Book Proposals in the Digital Age

Writer's Digest (October 2011)

I started my first publishing job in 1998, and I immediately started reviewing nonfiction book proposals as part of an editorial team.

By 2010, what constituted a strong book proposal had dramatically transformed. You can probably guess why. The Internet has forever changed how we discover, access, and distribute information and entertainment. For a nonfiction (non-narrative) book to be published these days, it needs a unique selling proposition that can overcome objections based on, “You can get that for free on the Internet,” or “The Internet offers a better solution or experience.”

In my October 2011 article for Writer’s Digest, “Book Proposals in the Digital Age,” I identify 3 issues you must address in every book proposal. You’ll need to buy the issue for all 2,500 words I spill on this topic, but from a big-picture perspective, here’s what I say.

1. Your competitive analysis can’t stop at print.

A book proposal’s competitive title analysis typically evaluates what key competitors are on the shelf. But that’s not good enough any more. You also need to uncover the following:

  • Best-selling ebook-only titles (whether traditional or indie)
  • Top blogs and websites
  • Multimedia options and applications

When you’re ready to write your proposal, the most visible and competitive online and multimedia offerings should be described. Which brings us to our next point …

2. What’s your evidence of need for a print book?

Why is your book needed if people can find the information or advice they need from an online community or a tablet/mobile application? (Just imagine the kind of competition in the categories of travel, cooking, and reference!)

There may be a very good reason your book will successfully compete against the online world, but you can no longer assume people will buy a book as a solution to their problem. You may even realize, in the process of researching the online competition, that what you should do isn’t write a book, but get started with a blog or community site instead!

This, in fact, is what I often recommend to authors who are working in categories where advice and resources are abundant online. (There are ways to monetize online information, but that’s not what this post is about.)

Once you have a significant online readership, then you might successfully argue that you have a captive audience for any books you author. (This is how most popular bloggers land book deals.) But your captive audience probably needs to be at least 50,000 visitors per month, if not double that, to merit the interest of a commercial publisher. And by that point, you may be far more interested in self-publishing!

3. You need an online content strategy.

A print (or electronic) book is not and should not be the final step in the publishing game, or in your career. Agents and editors want to see that your book is not the beginning OR end of the road—that it is merely one aspect of your much larger purpose and strategy for developing content and serving a readership, online and off.

So, think creatively about what can or should be done outside the book format. What are you already doing that can support the book and give it a presence or companion online? How can the content in your book be divided or reworked? Could it be customized or personalized? Have you thought about audio or video versions or supplements? Could you create an online class? How about an e-newsletter?

Bottom line

We’re still experiencing a revolution in how we find, use and share information—and your proposal must demonstrate why the book form is a smart and viable way to deliver your advice or information.

I believe that we’ll eventually see the book form (as we know it today) disappear for many nonfiction categories. (See my interview here with Michael Hyatt for more on this.) Don’t despair, though. Thinking beyond the book (and off the page) is primarily a creative and imaginative act. You still get to share your message or information, but in a more useful and dynamic way.

To read my full article on book proposals in the digital age, click here to purchase the October 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest (as a PDF).

I also offer a self-study course on How to Write a Powerful Book Proposal That Sells.

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Posted in Getting Published.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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