Thank you Brenda Knight, a recent Newbie Writers Podcast guest for her wonderful insights and advice for our readers.
The Art of the Book Deal
Insider Secrets to Navigating the Publishing Process
From the outside, book publishing can seem mysterious, but from the inside it is really quite simple. Twenty-two year publishing veteran Brenda Knight will teach you how to sell yourself and your book idea, who you are really selling, the importance of “comp titles,” how to craft the perfect proposal, and trend tracking. “I have acquired over one thousand books in my career, including a few New York Times bestsellers. One of the great joys in my life is to help authors get their work into print and published successfully,” says Knight.
Brenda Knight is a twenty-two year publishing veteran, starting at HarperCollins, where she fell in love with publishing. In 2014, she was named IndieFab Publisher of the Year. Knight is also the author of Women of the Beat Generation, which won an American Book Award, and The Grateful Table: Blessing, Prayers and Graces for the Daily Meal and Be A Good in the World.
1. How to Sell Your Book to a Publisher and Who You’re Really Selling
As everyone probably knows, you or your agent need to get your book or proposal into the hands of an interested editor; that’s the first hurdle. A well-crafted proposal, an agent with good relationships, and choosing the right editors to approach is the first step. What most would-be authors don’t know is that the editor has to turn around and sell you to an editorial board. The sales management, more often than not, makes the decisions. I learned this when I first started in publishing at Harper Collins and was in the Sales Department. Even though I had been in publishing for a week, I was participating in the pub board and was soon opining freely despite my lack of experience, because sales people have the power! If S&M (Sales and Marketing) think they can sell your book, then you’ve got a wonderful chance of getting published. So how do you sell the sales people? If it’s your first book, you have no Neilson Bookscan number to get in the way. That can be a blessing, but you have to prove that you are an “influencer” that can sell your book and provide the publisher’s sales force with the ammo they need to go out to the trade.
2. The Dreaded “P” Word: Building a Platform
You need to have a presence and a platform. But what does that even mean? Blogging, marketing your blog, writing columns for outlets such as Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, newspapers, and a myriad of online magazines can really help you. Let’s say this is your first book, you know it’s a winner, and you have no platform. Before you submit to any publishing houses, you should do your best to start blogging or get a column in your area of specialty at an outlet like the Huffington Post, or perhaps in your favorite webzine. Writing for Jezebel, Cosmo online, Alternet, Yahoo Shine, The Rumpus, The Millions, etc. are all impressive to me and will make me take a look. If your writing is compelling and engaging and you have the right headlines, you can go out more widely. Get people to share and you’re going places. Wait until you have established a good number of followers, then gather it up in your proposal: “I have written articles for X, Y, and Z, and have a readership of 40 thousand.” That will please the almighty sales folks. Keep building; every link, article, and reposting is a plank in your platform. Quantify.
As an editor, I have acquired several self-published books because the author had a good voice, but they also managed to sell several thousand copies of their book. We have several bestsellers due to authors who have gone out there and hammered out their platform.
3. The Art of the “Comp” Title
What is a “comp” title? It is a comparative title that you can say your book is similar to. If I had a nickel for every submission I received that said they were the next Fifty Shades of Grey, I could own some Apple stock. There really is an art to it. Don’t overreach. I’ve also received dozens and dozens of submission that say their book is the next Eat, Pray, Love. I must say this makes editors and sales people roll their eyes and move on to the next proposal.
How can you avoid hitting the reject pile? By coming up with a fantastic elevator pitch for your book. One of Viva Editions’ frontlist bestsellers is Contagious Optimism, which was positioned as a Random Acts of Kindness for the 21st century. I knew that the Random Acts of Kindness books had sold millions of copies and started a movement, so I was very interested. This was a never-before-published author, but a business man with good connections who launched a website and social media campaign and was willing to go on the stump to sell his book at libraries, churches, Rotary Clubs, anywhere he could get a book-buying audience. In its first eight months of publication, Contagious Optimism has been highly successful, and Barnes and Noble is getting ten thousand more copies in a hardcover gift edition, which is a real boon to Viva and to the author. We booked author David Mezzapelle at Reverend Michael Beckwith’s Agape International Spiritual Center in LA, which has a congregation of over 3000 people. He spoke twice to an audience filled with the cross section of LA, from homeless people to Hollywood people, which resulted in national TV and a radio show for the author. So a year and a half ago, all David Mezzapelle had was a proposal, and now he has a bestselling book and a national platform.
4. The Perfect Proposal
An excellent proposal will get you to the top of the stack of any editor’s desk. It should be well written, well researched, and above all, well organized. Example:
Table of Contents
- Advance Praise for XXXXX
- About the Author
- What’s Distinctive about this Book?
