Yeah, that’s me smiling. Happy that I wrote my book. Happy that I signed with a great agent. But completely oblivious to the work ahead. “I’m gonna sell your book on your proposal.” MY WHAT? I thought that was what you wrote BEFORE you wrote your book! Well, that’s true. I happened to do it backwards. So, in case you are thinking of sitting down and finally writing the story of your life, save yourself a lot of grief by writing a proposal first. All memoirs fall into the non-fiction category and all non-fiction is sold using a proposal. (This, btw, pertains to first-time authors and not seasoned ones who’ve proven the salability of their craft). By doing this, you will find out whether there is any interest in what you plan to write about before giving up a few years of your life staring at a computer screen, pecking at the keyboard with your permanently curled carpal-tunnel fingers.
I liken a proposal to a long, extended pitch, where you try as hard as you can to persuade publishers your book is so fabulous, unique, and on trend that they willingly hand over as much moolah as possible–in some cases engaging in frenzied bidding wars–in exchange for exclusive rights to your book. Sounds doable? Here’s the rub. They keep a death grip on their cash until they’re absolutely convinced that what you’ve written will not only give them their initial investment back but plenty more. They are in the money-making business. It’s your job to convey and convince them that your book is publish-worthy and that’s by writing the perfect proposal–distilling the gist of your story in a few paragraphs, who will buy it, how you’ll market it, comparing and contrasting similar books that have been critically and financially successful, the size and reach of your social media, why you want to write this particular story (or in my case, why I wrote this story) and your qualifications. And finally, a detailed outline of each proposed chapter. In other words, as involved as a grad paper but way more compelling. In show biz terms, your opening line better have pizzazz.
“Here’s a list of books I’m suggesting you read for your comps,” my agent said. “Got a pen and paper, ’cause I need you to write down exactly how I want you to write the proposal.” Comps, if you’re not familiar with the vernacular, are books published within the past three to five years that have sold well (made money for the publishers), fall within your genre, and offer a similar theme or story line. Not too similar, mind you, because then who’d want to buy or read the same book? But it has to be similar enough for the money-people in publishing to say, “Yeah, that will sell, cause it’s just like such and such that sold a million copies, except that now the story takes place on a submarine, or a ranch, or an iceberg.” You get the point. The same but not the same.
As soon as I hung up with my agent, I ordered my list of books from Amazon Prime and even found a few more that I thought I might be able to use. He also recommended I purchase Michael Larsen’s classic, How to Write a Book Proposal. I ordered both 4th and 5th editions. The next afternoon my books arrived. The day after, Covid-19 dominated the news. The day after that, I caught what I hoped was just a nasty bug from my teenaged daughter. Whatever it was, I was down for the count.