The first part of your fiction book proposal should have details about your book and your target market.
To recap from last week, a great fiction book proposal essentially breaks down into five elements:
- About Your Book and the Target Market (What can you do for us?).
- Your “Comparables” (What’s your niche?).
- Your Biography (Who are you and why should we care?).
- Marketing and Publicity (How can you help me to help you?)
- Sample Pages
About Your Book
This week, we’ll discuss the first element in some detail. This is where you’ll answer questions like:
- What is your novel about?
- How many words is the manuscript or what is the expected word count?
- How much of your novel is completed?
- What is the title/subtitle?
- What genre or category do you believe your book best fits into?
- What is your book’s history?
- What is the target market?
- What is the story or inspiration behind your book?
- Do you have other books available, or ideas for other books?
The Hook and the Blurb
The one-sentence hook is your pitch, and the basic model looks like this: [Your book] is a [genre] about a [type of person] who [takes a specific action] [in pursuit of a specific goal]. A good rule of thumb is that you can fit it into a 140-character tweet.
Most fiction book blurbs start with a situation (a), introduce a problem (b) and promise a twist (c). They usually end with a sentence that emphasizes the mood (d) of the story. Two to four paragraphs should be enough, and the total word-count should be about 150 words or less.
A Note on Word-Count
But Mike, how do I know the word-count if I haven’t finished writing it?
Simple. You plan to write to a certain word-count, and then you write toward that certain word-count. Word-count is important for two reasons.
Firstly, readers of certain genres have certain expectations about the length of a book in their certain genre. A reader of epic fantasy isn’t going to be as impressed with an “epic” fantasy of only 50,000 words as they are with one of 100,000 words. This is why I don’t market my own books as “epics.” They’re just not, and anyone who thinks otherwise will be disappointed.
Conversely, a cozy mystery reader probably isn’t prepared to slog through 100,000 words wondering whodunit, when most titles in the genre are about 70-75,000 words.
These expectations stand firm regardless of format (digital vs. print vs. audio), because word-count is a measure of the reader’s commitment to see the book through to the end.
Secondly, if the book is going to be printed, then the number of words has a direct impact on the publisher’s financial bottom line. More words equals more ink on more paper, and more ink and paper means a heavier binding, and altogether that means fewer books per 20-pound book shipping box, and that means more expensive shipping, all of which means higher costs (losses) on the profit & loss sheet. You can be damned sure that the publisher has worked out their annual budgets for the next five years with certain ink, paper, distribution, and shipping costs in mind before they ever decided what they were going to publish, so if your book’s word-count exceeds what their budget can tolerate, it won’t be economical for them to publish it in print, and they’ll give it a pass.
Even digital-only books have costs related to word-count. An industry-standard manuscript page is 250 words, and a publisher can expect that a standard-industry freelance copy-editor (not some joker off Fiverr) will review 5-10 ms pages/hour, at a cost of $30-50/hour. So a 100,000-word manuscript represents 40-80 hours of copy-editing, costing $1200 – $4000, regardless of whether the book is print or digital. A full-time staff copy-editor also incurs overhead costs (rent, insurance, payroll taxes, etc).
So the agent will need to know the word-count to target your book to the right publishers and the right readers. Which means that you should know it.
The Book’s History
Has your book been self-published before? Was it previously represented by another book agent? Has it been reviewed by any publishers?
Some publishers don’t want to work with a previously-published book (whether self- or traditional), because it sullies their reputation for being purveyors of great new fiction.
Most agents will want to know that the title to the book rights is cleared. If the book was previously represented, there may be contractual questions around who owns the right to represent the book, and there may be manuscripts floating around the publishing houses with the previous agent’s contact info. And if the previously-agented version was passed on by certain publishers, the would-be new agent will want to know which ones and why.
In either case, both agents and publishers will want to know something about your sales history, both for the book’s previous incarnation, and for your other books.
