Author Tips: What I Look for in a Proposal

Picture of pile of manuscripts on Bob Nirkind's Desk

Imagine all the pages Senior Editor Bob Nirkind has to dig through to find a gem of a book.

The following is a guest post by Senior Editor Bob Nirkind on what he evaluates in book proposals that cross his desk.

I recently wrote about what I look for before evaluating a proposal. That’s me, though. Other editors may ignore the query letter and skip straight to the proposal, which establishes whether your project may be workable. Whatever the approach, authors need to provide a proposal that meets editors’ needs.

Proposal guidelines can be found on publishers’ websites. Review them. Though similar, some request more information than others. If this is your first book, you want your project judged on its own merits with a complete, well-written proposal. If you’re looking for a new publisher, you want to show your experience and professionalism with a comprehensive proposal. Here’s what we look for at AMACOM:

A brief description of the book: What’s the subject, what’s the approach, why would someone buy it, what special features will make it unique? I also want to know the manuscript’s length (preferably in words); if it’ll have illustrations (if so, about how many?); and when final manuscript can be delivered (six months, nine months, more?). These will be rough estimates, but they’ll help determine a book length and season of publication.

Don’t tell us your published book will be XXX pages; it’s meaningless. Editors decide on a target length based on factors like contents and competition. Depending on the design, the same manuscript can become a book of 192, 208, or 224 pages (or more, or less). It’s contingent upon whether it’s mostly straight text; includes lots of lists; contains features like boxed material; has figures, tables, and charts, etc.

Here’s how to ballpark length: One typed, double-spaced 8-1/2 x 11 manuscript page will average 300 words. If you can estimate roughly how many pages your manuscript will run, using a chapter as an average, you can guesstimate your word count.

When estimating delivery of a final manuscript, be conservative. If you’re experienced and have written a book in six months, you know your work habits and should have an idea how much time you’ll need. If this is your first book and you think you can write it in three months, it’s unlikely. If you believe you can write a complete manuscript in four or five months, make it six; in seven or eight months, make it nine. Editors don’t always use the delivery date authors provide—I sometimes pad them if the time frame proposed seems overly aggressive or the project isn’t time sensitive—but it’s a start.

Audience: Who’s your target market? We publish business books, so we need to know whether your intended reader is in management, marketing, sales, etc. We also need you to drill down to identify prospective readers by job function. In sales, it could be salespeople or sales managers; novices considering a career change or seasoned professionals looking for a competitive edge; B2B or B2C salespeople. I encourage authors to be inclusive, but realistic.

Competitive and Related Books: Who’s the competition for your book (or related books, if no direct competition) and how will yours be different and competitive? Sure, in many cases we could come up with this information ourselves, but we want to know that you know what books are in the marketplace and that you’re aware of what they cover. Our sales director will check the sales of those books, so don’t rely on university press publications, small publishers, or self-published books—unless they’re your only competition (in which case her sales estimates for your project will likely be low).

Detailed Table of Contents: A well-defined ToC with subheads and descriptions of chapter content is essential. Remember when you learned outlining in school and couldn’t understand why? Here’s where it pays off (finally!). We want to know what you intend to cover (the chapters) and in what depth (the head structure). When I read your proposal I want to gauge your ability to organize and structure. Don’t worry that it may change once you start writing. It probably will, and usually for the best.

Sample chapter: We’d like a complete chapter that shows your writing style. Previously published articles or chapters of a published book won’t suffice; they’ve been edited and aren’t a good indicator of your ability. I once foolishly signed an author based on magazine articles. When he began sending manuscript it was dreadful—and didn’t get better; the project was terminated.

Author information: Include a resume or curriculum vitae detailing your background, experience, and previous publications; other information germane to supporting your authorship; and info about your professional platform and how you’ll help promote and market your book. Today, platform is almost as important as a background that supports your qualifications to author a book on a specific subject. Without a platform that includes recognition in your market, speaking experience, a website, blog, and use of social media to get your name out there (not begun the day you submit your proposal) many publishers won’t even consider your project.

Does this seem overwhelming? Take it a step at a time: write a couple of paragraphs describing your book, make a list of your target market, research a half dozen of the strongest competing titles, rough out an outline, write a chapter based on that outline, and pull your biographical and platform information together. That’s your foundation; now go flesh it out.

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.


One response to “Author Tips: What I Look for in a Proposal

  1. Pingback: Bob Nirkind: The Light at the End of the Tunnel | AMACOM Books Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s