Monthly Archives: August 2009

How I Find Book Projects

Many people think that the only way you can get a book published is to have connections in the publishing industry. That definitely helps, but it’s not the only way a book contract happens.

As I’ve built my writing career, I’ve found that contacts with editors I’ve worked with in the past can lead to new projects. This is especially true with nonfiction. I might get a phone call or email from an editor saying, “We’re looking for a book on Topic X. Do you have any interest in writing it?” If my answer is yes, I’ll put together a book proposal, which (after some back and forth) the editor takes to the editorial board. This method of finding a project saves us both a lot of time: the editor knows my work and thinks I’m a good fit for the project, and — instead of shooting in the dark — I focus on a proposal that I know is of interest to a particular publisher.

My experience with fiction (so far) has been different. When I started trying to sell a novel, I didn’t have any contacts in fiction publishing. I signed with my agent and with my urban fantasy publisher based on “cold” submissions.

Here’s a breakdown of how I find projects, going from most common to least:

For nonfiction:

  1. An editor I’ve worked with in the past contacts me with a book idea.
  2. My agent gets a list of desired projects from an editor and contacts me about possibilities.
  3. My husband writes nonfiction. Sometimes I’ll co-write a book with him or take over a project he can’t fit into his schedule.
  4. I come up with an idea, write a proposal, and my agent pitches it to editors.

For fiction:

  1. I sold two novels by submitting through the publisher’s slush pile (that is, I signed a two-book deal based on one finished manuscript).
  2. My agent pitched the novel to publishers (I sold one book so far this way).

I hope this gives you an idea of the many different routes an author can take to signing a book contract. Contacts are important, but not essential. And, of course, once you make that initial contact, you’ve got something to build on.

Speaking of Nonfiction Books . . .

My guide to environmentally aware living, Living Green: The Missing Manual, releases today. It’s written under the name Nancy Conner. (That’s not an alias, by the way, it was my name when I started writing nonfiction books. When I got married last year, I decided to stick with Nancy Conner for nonfiction and use Nancy Holzner for fiction.)


Here’s the publisher’s description:

Taking care of the earth is more important than ever. Living Green: The Missing Manual is an all-in-one resource packed with practical advice on ways you can help the environment by making relatively easy, earth-friendly changes in your home routine, work habits, and the way you shop and get around town. This book teaches you how a few small changes can have a big impact.

Taking care of the earth is more important than ever, but the problems we’re facing can seem overwhelming. Living Green: The Missing Manual helps make earth-friendly decisions more manageable by narrowing them down to a few simple choices. This all-in-one resource is packed with practical advice on ways you can help the environment by making simple changes in your home routine, work habits, and the way you shop and get around town. You don’t have to embark on a radical new lifestyle to make a difference. Living Green: The Missing Manual shows you how small changes can have a big impact.

With this book, you will:

  • Learn how to make your home energy efficient and free of toxic chemicals
  • Discover how to reduce waste, repurpose and recycle, and do more with less
  • Build and remodel earth-friendly homes with new techniques and materials
  • Learn tips for buying organic food and what it takes to grow your own
  • Get helpful information on fuel-efficient cars, including hybrid and electric models
  • Make your workplace greener and more cost-effective — from changes at your desk to suggestions for company-wide policies
  • Explore how to choose renewable energies, such as wind and solar power

The book also provides you with ways to connect with like-minded people and offers a survey of exciting new green technologies. Learn how you can help the planet with Living Green: The Missing Manual.

Check out some of my green living tips at the O’Reilly blog or the book’s Amazon page.

Writing a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Part 2

If you’re working on a proposal for a nonfiction book, you need to include  the sections an editor expects to see. I posted about that last time. Once you’ve got the structure of your proposal, think about these tips to polish it up:

Show off your best writing. It can be easy to think of the proposal as being secondary to the book itself. But the proposal is what agents and editors see first, and as everyone knows, first impressions are important. Make your Introduction attention-getting, interesting, and sharp. Also, purge your proposal of typos, grammatical errors, and punctuation problems. If the mechanics of writing aren’t your strong suit, find a grammar maven to help you get the proposal in shape.

Be concise. Keep in mind that the person reading your proposal wants to know, as quickly and as clearly as possible, what your book is about. Don’t ramble, don’t give unnecessary context or background about how you came up with the idea.

