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You're the Expert—Now Prove It

A killer proposal isn't good enough for wannabe nonfiction authors. Lay the groundwork and build your credibility through these strategic efforts.

Writing an authoritative nonfiction book will make you better known. But here's the problem: Publishers want you to be better known first. That way, publishing your book is less risky.

I've known a lot of authors who rush to get their proposals out the door before they have the credentials to interest an agent or publisher. Some have never been published before. When I suggest they write a few articles, or speak on the subject, they resist. "But I just want to finish the proposal," they say.

Yes, but without the necessary credentials, a finished proposal won't do you any good. An agent or publisher will want to see your "platform," which is industry-speak for the ability to bring in a base of readers before you even write word one. A coach or cooking-class instructor who does 50 speaking engagements per year, for example, appears in front of hundreds of potential buyers. An author who's published articles on the book's subject has also engaged hundreds of target readers. Both strategies increase your desirability.

Working on your reputation before you write your book will dramatically increase your chance of success. And there's a great side effect: Once you establish your credentials, your self-confidence goes up—and you'll write a stronger and more convincing book proposal.

A handful of criteria distinguishes great credentials from mediocre ones. Here's how to build your reputation most effectively.

GET ARTICLES ON THE SUBJECT PUBLISHED

The best and easiest way to beef up your credibility is to get published. Stories with your byline show that someone else thought your writing was good enough to see the light of day. Of course, your story must be on the subject of your book. An essay about wearing vintage shoes, for example, won't get you very far if you want to write a how-to book on gardening.

Trade or special-interest magazines, newsletters and journals are a great place to look for story ideas. You'll be most successful if you pitch publications you read regularly, because your ideas will be more focused. Send a query letter even if you're not an expert yet. It's OK to be nervous, because it's a big step. Editors want writers who care deeply about the subject, know their stuff, and write with passion and enthusiasm. You've got all that, and it'll come across in your query.

The best clips are those from big-circulation newspapers and national magazines, but they're tough to crack. Trade magazines are easier, and most of them reach a national audience. You can also write for local and community newspapers. Don't worry about the pay—at this point, it's more important to be published than paid well (although both would be nice).

INTERVIEW EXPERTS

Experts in the field can back up the points you plan to make in your book. So if you can say in your proposal that you'll talk to experts, you'll look more impressive. Make a few phone calls and get permission in advance to interview these sources for your book. You'd be surprised how flattered people are that you thought of them, and most would love the opportunity to get their name and ideas into print. Aim to include at least five top people who've agreed to participate in your project. (My proposal for How to Become a Food Writer included 33 names.)

CO-AUTHOR A BOOK WITH AN EXPERT

Another approach, instead of interviewing many experts, is to make one expert your co-author (where the expert gives you her opinions and background, and you actually write the book). You'll immediately increase your reputation just by association. Experts who haven't already published books will likely be more interested in working with you, because you're giving them the chance to compete with published colleagues.

For example, one author I worked with wanted to write a book on Web design but didn't have enough credentials. I advised him to find a collaborator, and he teamed up with a university professor with an excellent reputation in user interface design. The writer created the book proposal, and I helped him find a publisher. The Design of Sites is now in its second printing and has been translated into Chinese and Korean. Everybody wins.

SPEAK ON THE SUBJECT

Speaking builds your credibility in two ways. One, the audience will think you're important because someone selected you. Two, agents and publishers will be impressed because ... well, again, someone selected you, and a list of speaking engagements in your book proposal instantly conveys credibility.

Local organizations like the Lions Club, Rotary Club and Kiwanis are the easiest places to start, because they're always looking for speakers. You don't have to be an expert—just knowledgeable and passionate. If you need help building your speaking skills, Toastmasters is an international nonprofit that helps people speak more effectively on any topic. You can find your local chapter on the Web at www.toastmasters.org

You'll feel more comfortable approaching the next level of organizations once you've spoken a few times. Consider the Chamber of Commerce, industry and professional associations, and continuing education programs next. Get to know them first by attending a few meetings. Also, read their news-letters and visit their Web sites to become familiar with their interests and to figure out which topics to pitch. When contacting the program chair, explain how the group will benefit from your talk.

After your speaking engagement, see if the chair or an audience member will write you a testimonial. That letter can provide a big boost at the back of your proposal. If there's a flier for the event, include that in the proposal, too. Finally, list any upcoming talks, especially if the audience will be large. It shows publishers you're building momentum and know how to target a big market of potential readers.

FIND RELEVANT BACKGROUND FOR YOUR BIO

Even if you don't become a speaker, join organizations and take classes to punch up your author bio. If you become an officer of one of these associations, your bio will look even better.

Be selective when you put your bio together. You may be an expert bridge player or have a black belt in karate, but if you're writing about how to scale mountains, no one cares.

Look deeply into your past. Publicity, experience, jobs, academic research, awards, travel and special skills might qualify. Maybe you've had a life experience that provided a valuable lesson. Brainstorm lots of ideas, but pare them down to the ones that apply most.

Overall, take the time now to plan. You've got building blocks in place to steadily increase your value and credibility to publishers and agents. If you can think of yourself as an expert first, the rest won't seem so hard.

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