How did I learn how to write a book proposal?
Before my career as a book coach even began, back when I worked on my first proposal for what became The Ultimate Guide to Transforming Anger, literary agent Rita Rosenkranz turned me on to Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal. That was maybe the second edition of the book that helped me and my co-authors get a book deal, and then went on to help many dozens of my clients secure 5- and 6-figure book deals, as well.
The new 5th edition of How to Write a Book Proposal is written by literary agent Jody Rein with Michael Larsen. Here, I interview them both about new information in the 5th edition, changes in publishing, advice on voice and more.
On The Success–and Evolution–of How to Write a Book Proposal
Lisa: How to Write a Book Proposal has sold over 100,000 copies. I have some thought on this, but, Mike, why do you think this book has sold so well?
Mike: Judging from the letters I’ve received, it’s simply because it’s readable and as simple as I could make it for new writers, and it works.
Lisa: It sure does work. I always suggest my clients use your book as the foundation for writing their proposal. In writing a 5th edition, what were some of your goals? What are you most excited about in this new edition? What’s fresh? What new features or content does it contain and what specific problems of new authors does it address?
Jody: We wanted to provide readers with guidance that reflects best practices in book proposals today, as the publishing industry, after decades of stability, has of late experienced some pretty big changes. We also thought readers would enjoy advice in some areas nobody has addressed, but which have a big impact on productivity. So we added material on things like finding time to write, on setting up your office and even on simple online organizational systems. Finally, as customization is more important than ever, we wanted to find a way to provide advice that was both universal and easy to personalize. Publisher expectations of a proposal for a platform-driven book, for example, are very different than those for narrative nonfiction.
Lisa: How did it come about to collaborate on the 5th edition of How to Write a Book Proposal?
Mike: The long answer: Jody and I did talks on proposals at the San Francisco Writers Conference that went very well. In addition to being a wonderful human being, Jody is extremely smart and brings a wealth of experience as an agent and state-of-the-art knowledge to the challenge. The short answer: I suckered her into writing the new edition with dreams of fame and fortune that surpass the imagination.
Jody: The long answer: I’ve recommended Mike’s proposal book throughout my career as an editor and then as an agent and consultant. When we taught our classes together, I could see how much our students appreciated having our different experiences and views. Plus I love Mike’s sense of humor and extraordinarily generous spirit. Short answer: I suckered him into letting me co-author.
Lisa: I don’t see any suckers but I love that you both appreciate what the other has brought to this collaboration. What are three of the biggest changes in publishing since the publication of the 4th edition of How To Write a Book Proposal?
Mike: Publishing has changed more in the last ten years than in the previous century. But now is the best time ever to be a writer. Books can be published for free, writers can make money from them faster than ever, and they can reach readers in more ways and places faster and more easily for free wherever they’re connected. Readers are the second most important people in publishing, because social media can make any book sell, regardless of who publishes it or how.
Lisa: How about challenges. Jody? What are some of the biggest challenges nowadays?
- Challenge one: deciding whether to self-publish or traditionally publish.
- Challenge two: Finding trustworthy advice in a sea of internet noise.
- Challenge three: Customizing your work for the digital reader.
Lisa: The challenges you indicated are, indeed, critical ones for writers and How to Write a Book Proposal does a great job of helping authors navigate those challenges. You have a new section on specialized proposals, like cookbooks, business books, graphic novels, exposes, memoirs and more. I mentioned in my Amazon Review that I wish I’d had this information when I first began editing and writing proposals, because it is often hard to know what publishers are looking for within a specific genre. What are some things that the writer of a business book needs to know? How about a cookbook?
Jody: For a business book, publishers usually expect the author to buy back copies to sell at speaking engagements. For many cookbooks today, the writing is almost as important as the recipe. Many cookbooks are purchased to be read, and a strong writing voice is essential in a cookbook proposal.
Lisa: You have some excellent quotations to start each chapter. I think opening quotations is one of those things that can be done well or done poorly. How did you get these? Were most of them personally solicited or did you write down great advice when you heard it or read it? What are some of the things that make an opening quote really pop?
Jody: Lots of different places. Many are from personal interviews just for this book, others are wonderful quotes from previous editions that deserved a place of honor at the top of the chapter, and others are online finds that tickled us.
Lisa: What’s one of your favorite quotes in the book?
Jody: “I like proposals. They’re a hell of a lot easier to deal with than full manuscripts.” —Mark Gompertz, Group Editorial Director, Skyhorse Publishing
Jody, On a “Writer’s Voice”
Lisa: Jody, I think of you as an expert on voice. I remember when you led the bonus seminar for my Bring Your Book to Life® Program and our interview was about voice. Can you define voice for our readers and say a bit about why it’s so important?
Jody: Writers work hard to create a strong voice, and it’s a complicated process. But at heart, a great voice is what connects us emotionally to any reading experience. It gives life to prose. Readers unconsciously want to feel that there’s somebody behind every book. That a book was put together by someone who had an agenda—to entertain us, to educate us, to sway us. Voice goes beyond sentences; it’s in structure, too.
Lisa: What are some of your favorite examples of writers with strong voices?
Jody: Mary Roach. Jenny Lawson. Sarah Vowell.
