How to Write a Book Proposal: Part III: Marketing and Publicity

Since I posted the first two installments of my "How to Write a Book Proposal" series, I've received great feedback from writers, agents, and editors, all of whom have told me how valuable they find the information. Well, I'm glad. Mission accomplished! If you haven't read those posts yet and are in the process of putting together a book proposal (or are in the process of thinking about putting together a book proposal), you can access the first one, which is about how to write the "Competing Works" (aka "Comps") section here, and the second one, on how to approach the "Who Is this Book For?" section here.

I haven't added to the series in a long while, but a couple of weeks ago, I attended a networking event where I ran into an agent with whom I've been friendly for several years. She told me how much she appreciates the series and has found it useful when discussing the proposal process with new clients. She asked if I would please write more and, because flattery works on me every time, I told her I was happy to oblige. I asked her what subject she wanted me to write about, and she said "the marketing section." Alright, here goes.

Probably the biggest mistake an aspiring author can make is assuming that their only job is to write a good book. That's only step one. Then you have to market it. Marketing and publicity have always been integral to a book's success, but, increasingly, publishers are depending on authors to do most of the grunt work. "Well, that's annoying!" you're probably thinking. I agree. It sucks. It would be great if writers could just write and have their work recognized on its own. But that's not how the world works, and if you want to be successful as an author, you need to understand this reality.

There are several reasons why authors are being tasked with more promotional responsibility, and, despite popular opinion, it's not because publishers are lazy and are trying to foist their responsibilities onto their authors so they can kick up their heels and drink martinis all day. It's because their efforts are becoming less and less effective and authors have become the best promoters for their books.

In the past few decades, several shifts have occurred that have made it more difficult for publishers to get attention for their books. There are fewer book review sections in newspapers and fewer bookstores in which readers can peruse and discover new books. Plus, there is increasing competition from outside the book industry to reach audiences. Up until relatively recently, books (and newspapers and magazines) were the only portable form of entertainment, but now that you can watch TV, listen to music, play games, check email, call your mom, shop for shoes--ALL THE THINGS--anywhere you go, books, which require effort and concentration, have a tough time competing. At the same time, audiences have become fragmented, with people seeking news, information, and entertainment from places designed specifically for their needs and interests. You don't need the New York Times to tell you which books are worth reading. You can find out from your favorite blog or on social media. It's a paradox really: there are more places to promote books than ever before, but their reach is relatively small and specific compared to the major media outlets of yore. Thus, the formula for a successful promotional campaign has become more complicated. 

Publishers--even the major ones--no longer have the power they once had to "make" a bestseller because audiences aren't listening to them nearly as much as they once did. Yes, they still have a lot of clout and resources, and the editor of the New York Times Book Review is still going to take their calls (or respond to their emails), but even a few major publicity hits is not enough to guarantee readers are paying attention. When it comes to first-time authors especially, publishers are tasked with creating an audience out of people who have plenty of other things they can choose to spend their time and money on. And that's really friggin' hard.

Enter the marketing section. The goal of this part of the book proposal is to convince the publisher that your book can be promoted in a way that will encourage people to buy it. All too often, authors neglect this section thinking it secondary to conveying what the book is about. But because publishers struggle to promote all of their books (not just yours, remember), they are looking for authors who can help them out and who understand that a successful marketing campaign is more sophisticated than simply "pitch the book to national media." Authors who understand how promotion works and are capable of doing some of the legwork on their own have a huge advantage over those who don't. There are two reasons for this: 1) publishers can use all the help they can get in publicizing books, and 2) readers trust authors more than publishers. 

The internet and social media have made it possible for audiences to interact directly with the creators of the content they consume, and so they no longer need a gatekeeper to help them gain access. They don't need NPR or the New York Times to tell them when their favorite writer has a new book out; they follow that writer on social media or join their mailing list so they get updates directly.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but, generally speaking, the more direct a connection you have to your target audience, the more likely your book will sell. And the more likely your book will sell, the more likely a publisher will want to publish it. Conveying this is the point of the marketing section.

