February 2012

In Part 4 of Writing Book Proposals, I’m going to talk about the section of the proposal that I believe many writers gloss over without taking adequate time to develop. The Competitive and Complementary Titles section can be a huge ally for your proposal if done correctly.

Some writers combine the Competitive and Complementary Titles section and discuss both lists in the same place in their proposal, while others separate the two sections. In my opinion, one way is not better than another. However, I would recommend combining them if both sections are relatively short.

As the title suggests, competitive titles are those books similar enough to yours in either theme or subject matter and function that they will provide competition in the marketplace. Complementary titles are those that will not provide direct competition but are still similar enough to yours that they will help prove the market for your book.

One mistake many make is thinking that there aren’t any books out there that would be considered direct competition for theirs. Agents and editors know better. By approaching this section too lightly, writers are simply showcasing the fact that they haven’t done their research.

A better technique is to list at least a handful of books that could potentially provide competition, then two or three that might be considered direct, head-to-head competition. You don’t need to list every book found in your research. The main objective to this section is to let the publishing house know that you are well aware that your book is going to have competition, and by researching exactly what kind of books yours will be up against, you now better know how to position yours in the market.

When listing the competitive books, start with the title, then the author, then the publisher and date. You should also include the number of pages and the format for the book (hardcover, paperback, mass market). In your listing you should write a brief description of the book. Then briefly tell of its shortcomings, and use this point to illustrate how yours is different and better. Maybe the book is a how-to on making birdhouses but only has black and white illustrations of the final product, where yours has full-color photos of each step in the process. Describe, then compare and contrast, making sure yours is the clear winner.

Be careful when listing any negative attributes of other books, however. You never know–the same editor that you’re trying to sell your book to may’ve worked on the competing book at another publishing house! Be as factual and honest as possible and don’t just throw around your opinions.

There are potentially a lot of books on the market right now for the book you want to write. So, how does yours stack up with these others, and why should a publisher buy yours with so many already out there? These are the questions this section of the proposal must answer. If you do a good job answering this question, the editor or agent will be much more excited about reading the rest of your proposal, knowing that this book may have a great chance of selling well.

The Complementary Titles section offers you another opportunity to help convince an editor that there is a need for your book in the marketplace. By researching and listing books that are similar to yours and that have sold well, you are showing that people are buying these kinds of books and that there is room for others. If any of these books happen to be published by the publisher you are submitting a proposal to, be sure to have those books on your list. Since the books will complement and not compete with one another, it is an advantage to do so.

With both the competitive and complementary titles, list books only a few years old and newer. Books much older than that are most likely not selling anywhere anymore and would not be relevant. Also, many people ask about the relevance of e-books or self-published books in this section. Unless the book is widely known and popular, I would not include it on either list. The only exception to this is, if you’re thinking that your book will also be published as an e-book, then you should research similar e-books as well and make note in your description how they have been selling.

Stop back next week when the discussion turns to you–how to write a compelling bio.

In this third installment of my post on writing book proposals, I’m going to talk about putting together a promotional plan, or marketing plan for your book. This is the part of the proposal where you outline for a publisher or agent exactly what YOU plan to do to help market your book.

We all know that writers are primarily the ones responsible for helping to sell their book once it gets published, so publishers expect for you to have some plan in mind for how you’re going to do that.

When developing your promotional plan, there are three key ingredients to keep in mind:

1. List as many realistic ideas as you have for how you want to promote your book. This is it. The only chance you’re going to get to sell a publisher on your manuscript. Don’t leave anything out. But, at the same time, make sure your ideas are actually do-able. If you say you’re planning on getting a celebrity to help sell your book for you, you better make sure you can actually do it.

2. Be as specific as possible with the details of your plan. Instead of telling the publisher that you will promote your book through partner websites, state what those websites are and how you have the connections to do so.

3. Be truthful in your claims. Don’t exaggerate on the number of readers who follow your newsletter or blog, and don’t state that you have 100 speaking engagements a year when you only really have 25.

There are probably as many different ideas for what can go into your promotional plan as there are people who wrote vampire stories last year, because everyone has an idea that may be totally unique to their personality or market. So, the following is not an exhaustive list, but rather a compilation of a few of the more realistic and common pieces to a promotional plan.

~ have a dedicated website for your book; should include links to partner websites (more on that in a minute) and your blog or newsletter if you have one

~ any specialty retailers or outlets where your book would be a good fit (include in your plan how you will reach these places)

~ hold speaking engagements on your book’s topic (include how many you plan on doing or, even better, currently doing per month or per year)

~ radio/TV/blog interviews; discuss the number of interviews you would like to have as a goal and in what media markets. Often, the publisher will set up interviews for you, but if they know you will be pursuing your own, even better!

~ hold blog tours; discuss how you’d like to arrange for blog tours for your book along with some specific promotional ideas, such as book giveaways, online book clubs, etc.

~ utilization of other social media; think of as many creative ways as possible to use social media to create a buzz about your book. Again, give the publisher as many details as possible as to what your strategy will entail.

~ book signings; popularity of book signings has drastically decreased over the past few years, and most publishers are reluctant to believe that a non-bestselling author will have much success with them. Group signings seem to work better than when authors show up on their own, so that may be a strategy you want to pursue. Also, if you can get creative with your signings and head to locations where your audience already hangs out (a cookware store for your cook book, for example) instead of the local Barnes and Noble, your chances of success will be greater.

