Things I Consider When I Review a Book Proposal
Things that I consider when reviewing a book proposal. We're gonna talk much more about writing a book proposal in just a little bit. Before we even get into the nitty gritty, I think it's useful to know what the person on the other end who's opening up this thing, be it an email or a physical package. Whatever they're opening and looking at, what are their needs and wants and desires and constraints? Who is this random faceless person on the other end that you're sending this to? 'Cause knowing your audience is always helpful, right? Here's me personally what I think about when I'm reviewing a book proposal. The competitive landscape. This is comps. This is what I just talked about already in some detail so I'm gonna go through it quickly here. Basically similar books that have done well. That's great. Similar books that have underperformed. And then if they have, I wanna know why this one is not going to. Why it's gonna be better. Why it's gonna solve all the problems that previous b...
ooks on the subject might have had. Holes in the existing publishing. This is a good one. If someone is presenting me with something and they're like, You know what? There is not a book on this subject and there should be. There is no big serious fine art book on Beatrix Potter. She's always treated as this cutesy little nineteenth century lady who drew bunnies. But she was an amazing serious artist in her own right. And this book should exist and never has. And that's a feminist issue and all kinds of things. Then, wow. You just pointed out to me a hole in the existing publishing landscape and a hole that ought to be filled. And that potentially would be something people would want. And I also look at forthcoming books, both from my own house and others. Unfortunately, this is one of the main reasons I end up sometimes declining things is that I know that either we have a book that I know is coming, or there's an industry newsletter I read that reports on books that have sold to, that book agents have sold to other publishers. So I have read in there that something similar is coming, and I have to kind of be able to say to people, It's actually we or someone else is kind of already doing a book like this. It's too close. So I have to have this whole landscape of publishing in my mind when I'm considering a project. And mostly this is, honestly I'm not going through and asking these questions. It's kind of second nature at this point. It's organic. Yes.
Since you mentioned agents, how important is having one?
There's a whole section on that coming up. Don't you worry. This is like the number two question I get after, Do I have to give back my advance? No. The answer to that is no. The answer to this one is more complicated, and we'll get to it in just a minute. This is what I'm bearing in mind in the back of my head as I'm looking at projects. The other thing that I'm looking at, and this is pretty unique I would say to the art publishing sphere, by which... Reminder, I mean a lot of different things. Not only fine art but illustration, graphic design, photography, all that stuff. A project needs to have a secondary audience. A lot of projects I get, in fact pretty much every book I do should first and foremost appeal to what I refer to as the donut hole. The fine art audience. The serious art-loving audience. Aperture, which is the non-profit photography publisher has done a study year after year after year, and it's like the divorce rate. It doesn't go up. It doesn't go down. It's just this steady number since the 70s or something. A successful fine art photography book that only sells to people who are fine art photography aficionados sells a certain number of copies, and it is a small number. It's a solid number. If you're a fine art photo publisher, you're good to go if your book does well and sells that number. But for me, for a trade publisher, for a commercial publisher, it's great and it's important and I would never wanna make a photo book that that audience didn't want to come to. But it's not enough by itself. Alone, that is not a print run. That is not a sustainable business model for a larger publishing house. It does work for smaller fine art publishers, but for us, what I want, I don't ever wanna lose the donut hole, but I also want the donut. I want a secondary audience. And a lot of those examples I gave you are great examples of a secondary audience. You know someone who likes cats or writers or swimming or humor or, I'm like going through the examples in my head now trying to pull out all those topics. Paris, cats and naked people are always things people like. But there's a lot things people like. There's a lot of things that are sort of that long tail phenomenon. Things that maybe a relative small but very passionate community are interested in. Graphic design is a great example. You have to pretty much be a graphic designer to care about graphic design, but graphic designers love to buy books about graphic design. So that's like a solid secondary core audience. That's the next thing I'm always looking for. Beyond that, this is a big one. Do we feel that we both understand and can reach the intended audience? Those are two different things. Every book has an intended audience. Who is it for? Who's gonna buy it? Why are they gonna want it? First off, do I understand who that person is? Do I have my head around, Oh, this is people who, to use the Lisa Congdon example again, this is people who like swimming. OK, do they have to be competitive swimmers? Can they just like to go swimming in the lake on their summer vacation? Do they have fond childhood memories of swimming? Or are they really serious swimmers? Do they have to swim laps every day? You know having a sense of who are these people. And ideally in a perfect world, I would love some numbers. Like if I can do some Googling around and find out that I don't know 3 million people in America swim laps once a week, or whatever it is. That is a useful piece of information for me to have because I can point to some numbers and say, this is a real audience. We know who is gonna come to this book. It not only has to be an identifiable audience, it has to be one that I am confident I can sell books to. One of Chronicle Books' strengths is you see our books everywhere. We have this amazing distribution. We are in mom and pop little indie gift shops. We're in big box stores. We're literally in car washes and hospital gift shops and all over the world. There are a