The biggest mistake authors make with the marketing section is to list a bunch of generic venues in which their book could potentially be marketed: NPR, the Today Show, the New York Times, etc. etc. It is quite possible any of these places would promote your book, but it's also possible that they'd promote literally any other book, and pointing this out fails to distinguish your book in any useful way. The publisher doesn't need to be told to pitch your book to NPR. They know.

The other problem with doing this is that these places are extremely competitive, and they typically only cover certain types of books. For example, if you're writing a book about how to organize your closets, then the Today Show may very well be interested in having you on because they could create a fun interactive segment around it that their audience will love. But if you're writing a memoir about your life-changing trip to Transylvania, well, then, the Today Show is not the right platform. It's great to aim high, but being strategic with your marketing section indicates that you understand the market for a book like yours and have given thought to how it might be received. Publishers want to work with savvy authors. 

Don't be afraid of the niche market. Your potential reader is already seeking out information about their interests from places that cater to those particular interests, so meet them where they are. What blogs cover the subject you're writing about? What venues host events with authors like you? What podcasts have done segments on subjects similar to yours? The Today Show might not be interested in your Transylvania memoir, but a podcast that focuses on European travel or a blog dedicated to travel memoirs certainly might. And the people who listen to that podcast or read that blog have, by virtue of seeking out this content, expressed interest in your book before they even know it exists. The publisher may or may not know these places, but by proving that you do, you're demonstrating you know what your readers want.

Like I said, publishers are relying on you to do most of the work to promote your book, so it's still not enough to give them a list of helpful suggestions. They'll happily send a galley and a pitch letter to that European travel podcast, but what if Stephen, the creator of that podcast, is getting galleys of every European travel memoir out there and can only have one guest on his weekly show? Who is he going to choose? He may indeed choose you. Perhaps he's really interested in Dracula and has never interviewed anyone about Romania on his show before, so the opportunity excites him and will be fun for his audience. But neither you nor the publisher can control for this outcome.

There is a way to increase your chances instead of relying on blind luck: know Stephen. If you get a Facebook party invite from someone you don't know, you will not be attending their DJ set at the hot new night club downtown, even if they happen to be the best DJ on the planet. But if your best friend, DJ Kelv$n, invites you, you will definitely be down to go watch him spin some sick tracks on Saturday night because you know him, want to support him, regardless of how much you like (or dislike) his work. The same is true of book publishing and pretty much every marketing endeavor on the planet: people prioritize people they know. Period. This goes for Stephen and the people who listen to Stephen's podcast, too. If he knows you and likes you, Stephen would probably love to help you promote your book. And Stephen's listener will be more apt to buy your book if Stephen recommends it on his podcast because he trusts Stephen's opinion. 

I'm not suggesting you call up every podcast host and try to be their buddy (though it definitely doesn't hurt to network with people who are interested in your subject area). I'm making the point that you want to emphasize your strongest connections when putting together your marketing plan. Do you know someone who works at the New York Times and is in a position to cover your book? Great, mention that. Have you been a guest on Stephen's European Travels podcast before and think it likely he'd have you on again? Perfect. Write that down. Is your best friend the editor of that travel memoir blog? Nice! Your connections need not be the biggest wigs at the most famous publications; they must simply be real (none of this "my-ex-boyfriends-mom-once-met-Katie-Couric-at-a-cocktail-party" crap) and relevant (that's cool that your brother-in-law is a producer at ESPN, but he's not going to feature your Transylvania memoir on Sports Center). 

What's even better than knowing people who can market your book? Being able to market your book yourself. This is the holy grail every publisher is looking for: an author with a built-in platform and audience who can promote his or her book directly to interested readers. An author who runs a popular travel blog will have a better chance of getting her travel memoir published than one who doesn't (especially given that memoirs are notoriously difficult to publish). By way of example, in the past few years, some of the most popular cookbooks on the market have not been by Food Network stars but by bloggers who gained a dedicated following on their own by posting recipes and cooking tips on their websites. It's quite possible you've never heard of Angela Liddon or Dana Shultz or their vegan cooking sites Oh She Glows or The Minimalist Baker, respectively, but both women have published bestselling cookbooks whose sales were driven primarily through direct promotion on their websites and within the vegan cooking community of which they were already a part. 