Advice, Tips and Mistakes to Avoid in Writing Your Book Proposal
Lisa: In How to Write a Book Proposal, I discovered some tips that I’d never even thought about—like making sure your proposal format is readable on all devices. Did that come out of receiving proposals that you couldn’t read? What other technological advice do you have for readers? What should we be mindful of when it comes to technology?
Jody: It actually was kind of an epiphany, if that’s not too grand a word, for me. I was reviewing a printout of one of my clients’ proposals. I thought it was terrific, and was about to push the green light. Then—I can’t remember why—I decided to read it on a device, too. I was shocked to realize I was…bored. It hit me that I hadn’t noticed how much I had been flipping through the pages on the printed version, to either find missing answers or to land on the fun stuff. On a digital device, even with the requisite links, you can’t easily flip around. So writers can’t count on readers finding the juicy stuff at the back if the front end is a let-down.
Lisa: Wow. I can see why that felt like an epiphany. How to Write a Book Proposal does such a great job of providing an understanding of the purpose of the proposal, getting into the mindset of an acquisitions editor, and understanding publishing before one gets started on the proposal itself. What are some of the most important things you suggest an author do sitting down to write a proposal?
Jody: Wow, you really did read it! Thanks!
Mike: Books should be the end of the information stream, not the beginning of it. Writers should read as many books as possible, especially books like those they want to write, both to learn the criteria for successful books like theirs, and to find recent successful books (not bestsellers) to use as models for their book. Agents and editors will want to want to know the models for a book are in a pitch or a query letter. If you want a big or midsize house, test-market the information in as many ways as possible to prove it works, and build your visibility and communities to help you. When you’ve maximized the value of your book, it’s time to write the proposal. Tweet This
Lisa: I love your suggestion of flash-writing 30 pages to make sure the subject holds your attention! I’ve occasionally seen writers work on a proposal only to decide they’re writing the wrong book or there really isn’t enough there for a book, or they’re already bored. This is such a great passion test. How did you come up with it? Have you used it yourself or with a client?
Jody: Thanks! I’ve recommended this practice, in various permutations, for a long time; writers usually find it helps in so many ways. It originally came out of my work with narrative nonfiction clients, who always write pieces of the story before figuring out how to sell it in a proposal.
Lisa: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see in a book proposal?
Mike: Idea not focused or salable, poor writing, visibility and/or promotion plan not strong enough.
Lisa: What was the writing process like? How did you use the 4th or earlier editions as a foundation and when did you brainstorm about new structures or contents?
Jody: Based on our experiences teaching together, we created an entirely new outline for this edition to enhance the user-friendliness and to provide more customized advice. We then inserted text from the previous edition where it fit topically, added a bunch of new writing, popped in material from the scores of new interviews, rolled up our sleeves and redrafted it all. And redrafted. And redrafted. And…you get the picture.
Lisa: At one point I saw a draft of the book and I believe it was well over 500 pages. Did you have to cut a lot of material? If so, what kinds of things did you cut out and why? How did you make the decisions to cut something?
Jody: Well, it still isn’t exactly short! Although it was time-consuming, determining what to cut wasn’t as tough as you might think. Once we restructured everything so that the book’s outline matched the proposal-writing flow we felt would be most productive for writers, material that was extraneous or repetitive became obvious. We also had great help from early readers, and later, from the editors at Writers Digest.
Help Get the Word Out!
Lisa: How are you promoting the book? How can readers spread the word or support your efforts?
Jody: Now that’s a great question. Writers Digest is awesome. They’re doing a top shelf campaign with Barnes & Noble, running guest blogs and interviews with us on their site, helping out with blog tours and social media, and just sent out more than a hundred (!) books to people in the publishing industry who, we hope, will become evangelists for the book. Readers can write positive reviews (thank you!), and talk about the book in their writing groups and on social media. Mike and I do a lot of public speaking, and we would each be glad to talk with any group about writing and publishing via Skype. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set it up!
Lisa: Just to clarify, readers can write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, etc. and, of course, if they only do one, Amazon is the most important because that’s where the majority of books are bought and sold. Thank you both for your time and sharing your expertise. I’m excited about the 5th edition and wish you luck with promoting it.
Jody Rein, literary agent and publishing consultant, is a former executive editor with imprints of Penguin Random House and HarperCollins Publishers in New York. Jody now lives in Denver with her two sometimes-home sons and their two cats and their two fish. She has ghostwritten two acclaimed books and has edited, represented or acquired hundreds of books, including New York Times bestsellers and multiple books optioned for film and television. She has been a member of the AAR and the Authors Guild, lectures on publishing around the country, and is on the Board of Directors for Writing for Peace. Write Jody at email@example.com; find her rants on twitter @authorplanet; visit her websites www.jodyreinbooks.com and www.authorplanet.org. Buy and please review How to Write a Book Proposal, Fifth Edition here: Amazon , Or here: Indiebound, Or here: Barnes & Noble.
Mike Larsen, an author coach, co-founded Michael Larsen-Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agents, which sold hundreds of books to more than a hundred publishers and imprints. Mike wrote How to Get a Literary Agent and coauthored Guerrilla Marketing for Writers. He is co-director of the San Francisco Writers Conference and the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference.
Readers, we weclome your comments and questions. In addition, you may enjoy this post about how to write a book.
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