A Dozen Don'ts

To get publishers to look at your nonfiction book, you need a great proposal. Avoid these 12 errors to greatly improve your chances of a second glance.
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Unless you're a superstar, a noted celebrity or an established author who's a proven commodity, book proposals are the litmus test for agents and publishers. They're the rite of passage that you must endure in order to enter the hallowed literary halls. When you're writing nonfiction, the proposal must share revelations, unique premises and breakthroughs to warrant a book contract. Simple mistakes in your nonfiction book proposal can alienate agents and editors and be fatal to your book's chance of ever reaching bookstore shelves.

Avoid these 12 blunders to write a proposal that leaves editors and agents wanting more.

1. You claim your book has no competition. Rarely is this true. Yet authors regularly claim that nothing like their book has ever been published. When agents and editors hear this claim, they wince.

What's at stake: Except in rare cases, it means you haven't done your homework. Unless you understand your market and exactly which books will be competition, you won't know where your book fits into the market. As a result, it will usually be less focused and offer nothing new for the agent to get excited about.

2. You claim your book is the next blockbuster. Although it's essential for you to be enthusiastic about your book, it's equally important that you're realistic. Broadcasting overblown expectations can make it difficult for you to get an agent or editor and can send book projects off course.

What's at stake: Unrealistic writers usually won't take advice and can be difficult to work with. Many editors won't subject themselves to working with difficult authors, whom they're probably going to disappoint. It's just not worth the aggravation.

3. You say how much others liked your book. Agents and editors simply don't care what others think about a book unless they're (a) book-publishing professionals or (b) celebrities or published authors who are willing to endorse the book. Even then, their opinions don't carry much weight and will rarely influence the agent's or editor's decision.

What's at stake: Don't waste time telling them that your reading club loved your book about the life of some obscure rock 'n' roller. It won't get you anywhere—in fact, it will probably turn them off. A large part of being a literary agent or an editor revolves around taste and intuition. Most have a keen sense about books and take great pride in their understanding of the market, as well as their ability to recognize what makes a successful book. These instincts have been honed through years of experience, and agents and editors rely heavily on them.

4. You're evasive in your query. In your query letter, you simply state that your work's good and expect that alone to convince the recipient to request a proposal or manuscript. Agents and editors need more information. Save everyone time and energy by describing the work in more detail to let them decide if they're interested.

What's at stake: Agents and editors are busy and don't have time to play guessing games with writers who are unwilling or unable to tell them about their proposed books.

5. You try to be cute instead of being direct and straightforward. In children, cuteness can be adorable. In adults, it can get irritating fast. Sprinkling cute and clever material in your work can be effective if it's not overused and is creative. The problem is that you can get hooked on your cuteness. Before long, you're concentrating so hard on being clever that you shortchange the content and quality of your words.

What's at stake: Agents and editors don't have time for cuteness. They want to know, in a few words, what your book's about and why you're the perfect person to write it.

6. You send submissions in strange formats and colors. You may love—or need—to attract attention. But you may not know when you cross the line and draw the wrong kind of attention. Attract interest in your writing by providing top-quality work.

What's at stake: Great ideas expressed in clear, well-crafted sentences speak more convincingly than outlandish colors and designs. Gain attention through your ideas and prose and don't diminish them by being flashy and inappropriate.

7. You reject professional advice. You won't listen to constructive criticism from your agents and/or editors. You're not open to reworking a proposal to make it better. Trust the people who are publishing your book. Don't sabotage your book because you think you know more than your agent and editor.

What's at stake: Although agents aren't infallible, they're professionals. Selling books is their business, and they bring a perspective to book projects that authors usually lack. Smart authors listen and are open to ideas that can enhance their books.

8. You say you'll approach celebrities or authorities for endorsements or interviews when you have no contacts. If you say, "I'll pitch Oprah Winfrey with this project," you should explain your connection to her. And you'd better actually have one.

What's at stake: Overzealous claims make editors question other promises you make in the proposal.

9. You're sloppy. You throw together a bunch of information and think your book will be sold because of the genius of your core idea. Your submission has no structure. Learn how to write a query letter and a proposal, which are authors' main marketing tools.

What's at stake: Agents and editors want to work with professional writers who've taken the time to learn precisely what they should submit and how it should be submitted. Writers who don't do their homework generally require more hand holding down the line, which busy publishing professionals don't need.

10. You're secretive. You don't disclose anything about your background or credentials. Maybe you deliberately omit this information out of fear of seeming inadequate; or perhaps you actually have excellent credentials but are overly modest.

What's at stake: To sell you and your book, your agent or editor needs to know who you are and what you've done to convince others of the value of your book.

11. You don't include a sample chapter; instead you want to sell your book idea first and then write the book.

What's at stake: Publishers need to see writing samples. Most think that you should know to submit a sample chapter or two. When you don't, it makes the publisher feel that you're lazy or deceptive.

12. You constantly tinker. Don't burn out your agent or editor by constantly resubmitting new or revised versions.

What's at stake: He could get frustrated and scrap you and your many versions. Work on your submission until you feel satisfied, then stop and leave it alone. Don't make additions, deletions, changes or revisions, unless they're specifically requested. Take your best shot—and then let your agent or editor try to sell it.

Excerpted from Author 101:Bestselling Book Proposals, copyright © by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman. Used with permission of Adams Media, an imprint of F+W publications, Inc. Visit your local bookseller or call (800)448-0915 to obtain a copy.

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