Query Letters and Proposals
If you have written a nonfiction work, chances are publishers' submission guidelines will request that you send in a query letter or proposal before the editor will agree to read the full-length manuscript. If an editor is not intrigued by your query letter or proposal, he will not ask to see your manuscript. However, keep in mind that even if an editor does ask to see the full manuscript, this does not mean you have sold a book — it means you've passed the first test.
Basically, a query letter is a letter asking an editor if he would be interested in seeing your work. Sounds easy enough. However, some writers find this to be the most difficult phase of the entire publishing process. Considering that this letter is your one shot at getting your foot in the door, you can see why it can be a little nerve-racking.
A query letter, like a cover letter, should be set up as a standard business letter. Place your name and address at the top, followed by the date and then the publisher's name and address. Open the letter with an appropriate salutation. “Dear Editor” will work just fine if you do not have a contact name. Following the closing, sign your name and print your name beneath the signature.
The body of the letter should make the editor want to read your manuscript. While this is certainly a sales pitch, avoid making extravagant claims. State the working title and what type of book you have written. Give a brief, but intriguing, description of the book. You also should provide market research and explain how your book will stand out from those currently available on the same topic. If you can give a reason why your book would fit in well with the particular publisher's list, add this too.
If your query letter has done the trick, an editor will ask to see either the full-length manuscript or a proposal. So even if the publisher's guidelines do not ask for proposals, it is usually a good idea to have a proposal on hand just in case — especially for nonfiction.
In today's publishing world, selling the author can be just as important as selling the story — this is especially the case in adult nonfiction books, but it can play an important role in children's book publishing as well.
Provide relevant background information about yourself, such as why you are qualified to write this book and whether you have published other books like it. This information helps an enthusiastic editor sell your book proposal to her company's board of directors who must give the final go-ahead. If you have any credentials or expertise in the book's specific subject matter, certainly mention them as well. For example, if you have written a book about chicken pox and you are a doctor, let the editor know. If you are the author of other books on topics similar to that of the current book, also let the editor know. If you have none of the above, a human interest story or personal experience always works well to add some flavor.
Proposals are what fall between a full-length manuscript submission and a query letter. Normally, proposals are requested for works of nonfiction. While writers have been known to sell books on the proposal alone, it's best that you have a completed manuscript before submitting a proposal, especially as a first-time writer.
A proposal includes sample chapters of your manuscript, a cover letter, a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, a marketing plan, and a self-addressed stamped envelope. The cover letter should be very similar to a cover letter submitted with a full-length manuscript. Again, keep it brief and professional. In fact, it should be an automatic response in sending anything to a publisher.
You will also need to provide an outline of your entire manuscript. Normally, this is somewhat similar to a table of contents. Divide your outline into chapters and then either give a brief description or list the topics that will be discussed for each chapter — if your work is nonfiction. (If you are submitting a proposal for a novel, then your outline should be replaced by a book synopsis. Think of the brief summary or blurb on the back of a soft cover book. It tells you what the book is about, and makes you want to read it. A synopsis is like an extended blurb. This is hard to write and deserves your best effort. How long should it be? A brief one will be one to ten pages; a longer one will be about one page for every 25 pages of the novel's text. Use your chapter summaries for reference, and tell the story of your book. Include bits of dialogue. Make it spirited and enticing. The synopsis must compel your reader to take a look at your sample chapters.
Next, you need to include a marketing plan. This includes market research on books like yours that have been published recently and have done well. Check the publishers' websites for recent titles — also check recent Newbery and Caldecott award winners, and any children's books featured in Publishers Weekly. You have to be able to convince editors that your book fits into the current market, but that it is not too similar to what is already out there. If this sounds tricky, it is. Basically, if you are turning in a nonfiction book proposal, you need to show that there is an eager market for your type of book (your subject matter and style) but that the market is not being satisfied by what is out there now. This section also shows editors that you are serious and have taken the time to find out what is going on in the book industry.
A proposal also includes sample chapters from your work. Check the publisher's submission guidelines for specifications. This gives you the opportunity to back up your fantastic book idea with a demonstration of your writing skills. Make sure the chapters you submit are your best work, well-edited.