Have an idea for a book but not sure how to pitch it? Editors say the trick to getting your book proposal noticed is simple: Show, don't tell. The strongest proposals offer evidence that the topic of your book will be in hot demand a year from now and that you are the best person to write it.
"Don't just say, ‘I am a specialist in this area and want to write a book'—that's not compelling to me," says Elsevier publisher Nikki Levy. Instead, point to new journals emerging in the area, and link to news sources that are covering this line of research or work, she says. Have 50,000 Twitter followers? Spotlight your social media presence as evidence that people are interested in what you have to say.
A pitch that answers the question, "Why this book, and why now?" will get a close read, adds Linda Malnasi McCarter, a senior acquisitions editor at APA Books. "The more you can demonstrate that there is a growing need and interest for your book, the stronger your proposal will be."
People are still hungry for books: Book publishers saw $14.3 billion in revenue in 2016, according to the most recent Association of American Publishers data, and print books saw growth in both hardback and paperback formats.
Here's more advice on how to earn a book contract and navigate the publishing process smoothly:
■ Make your proposal airtight. Your pitch should show that you have a clear grasp of what has already been written on the topic, says Sarah Harrington, a senior editor at Oxford University Press. She expects authors to list competing titles, explain the audiences those books are reaching and point out how their book will be different. "That is a step that gets skipped a lot," she says.
Prospective authors should also include a table of contents with short descriptions of each chapter so the editor can see that your writing is organized and focused. "We want to be able to get a feel for how the chapters build on a theme," says McCarter. "Otherwise, it's just a collection of loosely related chapters."
If you're pitching an edited book, list your "dream" chapter authors and alternates and any details on their interest or availability. If an editor thinks your proposal looks promising, he or she may ask as many as 15 colleagues in your field to weigh in on whether key points or contributors are missing and how it compares to books already on the market. "We want to make sure before we proceed that this book is already set up for success," McCarter says. An interested editor may also ask you to produce a sample chapter at this stage to get a feel for your writing style and quality. The sample should include descriptions of charts or photography to be included.
Attention to proofreading is critical. Typos and inconsistencies can undermine even the best proposals, Levy says. "What I glean from that is that if they aren't careful about the proposal, how do I know they are being careful about the selection of their contributors and the table of contents, and how do I know they won't miss deadlines?"
■ Rethink rejection. If an editor declines your proposal, it doesn't necessarily mean it's not a worthwhile project, says Harrington. Your book may simply not fit with the publisher, and many editors will point you to a more appropriate publisher. If they don't, seek out editors at publishing workshops at your university or at the publishers' booths at APA's Annual Convention and other conferences to gauge their interest, or talk with them via email or Skype. "Don't be intimidated," Harrington says. "We are book people. If anyone comes to me and says they want to write a book, I respect that and want to hear about it."
■ Listen well. Once you've earned a contract, use the feedback from the review stage to fine-tune your book. If the editor and peer reviewers say you need to gear your book to a different audience, heed that advice. "Sometimes authors are so rigid about what their book should be that they lose sight of the importance of it being a sellable product," says Levy. "Those authors will ultimately be unhappy because they will have the exact book that they envisioned, but nobody will read it."
As you move into the production stages, be similarly flexible on such issues as the book's title and cover art. While some authors push for elaborate cover art, experienced editors know that the cover will need to draw readers in at postage-stamp size, since most people will view it on Amazon. "It needs to have an elegance and a simplicity to reflect whatever the content is," Levy says.
■ Develop your writing. Even authors with slam-dunk proposals may struggle at the writing stage, particularly if they are academics trying to write for an undergraduate or general audience, editors say. "Having been trained to write a certain way, it can be very difficult to do a 180 and start writing for a general audience," says Harrington.
Some publishers offer writing support to authors, such as guidance on how to eliminate jargon, organize your thoughts or write in active voice. Others may offer to pair you with a co-author or a ghost writer. Harrington often advises authors who need more writing practice to form a group, use their university's writing support services and read nonacademic writing whenever they can. "To adapt your writing to a certain level and voice, the best way is to steep yourself in that kind of writing," she says.
■ Meet deadlines, and mind your word count. Being late with the text creates scheduling problems for your editor and the staff who design and market the book. If you think you can't meet a deadline, tell your editor at least three months in advance so he or she can adjust those schedules. With more notice comes more flexibility, says Harrington. "I want to publish the very best book, so if the very best book needs more time, I want to allow for that," she says.
It's also in an author's best interest to be as honest as possible about what's causing the delay, she adds. So, if you're having a disagreement with your co-author, for example, or struggling to find the time to write, let your editor know. "We might have a solution [you] haven't thought of, but we can't help if we don't know about it," says Levy.
Also, be sure to stay within the word count you agreed to, says McCarter. Often, first-time authors don't understand the connection between book length and pricing. "Number of pages translates to production costs, production costs translate to price, price translates to sales and the higher the price, the lower the sales," says McCarter. When you submit a manuscript that is 100 pages over the count that the publisher estimated could sell well, "the pricing and our budgets are thrown off."
■ Be a great editor. If you're editing an academic book with multiple chapter contributors, your main job is to keep your authors on schedule and make sure they meet their word counts. Santa Clara University psychology professor Thomas Plante, PhD, who has edited several publications, says that experience has taught him to ask contributors to send their chapters to him several weeks before the publisher's deadline. He also encourages his authors to present together at a symposium and invites everyone to dinner. "That way they are more invested—you want them connected as a team," he says.
Acing this role of organizer-in-chief is a great way for early career psychologists to establish themselves with a publisher and impress the experts in their field, adds Levy. Editing a book offers a long break in the middle of the publishing cycle as contributors are writing, so many early career folks use that time to work on their research, Levy says.
■ Get the word out. Your work isn't over when you've turned in your manuscript (and read it two more times during the copyediting and typesetting stages). Next your publisher expects you to help promote it. "That's a hard lesson for many authors to swallow because most academics or psychologists are not used to being self-promoters, and many find it distasteful or unprofessional," says Plante. But with 21 books to his name, he has found a modest approach to publicity he feels comfortable with, which includes giving talks at universities around a book's release and plugging his titles on social media.
Other ways to promote your book include writing op-ed pieces, especially if your topic connects to news events, and mentioning your book if you're interviewed by the media. If you're too busy to do such marketing, hire a publicist or ask an early career contributor to the book to take on this role, says Levy. "They are often actively looking for ways to promote their name and their research," she says.
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