Monday, November 15, 2010

Tools for selling your book: a good query followed by a proposal canget you into print. (Market Focus).

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MANY ARTISTS EMERGE from the safe cocoon of writing their book into the foreign realm of marketing, a realm that can seem hostile, confusing and mercenary. At one time or another, every writer I've worked with in my career as a book editor and writing instructor has probably said, "I don't like marketing. If only I could focus on writing and have someone else sell my work."

Marketing can seem like a daunting task, but mastering the basics, such as how to write a query and a book proposal, will help you get your work into print.

First, develop a marketing strategy. Make a list of the best agents for your particular book. You may send your query to more than one literary agent at the same time (simultaneous submission). If you are rejected, don't take it personally; just use the opportunity to refine your query letter.

The query letter is an amazing document that can be your entree into publishing. Queries go to agents or acquisition editors who work for publishers. Literary agents sell about 90 percent of all published books. As the middle person in the chain from writer to publisher, agents select the most promising book ideas; offer editorial advice for polishing a manuscript, and take over the task of marketing your proposal to editors.

Even though many books are sold through literary agents, they are not your only choice. You may decide to query editors directly.

Acquisition editors, whether full time or freelance, are employees of the publishers. They are the ones who communicate with agents and writers and make the initial decision about whether to accept or reject your query. Some of the largest publishers now consider only those proposals submitted by agents, but many--if not most--North American publishers still will review query letters sent directly by writers. If the query piques their interest, these editors will request and seriously consider a proposal--a longer, more detailed description of your project. At small or even mid-size publishers, the acquisition editor also may be part or full owner of the company. In some cases, this editor has 100 percent control over which books get published. At larger houses, the decision usually falls to the editorial committee.

To research literary agents and publishing houses, study The Writer's Handbook (The Writer Books) and Literary Market Place (R.R. Bowker;

Most agents and editors prefer query letters as the first step in considering book-length manuscripts. Do not phone an agent or editor to pitch your book idea. And do not e-mail your query unless the agent or publishing house indicates a preference for e-mail queries.

By volume of mail alone (30 to 50 queries per day), most agents must reject the majority of queries and manuscripts they receive. Obviously, ii' you have a terrific book but can't write a compelling query letter, you'll never get a chance to have it read.

A query letter is much more than a simple letter asking an agent or editor to consider your idea or writing. A well-written query showcases your talent, describes your qualifications and stimulates interest--in addition to describing your book idea.

Take time to write and revise your query as if it were a contest entry. Proofread it! For insurance, get another writer or freelance editor to edit your query before you send it. Use paper, flint and formatting befitting a letter to a king or queen. Don't make a good first impression; make a great first impression.

Fiction queries

OPEN WITH A straightforward business lead, such as this one by Bill Lynch:

"Ice Ax is a 33,000-word adventure story for fifth--and sixth-grade readers ..."

Milt Cunningham wrote this enticing hook:

"When two men, both of them good and honest, conscientious and strong, have a dream, and the quest for the dream brings them into conflict because disparate cultures are at war, the result is Dream and Destiny."

Make clear exactly what kind of book you are writing: historical, contemporary mainstream, fantasy, suspense, romance, women's fiction, etc. State the number of words or manuscript pages (using the standard 250 words per page).

Offer two or three paragraphs of story synopsis in the present tense. State your setting and time period. Identify your protagonist and the story goals--both the inner thematic yearning and the outer plot goal. For example:

"Seeking redemption for the neglect of twin baby girls, now wards of the court, Janice Doe moves across the country and opens a child-care center, hoping to put the past behind her. But then ..."

See how I grab the reader with this sample synopsis based on J.A. Jance's Devil's Claw:

"The disappearance of a girl, the murder of her mother, and the death of an elderly neighbor just one week before Sheriff Joanne Brady's wedding propel her into the heart of mother-daughter relationships, challenging her to heal the rift with her own mother and to protect her own daughter."

Take a full paragraph to characterize your protagonist, highlighting the wound that must be healed and the past that must be reconciled. Include a description of the protagonist's core weaknesses as well as heroic strengths.

As you summarize the plot, select emotional turning points relevant to the protagonist's struggle to reach the story goal and resolve the past. Integrate characterization into your summary of the plot. Be brief.

Add a line or two that compares your book's subject, setting or protagonist and your writing style with other published authors. If you include the writer of a classic, add a comparison of your work to a contemporary writer, as well. This "positioning statement" shows that you read the kind of books you write.

Present your qualifications for writing your book. Mention publications, awards for writing, participation in critique groups or classes, education, if relevant, and research or experience directly related to your novel. If you have outstanding accomplishments, position them in your lead. Here's the tricky part: You should limit your query length to no more than one page. Make sure you provide contact information, including: address, phone and fax numbers, e-mail and Web addresses. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Nonfiction queries

OPEN YOUR QUERY with a straightforward business lead or craft an attention-getting hook. Follow with a clear statement about the subject of your book. Present your strongest author qualifications or your most compelling reason for seeking publication.