lot of people that we know how to reach, but we don't know how to reach everybody. There are definitely projects that have come up where it was for a very specific community, a very specific sort of subculture or interest or in many cases something that needs a special kind of distribution. You need to be able to get to these particular people in this remote geographic area or who shop in a particular kind of store that isn't a store we sell to. There aren't very many of those, but there might be a few. If I know that there's an identifiable audience, but I don't know how to get the books in their hands, I don't feel confident that we are going to be able to sell the book to them successfully, I would be doing a disservice to that author if I signed up that book not knowing how to sell it to its audience properly. Again, thinking about audience another thing to think about is sort of the baby bear, the size not too big, not too small. Because if the audience is so broad that the author or anybody is tempted to describe it as, It's for everybody. Nothing is for everybody. It's for everybody basically means it's kind of for nobody. That's too vague. You've gotta narrow down a little bit. But if you narrow down too much, if it becomes super niche, there might be 400 people who are passionately passionate about this really specific obscure thing, but that's become too narrow, obviously. So finding that right size audience is important. The next thing I look at is author platform. People hear this and they get scared because they think it means they have to have a million Instagram followers or something like that. This is not the only thing this means. Sure. If you've got a million Instagram followers, bring it. That's great. But this is a lot more nuanced that just that. It is two different things. Platform is both a social media platform and an in person platform. It is not just one or the other. Social media platform means, you probably can figure this out, but I'm just gonna spell it out for you in case. An author's presence and engagement and number of followers on any number of platforms. Instagram is probably one of the most common but Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, blog readers. People still do read blogs contrary to what you may hear. And the biggest most recent one I would say is newsletter subscribers. This has become a big deal in recent years. People who have really vibrant newsletter communities, who send out something every week. And people actually want it. And don't consider it spam. And are avidly engaged with this email newsletter. That's a big deal. Also I forgot to put on the slide, but podcasts is another up and coming one for sure. And that can be both numbers and it can also be engagement. You know if somebody doesn't have a huge number of followers but the followers they do have are constantly commenting and engaging with them, and really present and interested in this content, that can be strong as well. And then in person platform is how does the author engage with their fans in real life. That can be things like fairs, conferences, speaking engagements, art exhibitions. There's a lot of ways that people are putting themselves out there in the real world, and engaging with people who like their work. Physically face to face. So I'm trying to look at all of that. Either because an author has done me a favor and explained it all very nicely in their book proposal. Or if they haven't, I'm gonna be doing some sleuthing online and trying to figure out who this person is and what their deal is. Hopefully they did their job, and they included it. We'll talk more about that in a little bit. The next one, and this is serious, is diversity and inclusion. Because I think it's a pretty well known fact at this point that publishing has a pretty serious diversity problem. Both in the composition of staffing at publishing houses, and that probably leads directly to the second problem, which is the composition of the pools of authors and talent and people seen in books. So a couple of years back, the publisher Lee & Low banded together with a whole bunch of other book publishers and did what is called the diversity baseline survey. This was in 2015. To find out the facts. Basically before you can fix a problem, you have to have your head around the problem. You have to understand what the problem is. A lot of publishers took this survey. And these were the results. And they're pretty alarming. Publishing is 79% white. It's is 78% female. It is 88% heterosexual. And it is 92% non-disabled. So this is something that pretty much everybody who works in publishing is alarmed by and cares about and wants to see improve. It can be really challenging to figure out how to address these numbers. I'm actually involved in a test course at Chronicle where we're trying to see what we can do to move the needle on these numbers. Which then, in turn, also feeds into our publishing and who we're publishing. Because this is top of mind for me, it's an issue I consider really important. I'm thinking about this in anything I acquire. Not just in who the author is, but also who's represented in the book. So if you've got a book that shows a bunch of artists and their cats, is it all like dead white guys or is it a diverse roster of people in the book? So this is something else I'm thinking about a lot. And then I'm asking myself positioning questions. When this book makes its way out into the world as a new little baby bird, how is it gonna be perceived in the marketplace? Is it gonna be, This is something new that no one has ever seen or done before. Or this is something extremely timely. It's so on trend. It's so in the zeitgeist of what people are talking about and wanting today, right now. Or is it perennial? Is it something like, Beatrix Potter is a good example. This is a forever topic. Although that one was interestingly also timely because it was the 150th anniversary of her birth. So there was, especially not so much in this country but in the UK, there was a lot of press and hoo-ha around this birthday. So publishing to time with a timely occasion like that. Another thing is it definitive? Sometimes you'll hear the phrase category killer. Like is this the book, the definitive book. No one needs to make another book on this subject ever again. They probably will anyway, but like the Joy of Cooking or something. The definitive definitive book on the subject that everyone's gonna have to have if they care about the subject at all forever. Yes.
