ve established an intimate personal relationship with an agent or editor.

DON’T quote other people’s opinions about your work in the query letter, unless those people happen to be well-known writers. If David Sedaris has said in writing that you’re the funniest writer since, well, him, feel free to mention that, but if your best friend from work called your novel “the funniest book since CATCH-22,” trust me, it will not impress the agent.

DO mention in the FIRST LINE of your cover letter either (a) that the agent/editor asked at PNWA to see your work (adding a thank-you here is a nice touch) or (b) that you heard the agent/editor speak at PNWA. Again, this helps separate your work from the unsolicited stuff.

DON’T assume that the agent will recall the conversation you had with her about your work. Remember, they meet scores of writers; you may not spring to mind immediately. If you had met 500 people who all wanted you to read their work over the course of three days, names and titles might start to blur for you, too.

DO mention in your cover letter if the agent/editor asked for an exclusive look at your work. If an agent or editor asked for an exclusive, politely set a time limit, say, three weeks or a month. Don’t worry that setting limits will offend them: this is a standard, professional thing to do. That way, if you haven’t heard back by your stated deadline, you can perfectly legitimately send out simultaneous submissions.

DON’T give any agent or editor an exclusive if they didn’t ask for it – and DON’T feel that you have to limit yourself to querying only one agent at a time. I’ve heard rumors at every conference that I have ever attended that agents always get angry about multiple submissions, but truthfully, I’ve only ever heard ONE story about an agent’s throwing a tantrum about it – and that only because she hadn’t realized she was competing with another agent for this particular book. Your time is valuable. Check a reliable agents’ guide to make sure that none of the folks you are dealing with demand exclusives (it’s actually pretty rare), and if not, go ahead and send out your work to as many agents and editors who asked to see it.

DO consider querying agents and editors with whom you did not have a meeting at the conference – and tell them that you heard them speak at PNWA. Just because you couldn’t get an appointment with the perfect person at the conference doesn’t mean that the writing gods have decreed that s/he should never see your work.

DON’T call to make sure they got your work. This is another common agenting pet peeve: writers who do it tend to get labeled as difficult almost immediately, whereas you want to impress everyone at the agency as a clean-cut, hard-working kid ready to hit the big time. If you are very nervous about your work going astray, send your submission with delivery confirmation or enclosed a stamped, self-addressed postcard that they can mail when they receive your package. Don’t call.

DO send an appropriate SASE for the return of your manuscript – with stamps, not metered postage. I always like to include an additional business-size envelope as well, so they can request further pages with ease. Again, you’re trying to demonstrate that you are going to be a breeze to work with if they sign you.

DON’T just ask them to recycle the manuscript if they don’t want it. There are many NYC offices where this will seem like a bizarre request, bordering on Druidism.

DO make sure that your manuscript is in standard format: at least 1-inch margins, double-spaced, every page numbered, everything in the same 12-point typeface. (Most writing professionals use Times, Times New Roman, or Courier; screenwriters use exclusively Courier. And yes, there ARE agents and editors who will not read non-standard typefaces. Don’t tempt them to toss your work aside.)

If you are submitting a NF book proposal, send it in a nice black or dark blue file folder –this is not the time to bring out your hot pink polka-dotted stationary and tuck it into a folder that looks like something out of Jerry Garcia’s wardrobe. Think of it like a job interview: a black or blue suit is not going to offend anyone; make your work look as professional as you are.

DON’T forget to spell-check AND proofread in hard copy, not only the manuscript, but also your cover letter. Computerized spelling and grammar checkers are notoriously unreliable, so do double-check. When in doubt, have a writing buddy or a professional proof it all for you.

DO give them time to read your work – and use that time to get your next flight of queries ready, not in calling them every day.

DON’T panic if you don’t hear back right away, especially if you sent out your work in late July or August. A HUGE percentage of the publishing industry goes on vacation between August 1 and Labor Day, so the few who stick around are overworked. Cut them some slack, and be patient.

DO remember to be pleased that a real, live agent or editor liked your pitch well enough to ask for your work! Well done!

DON’T be too upset if your dream agent or editor turns out not to be interested in your project, and don’t write that person off permanently; s/he may be wild about your next. Keep your work moving, rather than letting it sit in a drawer. Yes, it’s hard emotional work to keep sending out queries, but you can’t get discovered if you don’t try.

DO take seriously any thoughtful feedback you receive. As you may already know, boilerplate rejection letters are now the norm. If an agent or editor has taken the time to hand-write a note on a form letter or to write you a personalized rejection, you should take this as a positive sign – they don’t do that for everybody. Treasure your rave rejections, and learn from them.

Yes, waiting to be discovered is hard – but in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini