Proposals: The Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction

Book proposals can be intimidating. Writing the book was hard enough, and now you have to get other people to like it too. The number of resources for writing query letters is infinite, with published authors, agents, and publishers all weighing in on what makes a good query letter. But what about the next step—the proposal package?

The internet has a myriad of sources detailing what goes inside a book proposal, but most of these sources are about fiction. Any time you’ve seen a book pitched in a movie or on television, it’s probably followed this format as well. For fiction, it’s pretty simple:

  • Cover letter
  • Manuscript (or part of it, depending on the agent or publisher)
  • Marketing info
  • Your published works, awards, and credentials
  • Comp titles
  • Page count

In a fiction proposal, the cover letter and marketing info are just as important as your manuscript. In these sections, you have the best chance at pitching your proposal to agents and publishers. So, in your cover letter, you should also include a brief summary of the book that reads similarly to the description found on the back covers of books: enough information to captivate the reader, but not enough to spoil the ending.

As the author, you are not technically responsible for marketing your book; but including any potential ideas for marketing is extremely helpful to the publisher. Not only could it help during the marketing planning, but it also shows your investment in the work and your understanding of the market. This is also a great time to mention any special events that your book may be able to be a part of. For instance, if your best friend is a best-selling author with a strong following, this would be a good time to mention it. Or if there is an upcoming event that the audience of your book will likely be attending, you should include that as well.

Pitching nonfiction can be incredibly different, but it also depends on the type of nonfiction. According to agent Jane Friedman, the proposal expectations can vary a lot for memoir: “Some agents don’t require a book proposal for memoir, while others want only the book proposal and the first few chapters.”

Proposals for other kinds of nonfiction can vary just as much as memoir proposals, depending on the publisher. But in general, they will include these items:

  • Cover letter
  • Target audience or market
  • Table of contents
  • Marketing plan
  • Author bio (What makes you an expert? Why do readers want to hear from you?)
  • Sample chapters
  • Comp titles

Nonfiction proposals often include more information about the author’s platform and expertise than about the quality of the writing. As Friedman writes, “While everyone expects the writing to be solid, they’re probably not expecting a literary masterpiece.” It’s also very common for nonfiction to have a ghostwriter, so keep in mind that while you may be the author, the writing may not be wholly your responsibility.

Proving a market for a book is much more important for nonfiction, especially in this technological age when most information is only a search away. Like in a fiction proposal, the marketing section is where you as the author can show the publisher your expertise and knowledge of the market and your audience. However, this section should also go deeper into why your audience cares about this specific topic. Being as specific as possible here is what will sell the proposal to an agent or publisher.

By Word or By Bird: Acquisitions through Twitter

In acquisitions, a lot of the manuscripts we receive come unsolicited—we have never heard of the author, but they’ve looked at our submission guidelines and think their work fits with what we publish. We wanted to try a new approach to reach new audiences and expand the circle of writers who already know and submit to Ooligan.

As we are both primarily internet-dwelling creatures, exploring Twitter was a natural progression. And from the time we spent on Twitter, we noticed a large community of agents, editors, authors, and more using the platform to broaden their reach and visibility. The community of writers and publishing professionals on Twitter is vast, but there were a few aspects of the engagement that we thought could help us spark new connections, particularly manuscript wish lists, Twitter pitch events, and personal branding (find us @alyssalschaffer and @joanna_shwaba).

Agents and editors use the Twitter hashtag #MSWL to share concepts they’re looking for (or hoping for) in the submissions they receive. This isn’t meant to act as a writing prompt, but rather to match agents and editors up with writers who are already working on something along those lines. The tweets from individual agents and editors get filtered onto their own profiles on the Manuscript Wish List site. This is a great way to get a feel for what particular agents are looking for, and whether they might be the right fit for you.

