"The book proposal is the single most successful factor in getting your book idea sold."

Improving Your Chances of Being Published

By Elizabeth Frost-Knappman

President, New England Publishing Associates, Inc.

What can a first-time book author do to improve his or her chances of being published? First, think of yourself as a professional. Keep all your long distance phone bills and receipts for office supplies, postage, xeroxing and typing costs. These are for the IRS. Also keep all your rejection letters, as they are proof to the IRS that yours is a vocation, not a hobby.

Then systematically develop a list of credits. For example, if you are a mystery writer, the first step is to get a list of all the mystery magazines that accept unsolicited stories. Write for their guidelines. Pick the ten magazines you like best and address a large envelope to each of them. Then write a story, send it off in the first envelope, and don't stop circulating your story until you run out of envelopes. You might even consider sending it out simultaneously to all ten magazines to save time. You can always say no to the others if you make a sale. Repeat this process each month until at least one story is published. Then approach an agent with a full-length manuscript and your magazine track record.

In non-fiction, write a number of articles on one subject until you have become an expert in a given area, such as gardening, finance, childcare, or household repair. Publishers are impressed by a writer who has become knowledgeable in a given area, and they distrust the generalist.

Another way to build up credits is through the small presses. There are hundreds of small presses and reviews in this country and they are growing. A great many are modestly profitable. Some have been responsible for huge successes, such as The Hunt for Red October, published by the Naval Institute Press, Confederacy of Dunces, brought out by Louisiana State, or Sun of the Morning Star, printed by North Point. Even if you should decide to self-publish, this is a way to learn the book business, and you could get lucky: for example, Ravi Batra self-published The Great Economic Depression of 1990 and saw it become a best-seller. He only sold it to a commercial publisher when distributing so many books became a burden. Here are some other best-selling self-published books: "Embraced by the Light," "The Celestine Prophecy," "Mutant Message from Down Under" and "Conversations with God".

Another way of building up credits is by submitting your work to awards committees–many of which are offered by university presses. There are the: University of Pittsburgh Drue Heinz Prize ($7500) University of Georgia's Flannery O'Connor Award ($500) Iowa's School of Letters Award ($1000)

After you have built up your credits, sit down and write a proposal. A selling proposal answers these five questions: What is your book's main idea? What is your competition? How is your book organization? What is your audience? What are your credentials for writing it?

Answer these questions in five or 10 pages. Then write one or two chapters from the book and enclose them with any articles you have written on a similar topic, making a total of about 50-60 pages.

The book proposal is the single most successful factor in getting your book idea sold. It must be well thought out and written like advertising copy. Lead off with whatever facts put you in the best light. If you are a local celebrity, emphasize that. If you have won awards, list them in your letter.(My client Rita Norr, the first woman Scrabble champion, was a stay-home mom until she won her title. Now she speaks throughout New England and is at F.A.O. Schwartz every Christmas demonstrating word games. She has published three books on her topic.). If a local bank has promised to buy copies of your investment book, start with this fact.

NEPA client David Moore is Vice-President of the Gallop Poll, a fact he drops in the first line of his proposal "The War Between the Sexes". He begins with this statement, "This book reports on perhaps the first nationwide, scientific study ever conducted to measure the extent and causes of hostility between the sexes. It will be a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization, where the author is a Vice President and Managing Editor of the Gallop Poll."

It is important to write a strong lead sentence with a hook that will grab the editor's attention. Here are some other examples:

Astronaut Pete Conrad: "I did not sleep very well the night before I went to the moon."

Jackie Sorensen, creator of aerobic dancing: "Aerobic dancing is a complete physical fitness program that whispers exercise and shouts fun."

Note the powerful and evocative verbs she uses: whisper, shout. This is good ad copy. As my client Art Plotnik would say, she has "impinged" the ears of the reader. Or, in the words of Cyrano de Bergerac, "thrust home" your message!

When your proposal is ready, attach a query letter. It should be about three paragraphs long and describe why your book is unique. Quickly identify yourself, your story, your selling points and market. Send this to editors or agents listed in Literary Market Place, Jeff Herman’s Insiders Guide to Publishing, or some other writers guide. And don't worry about rejection. Jack London made 140 trips to the post office and mailed out 287 manuscripts the year before he published "The Son of Wolf in 1899."

Stock up on several sets of outgoing and return postage because agents don't pay to return manuscripts. Mail your proposal or manuscript loosely bound with a rubber band or large clip in a large padded envelope or letter-size box. Keep records of all the agents you are writing to, and never send them more than one proposal. This looks too scattershot. Keep circulating those query letters in case the first agent bombs out.

You might also want to copyright your work with the Library of Congress, for about $10.00. The address is the Office of Copyrights in Washington D.C. 20559. (Call 202-479-0700 for more information on the 1976 Copyright Act Law)

What if you have two or more agents interested in your work? Here what to ask her:

l. Does the agent belong to the Association of Authors Representatives? This is the only group that provides an accreditation service for agents. Each agent ascribes to a code of ethical business practices and attend monthly educational meetings to keep up ones skills.

2. Does the agent charge a reading fee? Accredited agents do not. They charge a 10%-15% commission only when they sell your book.

3. Are there any other pass-along charges, such as for long-distance calls or shipments of books to foreign sub-agents? This is ethical for the agent to do, but can be expensive for the writer.

4. How many publishers will the agent contact on the first round. When will she will report back to you.

5. Is there a written agreement, and how long does it last?

Once you have selected an agent, you can expect him to submit your manuscript to a number of publishers at the same time. NEPA routinely contacts 15 editors on a first submission and if they are interested, we send out the proposal to each of them. Each time a rejection letter comes back, we send it on to the author at the end of the week.

The final sale should take about 2 – 3 months, but I have sold projects two or three years after they were written, and seen them be successful books. Editors change houses a lot and when they do will need to build up lists quickly, so I submit old projects to them at that time. New publishers when they take over a house frequently change its direction and can buy in categories they ignored before. Companies merge and take on new interests. Markets change within a few years, creating a demand for a book that was unsalable a year or two earlier. So don't give up.

Successful writers have learned to cope with a mountain of rejection; they don’t complain and persevere. This is what we must do, as writers and agents, in order to that our work see the light of day.

Elizabeth Frost-Knappman


New England Publishing Associates, Inc.

See her listing in the Authorlink Agency Directory

Copyright, Elizabeth Frost-Knappman, 1997