At Books & Such, we help authors to build careers. From the smallest detail of the next book idea, to the big picture of the writer’s lifelong dreams, we work strategically to help each author reach his or her writing and publishing goals.
Are you the kind of writer who has several book ideas (or even written several books), possibly in different genres? If so, you may be wondering where to start. Which book should be the first one you write, or pitch to agents and editors?
It’s a question worth asking, and you’d do well to put some serious thought into it. Here are my tips:
Spend some time on each idea, one by one. First work on a rough outline of what the book would be. List the themes and topics you’d want to cover. Ask yourself: is there enough material here for a whole book? Consider whether you’ll be able to gather the information needed to fill a book on this topic. Is there enough to say?
Marketplace: Are there other books on this topic? Too many? Is there room or need for another one? Can you identify a hole in the market that needs to be filled? If there are no books on this topic, consider why. Is there a need but no one has filled it yet? Or is this something that people don’t want to read a book about?
You: Consider whether you’re the right person to write this book. Do you have any qualifications that would cause book buyers to trust you? Do you have a platform with which to sell this book?
The idea itself: Try to be honest. Is it unique, or derivative of many other books you’ve seen? When you talk with people about it, do they seem to get it? Do they respond with excitement, curiosity, inquisitiveness?
Put all your information together and a picture should emerge of each idea’s viability and chances of selling.
Where is your heart? Others might have different advice, but consider writing the novel that is most on your heart and mind right now. Always save your book ideas in a file, and add to them when the muse strikes. But you may want to write the one that’s speaking to you.
Get some input. You could carefully craft a one-sentence hook for each of your book ideas, then show them to a group of friends or fellow writers, asking them to rank the ideas in order of interest. This might help, if there is some similarity in their answers. Perhaps a clear winner will emerge. But you might get a variety of responses. So again, you’ll need to choose the book you are ready to write. With fiction, the idea is important, yet secondary to the writing.
What about market trends? You do need to know what’s going on in the marketplace, but it can change at any moment. What editors are looking for today might not be what they’re seeking eight months from now when you finish your novel. So don’t chase trends.
The first book sets you up. If you haven’t sold any books yet, be aware that branding is important, so the first book you sell will set you up to begin creating your brand. Make sure that first book is something you want to write, and make sure it begins establishing a brand identity that you’ll continue.
Do you have a variety of book ideas or entirely written books? How will you decide where to start?
I was reading a fiction manuscript last week that quickly described a character as a cripple. I winced when I read the word and stopped to think about why I had such an immediate revulsion. After all, it was historical fiction and the word was appropriate for the era and for the culture. As I processed my reaction, I settled on several reasons why we need to avoid labels. even commonly used labels.
Labels distract and pull us out of the story.
Case in point, I was reading along, caught up in the story, but when the label appeared, I stopped, stepped out of the story and began to consider the device of using a quick character label. Not a good experience for a reader. John Gardner wrote in an essay, titled Crafting Fiction: In Theory, In Practice: “If we carefully inspect our experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind… By detail, the writer achieves vividness; to make the scene continuous, he takes pains to avoid anything that might distract the reader…”.
A quick character label is often lazy writing.
We’ve heard “show, don’t tell” ever since we first started writing. A character label, instead of an appealing character description cheats the reader of that “rich and vivid play in the mind.” While a writer’s goal should be to create a fully developed character, giving that character a quick label, especially a long-abandoned label, cements a picture in the reader’s mind that grows out of his own, sometimes subconscius notions. Even if the writer develops the character more fully as the book progresses, those prejudices remain.
We are all more complex than a label.
I have a longtime friend who has Bipolar Disorder. I asked her how long she had been successfully dealing with the disorder. Rather than answer, she thanked me for understanding that it was a disorder, apart from her. She said so many people will simply say, “She is bipolar.” How sad, to sum up a wonderfully complex person in a single limiting label and wrap it in a bow. We are all so much more than the labels people may put on us. Your characters are as well.
Of course, labels can be effective coming out of the mouth of a character.
