Book Proposals

Singing the Slushpile Blues

by Steve Laube

The unsolicited pile of proposals in my office (aka “the slushpile) taunts me every day.

“Come over here!” it says, tantalizing me with immanent possibilities. I say to myself, “Maybe it will be the next one I look at. That will be ‘The One.'”

I’ve been told that many of you enjoy hearing some of the offbeat letters or intriguing proposals I see. Here is a sampling from the past few months [typos included but some info is deleted to protect the writer’s identity]:

“I am seeking representation for my First book: … I have 17 more. This book could very well Save the World.”

“… is a polyphonic composition in which anti-hero…inner conflicts are given voice, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and developed into an intricate narrative marked by a stunning climax.”

“Maggot … my inspirational Christian Literature fiction book”

“I have deciphered the number 666….The beast has 7 heads, each head represents a country or countries that have ruled over Israel. Egypt being the first, and its empire started in the year 2630 B.C. This was the beginning of the pyramid era. Take the number 666, and multiply it with the number 7 headed beast. (7X666=4,662) The last country or countries to dominate over Israel is the United Nations. The U.N. qualified for this distinction when it reestablished the existence of the country of Israel in 1948. Project the number 4,662 forward from the year 2630 B.C. and you arrive at the year 2032, or the end of our era.”

We received a two page letter received written in ALL CAPS. It said “I HOPE I FOLLOWED YOUR GUIDELINES TO YOUR SATISFACTION.” And then proceeded to pitch a 2,200 word Children’s picture book…which our guidelines specifically says we do not represent.

A proposal for a novel whose audience is described as “American and Middle Eastern readers, particularly Christians and nominal Muslims open to hearing Christian evangelism.”

Subject line of the e-mail reads “If you cut a tree , you cut your own mother / 210 pages – my Poetry book attached.”

“This is a tale specifically written to ‘replace’ J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. No joke and no exaggeration.”

“I am not going to waste your time by telling you how awesome my book is. You can simply see the awesomeness by looking at the preview of the book by following the link below. I just self-published my book because I am impatient, and publishers don’t typically give me the time of day. It’s okay though, because I’m …, and I don’t have feelings. This is a business opportunity, and I hope you treat it as such. Take care, and let me know if you are interested in representing me. I will compile a list of agents and select the one that is most diligent, relentless, and ethical (like me).”

Therefore while the siren song of the slushpile is played, its tune it is rarely that enticingHowever, I must admit like the old prospector, “Sometimes there’s gold in them thar’ hills.”

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High Concept: Catching Readers One at a Time

Not every fiction proposal needs something called a High Concept, but I like to see one. A High Concept shows that the author can hone in on the story and has thought about what it says and how it can be positioned in the marketplace. It helps the publisher know in a snap of the fingers the unique and compelling nature of your story. One popular way to create a High Concept is to compare your work to two books or movies. You can choose extremely famous titles or venture into lesser known works with self-explanatory titles. I will make up a couple of examples:

Star Wars meets Across Five Aprils in this alternative history novel in which a spaceship lands in the middle of the battle of First Manassas.

The Wheel of Fortune meets Missing in this thriller about a Las Vegas kidnapping ring.

High Concepts like these are capsules that help orient an editor or marketing director to your work. They lend excitement and anticipation to the proposal.

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Get Attention with the Right Title

 When an agent or her assistant tackles the email slush pile, she sees one subject line after another written by authors vying for attention. Some lines describe the book category, while others make a claim about the author himself. But most include the book’s title. I tell authors not to get attached to titles because all too often, they are changed somewhere between the time the editor takes the proposal to Committee and when the book goes to press. However, putting thought into the title at the proposal stage will help orient us to the book and a really catchy title might excite us enough to open your email proposal right away. Who wants to read a boring book?

Consider these fiction titles:

Rodeo Sweetheart by Besty St. Amant

The Guy I’m Not Dating by Trish Perry

Sketchy Behavior by Erynn Mangum

These titles made me smile and want to learn more.

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Ebook-Originals, the Next Step in Traditional Publishing Strategy

Guest Post by Sue Brower

Our guest today is Sue Brower. She is Executive Editor at Zondervan in charge of fiction and thinks she has the best job in the world…she gets paid to read all day!  Zondervan is currently looking for completed manuscripts to fill the Zondervan First fiction eBook platform.  The ideal stories will primarily have romance-driven plots and vivid, realistic characters.  We are also looking for proposals in the Contemporary, Historical, Suspense, and Romance categories for our print program.  Sue lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband Todd, dogs Pepper and Ollie, and cat, Shep.

__________

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much the book market has changed in just a few short years.  Some bad, but mostly good because of all the new opportunities for innovation and creativity in publishing. Traditional publishing (print books sold through retail stores) is holding its own, but now there are so many more vehicles for authors to get published: print, epub-only, self-pub, etc.

A diehard fiction fan, I swore I would never give up my printed books and I didn’t believe that there would come a day when I wouldn’t be able to spend hours in a bookstore just browsing.  I love the way books smell; I love the way they feel.  Then the company I work for, Zondervan, gave me an IPad so that I could get comfortable with the format and so I could experience books electronically.  For a while everything I read was on my IPad; current books, as well as manuscripts I was considering for publication.  I thought it was so cool…for at first.  Then, a book was being released by my favorite author and I just had to have it in hardcover.  It wasn’t enough to have it loaded in perpetuity on my IPad, I wanted to be able to hold the story in my hands.  I enjoyed it more, become involved in the fantasy just as the writer intended.