You might talk about this later in terms of how long the publishing process takes, but what if you're pitched something that is trending or really exciting to a lot of audiences now? How to you predict whether it will be by the time it's actually produced?
This is why I'm a professional gambler. Because I have to make an educated guess basically. And I have a lot of really smart colleagues who all are keeping their fingers on the pulse of what's going on in the culture. Saying an educated guess makes it sound like we're just gonna flip a coin or something, which is obviously not the case. But we have to take all the information we have to try and predict because publishing timelines are long. And I'm gonna talk about that in a little bit, the exact length. But basically, yes. I have to have conversations with people about can we believe that what's trendy right now will be trendy six months, one year, two years from now. And that sometimes has to do with, how quickly to we try and publish something? You know maybe we accelerate the timeline because we're like, this is hot, hot, hot right now. Six months from now who knows? Maybe we can fast track something. But that's hard for us. We're a big, slow industry. If we're gonna commit to doing something like that, it has to really feel worth it. Other times it's like, You know what? That is trendy but based on previous trends that we've seen of this kind, we think that this trend is gonna last another 18 months. So we have a lot of finger on the pulse cultural resources that we're trying to use to figure that out. That was sort of the summary of what I'm, some of the things I'm thinking about when I look at a book proposal. So now, getting into the nitty gritty of how to write a book proposal and what to include. The thing is most publishers, pretty much ever publisher I think, has some kind of submission guidelines on their website. That if they accept unsolicited proposals, we're gonna talk about what that means much more in a little bit, but if they will accept your proposal, they will tell you what they want in it. But the thing is about those guidelines, they can be kind of daunting because they have to encompass every type of book that that publisher publishes. They have to cover all possible scenarios. So for example, our publishing guidelines, our submission guidelines at Chronicle include all this stuff about cookbooks and sample recipes. Which if you're submitting me an art book is kind of meaningless to you and it just makes it long. And your eyes start crossing a little bit. You're like, Oh my God. There's all this stuff. This feels daunting. So what I'm trying to do here, I do recommend of course reading publishers' submission guidelines, but what I'm trying to do here is boil it down. If there's nothing else in your proposal, here are the things I really need and want in a proposal. The first is a cover letter. Don't bury the lead. I've definitely gotten cover letters where there's a paragraph of sort of nice introductory chitty-chatty whatever, and I still don't know by the end of the first paragraph what this book is. What it's about. Anything. So right up front, I wanna know what are we talking about? Because the person who is looking at your book submission almost assuredly is extremely busy and is looking at a whole lot of proposals. So getting to the point as smoothly, quickly, easily as possible to let them know what it is you're offering is huge. Similarly, this is similar to the resume job letter model. Don't let it go more than one page. Just keep it tight on one page. Same thing. They wanna be able to digest this quickly and easily. And I would say in terms of tone, be professional but be yourself. Like you're writing a friendly business letter. Occasionally I'll get people from other industries who are very formal. Probably because that's how things are done in their profession. And it can be a little bit like, Whoa, hey. This is a creative industry. We're a little more, perhaps casual here. But other times I get these very chatty notes that are like I'm already their BFF and we're like texting or something. And I'm like, it's a little too far in the other direction. So finding that tone of professional, friendly, concise. If you followed most publishers' submission guidelines to the letter, what you would end up with is an enormous 30-page long Word document. And so when people are being a good kid and a good student, and I relate to this Type-A do what you're told, follow directions, they send me these great long Word documents. But I'm doing visual books. It can be very frustrating to me. Like I'm reading. I'm reading. I'm reading. And I'm like, Where are the pictures? Where are the visuals? I wanna know what this thing, you're talking about what it looks like, but I wanna see what it looks like. So assuming we're talking about a visually-driven book being pitched to a visual book editor, which I think is like you guys pitching to me. That's what's happening. What that person really wants to see is the artwork, or the illustration, or the photography, or whatever it may be so they know what this thing looks like. 