Some of your characters will label people with cringeworthy words and that is necessary to show their character, so I’m not saying labels should not be used in dialogue. One of the antagonists may say of the boy walking with a crutch, “He’s just a cripple.” That is not the writer saying it and by the time it is said, the reader probably has already seen the whole character and realizes how little the label fits. There are some words, however, that are so loaded with pain they can never be used, even by a character, even if historically correct, without bringing censure on the writer.
Reject the labels that come with baggage.
There are so many labels that come with baggage. We could go on listing them ad infinitum. But labels that have been used as slurs immediately come to mind. Each ethnic group has suffered derogatory names– it’s easy to avoid these. But there are also cultural tropes that have become ugly cliches: Irishmen and drinking, Jewish people and money, Southern folk and prejudice. . . sweeping generalizations that add nothing to the creation of unique, fully developed characters.
Is this just infusing “political correctness” into our writing?
No. That is a whole other discussion. This is about creatively drawing our characters and avoiding the easy label. But even more it reminds me of what Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: “Be kind and compassionate to one another. . .” (Ephesians 4:32). Even to characters who walk through our books.
I’ve previously extolled the benefits for me in reading Publishers Weekly. Each issue I peruse provides me with some insight or confirms I’m correct (or that I’m incorrect) about some aspect of publishing. Because publishing is like an ever-turning wheel, changes in trends and in publishing houses are challenging to keep up with. Publishers Weekly is of considerable help.
The First Knell
As I read the March 4 issue of the publication, the title of a reviewed nonfiction book caught my eye: Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America. Since I wasn’t sure who would fit the description of an accidental president or how they changed our country, I read the review.
It begins with, “Cohen [the author]…explores the power transitions of eight U.S. vice presidents who took over the presidency upon the deaths of their predecessors in this entertaining but clunky history.”
Clunky? Oops, that sounds like a death knell to me.
And, Yet, Something to Admire
The next sentence reads, “Positing that ‘the matter of succession has been trivialized by voters, candidates and lawmakers,’ Cohen presents brief, confidently told narratives of each transition.”
Confidently told. That sounds good. So what’s with the usage of the word clunky?
The reviewer explains that Cohen’s premise is that the process of selecting vice presidents should be improved, perhaps even requiring them to have previously run for president. Certainly they should not be chosen by campaign teams.
This book sounds thought-provoking to me. But clearly something goes amiss in the concept’s execution, if the reviewer is correct.
The Second Knell
Apparently, multiple anecdotes of near deaths of presidents and “overdoses of contextual details too often take precedence over the ostensible analytical focus.”
Ah, the manuscript veered away from its supposed reason for existing.
Let that be a lesson to us all: Regardless how fascinating we might find a rabbit trail we discovered as we researched, we must not give in to our own interest in this offshoot of the book’s concept. If we promise through the title, subtitle, and stated premise what the book will consist of, then we must deliver on that promise in a satisfying way.
The same goes for fiction. Sometimes a novelist finds a colorful secondary character so fun to be around, that the character takes over from the protagonist. Oh-oh, the story has just veered out of the author’s control.
Noting What’s Good
The reviewer doesn’t find fault with the writing. “…The pacing is brisk, the writing is clear and engaging, and Cohen’s characterizations of the presidents are mostly vivid.”
But said reviewer does object to Cohen not fulfilling his promised exploration of the theme. “…The conclusions he draws feel slight. This colorful, occasionally amusing but somewhat shaggy book may strike readers of history as…”
The Third Tolling Bell
And here comes the final knell: “as lacking in urgency.”
I was startled by this perceptive and forceful way of expressing what was amiss with the book. It lacked urgency because the author didn’t stay focused and more fully develop his premise. (By the way, I think his premise is one I’d like to read about and ponder.)
Lacking in urgency.
Let that be a lesson to all of us. Here are some questions to ask yourself regarding your work-in-progress:
Does my material meander rather than move with clarity of vision to its intended purpose for existing?
Have I let myself to be charmed away from the book’s path by some bunny trail I’m enjoying?
Does the manuscript deliver what I’ve promised, either as a nonfiction concept, or as the type of novel-reading experience I’ve promised in its title and opening?
Have I continued to feel urgency about conveying all that I had hoped when I first formed the concept?
