Often times, developing writers, new and soon-to-be-authors ask me how they can set themselves up for better success in the publishing industry. Having gained internship experience at 3 top-book publishing (trade and academic) companies in the United States, and volunteering for over 4 years at a self-publishing company - writing book reviews, serving as an editor and judge for contests - I have gained tremendous insight into my failures a writer and author. If I could re-start my book-publishing journey, what will I do differently?
In this blog post, I discuss 4 misconceptions writers, soon-to-be and first-time authors have about publishing and authoring. I provide a to-do list of 12 pre-publication goals you can aim for and 20 questions you should ask yourself towards creating a convincing book proposal. I hope you find this useful, and if you do, don't hesitate to share!
Disclaimer and note: When I first wrote an abbreviated rant about this post on my WhatsApp status, it was out of frustration after reading information about over 100 books and their author's proposals for a project. I saw too many authors failing to pitch their books effectively and convincingly.
Surprisingly, people were interested and asked that I write an extensive version with details. I am pouring down all I can think from personal experience of interning at book publishing companies; hence, the length of this post. However, I want to emphasize that I will not be reviewing anyone's book proposals or manuscripts as a result. I am just a writer, book reviewer and curious person who loves to learn about processes, which is why I took editorial internships at book publishing companies to gain this knowledge.
At the end of this lengthy blog post, I have added a summarized list of things you can include in your book proposal to a publisher. But, before you skip to the end, understand that the list will only make sense if you read the full blog post.
Introduction: About a year ago, a friend who just published his book asked me to read it and write a review. I asked him, why he thinks “I ‘should’ read it?" The question was a shock to him, and he responded the typical way that authors say their book stands out, and nothing like it has been written before.
My internship experience, reading book proposals, writing reader's reports, and rejection letters to authors and their agents, gave me insight into what makes a book worthy of reading or acceptance based on the author’s presentation. It also helped me to realize my failures and successes as a writer and author.
I am now doing things to ensure my success as a writer – things I should have done before becoming an author. Things like – obtaining credibility, publishing my works on different platforms, building my newsletter list, perfecting my website, finding my social media audience, increasing them, etc.
I have learned from the mistakes I made at the beginning of my publishing experience. Therefore, it makes me weary when I see people often misguided or misinformed about publishing and are so impatient to take that step. Many times, authors, especially the first-time and self-published ones, think they'll just publish a book, announce on social media, and boom! Become famous. That can happen, but it isn't every day that it does. Here are some major lessons I have learned from observing top authors and aspiring or soon-to-be published writers.
Your first book sets the tone: Years later, now becoming more informed, if I could go back to my first book – Heartbeat, I wouldn't have published it. I think that my third book - The Silence We Eat, would have gotten me more out of the experience of being an author than my first.
Often, new authors in haste to publish a book – their first book forget that it sets the tone of who they are in the market. They are more focused on "having a publication legacy" and "earning money from books" that they forget the consequences or impact of their first book. Think of it as a product you purchase from a store. If you hate the product, will you buy another?
Many may not know this, but Chimamanda Adichie first wanted to publish a poetry collection in her earlier years. When she spoke about it, now as an acclaimed author, she thanked goodness that the book didn't see the light of day. When I hear interviews of authors whose first books have made a great impact, often they say it takes more than two years, sometimes 10 to write the manuscript, revise based on advice and rejection. Or they even say things like that’s the 5th version or draft of what they initially started from.
While longevity of process doesn’t always assure a productive outcome, you will come out with something better than a first draft that all you did with it was edit grammatical mistakes. I remember participating in a class session lectured by Mitchell Jackson - Author of Survival Math. He emphasized that editing makes a book readable while revision makes a book better. Most times, the first-draft of your book is just a prompt to the real content you should write. So, be intentional about your first book and don’t publish it in a haste or as a result of pressure from people saying you should.
When you think of your first book, you want to ask yourself, 10 years from now, when I am no longer in my feelings about the fact that I wrote the first manuscript, what would I think about this book? Will someone want to buy a second book from me as a result of the first?
My First Publishing Mistake: Before publishing my first book in 2016, I didn't know anything about the different publishing types. I begged my mother to pay over a thousand dollars to be published by AuthorHouse, and it wasn't until post-publication when they wouldn't stop calling to tell me about another service or marketing for my book, making ambiguous promises that I realized I had made a big mistake. I'll suggest you read THIS ARTICLE to learn about the different types of publishing.
However, I want to emphasize that if you will self-publish a book, there are tons of other services like Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing that costs nothing. If you plan to use a traditional trade publisher, the following suggestions will be useful to you.
