OK. So you’ve decided you do want to go the industry route. Now what? What do you need to approach an agent or publisher? And how do you approach them?
Before I start, bear in mind this will be one of the longest posts in this blog so far – basically because I hope it’ll be useful and I want to go into a non-fiction proposal it in some detail. So go and make a cup of tea (leave this screen open so you remember to read this) and then sit back down at your computer and read on…
The approach differs depending on whether your submitting fiction or non-fiction. Some advice applies to both though.
When making an approach:
- Ensure you research who you’re approaching beforehand. Knowing who you are approaching will save you a lot of wasted time and potentially stop you looking very, very silly Agents’ websites give lists of the agency’s list of clients and publishers’ websites showcase the books they have published in the past. Sometimes there will even be profiles of individual staff members and their favourite authors and genres. There is absolutely no excuse failing to check these out. There is also no more certain route to failure than, say, pitching a deliriously bloody horror story to a publisher of children’s books.
- If you can get hold of the publisher or agent’s email address – and the harder it is to get hold of one, the more polite you should be when you approach them –I’d recommend sending short polite email directly to the agent or publisher briefly outlining your project and asking for permission to send them a proposal. Ultimately sending your work into people can be a lot of investment of time, money and effort for a great deal of rejection and failure. Pitching your project beforehand helps you to establish a relationship with agents or publishers and helps ensure you only send your work in to people who might actually want to read it!
- If you do send something in without pitching, I’d write a short covering letter. It gives you a chance to talk about how you see the project and explain your motives for writing it. This makes it much easier for someone to give you feedback as they get a picture of what you’re aiming for and, if an agent is impressed by the pitch but not the proposal, could even mean they’re prepared to take you on and help you improve.
It also allows you to talk about how you see your book being pitched and marketed. Both my publishing editor and my agent clearly utterly love books and are knowledgeable, passionate people but the reality is they are working in a business and it helps them to know that you’re a writer who acknowledges this. And it’s really good for you to be able to have your say early on what you how you think the book should be perceived and who it’s aimed at.
With fiction, you want to include a quick pitch in your original email – this should be no more than a short paragraph (usually the shorter the better) to sell the idea. Try to make it snappy and capture the essence of what’s unique and interesting about your pitch – basically why is this is a good idea and why are you the best person to write it?
If the person likes that, they’ll probably ask you to send a first chapter – although bear in mind that, in reality, they might only read the first ten pages or so before deciding to pass if they’re not already hooked so a strong start is essential – and possibly a synopsis of the whole plot. The synopsis would be a few pages and would tell the story of your book, including all the key plot points that are crucial to understanding the story.
Bear in mind that, even though you’re not being asked to send a novel at this point, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will make a decision on whether to go ahead with your work until they’ve read the whole thing – ultimately there’s no other way of telling if you’ve managed to plot and pace it successfully. For this reason there’s not really a great deal of sense in pitching it until you’ve completed the whole thing.
The big advantage of non-fiction is that you can pitch it and sell a proposal before you’ve written the book. As with fiction, make the pitch in an email and, if they’re interested, send the following:
1) A short pitch of the book
Basically this should be a bit like the blurb on the back of the book. Explain what the book is, include a few juicy facts to capture the reader’s attention and try to use the tone you intend to capture in the book.
Above all, remember that you are selling the book – make it appealing. To give you an idea, here’s what I submitted for Bad Santas:
How did St Nicholas save children from prostitution and cannibalism? Who were the Yule Lads and why would they lick your saucepans and steal your sausages? Why was the Alpine Father Christmas accompanied by a demonic figure called the Krampus who bundled children into sacks and dragged them off to Hell? And why do Spanish nativity scenes often feature a defecating peasant?
Over the course of the 20th Century, a universal image developed around the world of Santa Claus as a seasonal Christmas visitor but, prior to that, each country, each town and each community would have Christmas visitors of their own – sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes something else entirely – with their own curious set of mythology and customs.
Some of these were strange; many of them were utterly, utterly terrifying. Dutch children were as likely to take a beating from the sinister Zwarte Piet as to receive a present whilst the Finnish were visited by a Pagan goat named Joulupukki that was said to eat anyone who misbehaved. In Iceland, even doing as you were told wasn’t always enough to avoid being eaten – it was said that any child who did not received an item of new clothing for Christmas would be caught and consumed by a monstrous Christmas Cat. Even in countries with a figure that resembled the modern Father Christmas, he was not so much a benign charitable figure as a summary judge, jury and executioner testing out children’s knowledge and fidelity to the Bible and dealing out rewards or punishments as he saw fit. “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why” Haven Gillespie wrote in his famous song about Santa Claus and, for much of history, this advice was something which children would cling to preserve their lives.
This book celebrates some of the most imaginative, most terrifying and most outright curious Christmas figures from around the world. Some of the characters were vicious, such as the Perchta who’d slit your belly open and replace your innards with straw and pebbles if you hadn’t prepared the Christmas decorations. Others were more mischievous, such as the Karakancolos who’d jump on your back at night and force you to carry him wherever he wanted to go until the break of dawn. Others still, such as the Spanish Christmas log that children beat with a stick whilst chanting for it to ‘shit them a gift’, are simply outright bizarre.
Bad Santas and other Creepy Christmas Characters is intended to be engaging and blackly comic with a touch of the macabre and aimed at both those interested in folk mythology, the general reader who wants to learn more about the origins of Christmas and people who are looking for an unusual and engaging Christmas gift.
2 A summary of comparative literature
This should be about a page long. Explain which other books that exist around your subject and a justify why you should write another one – has not enough been written about the subject? Do you have a unique take on it? Do you have access to information other writers did not? Is there a flaw in the existing books you think you can rectify? Do you think there’s an audience interested in the subject that wouldn’t be reached by other books?
My argument with Bad Santas was that most books about Santa Claus were either aimed for children or academic audiences and there was no book which covered the history of Santa Claus that was aimed at the general reader.
3 About the Author
This is a few paragraphs long and it’s basically who you are, what you’ve done before and why you should write this book. Again, remember to sell yourself!
4 A provisional list of chapters
Exactly what it says. This should just be a list of chapter names – try to use names that sound intriguing but give an idea of what will be in the book.
5 Chapter Overview
Go through the chapters one-by-one and write about 300 – 500 words about what will be in each chapter. It’s okay if you still need to do a bit more research on the book at this point but make sure you’ve done enough to sound like you know your stuff.
6 One or two sample chapters
Choose the most interesting and show off your writing style. Aim for a total of between 6000 and 10000 words.
Be engaging, be interesting and include enough details to show that you really know what you’re talking about. Make sure you get someone to check through it for spelling mistakes, boring bits and any flaws or holes in your writing.
Keep in mind throughout you’re trying to demonstrate that you’ve got a strong idea that you can sustain throughout a 50, 000 – 100, 000 word book and that you’ve got the knowledge and enthusiasm to see it through. It’s worth putting your research in but the good news is that the research and information you put into your chapter overview is going to be a really useful blueprint when you come to write the book!
Once you’re sure it’s all ready and as good as it can possibly be then fire it off to the agent or publisher and then hope and dream about an offer coming in!