Your following doesn't have to be a blog. It could be a podcast or YouTube channel, or perhaps you contribute regularly to another platform (like a website or magazine) that is already established. It could also be a robust speaking schedule or email newsletter (both of which are highly popular among business authors). It just has to be a venue through which you can communicate directly with your target audience--whomever they are.

A word on social media: while social media is an important marketing tool, having a lot of followers is not enough. It's much more important that your audience is engaged rather than large, so if you have 100,000 Twitter followers, but no one likes or re-tweets your posts, then those followers are not going to buy your book. Similarly, if you have 20,000 Instagram followers, and your posts average 15,000 likes, then that's a sign you have a highly engaged audience and will cause a publisher to take notice. That being said, social media has proved to be a finicky sales tool (perhaps because users browse through dozens of posts at a time and therefore have divided attention spans), so a robust social media presence may not suffice in enticing a publisher. If you've been thinking of hiring someone to boost your followers, save your money. Publishers can tell when your audience has not been grown organically.

Contrary to popular belief, publishing people love numbers. How much traffic does your blog get each month? How many people subscribe to your newsletter? How many people attend the events at which you've been invited to speak? What's the readership of the website you contribute to? Obviously, the larger these numbers are, the better. 

I suspect a good portion of you are reading this and thinking "Well, crap. I don't have any of that!" If this is the case, you might still be able to find a publisher depending on how unique your subject matter is and/or if you have a certain expertise that is rare. For example, if you are a professor of European history at an Ivy League school and are the world's foremost expert on Vlad the Impaler, a publisher can use that credential as a hook to attract publicity for your Transylvania memoir. Or if you've won a prestigious award in your field and are writing a book about that field, this will indicate to publishers that you have respect among your colleagues, who are all potential readers. If there is interest in the subject matter and no one is better suited than you to write the book, then an audience will exist that the publisher can target. 

If you lack this type of credential, then it is going to be very difficult for you to land a publishing deal with a traditional house. If you're not interested in self-publishing, then my biggest piece of advice is to spend some time building your platform so you can flesh out your marketing plan before writing a proposal. Some authors get grandiose ideas about how they'll build their platform after they get a book deal, and spend most of the marketing section in their proposal detailing all of these ideas. ("I plan to start a promotional hashtag campaign on Instagram!" "I will reach out to other famous authors to see if they'll mention my book on their website!" "I will hire a professional web designer to help me start a website and blog!") But publishers are interested in concrete things that either have happened or are likely to happen in the near future. How do they know your Instagram campaign will be a success if you've never run one before? I realize you want to appear energetic and eager, but so does every author. Focus on being realistic and specific so the publisher can tell you know what's up.

The way you go about building your platform is up to you. My advice is to go about it in a way that feels natural. If you hate Twitter, don't force yourself to use it. If the idea of blogging several times a week gives you agita, start a podcast or YouTube channel or pitch an idea to an established site. If you're writing fiction, submit short stories to literary journals. There are countless ways to get your idea out there. It requires effort, and nothing is guaranteed, but if you want to be a published author, the investment will be worth it.

In summary: when putting together the marketing and publicity section of your proposal, do your homework so you can be as specific as possible and emphasize all the ways you can connect directly with your reader. If you do so effectively, you'll convince the publisher that you're worth taking a chance on, and will be well on your way to a great book deal.

Milo Can You Go?: Editing Across the Aisle

Last week, news broke that controversial internet commentator and Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos had received a $250,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for his forthcoming book Dangerous. The deal sparked outrage among readers and those within the publishing community who accused S&S of pedaling the views of a hatemonger and attempting to profit by selling books to bigots. Several urged the publisher to withdraw the contract; others threatened a boycott. The Chicago Review of Books announced it would not review any S&S books for all of 2017.

These reactions inspired a number of interesting conversations about the role publishers should play in public discourse. Is S&S doing a public good or spreading hate by providing a platform for this inflammatory figure? As a for-profit business, do they have a moral obligation to uphold when deciding what to publish? If so, who decides what those morals should be?

While as an avid reader, liberal, and member of the publishing community, I could discuss these issues all day, they also made me reflect on something much more personal, something that doesn’t make headlines but still has the ability to influence the messages authors—particularly controversial ones—convey to their readers. Namely, how do you edit a manuscript when you fundamentally disagree with its author?