Writing isn't the only skill you need to publish a book successfully: The most successful self-published authors I know are those who have developed the following skills and gained knowledge from training or research: photography, public speaking, marketing (besides social media), content creation, social media branding, networking, negotiation and more.
Additionally, they usually have more than their book to offer their audience. It is something about who they are and the credibility that makes their audience want to get a piece of them through a published book.
For example, Michelle Obama was the first lady, which people knew and loved in that light – leading to the success of her book. Chimamanda is a feminist, and that drives the success, discussion, and impact of her works. Steve Harvey is a comedian and talk show host, so when he wrote Think Like a Man, Act Like a Woman – he already had something about himself that established his relationship and connection with people.
Many first-time writers think that they can just be authors, quit their daytime job, and that's it. When I think of the beginning of authors like David Sedaris and Malcolm Gladwell – they talked about the importance of having a life outside their writing that inspired their writing or gave them a drive in their publications' success. Even Toni Morrison worked at Random House as an editor for fiction while writing her book.
Even if miraculously, you become just an author – just know that an author who doesn't have the sharpest public speaking, networking, or branding skills and knowledge doesn't set themself up for the best success of their book. You don't need to know everything; just know a little bit and enough to get you going.
The Shorter Version and a Recommended Pre-Publication To-Do List for Writers
Often times, developing writers, new and soon-to-be-authors ask me how they can set themselves up for better success in the publishing industry. Well, here are my top 12 recommendations:
20 Questions You Should ask Yourself Before Publishing a Book
These 20 questions were based on the common items I found from reading book proposals from my experience as an intern and applications where I have participated in the judging process.
1. Who am I?
Your biography: When I evaluate applications for contests, and book proposals, several times, I have been turned off by people's biographies. Starting with pronouns – proposal content and biographies look better in the third person point of view. This also helps you to be concise and effective in your choice of words.
Second, is the relevance of the content in your biography to your application or book proposal. You don't need to talk about your cat's tooth? Talk about academic and career experiences. Talk about your awards and accomplishments – that kind of thing. If you are much grown and have obtained your first college degree – except if your primary and secondary education is relevant to the book or application's purpose, please remove that information.
Sometimes, people include their favorite authors in their biography. While that can be functional, I also find it problematic as it can take away from you and your work's attention.
There are many other advices about biographies you can learn on several websites. Just know that how you represent yourself through your biography is important.
2. Am I qualified to write this book?
Credibility: As part of my internship, when reviewing a manuscript proposal, I had to research and ask myself – what credibility: academic, educatively-personal, or career-wise does the author have to write this book.
Note that I said educatively-personal. I have realized that just because someone has personal experience about something doesn’t mean they are educated about it. Just because you were robbed doesn’t mean you are an expert at catching thieves.
Recently, I was reading the cover description of a book about female sexuality and virginity. Not only was the biological information relating to that topic at the back of the book cover misconstrued, but the author had zero academic or career clearance to speak on it. What was written in that book was only based on emotions and religiousness, that a simple google search would have fixed.
Sometimes, the credibility doesn't have to be theme or topic-related. An author's credibility can been their writing fellowship experience or obtaining an MFA in Creative Writing.
Finally, just because you can pull off WHO facts about a topic from the internet or your hippocampus don't mean you have credibility. Especially for non-fiction, I need to know did you receive a degree in this topic? Did you do professional research on this topic? Do you have an incredibly unique experience with this topic? Are you working, or did you work in a field that deals with this topic?
3. How does my image complement my biographical presentation and promote my book?
Pictures/ Author Image: A picture can say a thousand words. If you find it necessary to include images of yourself in a proposal, your book, or an application, please invest in taking professional and good quality pictures.
However you define being a professional is up to you. I say so because, an academic would most likely wear a suit for their professional photo while a professional model can wear something extravagant. Whatever you do, ensure that your picture is of high quality and a good representative of you.
4. What's the goal of the book?
Don't use cliches: Everyone likes to say their book can change the world. It's cute, but please find something else to say. Something that is non-figurative or non-metaphorical and can give reasoning to the purpose of your book. Be thoughtful and specific about the goal of your book.
5. How would I describe the book?
Evicting fancy words: I sometimes find it exhausting when authors use glorifying rather than defining or descriptive language to explain what their book is about. Describing your book as the second word to the bible doesn’t do so much in convincing anyone as to why it should be accepted or purchased.
You can start by identifying your book’s genre, summarize the book's plot, or state its goals and intention. Clarify the themes of the book, its inspiration, and history, if applicable.
