Saturday, February 27, 2016

Book Proposals 101

Betsy Amster & Leigh Ann Hirschman

"I'm your agent for today," said Betsy Amster.

"And Leigh Ann is your editor/coach for today."

Amazing, I have an agent--for today.  And a coach.

With this generous statement Betsy Amster and LeighAnn Hirschman began their workshop on How to Write and Sell a Nonfiction Book Proposal, offered through the Writers' Program of the UCLA Extension.  

Both have worked for major publishers in New York City, including Random House.  Betsy now lives in Oregon and Leigh Ann in Indiana.

They led twenty or so students of all ages through the nine components of a successful book proposal:
  • Concept--in one or two sentences
  • Overview--in about five pages
  • Format--number of chapters, length, any other design elements
  • Audience--to help the publisher visualize your reader
  • Marketing plan--2-5 pages showing how you will publicize your book.  Do you have a blog and a website or a following on Twitter or Facebook, YouTube, etc.?  Can you do workshops, lecture, get on tv or radio shows?  What networks or affinity groups are you part of?
  • Competition--list of books on your subject in the last five years and demonstration of how your book is different
  • Author description--showing why you are the best person to write this book
  • Table of contents--including your chapter titles
  • Chapter summaries--at least 1/2 page per chapter, showing how they fit together and make a narrative arc (in the case of memoir)
  • Your previous publications--links to newspaper or magazine clips, video clips, speaking schedule, blog or website address.
Sounds a bit daunting, no?  And they warned against writing up a book proposal in a week or two--it will take several months to design, write and rewrite a good book proposal, they said.

"A book proposal is a plot to seduce an editor or agent," Betsy said.  "When it works, it grabs a publisher.  Your goal is to create a Pavlovian response in an editor: 'I must have this.'"

Once you have this book proposal together, you find an agent.  That agent then whips your proposal into good enough shape to submit to publishers.  

Betsy's two suggestions for finding an agent:
1) Studying Publishers Marketplace online  (possibly joining it for $25/mo)

2) Getting a copy of Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents.

Betsy and Leigh Ann provided us with two sample successful book proposals, one for Tom Fields-Meyer's Following Ezra and one for The Spirit of Kaizen by Bob Maurer. Their presentation was sprinkled with examples and references to the hundred plus books for which Betsy has served as the agent. See her website:

Betsy Amster and Leigh Ann Hirschman at their workshop on nonfiction book proposals

Question & answer session at end of workshop
They outlined how long it usually takes to shepherd a completed manuscript to publication:
  • A year to write the proposal and send it out to agents
  • A year to work with an agent to get your book and your proposal into shape to send to a publisher (This is where Leigh Ann or another editor comes in--she helps you edit your book into publishable shape, if you have not already worked with an editor to do your book proposal.)
  • Six months or more to print and bind it once an editor takes your book
  • A year to promote the book
All of the above applies to getting your book published by a major publisher.  You could also consider trying for a small publisher.  They didn't discuss the writer's last resort, self-publishing.  

Among footnotes to their talk: Don't expect to make a living as an author--that's super difficult.

Important advice: Go to a bookstore, find the section where you'd like your book to be, and study all the books similar to yours on the shelves.  Study their front and back covers and chapter titles.  Look for features (descriptions of what the book is about) and benefits (how this book is going to change the reader's life).

"The Greedy Reader doesn't care about you," warned Betsy.  "They only care about what's in it for them."

In 2009 I went to a similar (but not half as good) workshop and took to heart the admonition to "build a platform."  

I asked a friend to make me a website, and I started on Facebook (much to my daughters' dismay and disdain: "I will not be your friend on FB"). 

I had already been blogging about Doing Dementia--accompanying my mother on her journey through Alzheimer's.  In 2008 I had started this blog Martha y Maria: Women's Lives, Women's Rights.

In addition to all this great information, Betsy and Leigh Ann offered kindness and humor.

Nevertheless, I found their dose of reality overwhelming.  As I got in my car to drive home, I had my own private to do list:
1) First I will cry.
2) Then go to the beach and jog.
3) Then roll out, sprinkle, and bake the cinnamon rolls I started this morning.

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