Book Proposals

Keys to a Great Synopsis

When I posted my ideas on some Keys to a Great Book Proposal, a few writers said they were challenged to write a synopsis. I agree that writing an interesting synopsis is difficult. However, it’s not an element you want to omit from your proposal because a synopsis orients the editor to the book’s contents. Here are my answers to often-asked questions:

1.) Do I need a chapter-by-chapter synopsis?

For fiction, no. I think I get this question a lot because years ago, a popular and respected editor I worked with asked for this type of synopsis. This is because some authors the editor worked with sometimes took liberties with the plot once they sat down to write the complete book. The book the editor received was different from the one contracted! Hence, this requirement. I got in the habit of writing this type of synopsis and found it helpful when I wrote my books. I knew exactly where I was going and why, as well as what my chapter cliffhangers would be. Working this way is a discipline that gave me confidence. I recommend that writers try this method at least once to see how they like it. But I don’t ask for this in a proposal because few fiction editors want to see a synopsis presented in this manner.

However, nonfiction proposals do need a chapter by chapter breakdown to explain what each chapter will contain. This is because often in nonfiction, chapters are loosely connected by a topic but can be read as separate entities. Readers may skip around with nonfiction books, gleaning information they need and discarding the rest. So this type of synopsis is helpful for nonfiction proposals. However, I do recommend summarizing the purpose and theme of the book in an overall description of a couple of paragraphs as well, then moving on to the individual chapter descriptions.

2.) How long should the synopsis be?

Most editors prefer one to three pages (at the most), and so do I. If you really feel you want to write more, I suggest including a shorter synopsis, followed by a long synopsis. But consider — if you were an editor assigned the task of reviewing and deciding on hundreds of submissions every month, how much would you want to read? Would you be eager to read a ten-page synopsis for each proposal? I would not. Trust me, the shorter synopsis is your friend.

3.) What should I include in the synopsis?

Once an author has intrigued me, I tend to look at the writing, then refer back to the synopsis to see if the book is marketable. The synopsis tells me what plot elements the author plans to include. The most common synopsis mistake I see is the author unintentionally misleading the reviewer about what the book actually is — or perhaps more revealing – a synopsis for a plot the author meant to be for one type of book but the author has instead written another type of book and didn’t realize it. I plan to address this in a future post.

However, since the synopsis is so critical, this is a good reason to let an agent help you when she sees your spark of talent, or encourage you to try again with something else, rather than sending several misfires to busy editors. In fact, more than once I have helped authors identify their books properly and helped polish their proposals accordingly.

To avoid misidentifying your book, be sure:

a.) you are indeed writing the type of book you mean to write. Choose to write the type of book you read and love so you know what readers expect.

b.) your synopsis is an accurate reflection of the book. Don’t devote too much time to a minor character or element. Stay with the main elements to show the editor you know the focus of your work and won’t stray off into tangents.

4.) Do I reveal the ending in the synopsis?

I fall firmly on the side of revealing the ending. I want to know that the reader will be satisfied, and the ending is a major part of that. If I want to read a book with an ending I don’t know, I’ll do that in my leisure time.

Your turn:

What is the hardest thing about writing a synopsis?

Do you have trouble getting your synopsis to one or even three pages?

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The Keys to a Great Book Proposal

“I think book proposals are one of the most difficult things to write, second only to obituaries.”

When I received this email from one of my authors, Sherry Gore, (and yes, I have permission to quote her), I could relate. I’ve never written obituaries, even though writing one’s own is a popular goal-setting exercise. But I have written and read many book proposals so I know they aren’t easy to write. Sometimes they aren’t easy to read. So how can you make your book proposals easy to read? When my assistant and I are scanning proposals, here are the key points we first notice:

1) Format: Is the overall look of the proposal easy on the eye? A poorly-formatted proposal won’t be rejected if we are wowed by the content, but proposals with a pleasing appearance make a great impression.

2) Title: Tell us immediately what we are viewing: Fiction/nonfiction? Series/standalone? Genre? Historical/contemporary?

3) Hook: What is the spirit of your book?  Fried Green Tomatoes meets Star Trek? Or A Systematic Approach to Spiritual Spring Cleaning?

4) Back Cover Blurb: In two or three short paragraphs, make me want to buy your book. Take the time to make this sparkle, because great back cover copy will help sell me on your book, then the editor, then the pub board, then marketing, then your readers.

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The Mystery of the Slush Pile

When you submit a manuscript or query to an agent, you may wonder what happens to it, and what our thought processes are regarding the properties we offer to represent versus those we must respectfully decline. Every agent is different, but you may find learning about my process helpful.

I have a very smart assistant. When she reviews my slush pile submissions, she goes through a winnowing process.

The first submissions she rejects are those that are obviously not a fit for me. These include:

1.) Stream of consciousness submissions. If she can’t figure out what you are talking about, she sends it back. By this we don’t mean that we don’t understand systematic theology. It means that the query letter is incoherent.

2.) Error-ridden letters. Even the best of us can type “here” when we meant to type “hear” but more than one error in a final letter is a red flag that either the author is not well-versed in basic grammar or will turn in careless, sloppy work.

3.) We rarely acknowledge queries sent as an email blast in the cc line to the entire industry. It is a form of spam. Target a select few and then personalize your proposal to each.

4.) Books that aren’t in categories we represent.

Submissions that bypass these four problems, among others, and otherwise show promise are passed on to a reader. The reader looks for factors such as:

1.) Excellent writing.

2.) For fiction, coherent plot.

3.) For nonfiction, whether the intended audience is likely to connect with the topic.

4.) Overall message of book, whether fiction or nonfiction.

