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.

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.)

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.)

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.)

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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?


The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Restaurants

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