9 ways to spot a promising book proposal

Ben Leventhal, co-founder of Eater, wrote a Medium article entitled “The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Restaurants.”

Speaking of which, do we italicize Medium article titles? Use quotes? I’m going to go with vertical bars, a.k.a. pipes.

In |The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Restaurants| Ben identified 9 “indictors” (he meant “indicators”—Ben, I’m available for editorial work) that a given restaurant will succeed.

For example: “Look at the china. If the restaurant is paying more than a few bucks per plate and the place isn’t jam-packed, they’re assuming you’re ok with a 3x wine mark-up.”

I loved Ben’s list. It’s not about defining every aspect of the perfect restaurant—clearly, success depends on many factors, including luck. It’s about sensible heuristics for quickly identifying winners and losers.

So I’m going to propose a few of my own ways of identifying (or creating) a book project with real potential, whether you’re an author, an agent, an acquiring editor, or a service provider like myself.

The focus here is on books that offer guidance to a general reader. Business, health, self-help, and so on. Other categories can be very different.

Literary fiction, for example, operates in a Bizarro publishing world where authors who smoke unfiltered cigarettes while railing against the Internet and e-books and Amazon and who write everything longhand with a quill and don’t own a phone and who think cameras steal your soul and that the sun is a chariot drawn by fiery horses somehow sell even more copies, particularly if they complain about being poor while living in an apartment with built-in bookshelves in the trendiest neighborhood in Brooklyn.

(Bizarro world is where Bizarro Superman lives. Bizarro is the opposite of Superman, so he says up instead of down, left instead of right, and he’s always raving about his Kobo.)

  1. You want to see a big list, sure, but at the very least you want to see a solid newsletter strategy for capturing lightning when it does strike—when a talk goes viral, for example. Step one is a functioning mechanism for capturing potential book buyers. No, not Twitter.

  2. Forget the stock marketing plan in the proposal. If the author can explain in plain English who will buy copies and why to your face, some thought has actually gone into it. (Thought going into any of it is rare.)

  3. Authors with a distinct personal style fill me with reassurance. Like they always wear a scarf. On the flip side, distinct slovenliness can also be a good sign as 30% of the time that means they’re Internet wealthy and will get to do a Reddit AMA on pub day. (Hint: if they also carry a phone with a shattered screen or use off-brand earbuds, they’re just slovenly. Move along.) Either way, if you see business casual, reach under your desk to activate the trap door underneath the author that leads to the laser sharks. (Note: HarperCollins moved offices and may not have installed the shark tanks yet.)

  4. If you see the author give a talk and come away energized and buoyant and all the white is visible around your irises, you’ve been infected by their stage charisma and can no longer be trusted to decide on the size of an advance. Include someone who didn’t meet the author in the bidding process. (Forget e-books and Amazon. Stage charisma leading is the main reason it’s the Big Five and not the Big Six.)

  5. If you can get a friend excited about the book with a one-sentence summary, and it’s not a publishing friend, it’s that friend from high school, you know the one I mean, it’s not that he isn’t smart per se, but maybe he was more excited about the Entourage movie than he was about seeing Mad Max: Fury Road and you were like, OK, Phil, Entourage was a great show. It was hilarious and no it never got old. That friend. If he thinks the book sounds cool you’re golden.

  6. If the author keeps redefining the book’s audience based on the expression on your face, that’s bad: “It’s for teens with bad spending habits. Teens and adults. Parents of teens. Actually, it’s even better for people with good spending habits. And entrepreneurs. And the C-suite.”

  7. Realistic competitive and comparable titles. If any comparisons are made to Malcolm Gladwell or people with their own TV shows, well, that’s why publishing professionals are issued smoke bombs and grappling hooks.

  8. If the proposal says that the whole manuscript has already been written, stay on your toes. If the author’s online marketing work consists of having purchased every variation of the title as a .com, a .org, and a .net, subtly identify the location of all the exits. And if they say anything along the lines of “11 million Americans coping with psoriasis own ant farms, so if even 10 percent purchase this book, you’ve got a bestseller,” casually tug on your shoes so you roll up completely like a window shade and disappear.

  9. If the author has a company and it’s not clear what the company does and no one you know has ever heard of it but they have awesome offices in Soho or the MPD or maybe DUMBO with snacks and cereal in the kitchen and you’re like, but what does this company do? And they answer you and you still don’t know, you’ve found a winner. Write a 6-figure advance check on the spot out of your personal account.

