Pop artist Andy Warhol once said that every person, sooner or later, enjoys 15 minutes of fame. In the arena of pitching book proposals, it comes down to 15 minutes of fame or 15 minutes of shame. When you attend a writers conference and schedule an appointment with a literary agent or book editor, you have 15 minutes—sometimes less—to convince that person your book is worth considering for publication and that you are someone this individual will want to do business with.
That’s not much time, so let’s talk about how to make those minutes count.
1. Look professional. Although writers conferences are usually casual in attire, trying to convince someone to invest more than $35,000 to launch your book is big business. You need to look like someone who would appear impressive on talk shows, when giving speeches, and when meeting folks at autograph parties. First impressions are lasting ones.
2. Have an actual book idea. Some would-be writers come up with a great title and even some clever research, but trained editors can see what would make a good article and what would actually sustain a full book. A published book usually is somewhere around two hundred pages, with about four hundred words per page, which is 80,000 words. Thus, if you don’t have an idea that can be content heavy for 320 double-spaced manuscript pages, don’t waste the editor’s time.
3. Know the competition. Anticipate that the agent or editor will ask you what else is on the market similar to your topic. It’s good that other books exist on your topic, because they show that other publishers have seen market value for it. Your job will be to explain how your book is different. Perhaps you have newer research, better photos or other graphics, a broader range of topics, exclusive interviews, distinctive sidebars or reading lists or quizzes. Emphasize how your book is unique and better than the competition. One special insider tip is this: Prove that your book will still be interesting a year from now when it finally gets into print and how it will contain enduring elements that will make it stay in print several years thereafter.
4. Speak as though this person is a committee. Although you are addressing just one person, he or she will have to champion your book before a publication board. It will be made up of people from sales, publicity, layout and design, marketing, accounting, legal, and editorial departments. As such, explain how you will help to market the book via speaking engagements, blogging, social networking, library appearances, webinars, professional organizations, public readings, writers workshops, reviews, and autograph parties. Don’t give anyone on the board a reason to reject you.
5. Sell yourself with wild abandon. No one likes a braggart, but when it comes to selling a book, you need to prove that you know what you’re talking about. You can do this by providing a résumé that stresses your education, your list of previous publications, any honors or awards you’ve received, and your professional credentials. Stress the research you conducted in preparing this book manuscript. Additionally, if you can produce a list of endorsements from people with name recognition, this will certainly work in your favor.
6. Hand over a solid book proposal. Despite the fact that you will have a well-organized, extremely focused conversation with this agent or editor, you still will need to have a high-quality book proposal to leave with this person if he or she decides your book idea warrants publication consideration. Your cover letter will explain why you feel this publisher is right for your book; highlights of your career after age twenty; a terse description of your book (“The Help is about African-American maids who find ways to shame their oppressive suburban white employers during the 1960s”); mention of your best endorsements; and a word about your target readership. You’ll need to have from one to three fully completed chapters, a one-page biography (write about yourself in the third person), a table of contents that you may wish to expand into an outline, a one- or two-page synopsis of the entire book (yes, do tell the ending), and information about your personal platform.
7. Anticipate blunt objections or questions. Editors may ask if the manuscript is “clean,” meaning void of mechanical writing errors. Say (truthfully) that you’ve had other eyes go over the entire book (professional editors or maybe members of your writers critique group). Editors may ask, “Who cares?” about your topic. Have statistics ready, audience surveys, sales records of similar books. The editor may ask, “But who are you?” so have credentials and experience to show you are the perfect person to write and promote this book.
Contrary to common belief, editors come to writers conferences because they want to discover talented writers, and they want to find publishable books. How else can they stay in business? However, their greatest joy is to discover someone who is polished, professional, and savvy about writing and marketing books. This could mean a long-term working relationship. So, when the clock starts ticking, use every second to show that you came prepared to do business.
This article is an excerpt from the book Success with Your Dream Writing Projects by Dennis E. Hensley (with Diana Savage, former director of the Northwest Christian Writers Renewal), released by Bold Vision Books.
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