Twitter pitch events are designed for authors to tweet out pitches of their book; agents and publishers then like the tweet to express interest in receiving a proposal for that pitch. It allows authors to be seen by a large number of agents and publishers at once, and helps industry professionals find more new voices in a short amount of time. The #PitMad contest (run by the same people who do Pitch Wars) is one of the most well-known, particularly because it’s used for all genres and interests. However, there are many Twitter pitch events that focus on specific niches or demographics, such as #DVpit (for marginalized authors), or #SFFpit (for, you guessed it, science fiction and fantasy).

Less official, daily interactions and, by extension, personal branding on Twitter can also lead to important connections. We’ve devoted a lot of thought and energy into what we tweet and how we engage with people (if you don’t believe us, take a look at our DMs—we send each other drafts to make sure our tweets fit our individual brands). Twitter is a great space to have casual interactions, both personally and professionally, because it allows you to participate in a kind of digital networking. Angie Thomas, author of the bestselling YA novel THE HATE U GIVE, found her agent and her place as a powerhouse in the industry through an agent Q&A.

Over the last year, we’ve experimented with a few initiatives in an attempt to engage with a larger audience of authors, and honestly, we’ve received mixed results. While we didn’t get as many submissions from the pitch events we participated in as we may have expected, we did see more the longer we engaged. When we did a whole week’s worth of #MSWL tweets leading up to our last #PitMad, we saw more people asking questions about Ooligan and what we’re interested in. Similarly, we’ve posted Twitter threads every term for the last year as a call for submissions, and each term, we’ve seen more interest. Although our initial payoff was low, we’re starting to see more online engagement and more consistent submissions.

Though increased submissions and higher visibility for the press are certainly our main goals with this kind of initiative, the real acquisitions are the friends we’ve made along the way. The writing and publishing community on Twitter is a great place to find connection and support.

(And remember: our #MSWL will always and forever include a space opera or steampunk Oregon Trail, so if that’s something you’ve got up your sleeve, please send it in to our brilliant successors, Taylor Thompson, @taylormegon, and Karissa Mathae, @KMathae. They’ve promised to keep a lookout.)

Marketing One Book with Multiple Stories

Ooligan’s staff are excitedly preparing all the marketing details for the upcoming release of the literary fiction novel Three Sides Water by Peter Donahue in May. In this vein, I’ve decided to discuss the marketing process for books. Since every book is unique, all the books at Ooligan Press have their own marketing strategy and target audience carefully planned from the very beginning of the publishing process. This makes discussing the marketing of books in general rather difficult, because each book will have different strengths and challenges to consider when planning a marketing campaign, and, thus, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing a book. However, Three Sides Water is unique from most fiction novels, because it contains not just one narrative, but three separate short stories. Novels that contain multiple short stories have a slightly more challenging marketing process overall, because succinctly describing the book and its message to the potential reader is more difficult.

This isn’t to deride short story collections in any way. Short story author Michael Knight says, “A good [short story] takes a novel’s worth of emotional complexity, strips away all the fat, and compresses what’s left into a much more confined space, which can make for a reading experience that’s hard to match in terms of its intensity.” Short stories are a literary art form that can show off an author’s raw talent, and there is a host of amazing collections of short stories by famous authors, such as the Brothers Grimm, Roald Dahl, Alice Munro, and Agatha Christie. Short story collections can be wonderful ways to get quick, scintillating reads; I am personally quite fond of reading short stories by Edgar Allan Poe during the month of October. But that gets us back to marketing these books.

I read Edgar Allan Poe in October. Why? For his scary stories. I know what I’m getting from any of Poe’s stories before I read them. Book publishers signal this to me in many ways: a black cover covered with creepy ravens, a sinister-looking font in red, the word “macabre” in the description on the back, the book’s location in the horror section, creepy excerpts from the book used in promotional materials, reviews and blurbs by other famous horror aficionados and authors, and publicity and advertising around October in preparation for Halloween. While each story by Poe is different, they are unified by one theme––horror. Elements like those listed above can all be part of a marketing strategy, but the common thread is what helps guide the marketing process.

