Every time I talk to a new client about a nonfiction book proposal, I tell them the same thing: whether or not a publisher picks up your book will all depend on your platform. When I first started working on nonfiction books almost fifteen years ago, marketing sections consisted of three or four brief sentences conveying, basically, that the author was available for promotional opportunities. They might even be willing to do a book tour, provided the publisher paid for it of course. When my colleagues and I remember those days of yore, we laugh at how fanciful this seems now. A decade ago, the marketing section of a book proposal was mostly an afterthought, but now, in many ways, it is the proposal.
Before the recession and Kindle and social media and all the rest of the myriad elements that have shifted our industry so much, an author having a platform was a bonus rather than an expectation. It was fabulous if an author happened to have previously published a somewhat successful book, had experience on TV or with radio, or had usable contacts in the media, but it was not an imperative as it is now.
This is not to say that a modern-day proposal can skimp on the traditional requirements: the book still needs an excellent hook conveyed effectively in the overview. The proposal must outline an expected audience and explain why the book is similar to successful books in the same niche but also distinct from them. And the proposal must convey what the book will say and how it will say it through the outline, chapter summaries, and sample text. But on top of all of this, the proposal needs to effectively show the publisher (or agent) both how you plan to help them sell the book and what you’re already doing to sell the book.
You might be thinking, the book isn’t even written, how can I be expected to be selling it? Herein is the biggest challenge for authors of the new millennium. You can’t just sell a book; you have to sell yourself. The publisher needs to know that when she buys this book, you have an audience who is interested in you and what you have to say, that you’ve established yourself as an influential voice in your subject matter.
When a publisher or agent receives a proposal, there’s a very good chance the first page he or she will turn to is the marketing section, looking for some of these things:
Names: This is not the place to be shy about name-dropping. If you happen to have a close personal friend at the New York Times, this would be the time to share that information. Don’t worry, you’re not committing that person to covering you (unless you can get a commitment from them, in which case, do!); you’re mostly trying to show the publisher how well connected you are in a concrete way.
Numbers: The bigger the better. How many social media followers do you have on the various platforms you engage in? How many email contacts do you have in your mailing list? What is your website’s traffic like (unique visitors per month will be the key number here)? What is your budget for hiring outside marketing and advertising?
Affiliations: What organizations are you involved with that would be helpful in supporting the book? Would the company you work for host an event? Would they do a bulk buy? Are you a member of Rotary? A national fraternity or sorority you could reach out to? Get creative and get specific about how you might approach these folks.
Accomplishments and awards: Have you won any prizes for previous work? Awards for achievement in your field of study? Whatever accomplishments are relevant to your achievements should be mentioned in the bio and overview as well if they’re major (e.g., you’re a gold medal–winning Olympian writing about sports), but the marketing section is a good place to highlight them as well. Just make sure these are actually germane to the subject you’re writing on and/or so interesting or impressive on their own that they might pique someone’s interest. In other words, if you were the youngest person ever to become a grand master in chess, you probably want to include it even if you’re not writing specifically about chess. The fact that you lettered in track your freshman year? Not so much.
Previous media experience: What publications have you written for or been featured in? Have you done any television or radio? What about public speaking? What’s the largest audience you’ve spoken to? Listing these is great; including press clippings and video clips is even better.
Savvy: Publishers want an author who will be a true partner, so this is a great place to show off how willing and able you are to market your own book. Show that you have at least a cursory understanding of digital marketing. By this I mean, if you read the above bullet point about numbers and thought what if I’m not on social media? the answer is get on and get on now. Figure out which platforms will be the best for your audience, and start building up a following. These tools are powerful, and you ignore them at your peril.
Authors react to this information in several ways. Some find it so daunting they aren’t sure they want to do a book at all. But many others find it empowering. The fate of your book is in your hands in a way no previous generation of authors has enjoyed. Make the most of it.