Your book is written and edited, but what is the next step to publication? How can you get the attention of a publisher? Should you contact an agent? How do writers make the transition to respected published authors?
There’s no single correct answer to these questions. Writers must decide for themselves if they would like to pursue self publishing or attempt their luck with online routes, independent presses, literary magazines and small scholarly publishing houses. For the purposes of this article, we’ll explore the options related to the brass ring that hangs above them all: the traditional publishing industry. These are some steps you can take to get noticed by the titans of the old school.
You’ll typically need a literary agent first, and agents can be as difficult to land as the publishers themselves. The agent is the gatekeeper to the publishing process in that they are the first person to read your manuscript and they have the power to decide if it is worth fighting for. They have established relationships with presses, and they know the appropriate places to submit. They have a keen sense of the most likely market for your book, and they manage everything from the size of the print run to percentages you earn. These finer points of negotiations on your behalf can come at a hefty cost, but most “respectable” publishers will not consider anything that is not submitted through a literary agent. Landing an agent—and paying their fees—is the price of admission to the big presses.
What, then, is the etiquette for securing an agent? The first thing you need to do is construct a book proposal. This can be as daunting a project as writing the book itself. Some seasoned authors write the proposal before they pen the book itself. Why would they do that? The proposal is a business plan, and it should be viewed as one. Many authors make the mistake of confusing the book proposal with a book discussion; it’s natural to assume that an agent or a publisher may want to know the content of the book they are planning to represent. This, however, would be a grave error on the part of the author. To know what is essential information to include in a successful book proposal, one must first understand the viewpoint of the agent who will be reading one. The agent is not as interested in the content of the book. They are looking for a book that will sell. They understand the need of the market, and it is up to you, the author, to supply information to them about how your book will fit that market. Books are now, more than ever, simply a profitable venture. It isn’t about an interesting story or an intriguing plot. It isn’t even about the quality of your writing. That might be hard to accept at first, but it is most essential that you are able to identify a key segment of the market and explain how 1) they are interested in your topic and 2) they will buy from you. This is called evidence of need, and it is crucial for the success of your book. If you are able to present a reasonable explanation of this to an agent, they will almost certainly take you on as a client. It’s that simple.
Your book proposal should highlight this evidence of need and go on to demonstrate how it fulfills this need for the reader or for society. This will make it very easy for the agent to understand why your book is a wise investment. It may go against your principles to reduce your writing, an artistic endeavor, as something as basic as money. Writing is, indeed, a craft. It is all about art and creativity. The selling, promotion and publishing of that craft, however, is not. If you want to take the next step and go on to the publishing process, you need to view this step of writing as a business. The book proposal is set up with that aim.
The structure of the proposal can take many forms; they do not need to be followed rigidly. The purpose is to present a plan to the agent or publisher that shows that you are asking them to invest in your product (your manuscript) and explaining why they are likely to receive a favorable return on that initial investment. You may consider it akin to applying for a loan at a bank; in that case, you are asking an institution to grant you a certain amount of money and you explain why you will return it, with interest, over time. In this case, you are asking publishing houses to invest capital into the manufacture and marketing of your manuscript and you are telling them why they are going to see their investment returned. The book proposal is more important than the actual book itself, in many cases, and you must be prepared to understand business (to some degree) at this stage of the process.
Templates for book proposals vary. They can be found online, but what matters is that you understand what you are trying to accomplish. You can add or edit sections as they apply to you and your particular manuscript. The most important thing is to always keep in mind the idea that you are not explaining the content of your book, but rather always trying to provide an evidence of need. This should be first and foremost in your mind throughout the process.
A sample book proposal template may run as follows (although it is important to remember that you may diverge or tweak this as it applies to your particular situation):
Once Sentence Description
Purpose and Need
Proposed Back Cover Copy
Marketing and Promotion
About the Author
Table of Contents
List of Chapters
This is most certainly a comprehensive list covering every type of book; not every genre will require every category listed. For instance, a book of short stories or essays may not be written in a chapter format and won’t include many of those headers. This is not meant to fit your book into a mold or cause you second-guess what you have written; it is merely a guide on what how to most thoroughly package and present your manuscript to the people who have the power to accept it.
For those of you who were looking for a template, you can get started! If you need a little more help, I’ll begin to break down those headers in my next post. I will go section by section and give a thorough explanation of each category, what it is, if and when it is necessary, an example of what it looks like when it is written out and where to include it in your book proposal. If you ever have any specific questions about your own writing, your own submissions or editing in general, please address them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or any of the other editors or writers here, and we’d be happy to help. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time for part two!