9 Tips to Catapult From Proposal to Published

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Getting a book published is exciting, exhausting, emotional, and eventually fulfilling. I officially graduated to that last phase in September when my first book The Entrepreneurial Instinct: How Everyone Has the Innate Ability to Start a Small Business(McGraw-Hill) finally hit stores.

As a first time author, I sought the advice of many. Now that I’ve been down the road, I have some pearls of wisdom of my own to share. I’ve summarized the collective experience of seven published authors for you below:

pile of paper and books

Image credit: Pile of paper and a book from Shutterstock

Tip 1: Recognize how the publishing business has evolved As traditional imprints see ebook sales rise and competition from self publishing platforms flare up, overall revenue for individual titles is declining. There are many related implications for authors. Advances are dropping, lowering incentives for agents to sell your proposal to get 15% of a reducing number. As publishers make less from each title, they have reduced incentive to throw financial support behind even the titles they green light. These trends should govern how you write a proposal and go about finding a publisher.

Tip 2: Your proposal must prove you can promote. The single complaint I heard most from first time authors was the lack of marketing support they received from their publisher once the book was out. Authors know this. Publishers know this. You should know, because your proposal must convince others that you have the capability get the word on your own.

Treat the marketing section of your proposal as the single most important portion, dedicating time accordingly. Showcase your ability to promote by highlighting your press contacts, email and twitter following, speaking opportunities, membership with organizations that can band together to help you get the word out.

Tip 3: Explain why you’re the one to write this book. Publishers aren’t just taking a chance on your book concept, they’re taking a chance on you. “For nonfiction writers, the most important thing to convey in your book proposal is why you are the ONLY person who could write your book,” suggests Erika S. Olson, Zero-Sum Game: The Rise of the World's Largest Derivatives Exchange (Wiley, Oct 2010). “You must prove that you have unique insight and experience—or an established platform—that positions you as an expert on the subject. Otherwise, why would someone pay to read your thoughts on the topic?”

Tip 4: Point of difference matters. Make sure you have one. Your book must not only cut through the clutter of the thousands of proposals agents and publishers see each year but an ever widening sea of books at retail. Your book needs a solid point of difference. Make sure your proposal communicates this loud and clear.

“Just walk into a Barnes & Noble or peruse Amazon and you'll see hundreds of books on your subject. You need to find an ironclad hook that's different from the rest to not just sell your book to a publisher but readers as well,” says Dara Cook author of My Life and Freaky Times, Uncle Luke (Virgin, Feb 2006).

Cook recommends authors explore finding a celebrity hook. “They work well, and not just in the endorsement quotes. We are an increasingly celebrity-driven culture, even in the book-world, so wherever you can organically tie-in a celebrity angle can often be to your advantage.”

Tip 5: Make up for a lack of experience by blogging. Like anything else, experience matters. If you don’t have a writing resume and fan base to point to, create it for yourself by blogging. “Five years ago, because I had no track record, it would have been nearly impossible to attract the attention of an agent, let alone publisher. As a consequence, I pursued a disruptive course, the low-end, push-button approach to publishing – blogging,” says Whitney Johnson author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When you Dare to Dream (Bibliomotion, May 2012). “As I wrote, I discovered my voice, socialized my ideas, crowdsourced stories, built an audience: three yeas later, in 2010, a publisher came to me.”

Tip 6: Be prepared to write, then rewrite. Buffing your book proposal will be an iterative process. “Don't wait until everything is just right to write,” says Manisha Thakor, co-author of Get Financially Naked (Adams Media, Dec 2009). “If you want to write a book, let the SFD (stinky first draft) be your new best friend. Many of my chapters were revised 15-20 times, with the end result much better and not looking anything like the first draft. Let go of perfection and you'll be amazed at what ultimately appears.”

“How much you need to write depends on your experience as a writer,” adds Thakor. “Having published dozens of pieces in my field, I skipped writing even a single chapter and instead included a 2-4 paragraph summary by chapter. If you have more work to do to prove your writing chops, consider including a full chapter or two with your proposal.”

Like Thakor, I had published dozens of articles prior to writing a book. I skipped writing even a single chapter but included a two to three paragraph summary of each proposed chapter. I included a list of articles and one full piece within the proposal to show my writing style.

Tip 7: Networking is a numbers game. When it comes to stumping for an agent and a publisher, you never know who will be helpful. I was introduced to my now publisher by a virtual stranger I met in an MSNBC greenroom for two minutes; we traded cards and I followed up by phone to pick his brain on getting published. Not only did he give me incredible insight, he offered to connect me to the acquiring editor that green-lighted his book.

Moral of the story, don’t be shy about seeking advice, sharing what you are looking for and adding value to others around you where you can; the good karma goes around.

“Talk to as many people from in and out of the industry and ask them for help, for introductions, references and advice,” says Ruma Bose, author of Mother Teresa CEO (Berrett Koehler, 2011). “You never know who can be most valuable. Action equals reaction. If you have focus, passion and determination, and you have an interesting concept for a book, your book WILL get published.”

Tip 8: Skip the agent. Unless you’re writing about scarred boy wizards or sparkly vampires, there’s a good chance the advance you finally land will underwhelm. It’s not just advances that are lower but royalty percentages offered from subsidiary sales (international, electronic formats etc). Writing a book with a traditional publisher is not about the money.

If the financial compensation associated with writing the book won’t be head turner for you, imagine how motivated the agent that makes 15% of the number will feel to pound the pavement in search of your book deal. Instead of wasting 6-12 months wooing an agent, only to wait an additional 6-12 months (or more) for that agent to find a suitor, network with other published authors to seek introductions to the publishers directly. It’s exactly how I landed my deal. When it’s time to talk contract, cover your legal bases by hiring an entertainment lawyer to negotiate the deal.

Tip 9: Get comfortable with rejection. If you decide to go the book agent route, prepare your mental psyche for a whole lot of no’s but know all you need is one yes. “You only need one agent and publisher to give you the Yes,” says Nina Godiwalla, author of Suits: A Woman on Wall Street (Atlas, Feb 2011). “When I got a no, I followed-up with the agents and publishers to better understand their rationale. I started to get some of the same thematic advice from several agents and used that to improve my manuscript.”


Monica Mehta is small business and finance expert specializing in small business. She is a frequent contributor for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, INC Magazine, Fox News, Fox Business, MSNBC and ABC News. She is the author of The Entrepreneurial Instinct: How Everyone Has the Innate Ability to Start a Successful Small Business (McGraw-Hill, Sept 2012). Read more from the author at monicamehta.com @monicamehtanyc

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