Get their attention anyway you can. You only have a few minutes, maybe less. You might simply state your intention with verve and economy; or you may use a killer quote; or you might make a funny, or outrageous, or provocative, statement. In any case, your purpose is to grab the jaded publisher/agent/editor reader and convince them they cannot possibly avoid reading on. Mug them right away with your unique and writerly voice. You’re staging a literary, metaphorical stickup to get their undivided attention.
Describe what you’re going to write about, the details of your story. Be succinct and make sure your tone is appropriate to the kind of story you propose to tell. This is the meat of the proposal. It must communicate the gist and import of your book. It should say why this is a worthy subject, or why it’s fascinating, funny, or profound. If you can suggest chapter titles, or a draft form of organization, do so. Describe the various themes you’ll discuss and explore. Try to give the reader no choice but to keep reading yet further.
You must deal with this. Small Canadian presses which get big government subventions, and university presses, don’t necessarily have to make a profit. But all other publishers must try to do so on each book they produce. Acquisition decisions are made as much by marketing departments as by editors. You need to know, and to tell the publisher up front, what else is out there that’s similar to yours - and there’s almost bound to be something. In that case, how is your book distinct? Will the market bear yet another book in the same vein? “Of the making of books there is no end ...” says Ecclesiastes, and that’s certainly how publishers feel. Then you must identify the market for your book. Who is going to want to read it, and why? Does it have subsidiary rights possibilities, and why? Can it be sold in other countries, and why?
Unless it’s straight memoir, non-fiction requires research, field work, travel, interviews. Tell the publisher what you think is required and how long it might take. How much it might cost, too, because that will bring up the subject of an advance on royalties. Even a first-time writer can ask for some up-front money to fund research.
If you are, as yet, unpublished, this is the dicey part. Without a track record, you must convince the publisher to talk further with you on based entirely on the immediate appeal of your idea, and the quality of the thinking and writing in your proposal. If you’ve already had stories and journalism published, this isn’t as critical. If you’ve got a book out, you’re in a much stronger position, of course, and the proposal doesn’t have to bear the entire weight of your effort to be noticed and responded to. Make as much of yourself and your writerly skills as you reasonably and honestly can. Confront your lack of experience if you don’t have any; acknowledge it, and then tell the publisher it doesn’t matter in your case. As your superb proposal demonstrates, you’re a natural, and you can do the job.
You don’t necessarily need to send this along with your proposal (check publishers’ web sites to find out what they want). But if you’re unpublished, and a publisher likes your proposal, they’ll want to see sample chapters right away. You must have these ready to go before you send out a proposal. If you delay in responding to a request for material, they’ll forget you, and you’ll have to mount another campaign for visibility and acceptance when you do get sample material written and ready to submit.
Do not make grammatical or spelling errors. Do not assume the publisher knows a damn thing about the subject matter you’re proposing to write about, but don’t insult their intelligence either. This is a hard balance, especially with a new, young generation of editors who don’t necessarily share the cultural touchstones of preceding generations, and who may not, in fact, be particularly well-read. You’ll need a working title. One of the advantages of non-fiction is that you get to have a sub-title, too. Your idea of a good title will seldom be held by the publisher, and especially by the marketing department (who have an increasingly large say in title selection), and will almost certainly be screwed around with. Still, a good working title is helpful. Needless to say, the internet is the source of information about publishers, their publishing programs, and their submission requirements. Do your research before you contact them. Tailor your proposal for each publisher, or group of publishers. You may write one version of your idea and its execution for a small Canadian press and another for a multi-national branch plant.
In case you’re interested, books about cats, diets, golf, Nazis, and terrorism always sell well. Keep trying.
Derek Lundy is the author of The Bloody Red Hand: A Journey Through Truth, Myth and Terror in Northern Ireland and The Way of a Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail, which was a B.C. Book Prize finalist, and a Globe and Mail Best Book in 2002. He has written a short biography, Scott Turow: Meeting the Enemy, and was General Editor of "Barristers and Solicitors in Practice" (Butterworths, 1998), a comprehensive text on the practice of law in