Present your book idea, emphasizing how it's different or better than what already exists in print. Be specific and support general statements. Use facts, statistics and authoritative quotes to convince an agent or editor that your book is timely, needed and unique. For example, Carolyn Korge's query for The Spirited Walker began:

"`Walking is the nation's most popular fitness activity, five times as popular as jogging,' New York Times health writer Jane Brody reported."

Make clear how readers will benefit from your book and emphasize some of the most unique features you intend to offer. Briefly compare your book to one or two competitive titles. Do all of the above in two or three paragraphs.

For nonfiction, your credentials must be strong, so take several paragraphs, if necessary, to expand on why you are the best person to write your book. The agent or editor will also want to know what experience you have had in making presentations, giving speeches or writing that shows you can reach a national audience. In your closing paragraph, offer to send a proposal (see below). Don't send queries until you have drafted a proposal that can be sent within two weeks, if requested.

RELATED ARTICLE: Query package.

While the query letter persists as the accepted communication between writers seeking to sell their works and literary agents and editors, some writers have had good results with a query package. It contains: a one-page query letter, a separate page of author biography and a one-page synopsis (single-spaced) or a five-page synopsis (double-spaced), and it may contain a one-page excerpt from the book. Successful query packages often display professional graphic arts, including, in some cases, mock full-color book covers.

This query package can be sent, with correct SASE postage for its return, to any literary agent who specifies in the agent directories that he or she wishes to see a "query plus synopsis or outline."


RELATED ARTICLE: FAQ: nonfiction book proposals.

What is a proposal?

A proposal is a professional report-10 to 40 pages long, depending on the complexity of your book-that outlines your book idea, answers questions about its viability, and demonstrates how you can promote your published book.

What are a proposal's functions?

Proposals supply the protocol for agents to present book concepts to editors and for editors to present book concepts to editorial committees.

Writing your proposal will make the job of writing the book easier, because a proposal provides the organizational framework you need to sort, clarify and develop your book ideas, audience and approach. Publishers use parts of a proposal while the author is completing the book to create catalogue descriptions and marketing materials.

What are the parts of a proposal?

Title page: Shows clearly what the book is about and reflects a specific slant or hook.

Concept statement: Describes in marketing terms your book's subject and why it's different or better than previously published books on the topic.

Table of contents (for the proposal): Lists the sections of your proposal.

About the book: Introduces the subject of your book, featuring its timeliness and originality.

About the author: Presents your qualifications.

About the market: Describes your targeted reader, potential market size and how you propose to reach your intended audience.

About the competition: Compares and contrasts your book to others like it.

Promotion: Lists ways you can market the book-possible radio and TV shows, author readings, organizations that might bring you in as a speaker.

Production details: Discusses the book's length, time of delivery, illustrations (if any), permissions (if it includes excerpts from other sources), front matter (foreword), back matter (appendix), bibliography and index.

Table of contents: The book's contents.

Chapter summaries: Summarizes the topics of each chapter in specific terms--facts, figures, statistics, dates, terms, places, persons and concepts.

Sample chapters: Includes chapters that showcase your book and sell your proposal package.

Appendices: Lists materials that supplement your proposal, such as published writing samples, published material about you or your subject, copies of promotional materials about yourself or your business, awards, reviews of previous books, your resume.

How long is a proposal? How much time does it take to write one?

The report part of the proposal, excluding the sample chapters, may be anywhere from 15 to 25 pages long. I advise giving yourself a minimum of three months to research, write and revise your proposal, including your sample chapters. These three months include periods of gestation, as well as some time to put the proposal away to gain perspective prior to revision. An estimate of an average amount of measured time you might spend directly on a proposal project is 120 hours.

10 questions to answer before taking on a book project

* Can you write well enough for publishing standards? If your answer is no or uncertain, are you willing to learn how to improve your writing to a professional quality?

* Do you have sufficient enthusiasm for a project that may take years to write?

* Are you qualified to write your book? Can you strengthen your qualifications and your promotional skills?

* Will publication of your book satisfy your long-term career goals?

* Is your book idea different from or better than existing books on your subject?

* How large is your market?

* Do you have enough material for an entire book? Would one or several magazine articles or personal essays suffice?

* Does your subject have staying power? Will it sell copies in three, five or 10 years?

* Does your idea spark enthusiasm? As you share it, do your friends, booksellers and prospective readers get excited?

* Is your slant--your approach to your subject--fresh? Well-defined? Reflected in your title?


Adapted from a presentation on queries and proposals by freelance editor Elizabeth Lyon at the 2002 Author's Venue Journey Conference, sponsored by The Writer. Visit her Web site, Editing International, LLC, at

Elizabeth Lyons ("Tools for selling your work," page 50) of Eugene, Ore., is a veteran editor and consultant to authors, a frequent speaker at writers conferences, a mentor to critique groups that meet regularly at her home, and author of Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write and The Sell-Your-Novel Toolkit.

Source Citation
Lyon, Elizabeth. "Tools for selling your book: a good query followed by a proposal can get you into print. (Market Focus)." The Writer Sept. 2002: 50+. General OneFile. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
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