One of my writing mentors, Jeff Goins, likes to tell authors that at some point while writing their book, they will feel like a hypocrite. Because you’ll realize that all of the best practices and wonderful advice you’re giving to readers is actually really, really hard to follow in real life. That’s me all the time with authors! I’m very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my own proposal, and why it was (justifiably) rejected by several agents and editors at publishing houses that I greatly admire.
So this week, on the Hungry Authors podcast, Liz and I decided to share with you our own story about how we got a book deal. We also analyze our proposal, subjecting it to the same fire that I’ve subjected dozens if not hundreds of other proposals over the years.
I wanted to unpack that here in writing for you, share some of the exact language we received as rejections, and give you a chance to look at our proposal for yourself and decide: Would you have taken it on?
Let’s start with the proposal itself. We used my book proposal template, which I happily send to potential authors who subscribe to my newsletter for free. (If you’re already a subscriber and haven’t seen it, email me and let me know!)
This template breaks the proposal down into these major parts:
Proposals are big, long, meaty documents, and ours ended up at 66 pages double-spaced.
But the proposal is only the visible, explicit part of your submission. A lot of authors don’t realize that there are a bunch of other things that agents and publishers look at when they’re evaluating whether to take you on, including:
We didn’t just prepare the actual document for submission; we also prepared our online selves. We launched the Hungry Authors podcast and website, posted almost every day on the Hungry Authors Instagram account, promoted multiple live masterclasses, and were guests on other podcasts.
It took several months to get all of this in place, but once we did, we were ready to pitch.
So here we go. Here’s my analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of our proposal. Granted, I’m undoubtedly biased, so take this with a grain of salt. But that’s why I’m including the text from a handful of real rejections we received so you can see what feedback we got.
Our #1 asset is a strong network of other writers and industry professionals who we can ask for endorsement when the time comes. Now, we honestly included too many people on our list. Our editor told us that, for them, the sweet spot is about 15 really great endorsements, so we’ll have to make our asks carefully when the time comes. But having a strong list of well recognized names was super helpful!
Between the two of us, we’ve got solid credibility in this field. We’re not newbies over here; we’ve been doing this for a long time, and it shows.
We worked hard to perfect our writing sample, because we know that our professional credibility depended in large part on the structure, voice/tone, and ideas we conveyed there. We also sent it out for feedback from some of our amazing colleagues and they helped us refine it with stronger language and tighter ideas.
We have a few unique selling points that, I think, set us apart from the competition:
We have an engaged audience because we’ve put a lot of effort into engaging them—mostly through social media, but also through the masterclasses we’ve been offering and the email list we’ve been cultivating. It is a lot of work, but it’s important.
Related to our experience and our engaged audience, we have proof of concept from the masterclasses, the workshops we’ve done in the past, and the podcasts we’ve been on. We’ve demonstrated that people are already willing to pay us money to get the insights that we will teach through this book.
Social media is not our only platform metric, but social media does hold more weight for prescriptive nonfiction books like ours. Despite all the work we’ve been doing, organic social growth is really, really hard to achieve. At the time that we pitched our proposal, we had a combined social following of less than 6000 people—and there’s undoubtedly some overlap between our various accounts. This is VERY small. This was and still is our biggest challenge to overcome.
How we addressed it: We diversified our platform, not just focusing on social media alone, but also doing workshops, podcasts, email, etc. Plus, we are continuing to prioritize growth across all of our accounts. We know that continuing to grow will be vital to our book’s success later.
This book is not going to be a New York Times bestseller. Although we will work our butts off to make this successful, we have no dreams of grandeur. Compared to a general market inspirational book, the return on investment for our book is quite small.
Think about how narrow our book topic really is:
That’s a lot of filters on an already-narrow topic.
How we addressed it: We pitched to the right publishers. We prioritized publishers that had published similar books in the past (although, for some, that was the reason they ended up rejecting). We are growing our network and following so that we reach 100% of the possible audience available.
We knew that every editor we pitched to would probably have a stack of books similar to ours on their desk. And, every editor we pitched to was going to have their own philosophy around what makes a book work. It’s almost a right of passage for book professionals to write their own spin on what makes a great book—we can’t help it; it’s what we do! So, in some ways, we had a MUCH steeper competitive hill to climb than many other books.
I mean, look at the search results on Amazon: over 30,000 books under “how to write nonfiction!”
Not only that, but we noticed that a LOT of the results there are self-published. That’s never a good sign. I think this is a result of two things:
How we addressed it: Again, we pitched smaller, niche publishers that had published similar books in the past. We also worked hard on refining our unique selling points so that we stand out from the crowd. That said, our unique selling points still weren’t enough for some editors.
For some editors, those weaknesses were just too much to overcome—and that’s totally fair. Every editor has to decide how to spend their time. Every editor has to decide if the potential investment for a book is worth the risk. Every editor has a limited number of projects they can reasonably take on each year.
Here are some of the rejections we received:
“It’s really the limited size of the target audience (of writers). With our nonfiction program, we’re looking to publish books that reach a super broad audience of everyday readers.”
“Curry and Morrow clearly are putting in a lot of work to build their brand, but they still have (yes) a limited platform, which matters. That said, they don’t seem to be offering anything radically new that readers already can’t find on the market, and [PUBLISHER] doesn’t have a lot of experience in the writing category. All of which means I have to pass, but thank you for giving me a crack at it!”
“We feel that this project would have a bit of too much overlap with some of our other books on our list focused on the writer’s journey for us to take on. We wish them the very best of luck in finding the right home for this project and stellar advice, and thank you much for giving us the opportunity to consider this proposal.”
“This is definitely right up my alley, but I’m afraid we don’t publish much in the writing reference space here at [PUBLISHER], so I’m going to pass. But I appreciate the look!”
“Thanks for thinking of me on this one, but I'm going to pass. We just haven't had much luck in the writers how-to market. It would be a tough sell in-house.”
“I like the premise, and certainly love reading books about books/writing, but I tend to be interested on the more literary approach, rather than prescriptive.”
These are all valid reasons not to take on our book. And, like it or not, there will be many valid reasons for editors not to take on your book either. If you want to be traditionally published, your job is to eliminate all the reasons within your control and try to mitigate the other risks outside of your control.
That’s all you can do.
Luckily, for us, we eventually got a “yes.” If we hadn’t, though, we were willing to explore other options. The main goal is to get the book out there, and we can do that with or without a traditional publisher.
I’m grateful that we didn’t have all of our hopes wrapped up in this process. I think this is really where my background in publishing came in handy; it helped me maintain perspective throughout the whole process. That’s what I want for you, too. Publishing is a business, and it’s risky letting too much of your heart get wrapped up in pitching.
As my friend Merideth Hite Estevez likes to remind me, your worth is not on the line. When you pitch a proposal, the only thing on the line is your ability to make this book successful.