In your promotional plan, discuss what specific places you have in mind to hold signings. These may not all pan out, but at least your giving the publisher an idea of what avenues you’ll try to pursue.

~ magazine articles; discuss what magazines you want to submit articles to that will coincide with your book’s topic; or if you’ve written fiction, what magazines could you maybe send an excerpt of your story to? Magazine articles are an excellent way to publicize your book. Instead of getting paid for your article, you can often work with the magazine editor to allow you a short bio or promo piece at the end of the article to promote your book.

~ book reviews; tell the publisher specifically where you want to send promo copies of your book to be reviewed. Be sure you’re sending them to very influential people, companies, or organizations who have a large following and can really help move your book. Otherwise, the publisher won’t be impressed.

~ promotional partners; these are organizations or individuals who complement your book in some way and who can open doors for your book. If you’ve written a book about kite flying, national kite flying organizations or hobby clubs or groups would be natural partners for your book. You would send these organizations review copies and ask to be linked to their websites, mentioned in magazines or newsletters they distribute to their members, or even have the opportunity to sell your book at their events.

In exchange you could promote these partners on your site or distribute their brochures or other marketing pieces along with your books when you speak or do book signings. If done properly, it will be a win-win for all involved.

To determine what else you can add to this list, think about your style and personality. If you hate speaking in front of large groups and know you’re not going to be able to sell your book this way, maybe you could tailor a speaking engagement to a smaller crowd, where it becomes more of an interactive seminar or workshop. Or, perhaps you could plant small book clubs around your book where you pop in as a guest and join in the discussions!

Also consider your audience. If you write for kids, chances are you’ll need to include the school and library markets, or if you’re writing a cook book, you could try to sell your book at places like Williams-Sonoma or other specialty such stores. This is your chance to show publishers just how creative you can be. You don’t have to–and shouldn’t–limit yourself to what everyone else is doing.

The first topic of discussion I’d like to tackle regarding book proposal writing is what’s called the “subject hook” or “book hook.” Like the opening lines of a magazine article or book, your subject hook should hook, or draw your reader–in this case, an editor or agent–into your proposal.  The subject hook is crucial to your chances of even having your proposal read, so don’t take it lightly. It’s worth the time spent to revise–again and again.

The subject hook will be found in your proposal’s introduction. The introduction will be the very first thing that the editor will read, so it needs to be strong in its entirety. In the into, you will prove to the editor that your book has focus, that it has sound organization–or plot, in the case of fiction, that it has an audience who will buy it, and that you are the one–the only one–to write it.

If you can’t sell the editor on these different aspects within your first few paragraphs, there will be no reason for him to continue reading. The subject hook is your very mechanism for pulling the editor into your opening paragraphs.

Let’s look at the components of a good subject hook:

1) Ideally located within the first two paragraphs of your introduction. Sometimes you may need to provide your reader with necessary information leading up to your hook, in which case it couldn’t be one of your first two sentences. Don’t bury it too deep, though. Remember, you’re relying on it to pull your reader into your proposal. Too much background info and you’ll lose the interest of your reader (just like in a poorly written novel).

2) Can take many forms–get creative! A hook can be a quote, a statistic, a question, or an anecdote–anything that will get your point across in a lively and memorable way. Try to match the form of your hook with the type of book you’re writing: anecdotes work well for humor writing, for instance, while stats and quotes might be best for a how to or research-intensive book.

For fiction, a hypothetical question may work well, depending on your story: ” ‘What would do you if you woke up in a dark alley without any recollection of how you got there?’ That’s the first mystery Susan had to solve. The second was what happened to her family.” For a fiction book hook, offer the editor a teaser to let him in on the premise of your story. Be sure to whittle it down to the bare bones of what the story is about.

3) Needs to be short. Most good book hooks are only one or two sentences long. Remember, you’ll have the rest of your introduction and your entire outline to go into depth about your book. You want to provide just enough info to get your reader interested in what you have to say. You’ll actually say it later!

4) The hook must stay focused on your book’s subject. It’s easy to wander into the territory of talking about your expertise in your subject or why your audience is going to love it, but there will be plenty of opportunities within your proposal to mention those things. For now, it’s all about the subject: What exactly is your book about?

If you can answer the question above in as few words as possible and in as creative of a way as possible, you will have a successful book hook!

Here’s a sample of a subject hook from a book proposal that sold:

How High will be the first book to describe the nine characteristics of highly resilient people and show readers how to acquire them by building on skills and attitudes they already have to achieve optimum resiliency.” (Taken from How to Write a Book Proposal, Michael Larsen.)

Preceding the book hook was a short paragraph describing what it means to be a resilient person. The hook is short and to the point, and after reading it, you know exactly what to expect from the book.

If you’re currently working on a book proposal, take a look at your subject hook. Or, if you didn’t know you had to have one, re-read your introduction and decide where one would be best placed. Work on an interesting and succinct way to tell your reader what to expect from reading your book.

Now, write it again, cutting out any unnecessary words. Now, give it to someone else to read. Ask if he or she can tell you what your book will be about from reading your hook. Set it aside, and pull it out a week from now. Still like it? If not, write it again. Get it as close to perfect as you can before making it a part of your final proposal.