  10. As an editor, I always looked for a good tan on an agent. Means they’re out there in the world picking up the zeitgeist and not always stuck indoors with their nose in a book. That’s also why you never trust an agent with glasses.

Did I leave anything out?

Endnotes

The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Restaurants

books are over (not in the way you’re thinking, I’m just hooking you with an overblown title)

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Shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real.

Shibumi, by Trevanian

(Writers: There’s nothing like a profound quote to kick things off. It’s like, hey reader, this dead person wrote something wise, and I’m repeating it, so therefore I’m equally wise by the transitive law of thought leadership.)

I’ve talked to many both inside and outside the “traditional” publishing industry—know the “traditional” ones by their characteristic briar pipes—about where this whole thing is going. And by “whole thing” I don’t mean books as a generic term, because “book” is no longer a useful generic category. Instead, I mean the kinds of books (and, barf, “content”) I’ve specialized in for years now, the “helping” categories: business, health, self-help. Books that tell you how to do stuff better, whether it’s market your service or channel the astral presence (hint: both involve bullshit).

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why creative jobs seem harder—and why that’s a good thing

This article first appeared in modified form on the CreativeLive blog.


I was reading the wonderful show business biography Act One, by the legendary playwright Moss Hart, when the following passage struck me:

It is taken for granted that a cabinetmaker or a shoemaker, or a lawyer or a doctor for that matter, starting with a certain degree of talent for his profession, does, after the practice of that profession for ten or twenty years, learn how to make a good cabinet or a decent pair of shoes, or plead a case or diagnose an illness correctly.

Not so the playwright. He is quite capable after twenty years of practice of having a left shoe for a second act when a right shoe is obviously called for, and is as unable to perceive the tumor in the third act that stares him in the face as the merest beginner or even someone who has never written a line for the stage.

Moss had his fair share of hits and misses over the years, so he was writing from experience here. And as someone who has edited dozens of books and developed a gaggle (a pride?) of online classes, I can say that this insight does not apply to playwriting alone. It is the burden and the privilege of being a creator.

In a sense, outside the creative space, everyone has it easy. Doctors, lawyers, and shoemakers alike—every day they practice their craft, they get a bit better at what they do, pretty much across the board. Practice actually does make perfect. As a lawyer, if you learn how to argue a case on Monday, you’re probably going to be at least that good on Tuesday, and probably even better by Friday.

Creatives practice their own crafts, of course, from Photoshop to audio mixing to typography, but at the end of the day when you face a blank canvas in one form or another you’re right back at the beginning, taking every bit as big a risk as you did on your debut effort. All the accolades of the past won’t protect you from scathing reviews for your next effort. In fact, the stakes only get higher.

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a 16th-century lesson on finding your niche market

This article first appeared in modified form on the CreativeLive blog.


first use of italics by aldus manutius
First use of italics by Aldus Manutius

A piece in the New York Times alerted me to a tribute to the Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius on display at New York City’s posh Grolier Club. I took it upon myself to see the exhibit.

Manutius, a Venetian, blind to other pursuits, was a pivotal figure in the early printing era, responsible for the very first printed editions of many of the great works of Greek literature that survive to this day, from Plato to Herodotus.

He also invented italics.

If you look at this woodcut of St. Catherine of Siena, from an edition of the Epistole Devotissime printed in 1500, you’ll notice that she has a book open in her right hand. On the pages of that book are 5 words that represent the debut of italic type, inspired by handwritten cursive writing and designed by Manutius’s typographer, Francesco Griffo. Manutius used italics to squeeze more words on a line, allowing him to create pocket-sized editions that people could carry with them, a sort of Sony Walkman of reading.

Eventually Aldus created an entire Portable Library of classics. Thus, artistic innovation was driven by commercial need. (Are you taking notes?)

Manutius wanted to create a product that filled a hole in the marketplace: affordable editions of great, then-dwindling Greek and Latin works that you could carry everywhere.

Soon, people were reading Sophocles and Horace while waiting in line for Shakespeare in the Park tickets (the difference being Shakespeare was literally in that park) and the op-eds were complaining about how everyone had their noses buried in these newfangled gadgets and that nobody really talked anymore.

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