Two Mistakes Made in Some Recent Book Proposals

by Steve Laube

Businesswoman having headache on a white background

Putting together a great book proposal takes a lot of work. I suggest writers look at them as if they were a job application, and they are. You are trying to get someone to pay you to write your book via a stellar “job application” or book proposal.

But every once in a while we get something that is not going to work, for obvious reason. Here are two mistakes:

1. Divine Attribution. Also known as the claim, “God told me to write this.” Recently we received a proposal with this line which claimed, “I literally hear from GOD,JESUS, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT.” (Capitalization and punctuation left intact.) One of the most widely read posts from our blog is titled “God Gave Me This Blog Post.” Please read the post and please avoid this mistake in the future.

I also see authors write or hear authors say, “I know you don’t like it when we say it, but I really felt inspired by God while writing this.” Trust me, I understand. In fact I believe you and don’t deny the validity of inspiration. But try not to make it sound like your book idea or sample writing is extra special because of it.

2. Resume Puffing. With all the talk about Platform and the need to have a major social media presence we are starting to see more writers attempt to inflate the value of their resume in order to attract an agent or a publisher. This doesn’t mean you don’t or can’t list the various activities, awards, or social media analytics it simply means don’t exaggerate or lie.

I once saw a proposal where the author claimed to have won a Nobel Prize. I googled the name and the prize and found that the author had been on a large research team that was granted the prize. But the way it was written it sounded like the author was the sole recipient. The claim was not inaccurate, but it felt like it. The author was right to be proud of being on such an extraordinary team, but the author should have described it as a team award.

Another author claimed to have been nominated for a major book award. Since I had been a consultant for that award I knew the truth. The author’s publisher had “entered” the book in the contest. It was one of twenty books entered into that category. This author’s book was not a finalist nor was it “nominated” for anything. It had been entered, nothing more. I had to assume that the author was unaware of the difference but it left the wrong taste when reading the proposal.

The hardest thing is listing social media numbers or past sales without revealing their small size. In my opinion it is best to simply lay it all out there unvarnished. Hiding poor numbers or presenting them in a clever way to avoid the facts is actually transparent to those of us who see proposals every day. At some point the direct question will be asked and the numbers will have to be revealed.

The key to a successful book proposal? Write a GREAT book with a GREAT idea.

Your Turn

Have you seen resume puffing in your business?
What else would be considered “puffing” the resume in a book proposal.

27 Responses to Two Mistakes Made in Some Recent Book Proposals

  1. Jackie Layton September 23, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    I’m working on a proposal now and would never dream about lying. My day job is being a pharmacist, and I know the minute a person is lying or trying to get away with “altering” a prescription. It sounds like the same is true for you on proposals.

    Thanks for sharing. Have a great day.

    • Steve Laube September 23, 2013 at 8:31 am #

      Jackie,

      Exactly. We see enough true-blue proposals that when they are “off” we can tell immediately.

      I didn’t realize folks try to fool their pharmacist with the prescriptions.

      Steve

      • Jackie Layton September 23, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

        You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard. Unbelievable.

        Take care!

    • Staci Eastin September 23, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

      Hi Jackie,

      I’m a pharmacist turned writer too. I certainly don’t miss that sinking feeling when you realize someone is trying to pull a fast one on you and you’re going to have to deal with it. But look on the bright side, if you’re writing fiction, you will have a deep well to draw from when you want to come up with unusual characters. :)

      • Jackie Layton September 23, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

        That’s true. Some things happen and I know they’ll go in a book one day.

  2. Anne Love September 23, 2013 at 3:37 am #

    Thanks for sharing Steve. Are there certain numbers from Google Analytics you look for in a proposal? I’ve asked this elsewhere and never got a reply. I look at my GA regularly, but I don’t find it very intuitive to extract a meaningful snapshot that tells someone something significant about my blog reach/influence.

    • Steve Laube September 23, 2013 at 8:29 am #

      Anne,

      There is no hard and fast threshold. But the bigger the better. Consider one client I have you has a newsletter mailing list (email addresses) of over 100,000 people who opted in to receive her newsletter. THAT is a platform.

      A blogger with 10,000 monthly visitors (do NOT list “hits”) is okay, but is really about 300 people per day, which is not that large to a publisher.

      Facebook followers is a measure some look at and determine if these are “friends” engaged enough to want to buy and word-of-mouth support a book.