The Huffington Post notes that authors without the established reputation and brand to sell their writing on their name alone should craft their collection of short stories to contain the same central characters, setting, or theme. With this cohesive thread, a literary agent—or a publisher, such as Ooligan—will have an idea of how to market your collection and get copies of it into the hands of interested readers. For the reader who is not attracted to short stories as a form, but to a genre, setting, or character-type, these themes can market the book as containing many examples of the kind of stories they like as opposed to just a collection of stories. A unifying thread can also comfort the reader in their choice to buy a whole collection of works rather than seeking out individual pieces, because the collection may offer greater insight and nuance into the message the author wishes to convey.

A challenge for authors writing a collection of short stories (and their publishers) is to find the thread that will resonate with their audience and make it known to them. That way, more people will be willing to dive into a collection of separate stories.

Creating Contact Lists for The Ocean in My Ears

In my first two terms at Ooligan Press on The Ocean in My Ears team, the majority of my assignments revolved around contact lists. Contact lists are painstakingly cultivated and relentlessly revised until, from the blood, sweat, and tears put into its conception, a list of possible reviewers is birthed. This process is exhausting and often seems never-ending; like the list will be growing long after your own demise, eternal in a way you could never comprehend—at least until the pub date looms so close that The List is finally dubbed “good enough.” However, The List is important; it’s worth the work. We need these hundreds of names from different types of publications so we can contact them all in the hopes that our requests  will garner a few reviews. Those reviews are what get a book noticed. Here’s how we made our list for The Ocean in My Ears.
Thankfully, we don’t start from scratch with each new publication. Instead, we started with contact lists used previously when publishing other books. After we got that list, we divvied up sections of it, because there were quite literally hundreds of names, and began to weed out those that wouldn’t work for us. Sometimes this meant that the magazine, blog, or podcast was no longer doing reviews or creating new content in general. Other times, we found that our book just didn’t fit for that source.
Once we narrowed down the contacts we had, we began the search for even more. We knew the themes of the book and the audience we were trying to reach, so that’s where we began our search. Out of every five or so sites I looked through, I found one that would actually fit. The goal each week was to find a few dozen contacts to feed The List. Each source needs to have contact information available on their site because, as proved by many emails with either no response or an unrelated automated response, that is likely the only way you’ll obtain it. We also had to find out whether the reviewers would want a galley or digital copy. If they wanted a galley, we needed to know how many. Whether or not this information was available varied depending on the source.
The last step was to make a note of why the source worked and what they were all about. For example, is the publication aimed at young women? Do they talk about feminism? Do they only review romance novels? We repeated all of this process from the beginning again and again until the pub date was only a few short months away. Then, it was time to make use of The List.
The information we collected for The List was used to write pitch letters. I’m not sure how many we wrote in total, but I am sure it was over one hundred. I know I wrote at least forty-five. While that sounds daunting, the process is actually more painless than finding contacts. This is because we have a basic template with information about the book and author into which we plug a targeted sentence or two for our contact. If it was a publication meant to empower young women, I asked myself, “How does Meri embody a powerful young woman? Why is she a role model and why would this source care?”
This process has had frustrating results. Some of our letters and galleys were sent back beat up because the address was incorrect. For many, follow-up emails were sent more than once. Mostly, though, all of this work has been like shouting into a void just hoping to hear some sort of response. For a while, we didn’t hear anything.
Now that The Ocean in My Ears has received numerous positive reviews, I see the light. I understand something that was once only a vague concept. All of this hard, monotonous, tedious work becomes worth it when positive reviews start rolling in and you finally get tangible proof that the world sees the value in a book that’s become near and dear to you.

