successful book proposal


In my YouTube video on structuring a self-help book, I described the parts of a self-help book. When you divide those parts into chapters, you may have one or more chapters per part. However, you might find that one of those parts, such as the action plan, just needs to be a section of a chapter. (When that’s the case, you probably have exercises scattered throughout the book.)

Here’s a handy guide to remembering the way these six parts are commonly broken into chapters in a self-help book:

Self-Help Book Contents

 

Introduction: How I Came to Write This Book and Do the Research, And How It’s Organized

 

Chapter 1: The Urgent Problem (Don’t Worry—You’ll Solve It!)

 

Chapter 2: How You Came to Have This Problem (The History of Your Woes)

 

Chapter 3: What You Need to Know Before Tackling Your Urgent Problem (Trust Me, It’s Important!)

 

Chapter 4: More Stuff You Have to Know Before Taking Action to Solve the Problem (No, You’re Not Done Yet)

 

Chapter 5: Even More Stuff You Have to Know Before Taking Action (Be Patient—Each of These Chapters IS Necessary!)

 

Chapter 6: The Action Plan (What You’re Going to Have to Do)

 

Chapter 7: The Action Plan, More Details (It’s More Complicated Than You Thought, So We Need Another Chapter)

 

Chapter 8: The Action Plan in Action (What It Looks Like, With Lots of Anecdotes So I’m Sure You TRULY Get These Ideas)

 

Chapter 9: Troubleshooting When Problems Arise (Those Special Times When You’re Stressed Out or Things Get Complicated)

 

Chapter 10: Expanding Outward (Maintaining Your New Habits, A Pep Talk to Keep You Going, And How to Connect with Others Who Support Your New Habits and Deal With People Who Don’t)

 

Resources, Acknowledgements, Appendix, And All That

 

Of course, you don’t have to have ten chapters. You might have six, or twelve, or twenty-three. What’s most important is that the overall structure supports the reader’s journey from identifying the problem (and being emotionally engaged by your book!) to feeling empowered to create new habits, sustain them, and affect the world in a positive way. Now, that last piece may sound lofty, but don’t all of us want to improve some aspect of our lives, not just to alleviate discomfort or embarrassment, or make more money or have better relationships, but to expand on our greater joy and confidence by inspiring people around us, attracting new clients and friends and partners, and improving how things work in our families, workplaces, and communities? Increasingly, I’m finding my clients are putting more consideration into what goes into this last part. We’re all exquisitely aware of how much the world is changing, and how strongly we want to affect it positively. I encourage those of you who are writing self-help to put some thought to what would be in the fifth part of your self-help book.

 

"Oh no! I have an URGENT PROBLEM I need to solve! Where is the perfect self-help book for me?"

“Oh no! I have an URGENT PROBLEM I need to solve! Where is the perfect self-help book for me?”

The sixth part, “the future,” is your opportunity to help the reader connect with your work, your future advice, and other resources. It can include the author biography page with your contact information and resources. This is also the place where appendices (typically, charts and lists) go, and where acknowledgments typically go. (Sometimes, they’re in the front, but do you really want to hear all the “thanks to so-and-so”s before YOU read a book? Probably not. Stick it in the back of the book if you can.) You’d also add an index here if your book needs an index. But for pitching a book, you just need to list what’s in the sixth part; you don’t have to include it. I definitely urge you NOT to include acknowledgments in a book proposal–and don’t put in a dedication, either. Those are final touches for when the book has been written and edited.

Was this helpful? If you do get stuck, contact me at nancy@nancypeske.com and let’s set up a one-hour phone consultation so I can be your wordmason and get you unstuck!

Self-help book structure by chapter

An example of chapters that fit into the typical six-part structure for a self-help book

An example of chapters that fit into the typical six-part structure for a self-help book

 

“Don’t judge a book by its title”—but that’s what we do when we’re looking at books and considering whether to buy them. A title can make or break your book. Here are three utterly mindblowing tips for titling a nonfiction book.