      Ultimately platform is the size of the audience you bring with you to the publication of your book.

      But that is a blog for another day.

  3. Ron Estrada September 23, 2013 at 4:13 am #

    I’ve seen a few. I recall a guy applying for a maintenance position in my company. He listed, one per line, double spaced, every tool he’d ever used, including extension ladders and screwdrivers. For an engineer like me it’s common to mention projects and cost-savings. It’s amazing how many millions we can save the company by switching from staples to paper clips. I see writers listing every blog they’ve ever written for. As you know, we could easily write for a couple dozen blogs and get read by three people. Whenver I write for a blog, I hassle the owner to give me the real numbers. I may keep writing for them if the numbers aren’t there, but I’m not going to mention it in my proposal or pitch.

    • Laura Christianson September 23, 2013 at 7:59 am #

      “…we could easily write for a couple dozen blogs and get read by three people.”

      Laughing, Ron! Any blogger worth their salt will have Google Analytics or similar stats-tracking software installed on their blog. They may prefer to keep their numbers private, but many of the “big” bloggers — those who are rock stars in their particular niche — willingly share visitor and page-view statistics with their guest bloggers.

  4. Terrance Austin September 23, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    Write a Great book with a great idea. Thanks Steve. If I believe in my heart that God’s purpose for me is to write in his honor, I know that if that’s the case, the proof of it will show. No exaggerations or lies. And if a person has to claim, I am a sent by” God”, you being a christian lit agency would know it because God would bare witness of it himself in your heart and in the writer’s proposal. When God touches someone, you can tell it because only he will get the glory for it. Thanks again Steve. Bless you.

  5. Thomas Allbaugh September 23, 2013 at 6:49 am #

    Good tip at the end, though it does seem that one could write a great book and a great proposal and still be rejected because the writer doesn’t seem to have the right platform.

  6. Meghan Carver September 23, 2013 at 6:54 am #

    Puffing is an interesting way to put it, Steve. By education, I’m a lawyer. Do I really need to give examples? :)

  7. Thomas Allbaugh September 23, 2013 at 7:23 am #

    It is important, certainly, to be honest, though it is still possible to write a great book and a great proposal and still be rejected because of the platform question.

    • Steve Laube September 23, 2013 at 8:19 am #

      Thomas,
      Of course it is. Happens every day…I get to see each and every rejection letter that says as much. My point is to avoid faking your way in or inflating the platform as if the editor or agent won’t know.

      Steve

      • Amy Boucher Pye September 23, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

        Another blog post for another day – how does it feel to see those rejection letters for you as the agent? How do you keep perspective?

  8. Amber Perry September 23, 2013 at 7:34 am #

    Hi Steve! Excellent post. I agree with you 100% about looking at it like a job application. You wouldn’t fudge about your qualifications (or, you SHOULDN’T…I guess some people do…yikes!) when applying for a job, so the same goes for seeking an agent/agency to represent you.

  9. Laura Christianson September 23, 2013 at 7:51 am #

    Steve,

    How do you handle the “puffers” who claim in their email signature line that they are an “award-winning, best-selling author” of X number of books? Yet, only one of their books could technically be called a best-seller. Or their book is a “best-seller” because it reached #1 on Amazon for an hour during a free download period. And the “award” comes from some obscure contest that the author paid a fee to enter. This seems unethical to me, but I see so-called “Christian” authors doing it all the time.

    Do agents have a definition of what constitutes “best-selling” or “award-winning”?

    • Steve Laube September 23, 2013 at 8:23 am #

      Good question Laura. I’ll put it this way. We are not fooled.

      When someone claims bestseller status and it cannot be verified or it comes to light that it is as you described as being #1 on amazon in an obscure category, I’m not as inclined to be impressed. (Have I understated that appropriately?)

      Here on our site we have a section for authors awards and bestseller lists. (See the drop down menu in the Author section above.) I chose to list bestsellers as only those which have hit selected national lists.

      Awards are a little trickier, but again I have tried to focus on those awards that are fairly national or have a strong measure of quality attached to their name.

      • C.L. Dyck September 23, 2013 at 10:40 am #

        This is the one that came to mind for me. I see “award-winning” used in email signatures a lot, for all kinds of reasons.

