Why Bad Things Happen To Good Book Ideas, a workshop with Dale Fetherling

Dale is an author, editor, teacher, and a great workshop facilitator. This workshop focused on the art of crafting a winning nonfiction book proposal. He began with two tough questions for anyone with a book idea:

  • Is the idea viable?
  • Are you the person to write it?

These are the questions on a publisher’s mind when she reads your proposal. So the author’s job is to get the publisher or editor to answer these questions with a resounding Yes! YES!

Dale begins with the creation of a solid hook. A few hook-writing approaches he suggests you employ:

  • nifty anecdote
  • bold statement
  • first person statement
  • compelling statistics

And then he talks about placing that hook right up front, in the first page of your proposal. In fact, the first page of your proposal, or any query letter, ought to have a series of three engaging hooks:

  • subject hook
  • book hook
  • author hook

Dale also offers a fantastic handout, The Anatomy of a Book Proposal. Here are the basics:

First third, 5-15 pages

  • overview: your compelling, detailed case for the subject, the book, and the author
  • market: why will this book sell well?
  • promotion: what are you going to do to help the publisher sell your book?
  • competing titles: up to six published titles that compete with your project
  • author credentials: why are you the right person to write this book?

Middle third, 10-25 pages

  • chapter outline

Final third, 20-40 pages

  • sample chapter

Dale reviews each of these projects in detail, but most compelling are his suggestions about the competing titles list and the market section. These sections typically overwhelm writers, no matter how enthused we are about our ideas.

An author needs to get very clear on exactly who will buy the book, Dale says. And exactly how are you and the publisher going to reach those readers? The research into competing titles can shed light on this question. Go to a big bookstore, and to Amazon, and to the library, and begin to compile a list. You’ll want to pare it down to no more than six titles eventually, but start out looking for books that relate to yours in these ways:

  • What is the classic work on this subject?
  • What major publishing successes exist on this topic?
  • What has been published recently on this topic?

Finally, Dale’s compiled a fascinating list of ten major reasons book proposals are rejected. Check out Dale Fetherling’s site. If you write to him, he might just share his list with you.

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