The Great Book Proposal

Or, “Can I Get a Hell Yeah!”

"Write, you bastard!"We did it in just four days.

Writing partner and hetero lifemate Nick Hurwitch and I have had an idea for a “nonfiction” humor book for almost a year now. We’ve been waiting for my arrival in Los Angeles to start serious work on the project, believing proximity will make the work much better, both in quality and in difficulty.

So I’m here – it’s time. But rather than just jump into it, there’s a different procedure for this kind of book as compared to, say, a novel.

A little background on the nonfiction book publishing process:

First, you want to try to find a literary agent. You can bypass this step if you want, but that puts you at a disadvantage if a publisher likes your idea. Because first off, you’re pitching your idea directly to publishers, something with which an agent would help. And secondly, seeing as you’re new to the game, you have no idea how to protect yourself from being ripped off as you’re trying to sell your idea. An agent helps with that, too.

So you come up with your book idea in as much detail as you can, and you write what’s called a query letter. The letter covers some very basic ground: It includes a hook idea that will get the reader wanting to read more about your idea, it identifies why you’re qualified to write the book you’ve come up with, it introduces you to the agent, and it tells the agent why you chose them to send all this stuff to in the first place.

You send these queries to several agents in your field. You’ll want to do some research ahead of time to figure out which agents deal with your sort of book. I did this by doing a fair amount of research using, book stores and Google.

The research process for us was as follows:

1. Identify similar books.
2. Figure out who wrote them.
3. Google-search the authors to find who represents them.
4. Send personalized query letters to agents who already have represented books like yours.

With that handled, you can send out a mess of queries. Most of the content in the letters is identical, except for the portion dealing with the agent personally and why you chose them.

Next, you wait. Well, normally, you wait.

As it turned out, Nick and I got a hit on our query letter that very evening. In fact, next major step – preparing a book proposal – wasn’t exactly fully completed by the time we heard from the prospective agent that he was interested.

Comfortable; not conducive to writing. We spent the weekend slamming through the book proposal. It includes the following pieces:

1. A detailed overview explaining what the book is, in an essay format. As I’ve read, the two most important things you can write in trying to get a book published are the overview, which also has to include a strong hook to get the reader interested, and that aforementioned query letter. Garnering a lot of interest in the project is key: Weakness in either of these two places means no deal.
2. An explanation of your “platform” as a writer. This basically covers marketing – what you can do as a writer to sell a book. We talked about the possibility of sending out press releases, getting features written up in publications to which Nick and I have ties, using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to develop viral marketing, setting up an exclusive-content Web site – basically anything we could think of to show we’re willing to do anything to sell this thing.
3. Research into and a discussion of the market for the book: who the readers are, why people will buy it, and why a publisher should sell it.
4. A rundown of competing books and other similar titles on the market now, as well as an explanation of why your book is better, covers new ground, or otherwise will succeed despite other people having written in the same vein. We, fortunately, had little competition and were able to point at similar books not as competition but as evidence that a market for ours exists.
5. Your qualifications, past writing credits, and anything else that makes you look qualified to write the book.
6. An in-depth table of contents complete with chapter summaries. This isn’t iron-clad, but you want to convey a feeling that you’ve thought through the content of the book and know what’s going into it.
7. Sample chapters, usually two of them. The agent we sent the proposal to suggested an introductory chapter for setup and a later chapter to demonstrate what the book will read like once you’ve gotten your stride.

That, of course, is a ton of content. Nick and I had developed a lot of the proposal, but we were a full sample chapter and some other major elements shy when we got the response to our query. So we went to work.

I spent most every day sequestered in the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf located about a half-mile from our apartment, down on Hilhurst. The establishment makes some decent lattes, but more importantly, the wi-fi is free and I work better when I feel like I have a dedicated destination that’s not the couch. After finishing my day job (which I mostly do at night anymore, due to the interaction between the Pacific and Central timezones and the fact that my deadline every afternoon is 2:45 instead of 4:45 [or 5:45 back in Michigan]), the rest of every day was dedicated to writing the proposal and the sample chapter.

It came together pretty well. Between my work and Nick’s, we had a strong, well-edited proposal that had gone through proofreading from both our girlfriends by the end of the weekend. The sample chapters were a different story.

The HQChapter 3 has been written forever. Back when we first got this idea about a year ago, Nick and I wrote an extended Chapter 3 and backburnered it along with the rest of the project. In our new organization, we cut loose the opening portion and made that Chapter 3 and the rest became Chapter 4. The editing on the new sample chapter, the first portion, was negligible.

The other chapter is a portion of the book’s reference section, which is of a completely different style from the rest of the prose. That we started pretty much on Friday or Saturday. It was completed by Monday. Because we’re pretty awesome.

The section is “Surviving in Time: Prehistory” with the subtitle, “Carnivorous Dinosaurs to Carnivorous Ice Age Land Mammals.” It’s meant to cover everything before the appearance of humans as far as survival, and it came out pretty hilarious, I think. And not just because I wrote the first draft.

While that was being done, Nick and I had to rework our outline, which hasn’t changed in a year. This was no easy task – the outline we used to have was really, really, really rough. Beyond that, it needed a rundown of what in every chapter, including the reference guide. No easy task, considering we’d never exactly narrowed all that down.

Basically, all that stuff needed to be thought out and made up. So we set to doing that. And then editing it. And then re-editing it.

All told, printed and formatted properly, the book proposal represented about a week and a half’s work and came out to be 48 pages long. It includes the 10-page proposal, which is all original content we created in that time frame, an outline (six pages) and two sample chapters comprising another 31 pages and roughly 4,000 words, half of which was written in that time frame.

What’s great about the whole situation is that we busted out a substantial portion of the book under the gun, and it came out strong. For one, that means if and when we do get picked up by a publisher, we can smack this whole project down relatively quickly – which would be nice because we’ve already been sitting on it forever and I’d like to see it published. And the proposal and the full-tilt writing schedule we put in to create it has reignited my interest and excitement about the project in general. It’s a good idea, the content is good, and writing it is going to go well.

Fingers crossed. Waiting to hear back or start the cycle all over again. But at least the work’s done.

Again with the waiting. Meanwhile, on to the next project: Script Frenzy. More on that in a day or two.

Check out one of the sample chapters: Chapter 3: Thank God for the Brutal Death of Delbridge Langdon III

Published by Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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