Lest any of us have fallen into feeling a lack of urgency, let’s take a lesson from this review and examine our work from this perspective.
Why do you think authors lose their sense of urgency as they work on a book concept? How do you think a writer can maintain that urgency?
The other day I received an email from a potential client asking me if I would have an answer for him about representation quickly because he was counting on his book releasing from a traditional publisher this year. He felt that was plenty of time for an agent to shop the project and for it to go through the publishing steps. This kind of request isn’t uncommon, so I would like to take today to give you an idea of the publishing timeline after you find an agent. (And finding an agent can take a lot of time, too!) Remember, these time-frames are all estimates. Every book project is different.
Revamping the proposal with your agent for submission to editors: 1-4 months
Agent pitching and selling the project: 2 months- 2 years (sometimes longer and there’s no guarantee of a sale)
Contract negotiation: 2 weeks-4 months
If the publishing house sends out the contract to the agent right away, the process can move quickly, but contracts departments can experience a pile-up and agents can, too. The contract negotiation can overlap with other steps. You can be working on your final draft during the time the contract is negotiated.
Final book is due: 0 to 18 months after contract
Editorial revision letter back to author: Approximately 2 months after book is turned in.
Revisions done by author and sent back to publishing house: 7-30 days from the time the revision letter is received.
Galleys to author: 4-6 months after revisions
Galley corrections back to publisher: 7-14 days after receipt of galleys.
Book goes to the printer: 1-14 days after galleys are finalized.
Book ships to stores: 1 to 2 months after it is sent to printer.
Book officially releases: 1 to 2 weeks after stores receive the product.
Time that is likely to pass from receiving a publishing contract until your book is published: Between 1 and 2 years. Books can be produced faster than that, but that is considered a rushed project. And I’ve seen contracts for books that won’t be published for more than two years.
The traditional publishing world moves slowly. It’s one of the first lessons I had to learn when I started working at Books & Such as an intern. I was shocked when I learned how long it takes for a book to come out after the contract.
When did you first learn how slowly the publishing world can move?
How has patience paid off for you in your publishing journey?
What are among a writer’s most potent words? Which ones will have an impact beyond what a writer can imagine?
Some might guess it’s the exquisite words: THE END.
But it’s actually the words that come after The End that hold unexpected impact. And no, the words aren’t, “Get me coffee!” or “I need a nap!”
There’s a reason for this image…and it’s more than an insatiable appetite for spring. The tiny but eye-catching flowers are forget-me-nots. They’re symbolic of the answer to an author’s startled, “Wait a minute! I have to create an Acknowledgements page for the book? I don’t know where to start.”
It’s your forget-them-not page. And it matters.
Does anyone read a writer’s most potent words–the Acknowledgements page?
More than you’d guess. Yes, many skip over anything that doesn’t seem like part of “the story.” But an Acknowledgements page often is part of the story.
Have you sat through the opening frames of a movie’s end credits and been amazed to discover the film was based on a true story? The credits at the end of “Schindler’s List,” for example, are among the most powerful moments in the entire production.
Sometimes a book’s Acknowledgements page reveals a surprising connection to a true story . . . or the rest of the story. It often gives clues to the author’s personal connection to the fiction or nonfiction project. The Acknowledgements reveal so much more than, “I’d like to thank the Academy . . .”
Who reads the Acknowledgements? The curious. People who may have helped contribute to your book in some way–critique partners, research sources, your spouse, new writers who want to know what goes on the Acknowledgements page.
And your editors. A freelance editor, in-house editor, copy-editor, proofreader (or multiples of the above) may all have taken a careful look at it, sentence by sentence, word by word, letter by letter. They will notice who was mentioned as having had a role in the book’s birth.
Who is mentioned in a book’s Acknowledgements?
The choice is the author’s. But no book is published without the input of others.
Your editor(s). Imagine how it can build and strengthen your relationship with your editor if you mention his or her contribution, which is likely significant.
Your publisher. (See reason for mentioning your editor.)
Organizations or individuals who have helped you on your writing journey.
Individuals, businesses, or groups that helps provide research details.
