Last week, we introduced you to several acquiring editors and publishers who gave us their backgrounds on how they found themselves in the publishing field. This week we’re going to discuss what they specifically look for in proposals.
How many proposals do you review on average in a month? What percentage do you actually publish?
SMITH: Since the majority of proposals come my way via agents, I (intentionally!) don’t receive volumes of unsolicited proposals. Over a month I might review 15 or so proposals and I might take on 3-5 of those to shepherd through our review process. Our rule of thumb at Zondervan is that if you’re not passionate about it, if you have to think twice about it, it’s probably a pass. You hear so much about the nuts and bolts of concept, platform, marketing viability, etc., but the importance of a team’s passion for a book is not to be underestimated! So you can bet that the proposals we do take to pub board and the ones we are actively championing.
ALLEN: Counting only proposals I personally receive, I review at least 10 proposals per month, many more than that if you count those I review via my editorial colleagues. My personal goal is to acquire and publish 15 books per year. The division I head up is shooting for about 60 new books per year; altogether we review (I’m estimating) at least 400 proposals a year.
WONG: It varies depending on the time of year. In the busy seasons, I’m reviewing approximately 15 proposals each month. In the slower seasons, it’s closer to 10. We end up publishing just about 10 percent of those proposals on average.
What are the key things you look for in a proposal in order to keep reading?
SMITH: One of my favorite questions to ask authors is: What is the boldest statement your book has to make? I call this the angle—it’s fresh, counter-intuitive, even a little provocative—and generates that double-take reaction which is of every importance to stand out among the many books on the shelves today. The more specific, the better. When I see a strong angle playing center stage in a proposal, when the author doesn’t make me go hunting for it, you have my full attention. And my day is made.
Like all readers, I’m looking to be moved. As immersed in content as I am, I’m not immune to it! A stellar story, a sentence I can’t help but underline, an idea from your proposal that shifts my perspective and I want to tell my husband about over dinner—that’s what makes me want to keep reading. It’s the fresh factor, which I’m convinced only comes about when a writer is willing to dig in and do the work.
Another thing I love to see is a writer who knows and owns their voice, which comes through practice and the decision to stop imitating even their favorite writers. Whether that voice is sassy and side-eyed or poignant and poetic or something else entirely, it’s a beautiful thing to behold when an author writes out of their uniqueness with confidence.
ALLEN: Concept, platform, writing.
A great concept is fresh in some way and meets a real need readers have.
Platform is an author’s ability to help us get the word out about their book.
Good writing keeps me reading even when I have a thousand other things to do.
WONG: There are three main components: (1) a fresh, compelling concept that will make readers think, “Yes, I need this book!” (2) thoughtful writing with a distinctive voice that draws readers in, and (3) a platform the publisher can creatively leverage in collaboration with the author for a strong book launch.
What are some of the things you see in a proposal that immediately make you turn it down?
SMITH: Generalized and overblown statements that show an author hasn’t done their research. For example, “There’s never been a book on this topic before!” when I can point to several recent examples. A missing angle or a concept that feels underdeveloped. Too many “I” statements in the writing and a lacking effort to write inclusively and invitationally toward the reader. This is even more important for memoirs which we get so many proposals for: if you are writing for yourself, that’s important and not to be discounted, but it’s not ready for proposal status until you begin to write to serve your readers. It’s easy to spot a proposal that has not yet evolved out of that initial catharsis stage.
ALLEN: Unoriginality, fiction, and lack of platform.
WONG: Muddled thinking and lack of polish. I’m often looking for the proposal to demonstrate clarity of thought, because even if you have the most compelling concept, if you can’t communicate it clearly, it’s that much harder to reach readers who must understand and be drawn in enough to buy the book in the first place. In terms of polish, I would hope that the proposal would be clear of mistakes, would not demonstrate a lack of understanding of the market, or have too much missing standard material. All of this highlights to me that you have not done your homework to put your best foot forward.
Check back next week, as Stephanie, Chad, and Jessica answer a few final questions about what they wish authors knew about the publishing process.