 

 

1. Think holistically. Your title, subtitle, and jacket work together to sell your book. I coauthored a book that got all three right: Raising a Sensory Smart Child is clearly is aimed at parents (hence “child” in the title and subtitle, and “raising a … child”). The title presents an intriguing concept (what are “sensory smarts”?). And the jacket features a happy, active child that has emotional appeal to parents who are stressed out and worried and want their child to be joyous and full of life. Sensory kids often can’t sit still so the picture puts a positive spin on that phenomenon.

 

Does your self-help book deliver on its title and promise? Does it solve a problem? Does it offer "takeaway" for readers that they can apply to their own lives?

Jacket, title, and subtitle work together to make a great book package.

2. Speak to the heart and mind. A great title will make you laugh, intrigue you, touch your heart—in short, it will speak to your mind and your heart. Here are some of my favorites:

 

That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week. If you laugh and say, “Yep, that’s my kid,” you know you have to check it out, right?

 

Eat More, Weigh Less. My boss at HarperCollins, editor-in-chief Susan Moldow, acquired this New York Times bestseller by Dr. Dean Ornish. We used to joke about variations such as “Work Less, Earn More.” Talk about a simple, compelling promise!

 

Mindblowing Sex in the Real World. The author, Sari Locker, PhD, wanted a twist on “The Real World,” which was an MTV hit at when the book was in production (I was the acquisitions editor). I thought a contrast would be good and came up with the word “mindblowing.” One of the suits at the publisher pushed hard against it but we pushed back. The book and title were hits, and years later, the title was mentioned in the New York Times. That is a title with staying power! (Pun intended.)

 

3. Switch It Up. Bev West, my coauthor and cousin, came up with “cinema therapy” and “mood movies” or “movies to match your mood.” Our book proposal’s cover sheet shows what we settled on. Someone in-house at Dell, our book publisher, suggested making “cinema therapy” one word, Cinematherapy, and using it as the title, relegating the “mood movies” concept to the subtitle. We also wrestled with “girl” vs. “gal” and other alternatives (“girlfriend’s guide” was taken). Contrast the proposal title/subtitle to the final jacket.

 

 MoodMoviesOrigTitle

Cinematherapy, movie therapy for women: a vision turned into a successful book series and television show

Cinematherapy, movie therapy for women: a vision turned into a successful book series and television show. Original title and subtitle were flipped around.

 

 

So as you’re titling, start picturing your book’s jacket. Look at other books—not just online but in a bookstore. Look at their jackets. Which ones do you respond to, and why? What are the title and jacket trends in your genre? Do you want to match them or buck them?

 

Do you have a one- to three-word “hook” that works for your brand and your book? Cinematherapy spawned Bibliotherapy, Advanced Cinematherapy, Cinematherapy for Lovers, Cinematherapy for the Soul, Cinematherapy Goes to the Oscars, Gay Cinematherapy, TVTherapy, and Culinarytherapy. How can you use your “hook” within your title as in your brand to emotionally engage and intrigue readers?

 

 

Thinking of self-publishing? Should you choose the editing or editorial evaluation package from the self-publishing arm of a publisher, or from self-publishing houses?

As a former in-house acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, a current ghostwriter and developmental editor, and the coauthor of several successful books, I can help you make the right choice for yourself and your book based on your goals (and your budget). You need to know whom you are hiring (and yes, you want to hire someone who knows why I used “whom” right there!). You also want to get the most bang for your buck, and that means making sure your book’s structure, approach, voice, and concept are solid before you start line editing it. You don’t paint the walls of a house before you’ve installed the plumbing and wiring correctly!

Many editors don’t know anything about structuring and editing books, which is a skill of its own. Also, those of us who are developmental editors do not work on every type of book there is. I am well read in many areas, but in some, I admit, I know next-to-nothing! I do turn down and pass along projects I know for certain I’m not the right editor for because I don’t have enough background in working on that type of book. My clients benefit from being able to work with someone who keeps up on what’s going on in the publishing world, the book marketing world, and the worlds of wellness, motivational speaking and writing, business, health, and more.

Peggy McColl

Some of the books I’ve worked on include business books, self-help, inspiration, life lessons books, and memoirs.

