From Book Idea to Book Proposal - The Submission Process

There are books that should be self-published, and books that are better served by signing with a trade publisher. I put nearly all fiction in the latter category, simply because most successful fiction authors I know who started by self-publishing signed a large trade contract at the first opportunity. That's not the case with most non-fiction, where self publishing will generally earn more for the author than selling out. In fact, the cases I can think where successful self-publishers sold non-fiction books to a major trade all ended in tears, but that's a post for another day.

A book idea by itself isn't worth anything. It has to be packaged in a book proposal so the value that's obvious to you becomes obvious to anybody in the trade who reads the first paragraph of the proposal. Getting the point across in the first paragraph is critical, and it's not because acquisitions editors (and their assistants) are all suffering from an attention deficit disorder. You're trying to sell the publisher on a written work, and if they're left wondering what you're on about at the end of the first paragraph of a book proposal or a query letter, why would they be interested in a whole book from you?

On of the most frequent questions I get is, "How can I prevent the evil publishing world from stealing my idea?" I'm not a lawyer, but I believe the answer is, "You can't." The expanded answer is, "You don't have to." The publishing industry isn't out there waiting for fresh ideas to steal. When they want to steal an idea, they steal a stale one which has enough of a track record that they know it sells. Ideas are not copywriteable, patentable, or protectable in the sense that many first-time authors believe. The best way I know of to protect a book idea is to actually write the whole book, at which point if a publisher wants to steal some of the ideas they have to hire somebody to reword it in such a way as to protect themselves from plagiarism charges. At that point it would be cheaper for them to just buy your book, and in fact, that happens to be the business most publishers are in.

Seriously, if all you have is an idea for a book, you're probably wasting your time trying to sell it unless you have a famous name that would incline a publisher to gamble on putting out anything with your name on the cover. New fiction authors will be expected to submit a complete manuscript, it's the only way the publisher can assess whether or not the project has a chance, but they'll still want a query letter and book proposal before you send them the whole thing. Nonfiction can be sold by proposal only, though new authors will probably need to include a couple chapters, unless their writing credentials are impeccable.

If you're writing fiction, you'll likely find yourself submitting your book idea to agents rather than publishers. The big trade houses no longer employ readers to go through stacks of manuscripts. That job function has been taken over by agencies and by personal relationships with authors or publisher employees who can bypass the protective mail room. My personal belief is that this became necessary in the early 90's when computers became as common as TV's, making it much easier for any aspiring writer to grind out a book length manuscript. So it all comes back to getting that first paragraph right.

So what do you need to get into that all important first paragraph? Unless it's as obvious as dirt, you have to make some kind of mention of the market for your book. If you're sending a proposal for an occult book to an occult editor, you can probably leave this until the second paragraph (it still has to be there somewhere to show you understand the market), but for any groundbreaking ideas the editor is unlikely to have published before, you better start with the market. Next comes the idea, and I'm a fan of the knockout punch, rather than the build-up. Finally (and we're already up to a five or six sentence paragraph), something about your experience. If you've never written anything before, at least try to show why you have a connection to the title.

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