My first job in publishing was in the editorial department at Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Group (now Penguin Random House) that specializes in publishing books with a conservative agenda. It was not the dream job I’d hoped for as a recent college grad with starry-eyed notions about editing the next great American novel. But it was the end of 2007, I knew no one in New York City, and I desperately wanted to be an editor at one of the major publishing houses.

During my interview for the position, my would-be boss (one of the few actual Republicans in publishing) asked me how I would tolerate working with people who might disagree with me politically. “Let’s say you have to talk to Ann Coulter on the phone? How would you handle the conversation?” (Sentinel did not publish Ann Coulter at the time; she was just using her as an example.)

“It’s my job as an editor to help people convey their arguments in the best way possible,” I said. “It’s not my job to have a political debate with them.”

It was the right answer. I got the job and for the next five-and-a-half years, I worked very closely with dozens of authors whose politics did not sit well with me at all. Before long, I was acquiring and editing manuscripts of my own and becoming more directly involved in the publication of the books I was working on. I never once got into a political debate with an author, and while some of them may have figured out my leanings over time, they never mentioned it and (at least to my knowledge) our difference of opinion never once interfered with my professional relationships. In fact, one author told me, essentially, that he felt comfortable with any changes I made to his manuscript because “it’s your job to make my book better, not worse.” Music to an editor’s ears!

That, of course, didn’t mean that the process wasn’t challenging. I am not the most active or outspoken person when it comes to politics, but I do have strong convictions about certain issues and there were times when I had to set them aside in order to look at a project more objectively. This naturally came into play when deciding what to acquire—how does one determine what sells to a particular audience when she is not part of that audience?—but, this is part of any publisher’s job.

No, the real challenge came during the editorial process itself. How do I help an author make sense of an argument that I don’t actually think makes sense? How do I push an author to support and defend her opinions without compromising her right to communicate those opinions freely and openly?

Obviously, as an editor at a large publishing house, I was responsible for making sure that anything we published was written to the highest standard possible. The books I was working on weren’t Shakespeare—they didn’t need to be—but they needed to be well-written and they needed to be factually correct. One time an author wrote that Al Gore had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his film An Inconvenient Truth; when I pointed out that one does not win Nobel Prizes for making movies, he changed the wording, and that was the end of the conversation.

Other times, the process was not so straightforward. On one occasion, I was editing a passage in which the author was discussing the importance of the Golden Rule—treating other people the way you want to be treated. It was all fairly innocuous until he started using the Golden Rule as an argument against gay marriage. I don’t recall the exact reasoning he used, but to me—a staunch supporter of gay rights—the entire argument didn’t make sense. Isn’t denying others the right to marry a prime example of not treating others the way you want to be treated? How was I going to retain the message the author was trying to convey to his audience (an audience I knew would agree with him regardless) while upholding my own standards of editorial quality

All in all, the argument took up no more than a few paragraphs of text, but I spent the better part of an hour (if not longer) editing it. It was clear to me that the author felt this argument was important, so while I could have made a case for picking another example that was, perhaps, more relevant to the subject at hand, I instead constructed a new argument that I felt was more appropriate in the context of the book as a whole. As a liberal, I still wasn’t satisfied by the logic, but as an editor, I was confident I had done my job in helping my author articulate what he was trying to say.

I know there are people—perhaps even some in publishing—who feel that one’s personal moral code should outweigh her professional demands and ambitions. According to those people, I should have refused to work with authors whose opinions I felt were dangerous to society. The books will get published without me, after all, so why compromise my integrity?

But I have always believed that, as an editor, I am responsible for upholding another moral code. No one forced me to take a job at a conservative imprint; just like no one forced Kim Davis to take a job as a county clerk in Kentucky. And if I, as a progressive, expect people like Davis to do their jobs despite their personal or religious beliefs, then how can I not hold myself to the same standard? Yes, Davis is a government employee who was denying citizens something they were entitled to under the law, while I was working for a for-profit company and merely debating semantics with myself. But one could make the case that Davis took her job before gay marriage was legal, whereas I took my job knowing what my responsibilities would be.

