Blog # 78 The Book Proposal and the Elephant
This is an adaptation of my presentation at Nonfiction Now 2018 in Phoenix, AZ, on a panel called, “Pitching It: The Pros and Cons, Ins and Outs of the Nonfiction Book Proposal.” I’d assembled the panel because, since I first sold a proposal in 2009, I’d been asked many times by fellow writers for advice, or to share my proposal. Back in 2009 when I was crafting my first proposal, I’d found little detailed information, and few models. There was a mystique to the process, as if it were carefully guarded insider information. Now, there are many book proposal guides online--including a template called “The Eazy Schmeazy Nonfiction Book Proposal Template”-- but still, few offer specific details. (The “Eazy-Schmeazy” part is the template; the hard part is filling the blanks with your book idea in a way that will inspire an editor to offer you a contact.) So in the spirit of demystifying the nonfiction book proposal process, I wanted to share some of my experiences.
I’ve sold two book proposals, the first for a work of literary journalism, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting (Penguin, 2012) and the second for a memoir, Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2019). But failure was the reason I decided to try to sell a book by proposal in the first place. I had already written two books—a memoir (not the one mentioned above), and a collection of essays, and though each had been finalist in a national contest, and my essays had won awards, I could not sell either manuscript. The memoir went out with two different agents, and I sent the essay collection to nonfiction contests and to many independent and small presses. The process of writing and attempting to publish these two manuscripts represented over a decade of my life. With my next book idea, I thought--maybe I should see if I can sell the idea before I spend years writing a book that will never see the light of day.
A friend had generously shared a copy of her successful proposal, so using that model I drafted a proposal for my book idea—an immersion journalism work that takes readers behind-the-scenes in the subculture of flea markets and antiques (which I called Everything Rich and Strange, but which the publisher ultimately called Killer Stuff and Tons of Money). My then-agent took the proposal out and got a few nibbles, but no offers. Afterward, he stopped returning my phone calls and emails, so I officially broke up with him. After four years of work on the flea market book, I had to decide whether I should stick with this project, or move on to something else. In my heart I knew I had a good story, one that hadn’t been told from an immersion perspective, in a literary style. So I kept writing.
Meanwhile, I sent the proposal to a few other agents. One said I didn’t have a book, just a long article. Another said it needed a different structure—like “boy meets bottle” or “the history of glass” – my focal character collected antique glass and ceramics. I’d quit my first career at 35 to write, and lived on a subsistence income, and had no health insurance for a decade before I’d found a teaching job. At 49, I’d started to think that maybe I didn’t have to be a writer. Maybe my writing life was not meant to be. I was entertaining thoughts of joining the Peace Corps, and had downloaded the application. I’d always wanted to do that, and I discovered that they accept older people.
One day I heard myself giving advice to a student about a memoir. Start in medias res, I’d said; start with a compelling emblematic anecdote. Saying those words triggered an aha moment in me; I realized that I hadn’t taken my own advice in my proposal. I changed the beginning, or the “hook,” and sent the revised proposal—with only the first two paragraphs changed--to another agent. She loved the proposal, sent it out, and within a few weeks I had several offers, and then a contract. (And I missed my opportunity to join the Peace Corps.)
I believe that much of the success of the proposal was the new hook. Below is the original opening of the proposal, followed by the revised opening. Side by side, it’s clear which hook is more compelling:
First Version 2007 (Didn’t sell)
Why would a man spend $464,500 on a single table, basically pieces of wood nailed together (a William and Mary dressing table, c. 1730 from Salem, Massachusetts)? Why would a woman who admittedly never made it to church services instead “religiously” wake at dawn to comb the flea market every Sunday? If you overheard a man say, “I got weak in the knees when I saw that,” would you imagine he was speaking of an 18th century bottle that once held bitters? Why do fifteen million viewers tune in every week–and have done so for eleven years running--to watch people parade junk from their attic on Antiques Roadshow? Why do flea markets persist across cultures and across time? The Bermondsey flea market in London opened in the 13th century and is still operating eight-hundred years later.
Second Version 2009 (Sold)
Curt Avery tiptoes through his own backyard, ducking beneath the kitchen window so that his wife, Linda, doesn’t seem him carrying under his arm--like a recalcitrant child --a three-foot-long, custom-forged tin lobster-ship weathervane. Like an inverse-thief, he is smuggling valuable objects into his house. Antique weathervanes are suddenly a “hot” category–Polo Ralph Lauren executive, Jerry Lauren, just bought a five-foot-tall American Indian weathervane at Sotheby’s for over five million dollars. Avery tucks the oxidized green, slightly dented weathervane inside the door of his basement–there is no other room now that boxes fill the entire space floor to ceiling, an impenetrable mass of stuff. Years ago, there was a pool table in this room, and place for the kids to play. Now, you open the door and are faced with a wall of cardboard boxes.
While I was ecstatic to have a book contract, this anecdote about the hook is also a caveat about selling the “sizzle,” as marketing gurus say. During the process of shopping the proposal, editors I spoke with asked me about the focal character’s marriage, if that storyline would “play through the book,” or if the hoarding would be a story line. The opening, while more dynamic, tilted the angle of the book. I had to walk a fine line when talking to editors because these were not major themes of the book; I didn’t want to invade the privacy of my focal character, or tell stories for which he hadn’t given me permission. He was the guide through this subculture, but the book was not a biography, per se.
Selling a glimpse of a book through a proposal, in that case, meant that my vision for the whole book did not align exactly with the acquiring editor’s vision. My editor wanted a Friday Night Lights type book, full of drama and a strong narrative arc. I wanted a book like Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, more of a tour d’horizon of a subculture. My editor had asked to see the first third of the book when I’d written it, but I was afraid he would discourage the direction in which I was taking the narrative. I worried that disapproving comments from him would block my writing, or weaken my faith in my vision, so I didn’t show him any pages until I’d completed a draft, until I’d laid out my vision entirely on the page.
This strategy, though necessary to my writing, excluded him from the process, and as a result, I think it dampened his enthusiasm for the book. After the first draft, we had a tug of war about the amount of “research bits” between the scenic moments. He wanted zero; I wanted a lot. In the end, we struck the right balance, and the book is better for my editor’s influence and wisdom. But selling the idea on proposal had helped to create a somewhat fraught process. A proposal offers a partial glimpse of a book, and so it can be like that Buddhist parable about three blind men describing an elephant; after touching one part of the beast—trunk, flank, or tail--each man had a wildly different idea of the “elephant.”
I’m not complaining, just cautioning. I’m thrilled to have secured contracts from proposals, and to know my hard work would result in published books (though I still hope my first two manuscripts will be published someday). The bottom line is that the book proposal represents your vision for your book, and that’s something to honor.
Maureen Stanton is the author of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting (Penguin Press, 2012), winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction, and Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2019). Her essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, such as Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, New England Review, Florida Review, and have received the Iowa Review award, the American Literary Review award, the Thomas Hruska award from Passages North, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches creative writing at the UMass Lowell. Her work can be sampled at: Maureenstantonwriter
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Blog # 78 The Book Proposal and the Elephant