 

ADVICE FOR NONFICTION AUTHORS

Here’s what I recommend for authors who want to self-publish nonfiction: Work out your outline and the beginning of the book, looking to other successful books as your guide, and then call in a developmental editor who can evaluate the material and advise you BEFORE you get off track. Write a clear description of each chapter whether or not you do a whole book proposal before contacting an editor. Don’t make the editor guess at what’s in each chapter based on the chapter titles. If you’re looking to sell the book to a publisher and need a book proposal, follow the standard instructions for creating one (you can use the guidance on my website, and please pay close attention to the all-important comparative books list). Then, ask a developmental editor with an acquisitions background or success in shaping proposals that sold to evaluate it. A developmental editor will alert you to writing issues you need to be aware of, and will guide you on structural changes you need to make. If you’re writing a memoir, you will want to be sure you know what the purpose of the memoir is. Memoirs by non-famous people have to have strong themes and titles to capture the attention of readers who aren’t friends and family members.

When you’ve gotten the manuscript into the best possible shape, hire a copyeditor/light line editor to clean it up. He or she should simultaneously create a style sheet for a proofreader to work from (a style sheet lists all the proper nouns and the grammar and punctuation rules you decided upon, such as whether or not to capitalize the first word in a full sentence that follows a colon). Hire a proofreader and ask a friend or fellow author to be another set of eyes.

ADVICE FOR FICTION WRITERS

If you want someone to evaluate your novel (or your completed memoir or other nonfiction manuscript), recognize that it will take hours just to read it, much less to read it, make notes, and correct those notes afterward. How often have I thought, “Oh, I see—now I understand what she was talking about back in chapter 2. Let me go back and change that note.”! If you want to get an evaluation and save money, create an expanded chapter outline and a plot description. Otherwise, the editor has to skim and skim to get the big picture. I was trained to do this as an in-house editor and had lots of practice reading for literary agents, book clubs, and publishers, and I regularly met with other editors doing the same sort of work to compare notes. We became masters of skimming and evaluating. But even masters need time to go through a manuscript whose entire cover letter with plot description is three sentences long! Make it easier for an editor to evaluate your book by creating the one-page synopsis at the very least. And if you can also write up a list of chapters with short descriptions, that’s even better. It will help the editor and it will give you a big picture view of your book in the process. Maybe in preparing the chapter outline, you’ll spot sections that need to be edited down, for instance.

If you decide that you really must write the whole book and “get it on paper,” so to speak, before getting direction from a developmental editor, don’t let me stop you. Just know that if you go that route, you are likely to have to do a lot of cutting and restructuring, and you may end up spending a lot more money paying an editor because you’re presenting that person with a manuscript and no “cheat sheet” with plot description or chapter summaries. Don’t be married to what you wrote.

I hope this helps! I really don’t want any of you feeling you must approach the book writing process a certain way, but I also don’t want you shocked by how much money and time it takes to shape your very raw manuscript.

Good luck on your writing and editing!

 The dog days of August can be the most frustrating for a writer because it’s next to impossible to get the attention of an agent or, if a proposal is on submission, an editor. Rather than drive yourself crazy waiting for a response to your e-mail or snail mail, here’s what to keep yourself from feeling frustrated:

1.   Consciously choose to be patient and not to nudge. If you push an agent or editor for a response, you predispose that person to look for reasons to reject it. Agents and editors hate feeling pressured, and it’s always easier to say no than it is to say yes. Don’t prejudice them against your project. Focus instead on getting someone else’s interest and making your book an even hotter property. Light a fire under the pokey agent by sending it to other agents, or have your agent submit it to other editors. That way, you may be able to send them the message, “I have interest from someone else so please let me know whether you are interested as well.” That is much more likely to get them excited than the message a nudge note really sends: “Can you please get back to me? I’m feeling sad and anxious because no one has expressed interest in my project yet”!

 

2.   Build your platform. You could twiddle your thumbs, agonize, vent to your fellow writers, your partner, and your pet, or call a psychic to get her take on your proposal’s prospects, but here are some more practical ways to spend your time right now. All will improve your chances of getting an agent and book deal:

 

–Offer to be a guest blogger on a popular blog.

–Write more blog pieces. Tease them on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

–Write a free “service” article (how to do such-and-such, 7 tips for such-and-such) and submit it to a free articles Web site.