'Cause that's gonna be a huge part of what this is. And I would say even if do you wanna have your proposal or your text-based proposal with all your facts and figures and interesting information, at least one big hero image. You know you've got your cover letter and then page two, an image. At least one that's representative of your work so I can have something visual to tie to my brain while I then go on and read about your work. And it may be many more depending on what's appropriate. And then of course more visuals come later. Things to include in your book proposal. A concise summary of your book idea. Obviously that's first and foremost the most important. I'm going to write a book about X. And it's gonna have this in it. And this what it is. And this is what it's about. An outline or table of contents as applicable. So if you're gonna have chapters, you're gonna have sections, you're gonna walk someone through a process. You're gonna have a chunk about this and a chunk about that. Or 20 different artists, and you're gonna have a chapter on each one. Whatever it is, a rough outline or table of contents. Sometimes we'll say T-O-C for table of contents. A little bit of lingo there. Your bio and your platform. And I'm calling these out as two separate things. Many people write this as one big paragraph. But you wanna make sure, even if you do write it as one paragraph, that you're conveying both pieces of information. Because your bio is things like where you went to school. Where you are based. Where you've shown your work in the past. Client lists of who you've worked for. Other books you've published. Sort of your credentials. Your platform, as I mentioned earlier, is how you're engaging with your audience. So be that in person or online. And you can include statistics. You can say, I have this many followers in X platform. Or I do this many speaking engagements a year. Or whatever it is. So those two things kind of separate. And your list of comps. Sometimes I get proposals that don't have comps. That means I have to go do that research myself because I have to have that information. So you are doing the person who opens your proposal an enormous solid favor if you have your list of comps in order. And don't leave one out because you don't like it. Like because it's inconvenient to you that this book exists and you wish it didn't. It's very tempting to be like, Oh, maybe I just won't mention that one. No. Show that you know what's going on. That's way more valuable. And you can always make the case of why you believe your book should exist in the world even though this other book already exists because yours is gonna be different and better. Make it visually appealing. This is the same thing. You wanna mock up samples? That Leigh Redmond example I showed where she'd actually made a physical prototype. If the physical container of the thing, if the object itself is the thing, get crafty. Mock something up. Or just make it look good using your visual creative skills to show something. Put together a good looking package if you're sending in a physical proposal. Sometimes I've gotten proposals from people who do hand lettering and calligraphy. And they'll do my name and address in beautiful writing on the front of the envelope. And hey, that catches my eye. No question. That said, don't go overboard and be tricksy. I've had packages full of confetti explode on my desk. I had a package that had tangerines in it. Like I think someone was trying to bribe me with tangerines. But they'd gone in the mail, and they'd gotten gross. Don't go crazy. I've also have people send me very precious valuable photography prints and little white gloves to put on to handle them. Too much. Too much. I've had people send me weird physical file formats. You know some kind of DVD or something, and I don't necessarily have a DVD drive in my computer or whatever. Make it easy for people, but make it attractive. Basically the summary of all of this is, you're a visual person and you're talking to visual people. And you should honor that reality and relationship. OK. Here we're gonna take a moment and pause. And do part two of the concepting exercise. This is where what you did earlier suddenly takes on new meaning and becomes amazing. The first step, and people get scared about this but I think they get more scared when I have done this in person because then you have to show your work to others. This is in like the privacy of your own home. No one has to see this but you. So get yourself a sheet of paper, like a normal piece of paper. If you can get a piece of colored paper that's even better. But a piece of just regular white printer paper will do fine. Fold it in half this way. So that you've basically made yourself a nice book shape. And draw a cover. Write your title and your subtitle. And draw something. It can be a stick figure. It can just be a border that goes around. But the reason I like to use colored paper, and I like to do this exercise with big fat Sharpies. Make something bold. It's not really gonna look like a book, but in a way it is. If you took a bunch of books off your shelf and put them on the floor and put this piece of paper down with them, you're gonna be able to use your imagination to picture your book among other books. Then go back to that Tweet I had you write. Look at it again. Maybe polish it up a little. Basically what you've just done in writing that Tweet is you wrote your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch, as you've probably heard maybe from movies about the movie industry or something, is literally you being able to pitch your project in the time it takes to go one floor in the elevator with somebody. If you by chance happened to be in the elevator with some amazing publishing person, you wanna be able to say, Hey, I've got this book idea and here in 140 characters. Isn't it amazing? And then the doors open. So being able to boil your idea down to its most concise form is not only gonna help you clarify your thinking, but it's gonna help you talk about it with other people. It's gonna help you write your proposal. And then something, this is sort of what I was talking about putting books on the floor. Another way to do this is to make an imaginary book shelf To literally get a big piece of paper. Draw yourself a book shelf. Put your book on it. Tape your book up on the shelf. Because this is literally that... I don't know the right term for it, but it's sort of in the self-help industry. Where you visualize something. You manifest it. That's the word I was looking for. You put it on your life board. You imagine that it could happen. And you see it happening, sort of in a fake way, but still with your actual eyeballs. And you are that much closer to actually making it happen. Because it's no longer this like, Wouldn't it be nice, someday in the distant future if this happened. It's like, Wait. I can start to see how this could actually be a thing.