How to Write an Email Well Enough to Land a Book Deal
Anne Trubek with Practical Advice on What Works
Deduced from my somewhat limited study of people I’ve met in airports and at Belt events, about 82 percent of Americans think they have a good idea for a book.
Now, it’s definitely a very feel-good and motivational thing to say everyone has a book in them, but I do not believe this. (I also do not think everyone has a movie in them, or a restaurant, or a surgery, or whatever other activity requiring expertise people assume they could totally do). I do think everyone has a good essay in them, though. Belt’s city anthology series, books containing dozens of essays about a city, often written by people who have never published before, bears this out to a certain extent.
So when I meet people who tell me they have a book idea, and they ask me what I think about that idea—perhaps Belt would be interested?—the first question I ask is: “What else has been written on this topic lately?” Almost invariably, the person cannot answer. Even worse, they sometimes offer this dreaded response: “I don’t have time to read.” Often, this is uttered with great pride, followed by that wretched, perverse boast: “I’m too busy.”
Think about saying this to a person whose livelihood is focused on publishing products for people to read for fun. Think about saying this to the person you might ask to spend tens of thousands of dollars to make your writing into a book. Would you apply to be a chef at a steakhouse and proudly proclaim you are too important or busy to taste red meat? Would you pitch a new type of potato chip without first going through the snack aisle to see what other kinds of chips are on the market?
Many nonwriters who are sure they have a great book idea—but (sorry to say) do not—are not thinking about their idea as one within a marketplace of other ideas. They are—and I do not mean this in a nasty way, but a technical one—thinking selfishly. They are thinking about how fascinating their grandfather who fought in World War II is, or how interesting their own divorce has been. And that’s fine! It may be there is a fascinating history or memoir there. But if you have an idea for a book, the key question is not about whether a topic is interesting to you, but whether or not someone might want to spend thousands of dollars on this idea to make it into a physical object for readers. And the answer to that question lies in whether or not others might want to spend money to read it.
Writers who think selfishly aren’t the kind of writers I hope to work with. I want to work with an author who has read everything that has been written on a topic, plus lots of other unrelated books, who has some sense of how those books sold and thinks, “Hmmmm, I think I have something to add to this conversation.” Or maybe, “Wow, there have been four books about X recently, but they’re all by men, and my take is substantially different.” Or, “Everyone is writing about Y. No one is writing about the history of Y, in which I am well-versed.” I want to imagine someone at a desk surrounded by recent releases who suddenly looks up and says, “Hey! There’s a hole in the market for books on this topic. I can fill that gap!”
When anyone tells me they have a great idea for a book, my initial response as a publisher is always, “What else has been written on the topic?” I ask that to suss out the kind of reader the person is. Then I suggest they research the answer to consider the viability of their idea. Has it been done to death already? Does there seem to be a need for more books about the topic? How does the idea fit with similar books that have been published in the past year or two? Does it duplicate, enhance, or imitate them? Publishing is trendy, so if an idea has led to many good or best-selling books of late (“I had a breakup and decided to go hiking by myself and met so many interesting people!” or, “I grew up poor and, boy oh boy, let me tell you about the laziness of my people!”), it might find a home because a publisher figures it might do as well as those other titles. Or, the reverse might happen, and a publisher might say, “That’s been done already.”
In preparing to write this book, I took my own advice and found surprisingly little along the lines of a reference book about the publishing process. (Now, books about the writing process? Trust me, the world does not need any more books on that topic). The word on the street is that “books about publishing don’t sell,” but in my opinion, that refers more to those memoirs by end-of-career men who are reminiscing about their experiences publishing other, now-dead men. This book is not about my experiences with publishing per se; instead, it aims to describe the nuts and bolts of the publishing process as a way to make an opaque industry more transparent and understandable.
The other books about this topic that I did find included What Editors Do: The Art and Craft of Book Editing, Getting It Published, and The Business of Being a Writer. None of them are exactly like my book, so I decided there was a hole in the market. (I also discovered that the University of Chicago Press, the publisher of all three, has a monopoly on good books on this topic!)
But it’s still a big risk. It may be, in fact, that “books about publishing don’t sell.”
If you’ve decided you want to secure a traditional publisher for your nonfiction book idea, and you have found there is a need and demand for such a title, the next step is to write a proposal.