As I said in that first job interview, it is not my job as an editor to argue with people; it’s my job to help them make their books as good as possible. No one forces me to do that; I choose to and I’m proud of it. I became an editor because I believe passionately in the power of the written word and the right of the freedom of expression. In the age of social media, fake news, and filter bubbles, it’s easy for us to tune out anyone we don’t agree with politically—or engage them in endless rounds of “here’s why you’re wrong” that end up making everyone feel more entrenched in their beliefs than ever before. But the experience of forcing myself to step inside the mind of someone else, to try and understand why people I disagree with feel the way they do, is an inherently empathetic one, one that acknowledges the rights of each of us to hold opinions, that made me appreciate the importance of free and open discourse—of the right to disagree that we so often take advantage of in America.

I eventually left Sentinel because I knew I ultimately wasn’t cut out to edit conservative political books for the rest of my career. Now, as an independent writer and editor, I have more freedom to work on books that I truly believe in. And, while I probably won’t opt to edit any Breitbart contributors anytime soon, I firmly believe that my experience working at Sentinel has not only made be a better editor but a better citizen as well.

This post was originally published at

Honesty and Trust: The Keys to a Great Editor/Author Relationship

I recently read the book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull. Catmull is the co-founder of Pixar Animation, though his name is not as well known as his fellow founders John Lasseter and Steve Jobs. But Ed was there from the beginning, a precocious young man whose dream was to create the first fully digital animated film, a goal he accomplished several times over, revolutionizing the industry and raising the bar for animators everywhere along the way. 

I picked up the book for a few reasons. 1) I love Pixar and have always been fascinated by the inner-workings of innovative companies, especially ones involved in creative pursuits. 2) When the book project was originally being shopped to publishers a few years ago, I tried bidding on it. Before I did, I met with Ed Catmull, and that meeting remains the best pitch meeting I've ever had. Without any ego, Catmull regaled us with behind-the-scenes stories of the making of some of my favorite Pixar films, explaining the complicated, sometimes frustrating, and often heartbreaking decisions that go into making one of those truly great films. I was flabbergasted, and even though I didn't end up working on the book, I was eager to hear more about what Ed had to say.

The book is, at its core, a business book. It's not so much about unlocking the creative process or a primer on how to tap into your own creativity as it is a book on how to effectively manage creative people, especially at a large organization. Because that's what Ed does. He's not the guy coming up with story ideas or creating characters; he's the guy responsible for making sure the movie gets made well, on time, and on budget. 

A lot of what Ed discusses in the book has to do with the core values of a creative organization. I'm not going to go into detail on those here because 1) this is not a book report 2) you should read the book and 3) I've misplaced my copy at the moment and can't quote from it. However, as I was reflecting on the book and thinking about how I could apply Ed's wisdom to my own career, I realized that at the heart of his advice is a commitment to two related ideas: honesty and trust. 

Let's start with trust. Part of being creative means trying new things, and people are generally terrified of new things. When creative people work for a large organization and are managed by people whose goals are not simply to do the most creative or exciting thing but to do the most creative and exciting thing they can while still making money, things can get tense. It's therefore the job of the manager to trust their creative talent and give them a safe space for generating ideas, trying new things and, at times, failing. 

Creating a trusting environment involves communicating expectations clearly, offering feedback, and encouraging people to keep going. At the same time, in order to manage creatives, you need to practice the flip side of trust, which is honesty.

Trust cannot exist without honesty. In his book, Catmull talks at length about what he and his colleagues at Pixar call "The Brain Trust." This consists of a group of higher-ups who aren't working directly on a particular project, but who check in on the progress of a film at critical points in its development and offer candid, honest feedback about what's working and what isn't. Sometimes the conversations are difficult, and whole story lines or characters or even the entire narrative arc of the film need to be reworked. But the Brain Trust works because everyone understands that they have the same goal: to make a great animated film. No one is trying to gain favor with someone else. No one is trying to undermine someone else's ideas. No one is trying to sabotage the project. Everyone simply wants to make the best film possible. By offering honest feedback in a constructive and controlled way, Pixar engenders a culture of honesty and trust that pervades the entire creative process.

So, it's about giving ideas a chance to breath but not being afraid to question them if they're not working. 