- Table of Contents
- Chapter Summary
- Sample Chapters
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 13
- A Final Word…
I am very happy to share the best I’ve ever received, which is by the very generous author of Use Your Words, Kate Hopper, who is a writing teacher at the venerated Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I would like to add that a proposal need not be as extensive and lengthy as Kate Hopper’s, but it is the organization and content that matters. If anyone would like a copy, I would be happy to share. You can email me at Brenda.firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have also received some real botch-job proposals (good idea; bad pitch) and shared my perfect proposal model with them. I went over what they needed to improve and worked with the author to get their proposal together. The discipline of the proposal exercise is enormously helpful to first-time authors and you learn a lot. It helps you to understand what editors are looking for. I have acquired about ten books with this process of working on the proposal with authors. Great agents, of which there are many at the San Francisco Writers Conference, will do that same thing.
5. “Alexa” May Be Your New BFF
From Alexa.com: Alexa provides traffic data, global rankings and other information on 30 million websites.
A good Alexa rating can even outweigh a bad Neilson Bookscan number or no number. If you have a website or a blog that is highly rated, that will make editors and sales people lean forward in their chairs and pore over your proposal and manuscript more closely. If you don’t have a website, you can start blogging or writing for other websites. If you write for a website with a high Alexa rating, make sure the editor has that information. You can also start a series of YouTube videos about your books. Whether charming, serious, or compelling, it makes you and your message more distinctive. Post them, post about them, and hopefully there will be some viral action. The very fact that YouTube has a global Alexa rating and US Alexa rating of 3 means it’s one of the top websites in the world in terms of views and in terms of attention from algorithms. Right off the bat you have a better chance of being seen and shared. Publishers, editors and sales people love a good YouTube series for an author.
6. Hook Your Book
Every book needs a fantastic sales hook. The aforementioned Contagious Optimism was connected to Random Acts of Kindness, but the real hook was that it was “How to Make Friends and Influence People for the 21st Century,” positioning author David Mezzapelle as the new Dale Carnegie, a business philanthropist with a message of optimism for today. One of the hooks also used in the selling and marketing of the book was that it was “Random Acts of Kindness meets Pay It Forward,” the old Hollywood pitch. But you’ll notice that every comparison is to that of a bestselling book or movement or meme. Another example is the hook for Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober’s Getting to 50/50: “You’ve leaned in, now you can get to 50/50.” This can take some time as you should try a few different hooks. Try them on your friends, try them on people in your writing group. Make friends with your local booksellers, buy them coffee and tell them what you’re doing because they can be enormously helpful. You will not always get it on first hook, but you can really hone in to what works. Great book hooks can really make a difference to sales people and editors.
7. Do Your Due Diligence
Unfortunately, many first-time authors will try to sell their book by going out with a mass email with editors’ names they have grabbed from the Internet or from Publishers Marketplace. They have not taken the time to see what the editor’s specialization is or what the publishing house is about. Every single day I receive inappropriate pitches that show me that the writer didn’t take even sixty seconds to see what I publish. We have a stringent policy of treating everyone as courteously as possible, so we acknowledge every single submission. For the folks that come to us with something we would never publish, I refer them on to a publishing house that is better suited. This is a big time waster for the author and for me, so I urge folks to take a few minutes or take a few hours and research the publishers that do books in the area you’re writing to. Your comp titles will lead you there. If your book is a memoir akin to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, then look in the acknowledgements in the book and get the editor’s and publisher’s names and research them. In a matter of minutes, you’ll find out what their focus is. On the same vein, if you clog up people’s inboxes with inappropriate submissions, you will never be able to send them something again, even if it is relevant to what they publish.
8. Relationships Matter
Get to know other people who are writing in your genre. Find a writing group with other published authors in the same genre. Other similar authors will support one another and talk about each other’s work. If you can form a group of other people writing in your genre, they can really be helpful to you. Remarkable examples of this are San Francisco’s The Grotto, The Rumpus, LA’s Nervous Breakdown, and many more. Find an author mentor! You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Learn from what others are doing. Pitch to your community before pitching to editors. Become friends with at least one local bookseller and they can also be excellent guides.
9. Know the Lay of the Land
Read book reviews, pay attention to the media, and know what themes are trending, for any genre. Do your research. Subscribe to Publishers Weekly, ForeWord, Media Bistro, Publishers Lunch, other trade outlets who share publishing news. Soak this up and you may find your dream editor and publishing house this way! Publishers Lunch also tells you what editors buy.
10. Ask the Right Question
Hone your book, proposal and pitch to make it as saleable as possible, but if you get turned down, ask the editor a question they get rarely asked, but are happy to hear – do you have a book you’re looking for?
A reviewer of our books and popular blogger proposed a book to me that wasn’t right for Viva, but I liked her and I especially liked her writing. I loved her Alexa ranking. I knew her to be a hard worker, so I asked:
“This might sound a little strange, but do you raise chickens?”
She said, “As a matter of fact, I do.”
I asked, “Are you my chicken lady?”
“I might be. What are you looking for?”
“I have a book idea that might be fun that I think would sell like hot cakes, and I have been looking for someone to write it: Getting Laid: How Raising Chickens and Growing Your Own Food is the Sexiest Thing You Can Do.”
“OK! I’m pretty sure I’m sure I’m your chicken lady. I just sent you pictures of my prize-winning poultry.”
PS: In every case, perhaps the five most important words in this list are, “I really liked the writing.”