–Comment on major blogs and include your URL.

–Do some Tweets or Facebook posts. Drive people to your Web site and make sure your site encourages them to give you their e-mail address so you can someday send them notice of your book’s publication.

–Get bookings on radio shows (traditional or online shows are always looking for guests). Doing live radio is an art so you might as well start practicing it now. Again, drive people to your site and/or Facebook page or Twitter account.

–Set up some speaking engagements.

–Make some informational videos and post them online and on your website.  Tweet about them and feature them on your Facebook page, and announce them on LinkedIn.

–Learn more about other forms of social media that are becoming more popular and start thinking about whether you might benefit from investing time in using them.

–Do a social media campaign to boost your number of followers.

Remember, if you get a publicity break, or suddenly have a big uptick in followers, you can send a nice note to the agent or editor saying, “I just thought I’d let you know that I’ll be on MSNBC tomorrow/have a blog piece on Psychology Today this week/got 2000 new Twitter followers/stripped for Playboy magazine to build my “healthy body” brand.” Think of all the many ways you can draw attention to your brand at this critical point. (I’m not kidding about the centerfold: When I was an in-house editor, one of my authors, who wrote guides to improving intimacy, appeared in a major men’s magazine half-clothed, the month of our annual sales conference. That certainly woke up the sales force! My authors with similar books in the pipeline were intrigued by this bold move, but decided on other means for self-promotion!)
Envision the sale. Imagine that you have gotten the call from the agent or editor saying, “This is the greatest thing EVER!” Visualize every moment of that call…yourself on a major national television show talking about it as the host stares at you, enraptured…your book’s title on the top of the New York Times bestseller list…you speaking to an audience of aspiring authors, telling your story about how you, too, thought at one point that there was no hope but then the call came and now look at you. Don’t feel embarrassed by this exercise. Many successful authors have envisioned their success and infused their fantasy with the emotions so that it felt real, only to have that success play out in reality.

Last night’s American Idol was a wonderful example of what happens when an aspiring artist looking to achieve success takes the risk of saying “no” to the so-called experts and trusting in his inner vision.  Both Casey Adams and James Durbin rejected the well-meaning, “play it safe” advice of musical consultant Will I. Am and music producer Jimmy Iovine and performed songs they felt were right for them regardless of how big of a risk they were taking in the competition. The results? Check out the reactions of the audience and the judges (click on their names above to reach their April 13, 2011 performances of Nature Boy and Heavy Metal respectively).

As a writer, you have to accept that staying true to your vision may mean saying no to a potential book publishing deal. It may mean that a literary agent will drop you from her roster.

Let me tell you just one more encouraging story. On request from an in-house editor who knew our work, my coauthor and I wrote a proposal for a book called Mood Movies, which was a guide to something called “cinema therapy.” The editor loved it but later informed us that his in-house colleagues discovered that “cinematherapy” is a genuine form of therapy so therefore, in their opinion, they couldn’t possibly publish a humorous book about cinematherapy by two women who were not clinical psychologists. Our literary agent at the time felt the proposal was unsalable too, although he did say that as a favor to us, he’d send it to a few houses just in case he was wrong. We stuck with our proposal, found a new agent, found an in-house editor whose book publishing house loved it, and the rest is history. Cinematherapy has sold over 340,000 copies in all editions through out the world and we sold TV rights to Women’s Entertainment (formerly Romance Classics) which turned it into a prime time television show.

We could have been wrong. It’s possible that no agent would have agreed to represent the book project. And it’s possible that no publishing house would have bought it—in fact, we were turned down by every house but one. My coauthor and I could have avoided the terrific term “cinema therapy” (or “cinematherapy”), which we’d mistakenly believed was something we coined, in order to avoid confusion with actual cinematherapy—but we didn’t. We stuck with our vision, to great success. And wouldn’t you know that actual therapists ended up using and recommending our book to their patients?

So if you have a strong vision and your gut instincts tell you to stick with it despite the very well-meaning advice or feedback from professionals who supposedly know better than you do—go with your gut.

Cinematherapy, movie therapy for women: a vision turned into a successful book series and television show