It's clear how this concept would work at a large corporation and how important it would be to have a formalized structure in place to ensure that trust and honesty are sustained, but I was also thinking about how this works in the more intimate editor/author relationship.

I'd never really considered it before, but one could say that an editor is a creative manager. I don't manage large teams of people, and my authors don't work for me, but the relationship is not unlike the ones described at Pixar. There is a creative person, the author, and then there is the manager, the editor, who is in charge of helping the author hone their ideas and bring them into the world. And, yes, the pressure of deadlines and budgets are often looming in the background, sometimes more ominously than others.

There are two things I always do when editing a manuscript, especially during the early developmental stages when, generally, a manuscript still requires a lot of structural and conceptual work. The first thing I always do is present my feedback honestly. Of course, I try to do this as constructively as possible, but I have, at times, told an author point-blank that they need to start over, that the structure isn't working, that their thesis is confusing, that this draft simply isn't living up to their idea's potential. Of course, I also believe in encouraging authors, so I try to point out what is working in addition to what's not.

The second thing I do is to point out that any of the suggestions I make are just that: suggestions. Sometimes I might suggest a completely new outline for the book, or I may ask them to develop their argument about a particular subject more while playing down another. But the last thing I want is for an author to feel like they need to do exactly what I'm telling them to do. If they start rewriting in that mindset, they stop trusting their instincts and will quell their own creativity in an effort to do what they think I want them to do. Any suggestion is merely designed to get an author thinking about something differently. Maybe it ends up working, maybe it doesn't, but hopefully it helped them figure out what was best. By explaining that they don't need to take all of my suggestions at face value, I am telling them that I trust them to take this feedback to heart and understand where I'm coming from. They are still empowered in their role as author, in their role as the creative force behind the project.

A big part of promoting honesty and trust is only expressing opinions when you actually have a fully formed opinion. So often people want their voices to be heard, or they want to look like their contributing, so they speak up when they have very little to say. They criticize things they know nothing about, they nitpick, they try to assert control over things they shouldn't be controlling. I once, for instance, worked with an author who insisted on designing his own table of contents page rather than leave it to our professional in-house designer who had been designing book interiors for decades. Needless to say, that author did not inspire trust in anyone he worked with.

Understanding one's role is a big part of this as well. As an editor, my role is to help the author communicate their ideas. The operative phrase here is "their ideas." Not mine. For the first few years of my career, I edited conservative political books even though I am a pretty staunch liberal. I worked with authors whose views completely opposed my own. If I had edited these manuscripts so that they pleased me or so the arguments lined up with what I believed, I would not have been doing my job. It was difficult sometimes, but I did it, and I think my authors were grateful. I don't know if they ever guessed at my political affiliation, but I can guarantee it never came up in any editorial conversation I ever had.

Editing is a solitary process, so I can't speak to what other editors do, but I would bet that the best ones operate, consciously or not, based on this philosophy of trust and honesty. Our job is to help the author write the best book possible, and we do that by creating a dialogue, a partnership where we are free to communicate our ideas, try new things, experiment, brainstorm, and riff without judgement or fear of reprisal. The best editor/author relationships are the ones where this works both ways: where the editor not only trusts the author, but the author trusts the editor. This means they take the editor's suggestions to heart, even if they don't end up implementing every one, and that they trust the editor's instincts and expertise. When honesty and trust are reciprocated in the editor/author relationship, magic happens.

If you're an author looking for an editor (or an agent who will function as  your creative manager in the process leading up to selling your book), I encourage you to keep this idea in mind. Obviously, it's impossible to know if an honest relationship is possible until you really begin to work with someone, but there are ways to figure it out before you sign a contract. For instance, if you're meeting with editors prior to selling the book, ask them candid questions about the structure you propose. If they have concerns, make sure you understand them and their vision is in line with your own. If they love it and have no suggested changes, you should understand what they like about it so you can keep it in mind as you move forward. It's easy to get swept up by advance numbers (and I'm certainly not suggesting you ignore those) and the reputation of the publisher itself, but having a good working relationship with your editor is priceless because it will make you a better writer and also reassure you throughout the long, painful, emotionally draining process of writing a book. And if you're lucky,  you may end up finding an editor you can trust for the rest of your long, very successful career.

Happy writing!