Change is Good: Behind the Scenes in the Acquisitions Department

This past summer, we managed to find our footing as the new department leads for acquisitions at Ooligan Press. We are now in our fifth week of the fall term, and the tasks at hand are substantially increasing. While some aspects of our job are fairly routine in procedure, there are some projects happening in the background that are exciting and could bring changes to the acquisitions department.
One of our biggest projects currently being developed is reading and researching for our upcoming pitch at the end of November. The particular manuscript that we are pitching has been in the works since the beginning of Bess and Molly’s (our predecessors) time in the publishing program. We are thrilled to finally have the completed manuscript in our hands and are excited to get started on the research.
The pitch process at Ooligan is fairly straightforward. We gather a team of students; collect research data related to the marketing, sales, audience, and potential success of the title; create a presentation; and deliver it to all the members in the press. After everyone has a sense of the project, we democratically vote to determine whether we want to acquire the project or not. While it is no guarantee that the project will be voted through, as department leads we strive to present projects that fulfill our mission statement—projects that we know we can represent to the fullest. Thankfully, we have a group of very ambitious, go-getting new students on board to help with this important step.
That’s not all that’s happening in Ooligan’s acquisitions department. We are also currently reworking our submission guidelines. Given the recent successes of A Series of Small Maneuvers, Memories Flow in Our Veins, and the launch of Siblings and Other Disappointments, we are adapting this ongoing project to bring into focus our exciting new trajectory. We are hoping that these revised guidelines give our potential authors an even clearer idea of what we’re looking for, as we know our backlist can be a bit eclectic in terms of genre.
Currently, we have ten manuscripts and seven proposals on our docket, all at various stages in the reviewing process. Meanwhile, weekly batches of queries continue to fill up our email. We have heard some very interesting pitches recently: variations on the travel and homestead memoir, some fascinating historical looks at Pacific Northwest culture, and of course the steady stream of slightly fantastical YA novels. It is exciting to see that we have begun to really hone our image as a publisher, and it is an honor to know writers are taking notice.
With such a large workload, we are thrilled to have a lot of help this term. The fall brought with it some bright and enthusiastic new students who have rolled up their sleeves and plunged right into the sea of proposals. They have been asking really good questions and providing excellent feedback. We are extremely impressed by them, and we are excited to see what the next year has in store for Ooligan’s next round of managers.

Write to Publish is Coming!

Write to Publish is happening on January 31, 2015—the end of this month. That means we have about three weeks left to prepare. Yikes! Honestly, though, these last three weeks are not as stressful as I imagined they would be. We’ve spent the last year preparing for this conference (almost 365 days for less than 24 hours. Crazy, right?), and the time and effort we’ve put in shows in the quality of programming we have, as well as the lack of stress at this point in the planning. I can’t wait for the conference—it’s going to be so much fun, especially the social afterward at Rogue Hall.

We have two new group members this term: Chris Thomas and Jordan Burgess. It can be really overwhelming coming in to Ooligan at any point in the year, because our publishing house never stops working, so every new student gets dropped into the middle of things. But Chris and Jordan have the added grace of being dropped in only a month before the conference! They both dived right in, though, and are a great help.

All bookfair tables have been reserved at this point. If you were interested in being a vendor at this year’s Write to Publish, I apologize, we have no more room. Next year, we will probably have to use a bigger vendor space to accommodate the amount of interest we’ve had. If you were interested in being a vendor this year and were unable to get in, please still send us an email letting us know and we’ll add you to the list of potential vendors to contact for next year.

The other thing to know is that our pitching sessions are filling up. We only have twenty-five spots left. Some publishers, like Forest Avenue Press, are almost filled. If you have purchased a ticket, but haven’t signed up for a time, please do so soon to make sure you have a space reserved. If you’ve been waiting to buy your ticket, I encourage you to do that now so that you have the chance to sit down with publishers and editors and pitch your material. Go hereto buy your tickets. This may be your last chance to sign up with publishers like Microcosm. I mean, they have a tattoo coloring book. How cool is that?