Book proposals for nonfiction have evolved into impossible beasts. They can be up to sixty pages long, and for a writer hoping for a Big Five contract sold by an agent, they can take anywhere from four months to a year to write. And that doesn’t count the time for revisions that many agents will advise their clients make before sending the proposal out to editors and editorial boards.
These expectations for proposals create a few endemic problems. First and foremost, it is extremely difficult to write a serious nonfiction book proposal while you’re also supporting yourself. The proposal is a job in and of itself. One friend told me she would have had to take four months off work to write a proposal strong enough to garner the advance she would need . . . to take off time from work to actually write the book. In other words, it was impossible. So even though she had lots of material for the book and a draft in process, she never even tried to get a contract for what would have been a fabulous book because she did not have time to write the proposal. I imagine some wood-lined and leather-filled room in book purgatory filled with the promise of books that were never written because the proposal process was too difficult. This is not a room the world needs.
Second, proposal writing and book writing are not the same thing. They are different genres. It’s like writing a poem in order to write a play, penning a novel to make a case for a research grant, or pitching a white paper in order to paint a mural. Being good at one part of the process does not mean one will necessarily be any good at the other. As proposal expectations rise, and as authors have to work for months on something only tangentially related to writing the book itself, contracts will go to those people who are good at writing proposals. As a result, the books we get in the world will more often be written by folks like that, which will decrease the overall diversity of books that get made. The books we get may also be more formulaic because they have been laboriously outlined in advance according to the structures favored by agents and editors at the time of composition.
All of these conditions create an impoverished landscape of nonfiction overall. In the publishing industry right now, for example, one by-product of the process I’ve detailed above is the assumption that all nonfiction must be narrative. Narrative nonfiction is the coin of the land. It is currently so dominant that many prospective authors squeeze their ideas, topics, and habits of thinking into a story structure that does not suit them or their material. But here’s the thing: there are lots of other structures for nonfiction. You can write an argument! You can proceed by association, or through a variety of case studies, or impressionistically! It’s fun to consider other organizational strategies that are not primarily narrative. We should all do it more often.
Third, selling books through an extensive proposal process favors writers who work by plotting in advance. Me? I am not good at that; it’s not how my mind works. I write by tinkering, by intuition, by discovering what I want to say as I draft, and then by revising over and over again. My proposals are always thin and less compelling than either my initial ideas for a book or the final product are.
The proposal process tilts nonfiction toward more formulaic books (no offense intended; this book is rather formulaic), and away from experimental ones that are difficult to outline before they have been written. When I am acquiring books for Belt Publishing, I de-emphasize the importance of tables of contents in proposals. I prefer to let the shape of the book develop as the writer drafts, tinkers, and discovers. If I have read other published writing by that author that shows dexterity with prose and structure, I can trust that they will figure out the best order for the book. “Wow, I really want to read that book” is my favorite way to respond to a proposal. I would much rather offer them a contract then, encourage them to draft away, and figure out the outline after the fact.
(Novelists are expected to write complete books before trying to get contracts, and in this sense, they are better off than nonfiction writers because there’s less pressure on the proposal. But writing fiction can also require much more time, or the discipline to create time, before the author receives a contract, and, sometimes, the accompanying money that could be used to buy time to write.)
When I reach out to prospective authors to see if they have book ideas for Belt, I usually tell them not to worry about writing a full proposal. A few paragraphs that give an overview of the book is usually sufficient to start a conversation. I can tell, based upon a page or two, if an idea is tenable and marketable. I can tell, based on reading some of the writer’s other published work, if their writing is good enough, appropriate for what they are proposing, and if it’s the type of writing we like to publish. For some writers, this process is liberating—ideas have been floating around in their heads, but they’ve been intimidated by the proposal process. For others, though, a more open process like this might involve too much latitude, and they need to outline or write more before committing. (Honestly, this has not happened to me yet—everyone I talk to is just fine with a back-of-the-envelope overview and outline.) Everyone has different writing habits and processes, but that’s precisely why the acquisition process should be flexible enough to accommodate a range of formats and possibilities.
Usually, the first step in securing a book contract is writing a query to an agent or an acquiring editor. The query makes the case for the book to the selected gatekeepers who might be interested in it.
A query is just a well-written email. That’s it. To write a good email, you should capture the interest of the reader, explain the main point of your book, make a case for why it will sell, and explain why the particular agent or editor you’re contacting might be interested in it. You should do this succinctly—500 words or less—and you should write it well. But it’s not a very high bar.