And if you intend for this book to be first in a series, or to write other books in the same genre, that’s a good selling point. It shows you’re thinking ahead, and (if this book sells well) promises additional profits from those future titles. Some publishers, for example, might extend an advance for completion of a full trilogy, or want “right of first refusal” for subsequent titles.
Target market or target audience
But all of this is really just a prelude to get the agent/publisher interested in reading on to the real meat of the book proposal: the marketing bit.
While “Ars gratias Artis” (Art for Art’s sake) is a noble sentiment, the ephemeral Muses of Literature don’t buy books. People do.
Like it or not, publishing is a business, agents and publishers are business-people, and businesses sell products to consumers. To effectively (i.e., profitably) sell products to consumers, business needs to know who those consumers are, how to reach them, and what motivates them to buy products. While any reputable agent/publisher will do their own due diligence to verify or reject your claims, if you can give as much of this information as possible to your potential agent/publisher, you both save them some work and distinguish yourself from the unwashed masses of creatives who are in it just “for Art’s sake.”
Who will buy your book? Why will it sell? A.k.a, What’s in it for me?
In as much detail as possible, discuss an identifiable market of readers who will be compelled to spend money on your story in book form. But avoid generic descriptions of the book buying audience in the United States, or—for example—broadly discussing how many fantasy novels sold last year. Agents and publishers don’t need to be given broad industry statistics. They have the Association of American Publishers and other industry resources for that. What they need is for you to draw a clear portrait of the specific type of person (beyond “John Q. Public book buyers”) who will be interested in your book. They need to envision who the readers are and how they can be reached.
It can be very tempting to make a broad statement about who your audience is, to make it sound like anyone and everyone is a potential reader. That doesn’t help you at all.
Avoid generic statements like these:
- A Google search result on “dragon” turns up more than 10 million hits.
- A U.S. Census shows more than 20 million people in this demographic.
- An Amazon search turns up more than 10,000 books with “dragon” in the title.
So what? These are meaningless statistics. The following statements show better market insight:
- Media surveys indicate that at least 50% of fantasy readers plan to spend about $1,000 on fantasy literature this year, and 60% indicated they buy books about dragons.
- Recent reviewers of 59 books complain that the author is using the “Chosen One” trope.
- The New York Times recently wrote about the increased interest in dragons; [X and Y] media outlets regularly profile authors who’ve written books about dragons.
By the way, I just made these statements up. They are not facts, just examples of how to structure whatever facts you do have. Which brings me to another point: Don’t assume; verify. This may come as a shock to you, but not everyone tells the truth, and not all who tell the truth tell it honestly. Mark Twain (quoting British PM Benjamin Disraeli) once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Be skeptical of your own research and verify your facts. The agent/publisher will certainly do so, and if they catch you out in a falsehood? ThUnK! Waste bin.
The Ideal Reader
As Stephen King puts it, “all novels are letters aimed at one person,” the ideal reader. An ideal reader is the person to whom your book most appeals. They are the “right” age group and gender. They have the “right” interests. They’re likely to be as in love with your story as you are.
In other words: They won’t sleep until they finish reading your book. They’ll buy your book, because it’s the book they’ve always wanted to read. And they’ll buy it in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and every conceivable digital format. They’ll come to your book discussions and ask intelligent questions, and wait hours on line in the rain to get a signed copy. They’ll give you unsolicited five-star verifiable purchase reviews on Amazon. They’ll share all your promotional materials with their friends, recommend your book to Goodreads’ book clubs, and talk about your work at cocktail parties.
So do yourself a favor and put some serious thought into who your Ideal Reader is, and how to find them. Because that’s who your potential agent/publisher wants to know. And really, it’s who you were writing the book for in the first place. The “Ideal Reader” is a concrete vision of the “Art” in “Art for Art’s Sake.” The Ideal Reader is the Muse of Literature who actually buys books. So who is “Art” to you?
Next week, we’ll discuss your “Comparables,” the next important element in your fiction book proposal.
Until then, write on!