What DON’T Editors Want?

In this post, Senior Editor Stephen S. Power continues his quest to improve the global state of business book proposals. Read on to improve yours.

Last month I wrote about the five things editors want to see in a book proposal. This month I’ll give you five elements and ideas I’d prefer not to see.

Let me say upfront: I feel somewhat bad about writing this post. I strongly believe that writers shouldn’t self-reject; plus, like all editors, I’m primed to give everything a chance. I’d rather love and lose than never love at all, and I really hate losing. So, here are five elements that can hurt your chances with publishers—and ways each can be turned around in your favor. Please take them in the same spirit in which Mrs. Scalera told my AP English Literature class we should take her red pencil: not as blood, but as valentine.


  1. Sterling’s Gold. On Mad Men, Roger Sterling publishes a memoir about his life in advertising called Sterling’s Gold that he can’t even give away because no one cares about his career. Similarly, many business people want to write about their own careers, especially their secrets to success, but that success rarely comes with a waiting readership. Sadly, the vast majority of these books fail, even though they might be well-written and interesting.

The irony, of course, is that Grove/Atlantic actually published the fictional book Sterling’s Gold because many people in the real world do care about Roger’s career.

Turnaround: Instead of making yourself the subject of your book, write about a problem in your field that your target readers have and that you are best positioned to solve, given your expertise.


  1. “Change is happening, now faster than ever.” I reject any proposal that uses this cliché, often as an opener, because it smacks of alarmism and uncritical thinking. In addition, the change that is happening usually remains nebulous or so all encompassing as to be meaningless and, worse, unmarketable.

Turnaround:  Ask yourself: What, specifically, is changing (or soon will), what and who is causing the change, what specific problems is this change causing for others, and why are you the one to solve those problems? Specificity will give your proposal a better hook and a more clearly defined audience. For a model, turn to Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, which is seriously alarming.


  1. Bestselling competition. Proposals should have a list of competing titles so editors can see how your book will fit on the shelf—and you imagine your book fits on the shelf. Too often authors put down a list of bestsellers such as books by Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink, as if their huge audiences will come to the authors’ books too because they’re on the same subject. This is the equivalent of a first-time fantasy novelist saying their manuscript is comparable to Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. It smacks of hubris and, more importantly, a limited grasp of a book’s market. And don’t get me started on those proposals that claim to “build on the work of Gladwell and Pink…”

Turnaround: Using Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature, find the books that are most similar to yours in subject and approach and whose authors have platforms and credentials most similar to yours. Look at the books customers who bought those books also bought, and so on. This will quickly give you a list of 3-5 books that yours should be compared to in your proposal. Then revise your proposal as necessary to create a better, more saleable book.


  1. “This book is for everyone.” Which means it’s for no one, however long your bulleted list of potential audiences is.

Turnaround. You may think your book is for managers, leaders, HR professionals, general business owners, entrepreneurs and students, but you have to pick one and the write the book for them alone. Let their concerns dominate and use examples relative to their businesses. This will also help stores shelve the book because the business section is divided up audience. If others come to the book, great—for instance, I’m not in advertising, but I frequently use something I learned from Ogilvy on Advertising—but want to start with a target audience.


  1. Cod liver oil. No one likes cod liver oil, however good it supposedly is for them. Similarly, no one will spend $25 for a prescriptive book simply because the author feels they should know, nay, must know its information. They’ll only buy the book if they both need the information and recognize their need for it. Unsurprisingly, academics make this argument most of all.

Turnaround: If you have information that people should know, couch it in terms of their interests as opposed to your own, however different.

Stephen S Power author pic


STEPHEN S. POWER is a senior editor at AMACOM and author of The Dragon Round (Simon & Schuster July 2016). See his recent posts for the AMACOM blog here.


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