Super-Powered Book Proposals Secret #4: Give the Publisher Room to Negotiate

This
post is part of a series I’m writing on how to super-power your
nonfiction book proposal. For the majority of nonfiction book ideas
(except possibly memoir), you should prepare a book proposal first,
rather than write the manuscript. To find out if you should write a book proposal, click here.


Secret #4: Give the Publisher Room to Negotiate

It used to be very common in a book proposal to give details related to:

  • the specific length of the book (remember, if you’re selling a book based on a proposal, you haven’t written the book yet—so this is a guess when provided)
  • specific format of the book
  • how long it will take the author to complete the manuscript
  • how much money the author will need to research or acquire special illustrations or permissions

While it’s true that novels require specificity regarding word count—in that case, the manuscript is already finished!—for nonfiction, being very precise about these details can potentially lead to rejection or the perception that you have definitive expectations about how this project must be executed. (You might be difficult to work with.)

One thing that defined my work as a nonfiction acquisitions editor at F+W was how much we had to re-develop or otherwise change what the author proposed for the book’s content and length.

And we often needed the book on such a specific schedule (to meet club or store deadlines) that if the author was inflexible, then it could be a deal breaker.

We also did not expect to pay the author any monies beyond the advance. (Most authors pay for their own permissions or costs related to writing or producing content for the book, and use the advance to do so.)

There are always exceptions, of course, and you should follow the guidelines of the publisher or agent you’re submitting to. If they ask for these details to be spelled out, then spell them out.

But sometimes it’s better to be a little vague, or indicate flexibility, knowing that the editor may have definitive ideas about what the length should be (to meet market needs), what the format should be, when they want to publish it, and what they will pay you.

All of these terms ought to be negotiated between you/your agent and the publisher, as part of the contract. So, don’t kill the negotiation before it has a chance to start.

Furthermore, in times like these, with the industry in flux, a publisher needs significant latitude to respond to market changes. You may find that the format of your book or how long it ought to be will change even after you’re contracted!

Previous blog posts on this topic:

Looking for the best guide ever to book proposals? Check out Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal, the most definitive guide on the topic since the 1980s.

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