Spend extra time on your outline. The outline is the basis for your completed book. The publisher will include it in your contract, and you’ll use it to write the chapters. A good outline at the proposal stage saves you lots of time later, when you’re writing. Be sure the organization makes sense. Look at it from a reader’s point of view. What’s the first thing someone new to your subject needs to know about it? After they’ve learned that, what comes next? And so on. This applies to the overall organization of the chapters and the organization within each chapter. If your outline is well organized, your book will be, too.

Be open to changes. Even though you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your proposal, it’s likely that an editor will want some changes. Don’t reject these out of hand. The editor has experience turning ideas into books, and you should work with your editor to refine and shape the outline. It’s common for an editor to ask for changes before presenting your proposal to the publisher’s editorial board; and the outline may well go back and forth between you and an interested editor several times before it’s ready.

Be realistic. Your book may be your baby, but to the publisher it’s a product. From an editor’s point of view, the whole purpose of a book proposal is to determine whether your project is a good fit and something that will sell. Keep this in mind as you create and submit your proposal.

Writing a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Part 1

A Facebook friend of mine is working on a nonfiction book, and we’ve been discussing how to find a publisher. I’ve published several how-to/reference books (most under the name Nancy Conner), so I told her I’d put together a guide to what goes into a book proposal for this kind of book.

The nice thing about writing how-to and reference is that even brand-new authors can sell a project based on a proposal. The publisher pays an advance, usually broken into three or four milestone payments, so you have some money coming in as you write. For example, the nonfiction publisher I work with most often breaks the advance into four payments, payable at these milestones: first two chapters submitted, 50% of the manuscript submitted, 100% of the manuscript submitted, author review completed. (Author review is going over the changes, queries, and requests made by various editors.)

Before you see any advance money, however, you need to sell the project. And to do that, you need a killer proposal. A nonfiction book proposal usually contains these sections:

Introduction: This section gives a high-level overview of the book.  It answers the Big Question: “What’s your book about?” Start with a hook–something that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to keep reading. Depending on your project, this could be an anecdote, an interesting fact or statistic, a trend. Be concise; keep this section to a couple of paragraphs.

Audience: Who will buy your book? Be specific here; don’t say “everyone,” for example. You may hope that’s true, but publishers know it won’t happen. Specific numbers for a specific group are helpful, such as “Volunteerism is the fastest-growing segment of the vacation industry, increasing by 50% since 2005. Last year, more than a million people spent their time off working to make the world a better place.” (Note: I made up those statistics for the example.) If you don’t know who’ll buy your book, do some research to find out whether the project is worth your time and the publisher’s investment.

Competition: This section shows how your book will be positioned in the market. Which books are its closest competitors? List them. What makes your book different from those books? For example, maybe you’ll inject humor or focus on real-world case studies. If there are too many competing titles, the publisher may think the field is too crowded. If there are no competing titles, however, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It may suggest that publishers have considered and rejected similar ideas.

Marketing: Publishers want to know what you’ll do to sell the book. List your marketing ideas here. If you have media contacts, a popular blog, frequent public speaking engagements, involvement with professional or other groups that will publicize your book, list them here. No matter how good your idea, books don’t sell themselves, and publishers want to know how you’ll help to get the word out. This section is optional, but it can get a publisher’s attention.

Table of Contents: This section shows your proposed book’s contents at a glance. It’s a list of parts, chapters, and appendices, like the Table of Contents at the front of a published book.

Detailed Outline: Here, show your Table of Contents again,  but go into detail. For each chapter, write a paragraph that gives an overview of what’s in the chapter. Follow that paragraph with a list of section headings and subheadings (A- and B-heads).

Author Bio: Include a paragraph or two telling about yourself. If you’ve published other books, mention those here. If you haven’t, focus on your expertise in the subject you’re writing about and any platform you’ve developed. Platform — your visibility as an expert — is important to publishers. Your platform may be a blog or Web site, membership in professional associations, media appearances, high visibility in a community (online or off) related to the topic. You may have mentioned some of this information in your Marketing section; mention it again here. The Author Bio is where you say what your platform is; the Marketing section is where you detail how you’ll use that platform.

Sample Chapters: If you’ve never published a book before, you need to include one or two sample chapters that show off your writing skills. If you’re already published, you may be able to send clips or chapters from a previously published books. Even so, it’s best to give a taste of your approach to this particular project.

So those are the basics of a book proposal. Next time, I’ll give some tips for making your proposal shine.

Book Giveaway Winners

Thanks to all who entered to win a copy of Peace, Love, and Murder. Here are the names from the random drawing:

Advance Review Copies:

Miki, Elizabeth, Kimberly B.


abookinhand, Thomas Joyner

I’ll be contacting you via email to get your addresses. Congratulations!

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