Your family. (It’s a rare family that hasn’t had to make adjustments so a writer can write.)
Your agent. Our books may not have gotten past the proposal stage without our agent’s help and the agency’s reputation. You might be surprised to know how much it means to an agent to see a brief but sincere expression of gratitude in our books. I have inside information that it means a lot.
What else is accomplished when you write those potent words–your expressions of gratitude?
Other authors pick up on the connection between books they enjoyed and the editors, publishing houses, and agents involved in bringing it to life. Your gratitude may help direct another author to a positive publishing experience, to a great freelance editor, or to a literary agent or agency that invests well in its authors.
Other authors take note of what makes an Acknowledgements page sound sincere, heartfelt, or fun as opposed to the flat, canned-sounding “I’d like to thank the Academy.” More on this point in an upcoming blog post, tentatively titled “I’d like to thank the Academy.”
Those who sacrificed to help you reach your publishing goal with the book are moved to see that you not only noticed their efforts but made your gratefulness public.
You–the author–redirect your thoughts in a positive way, balancing your elation over what you’ve accomplished with humility and gratitude over all the people who gave you the opportunity, cheered you on, sacrificed their time, paved the way, and had your back.
Writing the Acknowledgements for your book may seem like a tiresome assignment. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s a time of reflection and an opportunity to encourage those who have encouraged you.
I’m reading Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, and finding it fascinating. It’s a terrific read so if you’ve been on the fence, I recommend it!
There’s an interesting tidbit about when Barack got a contract for his first book, Dreams from My Father. It was long before he entered public office, and at the time apparently he had a lot going on and blew right past his book deadline with no manuscript to show for it.
His publisher canceled the contract, requiring him to pay back his $40,000 advance. His agent then said that she could sell it to another publisher—but she wouldn’t do it until he finished the manuscript.
Barack knew his life was too busy and frenetic for him to get the book done. Wise man that he is, he understood that he couldn’t keep doing the same things and expect different results. He really wanted to write the book, so he decided to take drastic measures. He figured he needed to be away from everything—all his commitments—for a period of time, so that he could knock out the manuscript in one fell swoop. Michelle agreed, and so he set off to write the book.
Six weeks after his wedding.
For two complete months.
Not many new wives would be happy about that! And Michelle was understandably reluctant. But she knew he needed to get the book done, and he knew what it would take.
Happy ending… he finished it, his agent sold it, and while it sold modestly at first, it eventually ended up on the NYT bestseller list.
I have a couple of reasons for sharing this story. First, a heads-up. Yes, a publisher can cancel a contract and demand the advance back if you’re not living up to your part of the deal.
Second, this is a very real acknowledgment that it can be difficult to get a book written amidst the hustle and bustle of life. Not many of us can take off to Bali for two months (Obama had access to free lodging there). But what we can do is be intentional in planning how we’ll get our work done. We can even consider what kind of extreme measures we might need to take in order to complete a project.
Obama’s a really smart guy, capable of keeping a lot of plates spinning. But he knew he’d need dedicated, focused time in order to write his manuscript.
What do YOU need? Are you willing to go to extremes to get your work done?
Many writers dread creating the marketing section of the proposal. Let me follow Janet Kobobel Grant’s lead and talk about this portion of the proposal. Janet earlier talked about the competition portion here, and the last blog post talked about crafting your bio. I discussed the importance of your proposal here.
When it comes time to write the marketing section of the proposal, too many writers hit the wall.
“I’m a writer, not a marketing guru.”
“Isn’t marketing what the publisher is paid to do?”
“I only have a handful of readers on my blog.”
“How do I know what’s possible and what will sound like over-promising?”
Let’s take these issues one at a time and talk about them.
“I’m a writer, not a marketing guru.” And you, as a nonfiction writer, have much to offer. Several of my authors have written articles that connect in some way to the theme of their book. In the bio at the bottom of the article, the book is featured. Others have written guest blogs on high-traffic blog sites. The novelist can offer marketing tools as well. Just like the nonfiction writer who can write articles to promote her book, several of my fiction clients have written a novella– a prequel to their series– and offered it to the publisher as a marketing tool.