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A Few Tips on Social Media

This may seem like an interruption to my series on writing proposals, but it is not. I plan to address the Marketing section of a proposal in the near future. However, before writers can think about marketing in general, they need to understand social media because an author who has mastered social media will be more attractive to a publisher. They want to partner with savvy authors. Thomas Umstattd addressed some of these in a blog in February called “Seven Ways Agents Measure Social Media.”  So the tips below may be a quick review for many, but it bears repeating since it has become such an important piece of the marketing puzzle.

Google

Find out how you look on Google. Do a Google search on your name on a regular basis to see what appears. You won’t be able to control everything that comes up under your name, but work with your webmaster to be sure your web site appears at the top. This is especially helpful if you had to purchase a domain that’s not entirely obvious such as, “ImaWriterWrites” because your name alone was already taken. A regular search will also help you identify anything slanderous, libelous, or (more likely) just plain inaccurate so you can take action to have those links removed. Searching your name should also reveal if there is another author with a name similar to yours. If you find this is true, I recommend simply mentioning the fact in your proposal to make the agent aware so the two of you can decide whether or not to choose a pen name.

It’s a good idea to set up Google Alerts on your name (instructions here). Google will send you an email anytime a new page on the Internet mentions you or your books.

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Who Am I? – About the Author

The author biography section in a book proposal seems to be one of the least anxiety-provoking sections, yet I often see areas that could be improved. Here are a few ideas on how to make your author bio section the best it can be.

Include a portrait

When I was an intern on Capitol Hill, one of my duties was to open the mail. On one occasion, we received a resume that included a portrait, which was not the common practice at that time. The portrait wasn’t large, and if you looked like this man, you would put your picture on everything, too. But the office manager said, “I would never hire him. He’s an egomaniac.” Now, maybe my office manager was jealous. (And no, I don’t think he’s reading this). But I thought including a picture was a great idea. On proposals, Steve Laube recommends including a portrait in the author bio. And no, no one will think you are an egomaniac. I have put together many proposals under our banner, and I can tell you that including the visual is helpful. We like portraits that are about the size of a postage stamp.

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Will You Vouch for Me?

As part of my continuing series on proposals, today I’ll talk about endorsements. This element can cause anxiety, so I hope this post will ease your mind.

When to Ask for Endorsement

Some writers tell me, “I’ll get back to you on that list as soon as I talk to the authors.” Or even, “I’ll let you know as soon as the authors read my manuscript and get back to me.” In reality, neither time is right to ask an established author to endorse your book. The time to ask is when you already have a contract and the publisher is almost ready to send advance copies to potential endorsers. Then the publisher can offer a deadline for the endorsement and the endorser can verify whether or not he has time to read and endorse the book.

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My Book is Like…

When I posted about writing great book proposals, I noticed a trend toward anxiety about the market comparison section. This is understandable since authors need to strike a balance between, “I am the next C.S. Lewis,” and “You don’t want to read this, do you?”

Aspiring to be like…

Most of the time, newer authors don’t think about comparing their work to the work of others in the proposal. Some do venture to compare themselves to classic authors in the query letter, and that can help the agent or editor orient herself to what you are writing, especially when your work isn’t of a specific genre. Do couch your words with care, however. “I compare my work to that of Francine Rivers,” reads differently than, “I greatly admire Francine Rivers. Reading her books has helped me aspire to touch hearts and souls with deep, emotional stories.”

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Do You Have Perfect Pitch?

Thanks so much for all the ideas for my mini-conferences. I’ll put those together soon.

Speaking of conferences, while I was at a writer’s retreat awhile back, I was struck, as I always am when in the company of writers, by the power of the right word used in the right way. On the first day of the conference, I had group meetings with the writers. This is where a group of writers come in, sit at a table together, and each takes a turn pitching his/her book to me to see if I would be interested in representing the author. I had six groups, each lasting a half hour, made up of anywhere from 5-7 people each. So folks had a total of 3-5 minutes to engage me in their project.

It’s the writer’s conference version of speed dating!

The cool thing is, a good number of those who came had such a strong understanding of their project and of the market that they were able to hook me in the first few words. Now that’s doing your homework! For example, one woman told me right off the bat her book was romantic suspense, what the main story line was (in a sentence), and what the conflict and spiritual takeaway were. That took about 45 seconds of her 4 minutes, so from there I asked questions about the story and focus and she was able to relax and just talk. I ended up asking her to send me the proposal. Don’t know if we’ll pursue it–the writing is what tips the scales, of course. But I was impressed with her well chosen descriptions. And if I’m considering two manuscripts and all things are basically equal, I’ll always go with an author who is, first and foremost, teachable, and then able to communicate the heart and soul of her story quickly and effectively.

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The Synopsis Tells the Tale

Because the synopsis is so critical to a proposal, I decided to write this spin-off of last week’s blog, “Keys to a Great Synopsis,”  in hopes of helping authors not only write more effective synopses, but to impart a bit about the fiction market, too.

When I read synopses from authors, much is revealed. For instance, I see:

Cozy mysteries that are meant to be romance.

Gothic plots presented as historical romances.

Women’s fiction that the author intended to be romance.

Mysteries masquerading as romantic suspense.

In the submissions I see, these are almost never flipped, so to my mind, this suggests the romance market in particular is one that many authors seek to understand, but don’t quite get. Hence the near-miss plots. I think this may be because the romance formula is strict and authors seek to offer readers something unique so without realizing it, they can stray into other genres. An eternal truth about romance novels is that editors and readers do want fresh plots. However, they also know that the romance story has set guidelines from which writers must not venture. Plots can hit the edges of the box but not punch holes. In my view, what the author must understand about the Christian romance reader is that she seeks to be assured that even in our coarse culture, a godly woman unwilling to compromise her faith and the accompanying physical and spiritual virtues can find a Christian man to love her forever.

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