So, you’re in touch with an acquisitions editor, (or want to be), and the next thing on your book proposal to-do list is: Provide an outline. You immediately flash back to the last time you actually outlined something before you wrote it. High School? College? Or, perhaps you’re one of those methodically organized souls who sits down to write and produces an outline first. Wherever you are on the spectrum, your book’s outline is a critically important part of your proposal. Lately, I’ve had a few pretty experienced writers ask me for suggestions on how to get started.
If the outline feature in Word or Pages or some other organizational application seems more like a formatting tool to you than actual assistance, you are not alone. The very hierarchical structure can be helpful, and some people really can sift through their ideas using such things. But for the rest of us, these tools only help when we already know the topics we plan to cover and have a solid idea of how they relate to one another.
Here’s an alternative. First, make a list of the things you want to say in your book. These don’t have to be chapter headings or major sections—just points you want to communicate. Second, transfer each of the topics or thoughts on your list to a post-it note. The fun part comes third. Stick your notes to a wall or table and start arranging them. When you see things that are related to each other, put them together. Don’t worry about thinking through the structure yet. Just put like things together. Once you’ve done that, take a break. Seriously, put some space and time between you and the outline you’re working on. I’d recommend an hour at the very least. A few days doesn’t hurt either.
When you come back to your post-its, just stand and look at the categories (the post-it bunches) you have. Once you’ve reviewed them, start to move them. You will find that an order will emerge. When you’re happy with your sticky note outline, you’re ready to write it down in a single document. And once it’s down on paper, there’s only one step left before you submit it. See if your outline “matches” the audience you intend to reach.
The first hurdle in the proposal process is what most potential authors expect it to be: content. Is your subject interesting and timely? Does it have a hook that is natural and not forced? Are you the right author for the book you are proposing? If you are an established author, can you commit to a timeframe? If you are new or less well-known, can you submit more than just an outline? Are you open to and cooperative with the editorial process? Some authors have a great concept, but aren’t able to execute it well. Others write with great clarity and style, but what they have to say doesn’t particularly stand out. Most authors don’t fully consider their readers’ needs.
Defining your audience clearly—and writing for that audience—is key. Of course, if your audience is bird-watchers-who-are-interested-in-a-how-to-book-about-climbing-glaciers-in-order-to-find-the-nesting-grounds-of-the-arctic-tern, it is unlikely that we will move forward. However, “this book is for all people, ages 9–99, who have seen at least one bird in their lives” isn’t going to form the foundation of a successful proposal either. Ask yourself what your reader is looking for. What are his/her fears, hopes, desires? Where is he or she in terms of faith commitment or knowledge of the faith? What lasting or life-changing takeaway will the person who reads your book receive?
It is extremely rare for a proposal to move through the acquisitions process without some changes being made along the way. These are generally given as suggestions by your acquisitions editor, and are intended to make your proposal the strongest it can be from a content perspective. Working together to frame your proposal is the beginning of what will—hopefully!—grow into a long-term working relationship. Remember, every book on the shelf is the product of collaboration. People who hold jobs you never knew existed are involved. The author is only where a new book begins. —Jaymie
The first thing to note about the proposal process is that it is a process…and, well…processes take time. Plenty of authors submit a proposal on Monday and expect to hear whether or not their book will be published by Friday. In a week or two, when they can no longer stand the suspense, they either assume the worst or start contacting the publishing house to ask about the status of their submission.
The fact is that several weeks may pass before an editor even has the chance to look at what you’ve sent in. Don’t give up! But please understand that extra phone calls and emails just slow us down. (Excessive communication can also make us wonder about what a working relationship with a particular author might be like.)
At OSV, we make a commitment to answering every potential author in some way. Not all publishers do. But it’s important to remember that the quickest answer any author will receive from any publisher is almost always “no.”
In order for a publishing house to invest its resources in your project, an internal coalition needs to form around your proposal. All the necessary planets—editorial, marketing, design, production, and yes, financials—must be brought into alignment. To do that, lots and lots of questions need to be answered. That is where your acquisitions editor comes in.
More to come…
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, Acquisitions Editor