However, many prospective authors—even good writers with great book ideas—send terrible queries. Many queries read as if they were written that morning, slapped together in a burst of inspiration (or procrastination). Many of them reveal that the author is too far inside her own head—the book is all about me, me, me!—and they fail to show how the query is the first step in a transaction between two parties. And some queries just aren’t that great at conveying the gist of the book; admittedly, that’s hard to do when you haven’t written it yet!
I’m not pointing out these weaknesses to chide or dissuade people from writing queries, but to inspire them.
Remember: IT IS NOT THAT HARD TO STAND OUT IN THE INBOX OF AN EDITOR OR AGENT. YOU. JUST. NEED. TO. WRITE. ONE. REALLY. GOOD. EMAIL.
About 85 percent of gatekeeper inboxes are likely filled with queries that the agent or editor will delete after scanning them for thirty seconds. You can get to the top of the pile if you spend a little time thinking and honing your initial query. Editors and people in acquisitions love an email that grabs their attention, so spend the time making every last word count, and you can get noticed.
Here is the query I sent to secure an agent for my 2016 book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. Ultimately, it was an effective query because it worked. It helped me find an agent, and an editor, and a contract, and a book.
The National Archives is asking for help. They have uploaded hundreds of handwritten documents and are asking for “citizen archivists” to help them transcribe letters by Thurgood Marshall, letters of conviction by Susan B. Anthony, and cancelled checks for Abraham Lincoln’s salary.
They help you decipher old scripts, offering transcription tips and tutorials. “Don’t try to correct spelling mistakes,” they warn. “Please be true to the document and type what you see.” For help with reading handwriting, the FAQ sends you to a paleography online tutorial.
Ironically, handwriting is making a comeback in the digital age. Along with the National Archives project, several other similar crowdsourcing efforts have proven effective and popular: the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” project received major media attention and a call-out by Mario Batali, and Jeremy Bentham’s manuscripts are being transcribed by people who are choosing to waste their time playing with old scripts instead of Angry Birds.
Meanwhile, though, most of us are no longer doing much handwriting of our own. A credit card receipt here and there, a to-do list, maybe a thank you letter. But all of those traditionally scripted forms of communication have been off-loaded to keyboards as well. In elementary school classrooms, cursive writing instruction is being slowly phased out.
What does it all mean? Does the decline of handwriting as a mode of writing for most Americans signal a degradation of writing, thinking, and cognitive skills in the digital age? Or is it just another evolution in the history of writing? Behind this question lies a larger one. Should we mourn or celebrate the seismic changes in writing—from handwriting done by elementary school children to texting to how best- selling authors promote their works—wrought by the digital age?
This book raises these questions through a tour of handwriting’s history, present, and future. Through visits to the Folger Shakespeare Library, the new, digital Museum of Writing in London, a course in Spenserian penmanship, third-grade classrooms, home visits with contemporary authors, and elsewhere, I go on the road to look at, learn about, and question the changing nature of writing. Handwriting has never been a neutral activity–throughout its history it has been loaded with connotations of intelligence, morality, and manners.
A work of narrative nonfiction, the book will have a broad appeal, as it interweaves personal stories, scenes from classrooms, tidbits from history, and my experiences going out to find evidence around the world, from a museum in London to a Shakespearian archive to spending a week learning Spenserian calligraphy. I tell my personal struggles as a mother navigating the education system on behalf of my handwriting- challenged son. This book has a beginning (which starts about 5,000 years ago), a middle (American schools in the early nineteenth century only taught boys, not girls, to write; cursive became more “personal” than typewriting) and an uncertain end (given the revolution in digital writing, how will we teach children how to make letters fifty—or ten—years from now?).
If the gatekeeper is interested, and thinks a book might be a good fit, she will respond by asking to see a full proposal, or to chat further, or for some evidence of some other sort of enthusiasm. You should have a full book proposal ready to go when you send a query, or you should at least plan to write one soon after the query’s done. If she is uninterested, she will send a rejection. More likely, she’ll simply delete your email, leaving you in that increasingly common state of online abeyance, that purgatory of wondering, “Is not responding a way to say no?” Do not let this period go on for too long without moving along. Allow two to four weeks with one follow-up. That’s a fine rule of thumb in this world where there are no rules.
So: one good email. That’s how most books are born!
From So You Want to Publish a Book? by Anne Trubek. Used with the permission of Belt Publishing. Copyright © 2020 by Anne Trubek.