The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and aside from the fact that I'm stuck in bed with the most wicked head cold I've ever had, it's a perfect day here in our neck of the woods. Speaking of perfect, let me answer a few questions in regard to proposals -- one area where my perfectionist tendencies run amok. Just last week two editors mentioned that my proposals are among the best they've ever received. So, I think I'm well qualified to answer a few proposal questions. So, Here goes ...
Anna wrote and asked "I'm having trouble trying to decide where to focus. I started putting together a proposal for my second novel, but I'm sure I'll go back and tweak the story some when I start editing it. I feel like I have to have it complete and ready to go before I bother with a proposal. Do I completely edit and polish the novel at this point, or do I dive into creating a strong proposal?
After a novel is finished, it's best, if you can, to let it set for some time before going back to edit it. So, in answer to your question regarding what to do next, I'd say dive into creating the strongest proposal you know how, then spend more time going back through it and making sure it is clean, presentable, factual, current, and well organized.
Katherine wants to know: "Should I include sales figures for my previous books in my proposal? My first novel sold pretty well, and the second was about the same. But my publisher decided to pull back from the specific category of fiction I write and so I'm thinking I'll probably look into getting an agent and that I'll probably land with a different publisher. How important will sales figures be to them?"
First off, congratulations on the sales of your first and second novels, Katherine. As "pretty well" could mean considerably different things to different publishers, and sales history is one of the first questions out of editors mouths these days, now would be a good time to round up a current figure so you can be prepared to answer that as specifically as you can - either to your new agent or to any editors you might have the opportunity to pitch your work. And, there's no use in trying to mask sales figures as most agents and editors are able to access the facts with a phone call or email. So just be honest. It is what it is. If you had a particular issue (one of the authors I represent "lost" two editors and her agent to maternity leave prior to the release of a book and she's still recovering from lost momentum) most editors will understand -- if the writing holds up, of course. I'd say, though, if you're looking for an agent, leave these details up to him or her to discuss. Yeah, I know ... we get to have all the fun.
Mason got a little whiny, but his concern is pretty universal, so I'll humor him. He said "I'm trying to make sense of all the information I've gathered for putting together a proposal. It seems like it could go on for pages and pages! Why do they ask for so much? "
Okay, look. There are tons of books on crafting proposals and even more websites and samples floating around on websites. We have a fiction proposal on our website which leans toward the technical side, but they don't all have to be that way. One thing I always try to keep in mind when I'm advising authors (or sometimes helping them) with proposals is that editors are busy and overwhelmed. They need good information put together in a manner which makes it easy to find the specific details they will need if/when they're discussing your project with their counterparts or presenting it in a pub meeting. So yes, the sections you see in a sample proposal can seem confusing and a bit like you're being asked to jump through hoops, but if you're willing to make their jobs easier, trust me, you and your work will stand out and they'll appreciate you for it.
Having said all that, personally, here's a framework for how I like to see proposals organized:
Basic overview info to help orient the reviewer to your project. Genre, category, setting, word count, status (finished or not), brief author intro.
What is the book about? This is a one paragraph (or one sentence, if you can do it) handle at this point - not the full synopsis.
Why is the author the one person in the universe qualified to write this book and what are his/her plans for helping the publisher promote and sell it?
Who are the specific consumers likely to plunk down their hard earned cash to buy your book?
Answers the question - can the author really write?
For fiction, I like for this to follow the sample chapters so the editor has a chance to get the same first impression a reader would. Hard to do if they've looked through the synopsis first.
Different editors look for different information first. Some like to see right away if they recognize the author before they go any further. Some jump right to the bottom and read a few lines to see if the person can write. Still others want to know how the book fits in the marketplace and how this author/project compares to what's already out there. If the information and supporting elements are easy to find and deliver answers to their key questions, that's really what most editors want initially. The reason publishers need so much covered in a proposal is that this is often all they have to go on when they are making decisions in meetings about which projects to potentially make an offer on. And the editor who is presenting it is often taking a bit of a risk.
By the time it reaches the final decision stage, typically editors will have already gone through the discovery phase and answered several questions for themselves. Yes, they look at the sample chapters, but they rarely convince a publishing committee to make a "yes" decision (i.e. take a business risk) solely on the writing alone. It happens, but, like I said they often need, especially for newer authors who may not be widely recognized, good support information to help them sell it the project in-house.
Gary said "It seems to me that editors should just read the
manuscript and see if they like it before they ask authors to spend so
much time putting together a proposal."
Sometimes that happens, Gary. But usually only if it's recommended by an agent the editor trusts. I don't know an editor who enjoys reading sample chapters just for reading pleasure. Trust me, like us, they all have stacks of recommended books they'd really rather curl up with.
Look. A good proposal answers a few very important questions upfront. Does the written material really match what the query promised? Is there enough information, overall, to help me come to an informed decision on this? Should I bother to discuss this with my fellow editors? Try to get this on the agenda for the next pub board? Does it compete with that other idea I'd had in mind to bring up this month? Should I round file the whole thing and tell the author they'd be better off making a living scraping gum off the bottom of chairs at Burger King?
Deciding whether they love your writing is important, Gary, but it's often the what you put in the material leading up to the sample chapters that convinces an editor it's worth their time (or not) to read it.
Thanks for asking. Feel free to reply with further questions and we'll do our best.
Stay Healthy, and Happy Spring!