6. Why should anyone read my book?
Convincing your audience: I get tired of when authors answer this question with "no one has written a book like mine or from this perspective." Or when they say, "My Book is for everybody." Everything we know is from an already established concept existing in this world that we have absorbed either consciously or subconsciously.
And personally, it is easier for me to be convinced when someone says to me – if you like Author X's book titled Y, you'd like mine.
While I understand the mindset that in the absence of all plagiarism, no one has probably written precisely what you have, but ideologically, I think most authors who aren't readers find it easy to make such vague statements. If you are a reader, as much as a writer, you will be able to determine even before writing a manuscript, if the book is worth writing at all and why? You will be able to make arguable and true comparisons to your book. As someone who reads widely and wildly, I am often disappointed when an author makes such statements, then I read the book, and I can think of two or more similar items.
Let's address the second reason regarding the target audience - "My Book is for everybody." I often make the joke in my head that even as generous and fundamental as life, breath, and money is – it isn't for everybody. Not everybody wants it, not everybody to a certain human judgment deserves it. So, when you make such ambiguous statements, I see it as an avoidance to research your material.
7. If there are already similar books out there, why should mine be added to the pile?
Comparison Titles: If you are not self-publishing, and you will be proposing a manuscript to a top trade publisher or academic publisher – you want to state how your book is similar to other books from different publishers and how it stands out or compliments them.
So, for my book titled To Bee a Honey, the comparison titles would be Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey published by Andrews Mcmeel and R.D. Liang's Knot, by Vintage Publishers. To Bee a Honey combines historical, literary theatrics inspired by R.D. Liang and modern simplicity initiated by Rupi Kaur and the likes. However, Rupi Kaur's simplicity plays a lot on emotions and has been criticized by writers for its lack of poeticness - hence, losing her writer-audiences.
To Bee a Honey expands to a broader audience. With play on words, it engages literary interests and creative writers who enjoy reading in-between the lines and the thrill of deciphering poetry. With its simplicity, it draws ordinary people who just want a book they can relate to.
On the other hand, R.D. Liang's Knot, despite its engaging theatrics, is faulty in its lack of simplicity. Hence, To Bee a Honey meets Liang’s failed modern needs and standards.
Do you see what I did above? I didn't need to say no one has written anything like mine and because I read widely, I can make effective comparisons about my book.
8. If a publisher already acquired or published similar books, how does mine stand out?
Competitive Titles: When you know the publisher you hope will accept your book, and in writing a proposal to them – you have to identify books they have already published that are similar to yours. However, you define the similarity, especially by theme and genre and other means is up to you.
You want to identify why the publication of your book by them is still needed especially if they already have something similar. Finding competitive titles will also help you discover if the publisher is the right fit?
9. When, where, and by whom have I been published before?
Prior publication history: One of the benefits of publishing individual pieces of your work is establishing a fan base on different literary platforms. I often find that new authors think springing up a surprise about publishing their first book is a fun idea. It isn't. When you have had several publication histories, you can leverage those people-networks and individual audiences to kick start your book's sales. So, people can say, I love the article that Writer X published one time, therefore I will purchase their book.
10. When I google my name, what comes up?
Websites and profiles: I remember receiving a very brilliant manuscript, and when I searched for the author online, I couldn't find an e-blueprint of her. The manuscript was eventually rejected by the publisher I worked for at the time because they couldn’t envision an audience for her work and she hadn’t done so much in the past – especially online to garner an audience for her brand or type of work.
While I understand that people stay off social media and the web for privacy reasons, in a modern world that heavily relies on the web to market authors and their books, I find that it may be less convincing for a publisher to want to work with you as a result. Even if you don't want your pictures or anything private online, invest in owning a website that tells someone everything they need to know about your professional background and some of your writing samples.
11. What social media platforms do I use productively and how am I using them?
Platforms: There are many mistakes that authors make with social media, one of which is thinking they have to be on every platform to promote their work effectively. I disagree.
When I published my first book, this was one of the misconceptions I had, and it made me feel exhausted to the point whereby I stopped posting on social media and often would clear off my social media accounts to restart them.
Recently, I decided to focus on just two platforms and use them well. I disabled my Twitter, ignored my Facebook but kept it for Ads purposes, and then focused on my LinkedIn and Instagram pages.
You don’t have to do exactly what I have done. However, my advice is to pick 3 social media platforms that you can use well, build an audience on, and commit to. Additionally, technology and social media has advanced in that, if you are the type who doesn't like spending time on social media platforms, you can schedule your posts and go offline. Work smart instead of working hard!
12. What is my social media influence, and how do I envision it will grow?
Social Media Reach: Overall, I want to say have a measurable number of followers as a fan base to help kick start your book launching and sales.
