New–for writers!

I just finished two small books for writers. Both are based on popular classes I’ve taught. The first is Finish Your Book, a short guide (about 25 pages) that offers tips and guidance for overcoming the stumbling blocks that keep you from finishing that novel you started last year. The other is Write Your Book Proposal, a slightly longer piece (about 35 pages) on putting together a proposal for a nonfiction book. Both links will lead you to the Kindle edition. Both also have paperback versions, here and here. It always takes Amazon a while to link the two together.

Hope you find these helpful!

What’s Your Book?


That’s my new tagline for Act 3.  (Waaay back in Act 1, I would have snorted tea up my nose if someone had suggested that I needed a tagline.  What can I say?  Times change.)


I love writing books, but I also love helping other writers shape their book ideas and bring them to fruition.  If I may be so immodest, I’m pretty good at it, too.  It’s not just a matter of bringing my understanding of the market and the industry to bear on a particular project.  It has to do with wanting to meet the writer where the writer is, and to not impose my ideas about what the book should be.  Ideally, my experience and expertise will help the writer shape a more marketable book, but won’t alter its substance or the writer’s vision for the book.


This is a lot harder than it sounds, for both the writer and for me.  But it’s work worth doing.  So, to that end, I’m pleased to announce that I am back in the coaching business. 


For writers who have a nonfiction book they’re working on, please be aware that I’m running my book proposal e-course this summer (starting Monday, June 21).  Let me know at if you have questions or want further information.


For writers who are interested in expanding their areas of expertise, I’m offering my Freelance Editing 101 e-course  (scroll down the page) through the Renegade Writer, starting July 12.  Again, please e-mail me with questions.


And in fun news, I’ve got a new book coming out later this week – Cold Hands, Warm Hearts (Avalon), a contemporary romance written under my pen name, Jenny Jacobs. 


What’s your book?

Book proposal basics

Like most agents (like most anyone), I spend my days juggling a lot of competing priorities.  I always have more opportunities — in terms of clients I could take on, editors I could schmooze with, colleagues I could connect with, projects I could work on — than I have actual time and energy. 

So here’s the thing: if I like your book idea, but your book proposal needs work, I have to think really hard and really long about whether I want to do the work that’s going be required of me to get your proposal ready for the world, even if you’re going to be doing the heavy lifting of editing, revising and polishing.  And trust me when I say: if I have to think really hard and really long about anything, the answer usually ends up being “no.”

Some questions to ask when you’re getting ready to send your proposal out:

Is this really different from other books like it?

Why would anyone want to read this book?

Is my writing appropriate to my audience?  If you’re envisioning your book on the shelves at Borders, then your proposal should be written in a trade voice, which is not the voice you used when you wrote your dissertation.

Is my argument or theme logically and consistently presented?  Do I even have an argument or theme?  (In other words, what is the point of my book, and is that point clear from the very first page of the proposal?)

Why would an editor (or agent) look at this proposal and think, “Wow, this is a book I have to buy (represent)”?

If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, or your answer is “no,” then spend a little more quality time with your proposal.  You’ll be glad you did.

For more information on book proposals, visit my website.

Meditation on book proposals

If you want to write a non-fiction book, you need a book proposal to convince agents to represent your book and to convince editors to publish it.  As a writer, I’ve found that the process of writing the proposal helps me wrestle with the prospect of spending the next year with this project.  Do I love it enough to work my butt off to get the proposal right?  Or is it one of those cases where I think the idea might sell, but I don’t really want to put that much effort into it?  With the industry in the state it’s in, I only work (as a writer) on those projects that I love enough to write a killer proposal for, even if it takes me three months and fifteen drafts.  The other ideas are gathering dust on my hard drive.


On the other side of the desk, I’ve been getting book proposals in my inbox at the Salkind Agency that could have used a bit more work — and that’s disappointing because while I want to find projects to represent, I don’t have the time to coach everyone with a viable idea on how to make their proposal sing.  So here are some general tips you may find helpful: 


The book proposal is like a business plan for your book.  It “sells” an agent or editor on your book and convinces them to invest in it.  It also helps you create a roadmap for what you will do as you write and promote the book.  Essentially, your book proposal contains these sections:


