There’s nothing more critical to getting a book deal than a proposal; publishers will rarely consider a nonfiction project without one (not applicable if your name is Malcolm Gladwell or Dr. Phil). When prospective authors ask acquisitions editors what they look for in a proposal—which they do almost as often as published authors ask when their next royalty statement is due (hint: it’s in your contract)—they’re usually thinking of the nuts & bolts stuff—book description, target market, detailed table of contents, etc. But there’s more to getting a proposal read (evaluated, not skimmed) than the proposal itself—there’s what we see before getting to it.
An HR person I once met said that people in her position usually make their decision as to whether a job applicant will get beyond that initial interview in the first thirty seconds (another disagreed; it was less). An editor’s first impressions of a proposal can be just as quick, and can be the difference between a thorough review and relocation to the OUT pile. If you want to make those brief moments count, you’ve got two hurdles to leap: the subject of your book and your query letter.
Why should the subject of your book be a hurdle? It shouldn’t. But if you’re writing a book on particle physics and sending query letters to houses that only publish business books, or fiction, or memoirs (occasionally identified as fiction post-publication), you’re wasting your time. Years ago, ferreting out the proper publishers to send your proposal to involved some legwork, either making a trip to a library and consulting Literary Marketplace, a hefty reference source for information about publishers, literary agency, trade services, and more; or visiting a bookstore, locating the appropriate section, and learning who had books in your area of interest. Today, detailed information on publishers is easily obtainable online and in books (though details are sometimes wrong or way out of date), so failure to target the right houses is an unforgivable absence of initiative considering your goal and the vast sums of money that await you (yes, I’m kidding).
Then there’s the greeting on your query letter. If your letter begins with an impersonal “Dear Sir or Madam” you’re off to a bad start. Personally, I’m not offended if you don’t know my name. I’ve largely made my mark in publishing in invisible ink. But what this tells me about you is that you haven’t bothered to make the effort to uncover information that isn’t hard to come by; this doesn’t inspire confidence. Most publishers make it easy and will list their acquiring editors and the lists they handle on their website. (You’re already on our site, so see for yourself. Click on “Contact Us” and then “Editorial Inquiries.” As of this writing I’m still listed.)Finally there’s the query letter itself, which either precedes or accompanies every proposal. A good query letter can get your foot in the door; a poor one can get the door slammed in your face. It costs nothing to send a query and proposal by email, so why anyone today sends a query letter asking if you’d be interested in seeing their proposal is beyond me. (Note: I’m referring to unagented projects here.) Send your query as an email and your proposal as an attachment. If the project sounds appealing, this can save valuable time. (You’d be surprised how many times I’ve received a proposal just in time to review it and prepare it for a meeting days, rather than weeks, later.)
As for the contents of the letter, keep it brief and to the point. Explain what your book’s about, making it sound as compelling as possible (granted, this does not work for all subjects); note any previous books you’ve written; and tell us about your platform. Do you have name recognition in your field, regularly do presentations, and have a website, a LinkedIn account, a blog, a Facebook page? If so, you’re on the right track. If few of the aforementioned, you’ve got work to do before submitting that proposal. If your name does not appear if Googled, check your pulse and don’t get your hopes up of seeing your name on a book anytime soon.
Getting your proposal to the right publishers and writing an effective query letter are not difficult, and there’s lots of information and examples available that provide guidance. Do you want a book deal? If so, do your homework.
Bob Nirkind is a Senior Editor at AMACOM Books. He specializes in acquiring titles in sales, customer service, project management, and finance. Prior to joining AMACOM, Bob worked as Executive Editor at Watson-Guptill Publications and Senior Development Editor at St. Martin’s Press. You can find the AMACOM Author Guidelines for Book Proposals on our website.