  10. Jeanne Takenaka September 23, 2013 at 7:59 am #

    Interesting thought that—puffing up the numbers in the resumé. As an SAHM, the only “puffing” I see is when my kids try to get out of doing something by attempting to convince me why they shouldn’t have to do it. ;)

    On the serious side though, I can’t imagine trying to exaggerate numbers to be impressive. Any agent worth his (or her) salt will do the research to check validity. As you’ve done. I figure honesty is a much greater character trait than higher numbers. If an agent is willing to consider working with me, they may also have suggestions to increase my numbers. Does that make sense?

  11. J.D Maloy September 23, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    Thomas, you and I share a similar concern. This is slightly off topic, but it piggy backs on the comments which confuse me. Right now, I’m currently on a hiatus from social networking as I try to figure out what platform I want to build. Tamela wrote in her “Can’t Go to the Conference? Don’t Despair post, that if she’s interested in a potential client she goes “online to learn about the author.” I immediately said oh dear. I say that because I’m going to begin submitting within a few months, but I’m not “online” now. So will that hinder me? Possibly. But, like you, I believe an agent will take a chance if the story is great. I could be wrong. It’s all subjective. Platform vs. great story? What gives me hope is that “great story” element. In my research, publishers will take a chance on newbie authors, even with a small platform, if they have a great story they can back. I understand that the level of “backing” is varied and an author must do their share of promoting.

    So when does one begin building said platform? Is there really a perfect time? I’ve read through the archives and read tons of articles regarding this topic but have yet to find a clear answer. It seemed to be case by case. Person and message. As I approach submissions, I will get back on fb and twitter, but I cannot overdo it. I know my limits. And right now I need to focus on writing. Social networking distracts me. I know my limits ;)

    What if I have a recommendation? I’m curious to see what holds more value; a recommendation from someone reputable in the literary business or a strong platform? Perhaps, a recommendation would be better to get an agent to look at the proposal whereas a strong platform could be used to draw the attention of a publisher, especially a newbie? These questions might be answered in Steve’s “blog for another day.”

    I’m going to keep working hard to make my story great! Maybe I’m not as confused as I think.

    • Thomas Allbaugh September 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

      Hi J.D.–to a fellow reader of this great blog, I can only say that you voice many of my concerns and issues–especially that social networking and “buzz” building actually takes away from my writing time, which gets parsed between a full-time teaching schedule, coordinating a university writing program, and raising 4 kids. Unlike you, I haven’t researched the question of the importance of social networks in much depth. I’ve just assumed its importance. However, I will say that I went to a secular (ABA) writer’s conference this past summer and the talk from editors and agents was about making the book good. Though there was a little on the platform idea, the bulk of concerns–all but one of the presentations–was on writing well. Evenings were spent listening to good writing–from folks like Richard Ford, Gregory Spatz, and Amy Tan. This was very different from the CBA conference I’ve gone to, and yet I suppose finally this isn’t a question of an either/or–of either writing a good book OR building a huge platform. It’s a matter of writing your best book and showing a publisher that you have an audience, even a built in audience for it. That means platform building. It looks like I’ve got some work to do with both parts of that. Thanks for your ideas. Very clarifying, as was today’s blog.

      • J.D. Maloy September 23, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

        Thomas, yahoo! What encouragement today, thank you for your response and honesty!

        I’ve been to both Christian and secular conferences too and I agree, whole-heartedly, that we (authors) need to focus on the writing first. But, yes, it’s so hard when life’s demands and the ‘platform’ part of this business surround us. Since I ditto you in the struggling to find balance in daily life, I must ask…with all you have going on, does writing make your blood boil? At the end of the day, do you dream about getting swept away into your story?

  12. Preslaysa September 23, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    Very informative post, Steve. I’m curious to know how much weight is given to social media numbers for fiction proposals. I’ve focused more on writing these past few years rather than on building a large Facebook following, for instance. However, I’ve heard that it’s pretty important and now I’m wondering.

  13. Rachel Muller September 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    I was nervous when I read the title of this article, but was relieved after I read it. It’s always interesting to discover what agents frown upon and what piques their interest. Thank you for being so informative.

    • Peter DeHaan September 23, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

      Rachel, I was nervous, too. Fortunately, I didn’t commit either infraction in my proposal.

  14. nadia mathews October 5, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    Should an author even submit a proposal if the manuscript isnt perfect?

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