  • The Overview – a narrative section that describes your book and how it will be written, with details such as length, illustrations and special features
  • About the Author a full description of who you are and why you’re the right person to write this book
  • Marketing/Promotion – a section that defines your audience and outlines your plans for promoting your book, including special marketing hooks/ideas.  This should contain action items that you plan to do (promote the book on your blog, keynote at relevant events) and suggestions for publicity that a publisher wouldn’t automatically know about (in other words, yes, your potential publisher realizes that the New York Times publishes book reviews; it may not know about Your Hobby Monthly, which has fourteen gazillion subscribers and which publishes five book reviews a month.)
  • Competition – a comparison section that describe how your book is similar to – and different from – other books that have already been published.  If there has never been a book like yours, that is a very bad sign.  Include titles that are fairly recent (publishing works in dog years.  If something was published in 1999, it is ancient.)  Comparison titles should be ones that have sold well, so that the agent/editor will think, “Hmm, there’s potential here.”  Not: “Well, we’ll lose our shirt like everyone else who’s published on this topic.” 
  • Chapter Outline a description of each chapter of your book, usually a couple of paragraphs per chapter.  Use bullet points to get material across quickly. 
  • Sample chapters – one or two full chapters showcasing your writing and the subject about which you’re proposing your book.  Editors are having a hard time getting proposals past committees without really solid sample chapters these days. 

The basics described here are the generally accepted parts of a book proposal.  Some agents and editors may want to see a slightly different presentation, which you can easily accomplish by varying your final format according to their needs, which you can often find on their websites.


As you work on your book proposal, remember that it will be seen by agents and editors who have hundreds of other query letters, manuscripts and book proposals stacked on their desks.  They often have assistants screen the pile first.  Your goal should be to hook them – overworked agents and editors and underpaid assistants – with your well-polished, well-thought out proposal.


A book proposal book I like to recommend is Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal.  Anyone in the audience have others they also like?

How to: Your book and its competition

One of the most difficult parts of writing a non-fiction book proposal is putting together the competitive analysis (this goes by various names but is basically the section where you compare your book to others like it).   People often make several common mistakes. 

1.  They write the competitive analysis after they’ve written the rest of the proposal — the chapter outline and summaries, the marketing/promotion section, the about the author material — which means that if, during their research, they discover that someone else has already published a book almost exactly like the one they’re proposing, they have to rewrite the whole proposal.   Or they pretend the competing book doesn’t exist.  Or they shelve their proposal and go on to something else. 

I’ve always found the best way to tackle the competitive analysis  is to write a draft of my overview (the overview covers what my book is about, who the audience is, and why I’m the right person to write it), then, with that information in mind, start my research on competing books.  Very often what I learn helps me shape my book to be better and more helpful to readers than what is already on the market.

2.  Another common mistake is to claim there is no other book like yours.  This is not the impressive feat you may think it is.  When you say something like that, editors/agents think either you haven’t done your homework, or else there is a good reason there’s no other book like yours, and that’s because there’s no market for it.

3.  They badmouth the competition.  It’s true that you want your proposed book to come out looking like a winner, but you don’t accomplish this by denigrating the other books out there.  Keep in mind that someone thought those books were worth publishing (possibly the very same editor who is about to read your proposal).  There’s nothing wrong with using objective information:  “This book doesn’t include the results of recent studies.”  “That book is intended for scholars, not a general audience.”  “This other book doesn’t include exercises and resources for readers.”  But saying things like “This book sucks” is a no-no.  That’s not just because you don’t want come across like a jerk; it’s also because “this book sucks” doesn’t tell the reader anything about why the book doesn’t accomplish what it’s supposed to accomplish.

4.  They forget to clearly explain how their book will be different and/or better.  You have to connect the dots for your reader.  If Competing Title doesn’t include the results of the most recent research, it isn’t enough just to point that out.  You have to also specify that My Planned Book  will include that information.  Don’t forget to explain the benefit to the reader.  In sales, they talk about the difference between features (an index) and benefits (the ability to quickly turn to the page that has the information sought).  Keep that distinction in mind as you write about your competition.

5.  They dig up and include every obscure title ever printed on the topic.  In the interest of thoroughness, some people include everything every done on the subject, which can be overwhelming and doesn’t give an agent/editor a clear picture of what the market for your book may be.  If the only books on your topic were published twenty years ago, agents/editors are going to wonder what audience you think your book will have now.  If the only books on your topic have been published by tiny presses or self publishers, agents/editors are going to wonder if you have a large enough audience to warrant their investing in your book.  If you include everything but the kitchen sink, you’re forcing your readers to wade through a lot of information to find the useful bits.  Instead, choose more recently published books put out by major publishers which have sold well.  (It can be difficult to figure out how well a book has sold, but Amazon rankings can help, as can extended best seller lists.  Google is your friend; if the book in question turns up three hits, it’s probably not a great success.)

For more on writing the competitive analysis, see agent Rachelle Gardner’s excellent blog.