“Isn’t marketing what the publisher is paid to do?” I’ve heard this way too many times. Marketing is a partnership. I was at an ABA writers event several years ago when I heard a brusque fiction editor say, “What’s this marketing stuff I see in the proposals these days? Leave that [expletive] out. We have professionals to do that.” Obviously her ABA house is very different from our CBA houses. They want to find out what you bring to the table so they can capitalize on that. They also want to know that you will consider your readers your “tribe” and will faithfully take care of them. If there’s one thing I want you to remember from this blog it is this: Your publisher’s job is to bring you new readers, your job is to take care of every reader you get, carefully putting their contact info in a database and connecting with them regularly.
“I only have a handful of readers on my blog.” In your marketing section you need to focus on your strong points. Like a recent proposal I sent out, the therapist/writer had done more than two dozen drive-time interviews on a large radio station and had more planned. We focused on her interview experience and wrote that she was working on building her online brand and her social media presence. Focus on the positive and don’t overlook your strong regional connections. Your agent will help you leverage your strengths. And if you do have impressive social media numbers, those are gold right now.
“How do I know what’s possible and what will sound like over-promising?” A marketing section is a great place to share ideas that you will do to market your book. I say, that you will do, because too often this where proposals go overboard. “I’ll be available to do all television appearances the publisher arranges, including Chicago appearances like Oprah and New York appearances like the Today Show.” Um, this is way overblown. The correct way to put it, would be, “I’ll clear my calendar during the release period, spending time on social media and several scheduled speaking engagements as well as any media opportunities the publisher may offer.” This is what is expected. Oprah is not going to call. You may have connections that may be useful in marketing, however. Mention these. “I’m currently the co-chairmen of the Minnesota Nursing Association. Since my book deals with health, I’ll be able to connect to a number of professionals who may be helpful in marketing my book.”
I could go on and on, but I won’t. This is not a exhaustive list of dos and don’ts for completing the marketing section of your proposal but at least it’s a start. Your turn. Questions? Suggestions? What did I leave out?
Lately I’ve been preparing a lot of proposals to send to editors, which has sent my mind spinning around the areas I see where authors tend not to strut their best stuff. Part of the proposal prep that needs extra attention is your bio.
I know, it’s so hard to figure out what to say about yourself, right? Let’s look at a few case studies and see if we can bring some light into this dark corner of proposal prep.
Highlight the high notes
But first, here are a few principles.
Figure out what your strengths are and start your bio with them. Don’t tuck them in at the end. If you have a degree in psychology, and you’re writing a self-help book, mention your degree at the beginning. Let’s say you’ve been a counselor for ten years, that’s even better. Or what if you’ve written previous books that relied on both your degree and your counseling for material, that’s the best. Feel free to mention all three upfront.
Writing credentials also should show up near the beginning.
If you speak regularly, especially to large groups, that’s something to highlight.
Should you have a significant following on social media, don’t tuck that light under a bushel basket.
Slip in the personal stuff
When writing for the Christian market, some publishers want to know your church affiliation, size of your church if it’s large, and what ways you’re involved in church life.
And they want to have a sense of who you are–marital status (years married might be something to mention), number of children and their ages (“two adult children” would suffice, if they’ve flown the nest), and hobbies (yes, coffee addictions may be mentioned at this point).
Tuck the lowlights in a corner
If you’ve never had a book published but have contributed to anthologies or collections, written magazine articles, or even been a guest blogger on a number of blogs, do mention these achievements, but slip them in–unless you’re writing a novel. Then they become of greater importance. For nonfiction, I’d suggest putting them in the middle of your bio so they aren’t the first thing you mention but also not the last. You don’t want to end on a note that points out a lowlight.
Proposal prep: your bio, case study #1
Below I’ve pasted the bio of one of my most prolific authors, Tricia Goyer. Because she has published so much, this version of her proposal bio is slanted toward the nonfiction side. She is proposing to write a book about her family.
