The beginning section of a nonfiction proposal is called an Overview.* Its function is to attract an acquisitions editor’s interest in a book. If the Overview does not do that job, he may not bother to read the other sections. He reviews hundreds of proposals a year, after all, and his time is valuable.
A number of authors I have edited regard this opening section as a descriptive exercise. They provide details from their chosen field, such as cardiology, as a way to show off their knowledge. Or, they give these details to show that the general public is interested in what they plan to write about in the book. This professional insider’s meandering can go on for pages, as the different topics of interest are displayed in what the author feels is a warm, welcoming style.
Now let’s return to that acquisitions editor. Most of the time, she specializes in a particular field of nonfiction. It is very likely that she knows a great deal about cardiology, say. She may have taken pre-med courses in college. What she wants to know is: why is your book a valuable addition to the field?
A journalist knows that he has to grab a reader’s attention with the lead paragraph. That’s the same way you should approach the Overview. Assume that the editor has no patience. The first paragraph can be descriptive, setting the stage, but you better put forth a selling point for your book before the paragraph ends. The next paragraph had better contain a second selling point and hopefully a couple. What is new and different about your book? Why should I read your book rather than the already published books on the same subject?
If you have achieved a degree of fame, or have written other books, you should blazon your credentials on that first page. The editor needs to know that you are an expert in your subject. If you are a chiropractor, you can’t call yourself a doctor—because she will know right away. She’s actively looking for your creds, because down the road, the reader will too. If you’re not an M.D., why should I listen to your medical advice?
Before you reach the bottom of the page, you should have made your pitch. You can go on for another few pages (anywhere from 3-5 pages, normally). You can give a paragraph-by-paragraph summary of the chapters’ main points. But first the battle must be won on page 1. You list your best selling points in the hope the editor will bother to turn the page.
Exercise: Draw up a list of points that you know no other trade book contains. Hopefully, they are new and exciting. Pick the best of the lot and organize your opening page around them. If you are a doctor, don’t assume that editors are mewling children like your patients. They are on top of their game, and in this case that game is: proposals.
“No crime is so great as daring to excel.”
*A proposal can also start with a brief section called a Concept Statement, and the Overview follows.
Copyright @ 2015, John Paine