From Blog to Book, Part 2: How I Wrote My Nonfiction Book Proposal
If I’ve learned a single thing over the course of writing my first book, it’s that complacency has no place in the process.
It’s a bit like running a marathon over a hilly course. Once you crest the first hill, you have about five seconds to enjoy your triumph until you spot the next hill in the distance. Finding my literary agent was the equivalent of cresting that first hill.***
I remember feeling pretty great, if a little scruffy, sitting at a Greenwich Village coffee shop across the table from my agent for the first time. She was warm, articulate, beautifully dressed. (I’m not a fashion-conscious person, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by her outfit. How many women do you know that can pull off a hip-hugging angora sweater with a hip-hugging belt that never wiggles out of place? For me that belt represented poise and polish that was both unattainable and inspiring.) More importantly, she was a food person, too. She loved the taxi adventures, and she understood the spirit behind them. She thought a book was the natural next step. So did I.
This was January, 2010.
The Book Proposal
Before I could write my book, my agent told me, we had to sell my book, and before we could sell it, I needed to write a book proposal. I must have been nodding eagerly.
It all sounded reasonable enough. I was on an upward trajectory. It didn’t matter that I was working two jobs, driving the taxi on the weekends, and writing my blog — more than anything, I wanted to write a book. I could turn around a proposal in a few months’ time — or so I thought, until I read the sample proposals my agent sent me.
Each was about 30–50 pages, about the length of my college senior thesis, with market analyses and web statistics and biographies of authors whose CVs seemed far more impressive than mine.
A non-fiction book proposal, I realized, was less a proposal and more a sales document. And I’ve never been able to write ad copy. (Note: a fiction book proposal is a different animal. In fact, you could say there’s no such thing as a fiction book proposal — for a first-time author, it’s usually the entire work of fiction).
I don’t know how long I studied those sample proposals before I worked up the nerve and the discipline to start writing my own. Each sample proposal was a bit different, of course, but each had similar components, and in the end, riffing off those samples, I decided to include the following sections in my Driving Hungry proposal:
- An overview/introduction with a compelling hook that explained the inspiration for the book. (i.e. Why do we need this book?)
- A working outline that summarized the contents of each chapter
- One or two sample chapters
- An author biography (i.e. Why are you the only person who can write this book?)
- A market analysis that explained the intended audience for the book, and how the book fit into the current economic, social, cultural context
- A section that compared and contrasted Driving Hungry to similar already-published books. (i.e. ‘How is this book different from others on the market?’)
- A section summarizing all of the publicity that Taxi Gourmet had generated to date — every article, every radio and TV spot, even mentions on prominent websites
- A marketing plan
- Writing samples — two of my best published articles to date
It took me almost a year to put all of this together. When I finally sent my proposal to my agent, she told me it wasn’t good enough. My sample chapter was weak, she said, and overly reliant on dialog. And the overview wasn’t convincing or written in a distinctive-enough voice. I was devastated. But she told me to try again. About six months later, I sent her another draft that still wasn’t good enough. Then I moved to Berlin.
I spent the first six months in Berlin chasing my tail, keeping up my blog and the taxi adventures and what was left of my freelance jobs with the cloud of my unfinished book proposal looming over my head all the while. The structure was there. I knew what I had to write — I just didn’t know how to write it. But the real problem, as unreasonable (and arrogant) as it sounds, was this: I resented the idea that I had to audition when I already knew I could dance.
** These days, if you’re not self-publishing, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher, large or small, without a literary agent. Agents have contacts and negotiating skills that most writers don’t. And they work on commission, meaning that if they don’t think they can sell your work, they’re not going to take you on as a client. For this reason, it can be as challenging to find an agent as it is to find a publisher for your work.
This is Part 2 of a five-part series about how Taxi Gourmet, the food / travel blog I created in 2007, led to Driving Hungry, the book (Pantheon/Random House 2015)