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The Unhelpful Rejection Letter

Have you ever received an unhelpful rejection letter that says, “Sorry, but this just isn’t a fit for us.”? I have. And I’ve also written more of these rejections than I’d like to admit. In fact, after I write this post, I may just have to send out twenty more.

Some authors write back to say, “Can’t you tell me what I can do better? What suggestions do you have?” I’m sure I frustrate writers when I tell them I can’t comment further. As a published author in my own right, I understand why writers want feedback. So now let me tell you why I don’t feel it’s in your best interest for me to offer feedback when the answer is a firm no.

Lead Me On

When you were in high school, you kept from encouraging people you didn’t want to date, right? Sometimes those people were nice and would make a great match for someone else. Just not you. You hated the fact you couldn’t, in your heart of hearts, be passionate enough about spending time with them to accept invitations for dinner. But how to tell them without gaining an enemy forever? Ouch!

I don’t want make writers, especially my lovely friends, think I’m going to introduce their work to editors if I have no intention of doing so. If I tell you, “Well, I’d like this better if the heroine’s eyes were blue and her name was Sally,” and you changed both factors and sent it back to me, you’d expect me to pursue your work. Now, in truth, I might think your book would be better with blue-eyed Sally instead of green-eyed Sarah, but another agent might disagree. Unless I’m serious about pursuit, it’s better for me to keep my opinion to myself.

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Why Do I Have to Jump Through Your Hoops?

Recently, my assistant had a conversation with an author who did not send a complete proposal. The author was referred to our guidelines and gently reminded that we needed more material in order to make an evaluation. But instead of saying “thank you” for the guidance, the author declared they did not have to jump through any hoops, and took the opportunity to aggressively express their complaints about our review process.

What made this all the more frustrating to us is that it happens more often than you’d think.

Why All The Work?

Have you ever worked in an office where you could swear one of your coworkers could find something — anything — wrong with your work so they could get it off their desk and back onto you? Well, that’s not what we are doing when we ask for a proposal. We are not giving you busywork so we can get back to our soap operas and coffee.

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Charmed, I’m Sure

Dear Editor:

You really should meet this author! He knows all the best places to dine. I couldn’t believe the fabulous meal we were served at a hole-in-the-wall place I’d never heard of until I made his acquaintance. He has also been quite generous and charming to my family. My husband and my kids have nothing but great things to say about this wonderful author!

In our meetings both in person and on the telephone, he has convinced me that his book will sell millions! And because of his extroverted manner and considerable verve, I believe it really doesn’t matter if his book is any good or not. His platform isn’t anything great yet, but it will be — as soon as he gets paid your hefty advance so he can travel the country, taking meetings. In fact, he wants to meet with you at your early convenience. Can you fly out to meet him in Charlotte on Tuesday morning? 

Cheers,

Tamela

Of course I would never send this letter like it to any editor, but on more than one occasion, I have found that this is how authors seem to think marketing to editors works.

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Loving to Laugh


At least once a week I’m asked if romantic comedy is currently marketable. While sometimes this category seems hot and then cold, I’d say that sharp, witty, well-executed romantic comedy can find a good home no matter what the publishing season. Note that I take the adjectives I used seriously. This is not a category that most writers can whip off with little effort. Successful writers of romantic comedy are gifted with the ability to find humor in everyday situations and the talent to share that humor in an entertaining way. The writing must fly like a magic carpet. The reader is looking for a fun story.
One successful writer of romantic comedy is Gail Sattler. Here is a great tip from Gail:

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One-Sheets versus Queries


A recent post inspired an excellent question. “Is a one-sheet the same as a query?”

Yes and no. There is some overlap, but the differences are significant.

A one-sheet gives writers a document for talking points about a project at a conference. The one-sheet can help authors be sure they convey the information they want to the editor or agent without forgetting anything critical. In turn, the one-sheet gives the editor or agent a memo of sorts to recall your pitch after the conference. This is one reason why an author photo is essential. Otherwise, the one-sheet includes information such as the book theme and brief plot summary, contact information, and sometimes another visual to make the page pop. One-sheets are often colorful and intended to grab attention. However, they are only a tool. The author’s professionalism and talent are key.

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Hints for a Great Cover Letter

Here are a few suggestions for you to consider when approaching an agent. Remember to use these as hints…do not follow them slavishly as if a literary agent is going to spend their time critiquing your cover letter.

By the way, we make a distinction between a cover letter and a query letter. A cover letter is what goes on top of a longer proposal and sample chapters. The query letter is a stand-alone letter that goes by itself to the editor/agent without a proposal or sample chapters. We happen to prefer the cover letter along with the rest of the package. Why? Because a query only shows that you can write a letter. A proposal begins the process of showing that you know how to write a book.

Address the letter to a specific person. If sending something to The Steve Laube Agency, simply address the appropriate agent. Every proposal will cross the desk of the designated agent eventually.

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Incoming Proposals

To your left is an actual picture of the pile of proposals our office has received since December 1, 2009. About 30 days worth of incoming mail…during a slow time of the year. The stack of books next to the pile include books sent for review (consideration) and recent publications that I want to look at.

That does not include the myriad of email submissions we get (many simply ignoring our guidelines regarding email submissions)…inquiries from those who use the contact form on our web site (many of those ignoring the request to “Please do not copy and paste your entire manuscript into this form.“)

Or the poor soul that failed to proofread their email before sending this sentence, “I would like to send you my quarry letter….”

Nor does it include those that do an Internet search and call us. Recently we got a call that went something like this:
Agency: This is the Steve Laube Agency…
Caller: What kind of agency are you?
Agency: We are a literary agency.
Caller: What does that mean?

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