Writing Dynamic Book Proposals
How to write effective book proposals and inquiry letters to capture the attention of literary agents and publishing houses.
You’ve just finished writing a book. The challenge now is in finding a good home for it. Whether your ultimate quest is to get a literary agent or to submit the project directly to a publishing house for consideration, the following are ten sequential tips to make your initial inquiry letter and proposal stand out in the crowd and avoid the “slush” pile.
1. RESEARCH THE MARKET
Have similar books been published recently by your targeted publisher(s)? Are the trade magazines advertising prospective buyers looking for completed manuscripts? Have you invested in any of the annual directories such as WRITER’S MARKET or THE WRITER’S HANDBOOK to glean a sense of who is purchasing what? This is the kind of extensive legwork you need to do before you ever sit down to write your letter of introduction. Many agents and publishers will be happy to provide a copy of their current submission guidelines. More and more of them are also making these guidelines available via the Internet. Just as you wouldn’t buy a new car without reading consumer reports or taking a test drive, don’t take your manuscript on the road until you know where you’re going.
2. GENRE & CROSS-MARKETING POTENTIAL
Many people do not realize that today’s publishing industry is governed by the bookstores, not by the editors and publishers. If a store has no idea where to put a new release on the shelf, it simply won’t buy it. End of story. Not only do you need to be able to identify your book by its generic category (non-fiction, romance, biography, self-help, etc.) but be able to suggest creative ways in which the product can be effectively cross-marketed or adapted to other media. Warning: do not invent genres that do not currently exist.
3. EDITORS AND AGENTS
Once you have identified the market you want to target, you need to find an appropriate editor or agent who specializes in representing your type of book. This info can easily be found in resources such as “The Writer’s Handbook” or Writer’s Digest’s “Guide to Literary Agents”. Due to the high turnover among literary staff, it is always well worth a phone call to verify correct name spellings and titles before sending your letter. It is also permissible to send multiple inquiry letters up until such time as an agent or editor requests exclusivity.
4. GRABBER OPENING
The opening of your letter can take several forms: an excerpt from the actual text, a provocative question, a startling statement of fact, or an eye-witness declaration which announces up-front that this is an author worth paying attention to. Consider the number of pieces of junk mail you as an individual receive in any given day. Most of them you toss away without a second thought. What makes you keep the other ones, though? Much can be learned from such samples of mail and applied to the art of crafting a letter which dares the reader to try to ignore it.
5. THE BASICS
State what kind of book it is, the genre, the word-length, and the target audience you believe this particular material will appeal to. It is also acceptable to attach a double-spaced synopsis to the letter, but do not exceed one page in total length. It is also advisable never to make apologies for your work or even to reveal that it’s your first effort. Allow your book the opportunity to make it in the door first and make a good impression.
Briefly relate your background. Prior publishing credits, awards, and professional expertise all lend credibility to your commitment to deliver an outstanding product. Do not, however, include any “chatty” personal trivia about your age, martial status, or household pets that is incidental to the book you are trying to sell. Treat your inquiry letter like an interview-on-paper. You want this job. Tell them why you are qualified for it. Then shut up.
7. PRIMARY SELLING POINTS
Explain why this book is unique, timely, or similar to other products on the shelf that address popular topics of interest (i.e., budget travel, steamy romance, self-help, political thrillers). Do not, however, make sweeping comparisons that this is the best novel since ‘Gone With the Wind” or suggest that the editor/agent would be an idiot to pass up such a gem of a story.
Although it’s not a ‘must,’ editors and agents do tend to look more favorably on authors who will go the extra mile to promote their work or who already possess existing credits. If you currently have a high-profile job, write columns for national publications, or are currently writing a sequel or film/stage adaptation, don’t withhold this information. It only increases your visibility and, accordingly, that of your book. It’s well worth a mention.
9. PROFESSIONAL PACKAGING
Presentation skills and the inclusion of SASE’s on all correspondence are crucial components to a successful proposal. Do not resort to juvenile attention-getters like neon-bright letterhead or glitter confetti, which tend to generate opposite the desired effect. Nor should you ever submit a full manuscript or even a partial to an editor or agent unless it is specifically requested. Likewise, if they ask for the first 10 pages, do not send along the first 100 instead on the assumption that they can be tricked into reading it simply because you’ve paid the extra postage and it’s there. Such arrogance only serves to irritate the recipient and result in a rejection.
10. BE PATIENT
Unless it has otherwise been specified in the guidelines, allow roughly 4-6 weeks for a response to your proposal. If you have not heard anything back by then, politely follow up with a brief letter asking whether your original material was, in fact, received. Do not, however, yield to the temptation to become a pest or to call the office everyday for a status report. Your time would be better spent in working on your NEXT book!