“Tricia Goyer is a busy mom of ten, grandmother of two, and wife to John. Somewhere around the hustle and bustle of family life, she manages to find the time to write novels and nonfiction. A USA Today best-selling author, Tricia has published seventy books to date and has written more than 500 articles. She is a two-time Carol Award winner, as well as a Christy and ECPA Award Finalist. Tricia won the Retailer’s Best Award in 2015 and has received numerous starred reviews from publications such as Romantic Times and Publishers Weekly. Tricia is also on the blogging team at TheBetterMom.com and other homeschooling and Christian sites.
“In addition to her roles as mom, wife, and author, Tricia volunteers around her community and mentors teen moms. She is the founder of Hope Pregnancy Ministries in Northwestern Montana, and she currently leads a Teen MOPS Group in Little Rock, AR. Learn more about Tricia at www.triciagoyer.com.”
What she did right
Tricia, you’ll note, didn’t talk much about her online presence because, on the first page of the proposal, I had highlighted those. They’re impressive, and I made sure the editor and publishing committee saw those numbers before they even knew what the project was about.
She also didn’t mention anything about her church. She attends a good-sized church and is involved in various ways. Instead, she highlighted her work ministering to teen moms, which is something unique and personal about her.
Proposal prep: your bio, case study #2
Now, let’s look at an unpublished author’s bio. I signed on to rep Chase Replogle more than a year ago. Over the year, he and I have been fine-tuning the focus of his project while he’s built-up a listenership for his podcast, which he started about one year ago. His proposed project is a nonfiction book centered around men’s issues.
“Chase Replogle is the pastor of Bent Oak Church in Springfield, Missouri (bentoakchurch.org), a web designer, and a marketing consultant. He has a degree in Biblical Studies from Central Bible College and an M.A. in New Testament from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. He hosts the Pastor Writer Podcast (pastorwriter.com), interviewing pastors and authors on the calling and craft of writing. Guests have included: Tim Challies, Barnabas Piper, Dick Foth, Os Guinness, Pete Scazzero, and Scott Sauls. The podcast was recently featured by The Gospel Coalition. The site chronicles Chase’s ongoing writing projects, attracting many new listeners each month.
“A native of the Ozark woods, he enjoys being outdoors with his wife and two kids: fly-fishing, playing the mandolin (badly), and quail hunting with his bird dog Millie.”
What he did right
Because Chase’s project not only is written to men but also focuses on a male Bible character, Chase needed to establish his credentials to write such a book. He does so by highlighting his ministry and his education.
Next, as an unpublished author, Chase honed in on his podcast. The actual numbers for Pastor Writer were mentioned earlier in the proposal.
He then closes out with the personal side of his bio in a way that shows his spare-time pursuits are ones that guys would relate to. (And also connect to the opening scene in the manuscript.)
Proposal prep: your bio, the newbie novelist
“Carrie Padgett has been writing since she discovered story in kindergarten. She provides work-for-hire for an agriculture media company as well as freelance writing and editing services.
“Her articles have appeared on or in:
The Madera Tribune
Alive Now magazine
Short selections in AAA Via magazine
“She has selections in:
Short Attention Span Mysteries (published by Kerlak Enterprises)
Why Fret That God Stuff (compiled by Kathy Collard Miller, published by Starburst Publishers)
Family Fiction Anthology, 2014 edition
“Contests and Awards:
American Christian Fiction Writers’ Genesis winner
2007, ‘Lits category, Oh, Shop It
2017, Contemporary category, Harley Taps Out
Two-time Genesis semi-finalist (2012 & 2014)
RWA® Golden Heart® finalist, 2014, Inspirational category, Against the Peace“
What she did right
Carrie turns the spotlight on the ways she’s been working on her writing career. She’s taken advantage of opportunities to publish in other writers’ books, and she’s entered contests. After reading her bio, an editor is likely to think, “Carrie takes her writing seriously and works hard at crafting a good story.”
We didn’t mention her social media numbers because we didn’t want the editor to focus on them; they’re mentioned elsewhere in the proposal. Carrie could have mentioned her hobbies or her family, but we wanted the editor to think about Carrie as someone serious about her writing.
What would you change about your proposal bio after reading this blog post?
Stymied about what to say in your book proposal bio? This blog post can help. Click to tweet.
How to create the most effective bio in your book proposal. Click to tweet.