Posted by Marian Lizzi
My previous post seems to have struck a chord with some readers, including a few authors who found it a little…what’s the word…negative.
I will admit, upon further reflection, that I probably shouldn’t have revealed the little trade secret I’ll call SCLUF (“skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable”). A bit too harsh for author consumption? I apologize. But now you know.
Let’s move on to the much happier flipside. Here’s my personal list of reasons for wanting to buy—or at least bid on—a proposed book.
In some cases, just one of these reasons is sufficient. But of course, the more the better.
1. It has a great hook. It’s the kind of book that gets people talking. Specifically, sales reps, buyers, bloggers, reviewers, what’s left of the mainstream media, and of course readers (each of whom is now a single-person PR machine capable of tweeting/linking/posting/blogging and otherwise driving interest and sales).
On a related note, it’s worth keeping in mind that we editors are constantly answering the question “So what are you working on?” Help us be interesting (more about that in #10).
2. It teaches me something new. After twenty years of editing general nonfiction, I’ve got a lot of little facts in my head (though the early 90s are a bit of a blur). And yet there’s always more to learn. Surprise me.
3. It’s the first. Or the best. Or both. The editor I worked for back in the blurry early 90s had a knack for finding firsts. Every year she’d return from Frankfurt with an armful of books about trends that hadn’t hit the mainstream US market yet, but were heading our way from one direction or another. Newborn swimming? Vegan baking? Foot reflexology? These books were already successful in other countries—and thanks to this fearless and forward-thinking editor, they were first out of the gate here, filling an otherwise wide-open gap in the market. Many of these books are still in print, in the most profitable area of the publishing business: successful backlist.
Best works too. We call that the category-killer, and every nonfiction editor would like to have a few of those.
4. The author has the self-promoter gene (in a good way). You know the type. They have friends, and they know how to use them. They have contacts, visibility, outreach, and a touch of the razzle-dazzle. Sure, this skill set can be taught. But if we have to teach you, we’re less interested. Get up to speed first, and then let’s talk.
5. The subject and/or author are particularly web-friendly. This is a variation on the previous point. Maybe the proposal grows out of a popular blog, or Twitter feed, or good old-fashioned meme. Maybe the author teaches online courses, or writes a popular e-newsletter.
Maybe the book would be a natural for digital editions, including enhanced e-books with embedded video, links, or other cool features that readers will want. Do your homework and figure it out for us. We will listen.
6. The subject lends itself to a great physical package. This might seem to contradict the previous point, but in fact they go hand in hand. As books become increasingly digital, print editions need to be more and more appealing. Maybe it’s a gift, an object, a curiosity, a thing of beauty. Or maybe it just looks really good.
7. It features a smart person writing on a fun subject. This combination is a personal favorite of mine. Some projects—even at the proposal stage—make you feel like you’re having a pint with a favorite professor. (Not in a creepy way.) Or like you’re watching a great TED talk. I will fall for this type of project every time. And I’m not the only one.
8. It’s similar—but not too similar—to books we’ve done well with in recent memory. Also known as our Strike Zone, our Wheel House, our Bread and Butter. You get the idea. Pointing to recent, meaningful comparison titles, preferably on one’s own list, is perhaps the most powerful tool an editor has. Ask a sales rep and see for yourself.
(Be sure to use this one selectively, though. Every era has its laughably overused comparisons. Here at 375 Hudson Street, we have a lot of love for Eat, Pray, Love…but we don’t want to hear that you’ve written its sequel. Does your comparison pass the say-it-out-loud-without-sounding-ridiculous test?)
9. It has crossover appeal. Will the book appeal to kids as well as adults? Men as well as women? A core audience as well as a broader swath of curious onlookers? That’s a good thing.
10. It’s quirky/surprising/memorable. In publishing, as in life, there’s no substitute for being interesting.
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but being interesting alone can erase just about any other flaw. Lousy track record? Zero platform? Author who doesn’t own a computer? I’m telling you, we’ve seen—and published—it all…because the author and the book were so irresistible. I don’t recommend this Hail Mary, #10-only approach, but I’m here to tell you it can work. We sometimes call this a make book. On paper, it shouldn’t work, but with a lot of effort and focus it can. And it can be the most appealing type of project for those of us with a masochistic streak and a soft spot for life’s long shots. In other words, book editors.