The Kiss of Death: Six Things You Should Never Say in a Non-Fiction Proposal
So far in this newsletter I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the process of writing fiction. And if you want to get your novel published you’ll need to finish writing the book in its entirety; so here’s some advice on “How do you know if your novel draft is actually ready to send to an agent?”. But in today’s newsletter I want to focus on non-fiction, and instead of sharing advice on what should be included, I think it’s better (and a little spicier) to start with those kisses of death that will irritate and irk a prospective agent or publisher, causing their eyes to roll to the back of their head.
In book jacket conversations I always tell my authors to also share the covers that they don’t like because as much as the covers they admire and which signify their tastes are helpful, so are the fonts, imagery and designs of those they hate. One offsets the other and can guide the designer in a more streamlined direction. Much like that, I’m sharing the things that will make an editor balk, an agent cringe and cause a sales person to close the tab on your proposal all together.
Unlike a novel you don’t have the luxury – or perhaps the opportunity – for the reader to fall in love with your book, its quirks and misdemeanours, the elegant charting of character develop and that sudden swoop into a realisation no one saw coming. No, instead you have to make them fall in love with the idea of you, which makes it easier in some regards and much more difficult in others.
Imagine then that the novel is the warts-and-all, enduring relationship whereby the publisher has learned to love all sides and versions of you. Has seen passed the projection of who you want to be, straight into the heart of who you really are. They’ve accepted your foibles and the small irritations you invoke, learning to give context even to your faults and indeed are willing to work through them with you. Well, the non-fiction proposal in comparison then is the beguiling and early game of seduction. It is the art of shimmering possibility, glazed with hope for all that lies ahead. It flirts with the positioning you might birth together; teases the retailers you may go on to secure; and dangles the receptive and hungry readership of those who won’t be able to resist buying a copy. A non-fiction proposal precedes the honeymoon period – it is butterflies in the tummy before you’ve ever even met, excited emails sent back and forth at a publishing house: “Oh my god we have to publish this!” “Agreed. When can we meet the author?”
There will be a newsletter about mastering the art of seduction in a non-fiction proposal, as well as the practicalities and format for how to write one, so do subscribe so you don’t miss out on that.
But for now, let’s turn our attention to the six immediate turn offs, the gruelling red flags and those grubby overused statements that turn noses up and may stifle an opportunity.