Questions from Beginning Writers…
November 2, 2007 | Written by admin
A flurry of questions lately frpm some of the newcomers in our midst…
Danielle wrote to say, "I’m sorry to bring up a beginner’s question, but what would you say are the big things an author needs to keep in mind when creating a nonfiction proposal for an agent?"
No need to apologize, Danielle — it’s a good question. I’d say there are three big things to keep in mind when creating a proposal. First, every proposal needs a big idea. So make sure you’ve got a strong starting point — a big, salable idea. Second, every proposal needs to demonstrate great writing. The number one reason agents reject proposals is because the writing is weak. So improve your craft. Strong writing will make your proposal stand out. (As we Scots like to say, "Time spent sharpening the tool is never wasted.") Third, every proposal needs to be supported by a strong platform. In other words, work to show the agent who you are and how you’re going to support your book. Do you speak to crowds of people? Talk on the radio? Write articles in newspapers or magazines? Have a popular web site? Are you an expert at your topic? What are you well known for? A proposal that demonstrates a big idea, great writing, and a strong platform will stand out from the slush pile.
Denny wrote to ask, "If an author submits three well-polished chapters of a fiction proposal to you, and you find them interesting enough to request the entire manuscript, but the author informs you he hasn’t completed the novel yet, what would your reaction be? Do you say, ‘thanks but come back when you’ve completed the entire work’? ‘thanks and please send more chapters as you complete them’? ‘you’ve wasted my time but I’ll be merciful and give you a half-hour headstart before I hunt you down Most Dangerous Game style’? Or…?"
If I see three great chapters from a novel, I’ll always ask to see the whole thing. Why? Because I can’t sell a new novelist without a completed manuscript. Publishers are no longer buying a novel based on three strong chapters. They’ve gotten burned too many times by people who have paid an editor for help, or hired a collaborative writer, or taken a class to help them polish some chapters. The fact is, a novel takes talent and time — there’s something about working your way all the way through the process that helps develop a mature voice in a novelist (which is why most novelists have completed several books before they get their first contract). So if you’re not done with the entire novel, I probably can’t sell it. If I loved it, I’d doubtless stay in touch with you, but I’d encourage you to complete the whole thing before we talked seriously about representation.
Mary wrote and noted, "In an earlier post, you stated that Bookscan revealed only 25,000 books last year sold more than 5000 copies, that a mere ten books sold a million copies, and that the average published book will never sell more than 500 copies. How does that translate to CBA books? Do most of the books from bigger CBA publishers only sell 5000 copies? And are the publishers therefore relying on bestselling authors to foot the bill for newer, less-known authors?"
Absolutely. In my opinion, the numbers from CBA would mirror those in the ABA — the majority of books released by major CBA houses will sell about 5000 copies. It’s extremely rare for a CBA book to bust out and sell 100,000 copies. And yes, CBA publishers are living on the 80/20 principle: 20% of the books are bringing in 80% of the profits. In fact, it might be more like a 90/10 principle. But that’s how the publishing game works — one big success can float a boatload of smaller books.
A couple lessons that spin off from those facts… Don’t be distraught when your novel sells 8000 copies. (It might not have hit the bestseller lists, but you’re actually ahead of the curve.) Don’t assume a bestselling author isn’t your friend. (The fact is, her work may be financing your book.) You no longer have to wonder why that bestselling book got all the publisher’s marketing money and attention, leaving little for you. (Publishers understand that a bestseller pays the bills.) And if you can sell 12,000 to 20,000 copies of your books, you can probably publish forever. (In other words, you’re probably earning out your advance and making money. Not BIG money, mind you, but enough to pay your freight.)
On a related note, Carol wrote to ask, "What is a good answer to give friends and associates (and sometimes absolute strangers) when they ask you how many copies of your book have sold? I hate that question. For one thing, it’s too close to, ‘How much money do you make?,’ which feels too personal. For another, I’ve discovered that if I say anything less than ‘a million,’ they seem to think I’m a failure. I once had a friend say to me, ‘If you can’t sell a million copies of your book, there’s something wrong with you.’ Help!"
Well, my first advice might be "get new friends." But that can be expensive, so you could also try lying about it, or ignoring the question, or responding with, "I’m not sure" or "I’m not at liberty to say." Some authors will answer another way: "It’s done great since I won the Midwest Writer’s Award" or "Sales have really picked up since I went on Good Morning America." But you’re right — it’s a personal question, like asking your neighbor, "How much did you pay in taxes last year?" Besides, the average non-writer has no idea what constitutes success or failure in publishing. So I’d encourage you to figure out for yourself if your sales qualify as a success. (True story: I once created a book of card tricks, had it printed, and sold it myself. There are roughly 10,000 card magicians in this country. I printed 1000 copies of my book and sold all of them. 1000 copies may sound like small potatoes to you…but I sold a copy to ten per cent of the potential readership! Imagine if you sold a book to 10% of all the romance readers, or 10% of all the mystery readers. Success is in the eye of the beholder.)
Meg wrote to ask, "Why do you write so much about CBA and religious books?"
That one’s easy: I sell a lot of Christian books. I do a lot of business with CBA publishers. It’s true that I also do a lot of business with ABA publishers, but I’m fairly well known in CBA. A lot of people from CBA read this blog, Meg. But it’s aimed at both CBA readers and ABA readers. Since that’s where I make my living, I talk about both markets.
And finally, Samantha wrote to say, "I have a dilemma. I sent out a proposal for my novel a couple months ago, and last week a small publisher expressed interest in it. But my computer crashed, and I’ve been unable to retrieve the book. I’d already revised it several times, so the book the publisher had wasn’t really the book I was still creating anyway. Part of me thinks this is a sign to ditch the book and do something else; another part of me thinks this is just part of the process and I really have to re-write that one. What should I do?"
Egads. Your computer crashed and you can’t get ANY of it? I mean, you took out the hard drive, handed it to the computer geeks (or whoever it is that actually fix these types of things — could be the computer fairies, for all I know), and they couldn’t do anything? Ouch. I feel for you.
Uh, do we have time for a story? This really happened: At the end of two years of doctoral course work, they gave me comprehensive exams . Six questions, I have to write on four of them, and I have two days to display what all I’ve learned in my PhD program. I race home and spend the entire afternoon and evening on the first question. What I write is, in my mind, fabulous. Incisive, complete, erudite. I finish my answer (perhaps the greatest answer since the invention of movable type), and try to think of a last sentence — a benediction to wrap up all this stuffy brilliance. In doing so, I lean back. My foot hits the power cord. The computer blinks off. And no, I hadn’t had the brains to save it. Poof! One day’s brilliance gone. Um…I was NOT a happy camper. I cursed, I stomped my foot…and then I sat down and wrote the stupid thing again, while it was still fresh in my mind. My rewritten answer was okay, but it could never live up to the beauty of my famous "lost answer." It’s the one reason I’ll probably never win a Pulitzer. (Sniff. Honk!)
Back to your question: Beats me. I doubt I’d take the crashing of a hard drive as a "sign," but then I’m not a person who is much into signs. (I might take it as a sign not to buy such a cheapo computer next time, I suppose.) However, it doesn’t sound like you were completely happy with your previous work anyway. So here’s your chance to live life over again — go write the new, improved version of your story. Fix all the problems and tell it the way it ought to be told.
Or don’t. The other choice is to figure you’ll always be frustrated with it, and to move on to something else. Preferably with a Mac.