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Comparing five books about writing book proposals
on April 7, 2007
I bought five books to help me write a book proposal:
"How to Write a Book Proposal, 3rd edition," by Michael Larsen
"78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might," by Pat Walsh
"The Forest for the Trees," by Betsy Lerner
"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published, 4th edition," by Sheree Bykofsky and Jennifer Basye Sander
"Think Like Your Editor," by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunado
The worst was "How to Write a Book Proposal." This book felt like a bad date, like I wanted to wash my hair after reading it. The intent is to teach you to be an "Authorpreneur (r)." Yes, Larsen has registered this word. You'll learn such gems as everyone has 250 friends, and each of them has 250 friends, so you can "spread the word" about your book to more than 62,000 people by e-mail. I think there's a word for that -- spam. Larsen also says to include your promotion plan in the book proposal, including pushing "the paperback edition as hard as you can" when it's published a year after the hardcover edition. I'm not an agent or editor, but I'd think that an agent would giggle quietly to themselves if you were so presumptuous as to include a marketing plan for the paperback edition. (To the author's credit, he doesn't say you should suggest which actor should play the main character in the movie version of your book.) Then there's the chapter about including illustrations and cover art. Excuse me, I thought the editor and art director develop the cover art? I can't imagine creating the book cover to include in the proposal. And the author recommends including a "surprise," such as a baby shoe with a note saying "Now that I have a foot in the door." The book has one good piece of advice: pick a good title. For example, "How to Write a Book Proposal" is a title that will make 100,000 aspiring writers buy your book, regardless of how awful the book is.
"78 Reasons" was good. Some sections are wrong, such as #38 and #39, which correctly advises against paying for a vanity press to publish your book but confuses this with self-publishing. I've successfully self-published two books, and unsuccessfully self-published one book. The correct answer is that if you have a niche book in a niche market you know well, self-publish. Self-publishing mass market books is a recipe for disaster. Some of the advice is excellent, such as #16, about "killing your little darlings" (a scene you think is brilliant, that you build the rest of the book around). While most of this book is sound advice to a novice writer, as an experienced writer I didn't learn anything new.
"The Complete Idiot's Guide" covers the entire process from thinking of an idea through book proposals, book contracts, publicity tours, etc. It's a good overview but each chapter is too short. You'll need to buy another book about book proposals, etc. I'm keeping my copy as a reference to turn to occasionally but it's not the last word.
"The Forest for the Trees" starts with six essays about writing, with topics such as alcoholism, self-promoting poets (starting with Walt Whitman), the childhood of famous writers, writers who are too successful too young, etc. These are interesting reading. The second half of the book is essays about publishing, starting with literary agents. One paragraph describes the plethora of surprise gifts writers include with their query letters. She's received baby shoes, presumably from readers of Larsen's book. She says: "Please resist the temptation to do any of these outlandish things...a simple, dignified letter with a clear statement of your intent and credentials will win more affirmative responses than any gimmick or hype." If you read Larsen's book, read Lerner's book as the antidote. The next essays are about dealing with rejection, the life of editors, what writers want from editors, how book covers are designed, book titles selected, etc. This book is descriptive, not proscriptive, so you'll learn how the world of books operates, if not be told how to write a book and get it published. I enjoyed the author's "voice" and I recommend this book.
The best book is "Thinking Like Your Editor." The first half of the book is about preparing your book proposal. Unlike the other four books, reading this book made me completely rewrite my book proposal. The author begins by emphasizing the three most important things about a book: audience, audience, and audience. Who is going to buy your book? Not who might be sort of interested in your book, but who will feel that he or she must read your book. I'd thought about this before, but reading Rabiner's book made me think lucidly about this. She then walks you through the elements that must be in a book proposal, such as your thesis, or what makes your message unique and new and challenging; why is now the time to publish this book; and why are you the person most qualified to write it. The second half of the book is about writing your book, including the importance of narrative tension in non-fiction writing, and of presenting a balanced "argument" to make your views more convincing. The other four books made me say, "uh-huh, uh-huh" and not do anything. Rabiner's book made me spend several days working on my proposal. (My 2003 paperback copy has the typos corrected.)