I wish every writer could see what we see as agents and editors with regard to proposals. I wish they could experience the sheer variety of book ideas presented at writers conferences and through the submission process. It is breathtaking. And sometimes heartbreaking.
I wrote down a selection of the true stories that have recently crossed my desk. This small sampling shows real-life events that inspired a writer to write their book, create a proposal, and approach the agency. The amount of difficulty, pain, and suffering in these lives is astounding. (and remember this is just a small sampling of the non-fiction proposals we received) The list includes:
Deliverance from demons
Struggles of being a single parent
Death of a child (multiple proposals)
Husband announces he is gay
Terminal cancer (Multiple proposals)
Murder of a family member
Marriage book inspired by death of wife with whom writer had been married 60 years
Sexual addiction of husband (more than one book proposal)
Chronic illness (multiple proposals)
Coming out of a lesbian lifestyle
Each one represents a person or a family affected in a significant way. When I spend the better part of a day reading these kind of proposals I become numb, not from lack of feeling but from too much feeling.
And the hardest part? Saying “no thank you” to these amazing people. “Sorry we cannot offer representation to you.” (The why of this answer is found below.)
But the question for today is to everyone who is writing either fiction or non-fiction and drawing from their own experience. What do you do when the book becomes personal? It is your story. Your life. And often it tells how God, in His infinite mercy, has sustained you. So much so that you want to tell others that they are not alone and that God will do the same for them.
Write the Book
Seems like simple advice, but if you have a story, write it. Getting the words on paper is a way to give substance to the experience. It can be a journey fraught with reliving past pain, but it can also be therapeutic. At the very least it helps to memorialize the events.
We often run into people at a conference or in our daily connections who simply need to know how to write a book. Fortunately a writers conference is full of practical instruction, not just about how to publish and sell a book, but how to put one together in the first place.
Communicating the story or the experience is the ultimate goal and to do so with excellence and clarity. A task that takes a lot of work and intentionality.
Determine Commercial Viability
Commercial viability is a fancy way of asking “will it sell if published in the general marketplace?” One must become tough minded when seeking the answer. I wrote a blog a couple years ago asking “Would you buy your own book?” It boils down to the question that publishers have to ask about every project: “Can this book elbow its way into the hearts and minds of readers…and sell enough copies to justify the expense of production and marketing?”
To quote the famous sign-off line from an old TV show, “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” And if that is true, what makes yours the one that will cause a reader to spend $20?
There is no shame with the answer being a “no thank you.” It is an answer based on economics not on the validity or worthiness of the story.
Are there Alternatives?
One of the greatest developments for writers in the past fifteen years has been the reduction in cost to pursue publication independently. A couple decades ago you had to spend $10,000 and have a garage full of books to publish on your own. No longer. With technology like print-on-demand and ebooks, everything has changed. It isn’t “free” to do it right, but the cost can be considerably less.
That is one alternative. Create enough copies for family and friends and to fill the back table if you are asked to speak on the topic somewhere.
But there is another possibility.
Consider re-writing the book. But instead of making it biographical, make it topical. Become an expert on the subject (beyond personal experience) and research/talk with others with similar experiences. Then write a book on the way many people have dealt with this issue. That way the book is not about you. It is about everyone. Your story is one of the ones included.
I’ve seen this approach work over and over again with great success. It doesn’t invalidate your experience, in fact yours is enhanced by others to prove the necessity for material on the topic.
Another idea is to write the book the way you want…and then put it aside. I know of one author who has created at least four books based on materials found in their first unpublished manuscript. It became a well from which the author could draw.
But I Don’t Want to Do it That Way
There is much to be said for passion on a topic. And when the story is yours it can also be a calling to tell it to as many people as possible. We understand and say “go for it.” But that may not change whether or not a major publisher or a literary agent will embrace it as something that will be economically feasible.
Never forget however, commercial viability is only one reason to write and publish a book, not the only reason. However it is likely the strongest reason a major traditional publisher and a literary agent will get involved.