People often call me to ask for feedback on a book idea. While the subject area
is good, usually the positioning is what needs help. Positioning is the unique
spin you put on your book to make it different from the competition, or to make
it seem new.
Here's an example of a book that stayed on the New York
Times bestseller list for several months. When Eric Schlosser
wrote Fast Food Nation, a muckraker of how fast
food has widened the chasm between rich and poor and fueled
an epidemic of obesity, he faced competition from many books
about the food industry. Most of them, however, were written
for academics and not for the general public. And most were
not an indictment. He had something new to say, he passionately
researched his subject so he could back up his opinions,
and his book presaged rising alarm over the obesity rate
So what does it take to come up with a book idea to attract
agents and editors? Here are 10 criteria resulting from
the work I've done as an editor and book proposal coach:
1. You have a timely subject. Right now
dozens of books on Iraq and US involvement are being sold
to publishers and rushed into print. Publishers know that
the public is hungry for information and context. They also
know that the subject is still in the news and therefore
on people's minds. If you study trends, you might put your
finger on the pulse of something hot and use it as a jumping
off point for your book.
2. The book is about your area of expertise.
You have to convince an agent or editor that you are the
right person to write the book, and being a recognized expert
on the subject makes it so much easier. It gives you the
authority and credibility you need to be taken seriously
as an author. By expert I mean that you speak or teach on
your subject, or have 20 years' experience in your business.
Perhaps you have written articles in magazines or newspapers,
or have been interviewed as an expert by the media.
3. You are passionate about the subject.
If you can communicate excitement and enthusiasm in your
writing, it can be contagious. In A Natural History
of the Senses, poet Diane Ackerman packs her book with
fascinating historical facts. Her passion for inquiries
into such as subjects as diverse as aromatic memories, reactions
to cold, why people get hankerings, and the way animals
display themselves to attract a mate come through as an
intense narrative journey. She is not a scientist, but I
don't think anyone cares.
4. Your book has a small focus. This is
a big problem for many writers I have worked with over the
years. They want to tell readers everything they know about
the subject, and find it difficult to weed out the most
important points. Unfortunately, this makes the book too
broad - not to mention boring - and as a result, the book
loses focus. A small subject book, tightly written and focused
on the most important details, however, can be a delight.
5. You've found a great selling hook. One
of my favorite examples to use when I teach is a cookbook
called A Man, A Can, a Plan. Yes, there have been
countless previous cookbooks aimed at men. This one was
conceived as a cross between a visual joke and seriously
The book is printed on heavy stock and coated like a children's book, so it won't
stain, and also gives the not-so-subtle hint that men are like children. Recipes have
photos of cans, produce and protein, with plus signs between them to immediately
communicate what to have on hand. Are the recipes in the book unusual? No. But the
selling hook works. The author told me his book has been particularly successful
among college students, a perfect target audience.
6. Your book idea has potential as a series.
Agents and publishers like to envision a long stream of
revenue over the years. The key here is that your idea must
be well thought out. This sounds obvious, but many try to
define the parts of their book as a series, and that doesn't
work. Think of Chicken Soup for the Soul. The authors
have milked that collection of stories into a huge series
of books targeted to specific readers as obscure as the
NASCAR, Hawaiian and prisoner's souls.
7. Your book reaches a large, well-defined audience.
You can show statistics about a particular group showing
you have a specific target, such as all human resources
managers of business with over $1 million per year in revenue.
Publishers like to know you have defined exactly who will
buy your book so they can market to that audience.
8. You have an original idea. This is a
tough one, but it can be done. Books that come to mind are
A Natural History of the Senses, a grand tour,
beautifully written by a poet; Walking the Bible,
a first-person account of the author's journey by land through
the five books of Moses; and Nickel and Dimed,
an undercover report of what it's like to be part of the
working poor in America.
9. Your subject is not obscure. Sure, you
may be fascinated by the eating habits of great yogis of
a region in Indian, but the audience will be too small to
attract a publisher.
10. Your book idea is an evergreen, so it will sell
for a long time. It might be a book on diet or
self-improvement, which never goes out of style, where you
have something new to say.
© 2006-2007 Dianne Jacob is a publishing coach who helps
people shape their book ideas and create winning proposals
for agents and editors. For more details, see www.diannej.com.