Friday, February 15, 2013

Fibro Q&A: How to write a book proposal

I've received a few emails lately from people who are writing non-fiction books and wondering what on earth to do with them once they're finished. Enter, the book proposal. The proposal is what you send an agent or a publisher to give them an overview of your book, a taste of your writing style and, hopefully, the impetus to get in touch to see more.

It's true that non-fiction books can be sold on proposal, but usually the writer has a proven track record, so if you're writing your first book, it's generally a good idea to finish it before sending out a prop. If the publisher or agent wants to see the rest, they'll want to see it NOW. 

But the book proposal is an art in itself, and to explain how and why, I thought I'd invite an honest-to-goodness commissioning editor into the Fibro and, er, politely grill her. Kristen Hammond is a Senior Commissioning Editor with Wiley Australia (we worked together on my little pink book, Credit Card Stressbusters). She's also, as most editors and publishers are, a lovely person, who's passionate about books and authors. It's worth remembering, when you send off a book proposal, that it will be someone like Kristen who's reading it. It makes the whole thing much less scary.

Allison Tait: Can you explain what a senior commissioning editor does? 
Kristen Hammond: "My role primarily involves market research, developing ideas for books or reviewing unsolicited manuscripts, finding authors, contracting authors, developing manuscripts, briefing covers and working with designers and authors to finalise them, working with editors and authors throughout the editorial, interior design and typesetting phases, liaising with marketing and sales about the campaigns for books, general author and list management, forecasting and strategic planning.

How many proposals do you receive each week? What makes you sit up and take notice?
KH: "This varies so greatly. Sometime we will get no proposals or unsolicited submissions for a whole month, other times you can get 2-3 per week. Proposals and unsoliciteds vary in quality and in appropriateness for Wiley. We don't publish fiction but we still get novels sent in. It pays to do your homework about which publishers are the right ones for your manuscript. In Australia, in my team, we publish business and finance books, so if you have a book on either of these subject matters, your proposal will certainly be read.

"Gimmicks don't work or make me sit up and take notice, not in any enduring sense anyway. I once got a manuscript wrapped up like a Kit Kat and including chocolate. It was much appreciated by everyone in the office. But if the proposal itself doesn't have substance and validity, then it's wasted energy. Good proposals don't need chocolate, a good proposal is its own reward!"

Is there an ideal format/presentation for a non-fic proposal? What sort of information do you need to decide whether to take things forward? 
KH: "At the most basic level, any proposal should include a bio of the author, synopsis, table of contents, sample chapter/s or full manuscript and a cover letter explaining the market for the book, positioning of the book, competition for the book and why the book is needed. My preference though is to ask authors to fill in our proposal template, which we have refined to ensure we get all the information we need from an author to consider the book and whether it will be a good fit for Wiley.

"Following receipt of a proposal form, if we are interested or want to know more, you can't replace a face-to-face meeting with an author to get to know them, get a sense for how they work, what they know about publishing and what their aims are for publishing with a professional publishing house."

How important is an author 'platform' when you're making a decision about a book? What do you look for?
KH: "Platform is key, but definitely not something that can be identified in a checklist. And it obviously needs to be complemented by a good manuscript of interest to an audience. With the platform it boils down to how large and how engaged and active is the author's audience in response to the author's message. How influential are the authors? Will their audience be motivated to purchase the author's book?

"A platform could consist of any combination of email database, client list, workshop business, speaking events and conferences, Facebook, Twitter, blog or other social media, access to influencers. Some authors are strong in one area, some have good representation across all. So you just have to look at the total package. Authors and publishers also cannot rely on a book to build a platform. The platform needs to be developed already or a substantial work in progress."

Do you read blogs? What might make you reach out to a blogger to discuss turning their blog into a book?
KH: "We definitely read blogs and are out there scouring social media for potential new authors or ideas. We have published bloggers following an approach from an editor at Wiley. We have got leads from Facebook and Twitter.

"One of the key things about blogs in terms of publishing a book, is that there must be enough depth in the blog or subject matter to create a whole, cohesive book. It is not enough to just reprint a collection of blog posts, or at least not in the business and finance space. Often we work with authors on helping them develop a book structure which they can add their posts to and develop and rewrite and polish. With bloggers, certainly their readership is a big factor in why you would approach them. But it is certainly not the only reason. It might be the reason to start an initial discussion, but then all the other attributes and qualities that you are looking for in an author and manuscript come in to play."

You'll find more information about Wiley and the kinds of books they publish here. Follow Wiley on Twitter here. If you'd like to discuss the Wiley proposal template, telephone (03) 9274 3100 and ask to speak to the editorial assistant.

Are you working on a non-fiction book?


  1. Allison one of the things I like about you is you are such a good sharer :) instead of keeping all your knowledge and experience to yourself you tell us your secrets to success so to speak and I love that. This post is fantastic. Your questions and Kristen's responses paint such a clear picture of how the whole commissioning thing works. I don't write in the business and finance sector but I am sure many of the points here are relevant across all topics and gave me great insight into what to think about when I eventually get around to writing (& selling) a non fiction book! A big thank you to you and Kristen.

  2. This is going to help so many new writers, Al. You're a good egg and Kristen is a good egg too. x

  3. What a great post. Thank you. I am in the middle of this whole thing at the minute and I'm wondering how long it usually takes for publishers to get back to you. I sent a query letter with 3 chapters to a publishing house, and had a quick "We like what we've read so far, please send the rest". That was 3 weeks ago and after sending the remainder of the manuscript immediately, I haven't heard anything. Should I follow up or am I just being impatient?

    1. Hi Anonymous, if I have learnt anything in the last five or so years with my forays into publishing it is this: publishing moves at glacial pace. Seriously. Three weeks is nothing. The best advice I can give you is to distract yourself with other projects. Editors and publishers are so busy that it can take months to hear back from them. And the waiting can drive you absolutely crazy if you don't do something else. I find blogging to be an excellent alternate pastime. :-)

  4. Wow. Months. Ok thanks for putting it in perspective Allison!! Have just stumbled across your blog today - love it.

  5. Thank you Allison and Kristen, perfect timing as a client has asked us to write a biography.

    There's enough meat to interest a publisher (it's about man at the centre of the most expensive workplace harrassment suit in Australian legal history).

    Knowing the format and the style required for a book proposal is invaluable.

    Thank you once again!

  6. Very Interesting post. Thank you. I am in the middle of this whole thing at the minute and I'm wondering how long it usually takes for publishers to get back to you?

  7. There is lots of helpful info in here. Makes me wish I had a book to do a proposal with!


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