Note that there is a difference between having followers and having a fan base or community, deliberately interested in your work and that interact with your communications.
I wrote a blog post on this topic a while ago. Click Here to Read.
13. What kind of followers do I have, why and how are they engaging with me online?
Followers: Before, I used to want my social media followers to like my poetry, but earlier this year, I came to terms with the fact that over 80% of my followers were more interested in my personal pictures, religious and inspirational quotes. When I posted more religious quotes, my audience surprisingly increased and tremendously.
I realized that my creative publication has the most success and response when released through other literary websites, communities, or single social media adverts. Posting about my book on my social media platforms does nothing for my sales.
My point here is to let your audience inform and direct you. And if you see that your followers aren't engaging with the content you want them to love, consider marketing options to build a following and promote your work to the audience you want.
14. How does my target audience align with the true audience for my book?
Audience: Have a clear target audience for your books and do not settle for the common thing that people say: Women 18 to 30 years old.
Be specific – think of industry, racial or ethnic community, social institutions, etc. that will find your work valuable.
Also, think of how you are already engaging this audience with content relative to your upcoming book and mention it in your book proposal. If your audience loves just pictures about hair the most, you can't just deliver a book about shoes and expect them to purchase it. Also, please – subtract family members and friends from your audience sample – people who are obligated to like your work in some way.
15. Who do I know?
Influence: The quote "It is not what you know; it's who you know" also holds in helping the pitch for your book. Now, don't just list that you know Beyonce if Beyonce won't contribute to your book's marketing. Mention if you know people who have credibility in your book's themes or have connections with the audience that will purchase your book. I remember reading a manuscript proposal from someone who knew MLK's son and had personal contact.
16. What is my publishing timeline?
Planning: I am often in awe of first-time, self-publishing authors who think they can spring up books in one to three months. Or authors who think when they sign with a traditional trade publisher, their book will be published and released within weeks.
Publishing timelines sometimes last until two years, depending on how much work is needed to improve the book's content, develop marketability for your book, outreach to bookstores, etc.
17. What's in the first 30 pages of my book?
Hooking the reader's attention: When I was an intern at Simon and Schuster, I remember at the beginning of my internship when my supervisor was giving me manuscripts to evaluate, she said that I would know within the first 30 pages of the book if it is worth pursuing or not. At first, I didn't believe her, but it revealed to be true as time went on.
Saving the best for the last doesn't always work. You want to ensure that the first 30 to 50 pages of your book is excellent and interesting enough for the reader to read until the end.
18. What is in my Table of Contents and how does it inform my reader?
Brief descriptions: Without having to read the whole book to discover if it is acceptable or not, many times, I go through the book's table of contents and brief descriptions to know where it is leading and the possible problems with the manuscripts like repetitions.
Publishers, and people who vet manuscripts, sometimes as a result of time constraint do this as well.
19. Do I have a contact list of my audience ready?
Newsletters: Mentioning numbers in your proposals – if you have a vast contact base of your audience can be very helpful. So, if you haven’t started building a newsletter list, it isn’t too late.
Even if you don’t think you need one now, it never hurts to start compiling a list. If for example people come to your website to read your writings often, prompt them to sign up for your newsletter. You may also consider platforms like MailChimp etc.
Another way that I have found effective in building newsletter lists is through exchanges like contests, surveys, giveaways, or free e-books.
However you obtain a newsletter list of people's contact information, make sure it is legal. Also ensure that you are delivering what your audience signed up for.
20. What are people saying about me, my work, book, or manuscript?
Reviews and recommendations: While I conduct outreach for blurbs whenever I want to publish a book, I am always careful of blurbs that say everything but nothing. Or two-word blurbs that are shorter than the timing of a sneeze.
In selecting reviews for my already published works to appraise my book in an application or proposal, I ensure that they are meaningful, concise, and relatable.
Some people pay to receive blurbs and honest reviews for their book, but it is just not something that I value. I believe when there is a financial exchange, there is a sense of obligation to say something kind about the book, even if it isn’t good.
The Book Proposal
Now that you have gotten to the end, here is a summary of what can be included in your book proposal besides your manuscript: This is based on what I have observed from book proposals I read while interning at book publishing companies like Simon and Schuster and Elsevier. Your book proposal doesn't have to follow this order or categorization and book proposal presentation varies depending on industry, imprint, the author's branding etc. I also strongly recommend using Canva to design your proposal. Canva is easy to navigate and just gives everything a creative edge.
About the book:
Importance and need of the book:
I hope you find this blog post helpful. If you do, please check out my books - buy and download them. Also, subscribe to my newsletter list and share this post with someone else!