How NOT to Pitch Your Book Proposal

In 30 years of book publishing I have heard it all. In the spring of 1987, I received a book proposal from a man who was predicting that the Rapture would happen before November (the 40-year anniversary of the founding of Israel).

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RyanJLane, Image #5487211

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RyanJLane

He said, “Since I will be gone once this happens, I wish to assign all my royalties to my brother-in-law who is not a Christian.” I kid you not.

I replied, “Being Christians ourselves and being convinced by your proposal, we don’t believe we will be around to publish your book!” I never heard from him again.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only crazy stuff I’ve heard. In fact, I probably get at least one proposal a month that makes me shake my head in disbelief.

Therefore, let me save your proposal from a one-way trip to the trash can. If you are trying to get a publisher (or an agent) to take your proposal seriously, there are at least ten things you should never say:

  1. God told me to write this book.
  2. God told me to contact you.
  3. My book is destined to be a bestseller.
  4. My book is perfect for Oprah.
  5. My book is very similar to (insert the name of the latest mega-bestseller).
  6. There is nothing like my book in the marketplace.
  7. This is a multi-million dollar opportunity. I hope you are smart enough to see it.
  8. I will only share my book idea with you after you sign a confidentiality agreement.
  9. I don’t care about the money; I just want to help people.
  10. You probably won’t publish my book, because most of what you publish is fluff.

If you want to write a good query letter, start by reading The Writers Digest Guide To Query Letters. Then just apply a little common sense.

Question: If you are an agent or an editor, what is the craziest pitch you have ever heard?
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  • Angela

    So can you tell me how one goes about finding a possible suit for someone to collaborate with on a project. I am an author but less known than all the big named ones, and would like to find someone to work on a project with–but no clue where to start.

  • Angela

    So can you tell me how one goes about finding a possible suit for someone to collaborate with on a project. I am an author but less known than all the big named ones, and would like to find someone to work on a project with–but no clue where to start.

  • http://DustAndLight.com/ Aaron R.

    Thanks for the tips, guys!

  • http://DustAndLight.com/ Aaron R.

    Thanks for the tips, guys!

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  • Slim Jim

    Wow!

  • Slim Jim

    Wow!

  • http://www.godmessedmeup.blogspot.com/ Pam Hogeweide

    writers telling publishers that "God told me to write this book" is kind of like spiritual intimidation. "I'm telling you God told me to write it so if you turn it down you are turning down the Almighty." And it sounds immature and unprofessional.

    If God has inspired the work, then it will be evident without an announcement.

    God told me to tell you this.

    And he also told me to tell you to forward this to 10 people so you will receive a great blessing by tomorrow morning.

    (this was so hilarious and insightful. Thanks for the discussion!)

  • http://www.godmessedmeup.blogspot.com Pam Hogeweide

    writers telling publishers that "God told me to write this book" is kind of like spiritual intimidation. "I'm telling you God told me to write it so if you turn it down you are turning down the Almighty." And it sounds immature and unprofessional.

    If God has inspired the work, then it will be evident without an announcement.

    God told me to tell you this.

    And he also told me to tell you to forward this to 10 people so you will receive a great blessing by tomorrow morning.

    (this was so hilarious and insightful. Thanks for the discussion!)

  • http://www.turtle-dove.com/ Debra

    As Christian writers we should know how give God credit without it sounding unprofessional or intimidating.

  • http://www.turtle-dove.com/ Debra

    As Christian writers we should know how give God credit without it sounding unprofessional or intimidating.

  • http://sacredandtheprofane.com/ Calee

    I would be interested in seeing a post on how to handle memoirs. Do publishers want proposals or finished works–I've seen different "experts" say both.

    Thanks

  • http://sacredandtheprofane.com Calee

    I would be interested in seeing a post on how to handle memoirs. Do publishers want proposals or finished works–I've seen different "experts" say both.

    Thanks

  • http://www.AtlasTakesAim.com/ Masonian

    Oh my! I think I snorted milk out my nose! Funny, yet a bit eye-opening.
    Writers (myself included) often labor in isolation over our "earth-moving, life-changing, sure-to-be-the-most-important-book-since-the-bible" and at the end of the day we think "Surely everyone will see how incredibly life altering this book is," and so send it off with a bit of a raving proposal to the first agent/publisher we come acros–without first gaining the perspective on our work (and the literary business) that is required in this age of wikipedia.
    Simply put, authors (published or green-behind-the-ears) have no excuses when it comes to general query letter ettiquette, proposal guidelines and formatting. YET we (writers) often spend all our energy, mind-power, mana, whatever, on writing the dang thing! (Or, at least some do. "I have the greatest idea ever, but don't ask for sample chapters… in fact, do you know someone else who can write it for me?")
    (to be continued)

  • http://www.AtlasTakesAim.com Masonian

    Oh my! I think I snorted milk out my nose! Funny, yet a bit eye-opening.
    Writers (myself included) often labor in isolation over our "earth-moving, life-changing, sure-to-be-the-most-important-book-since-the-bible" and at the end of the day we think "Surely everyone will see how incredibly life altering this book is," and so send it off with a bit of a raving proposal to the first agent/publisher we come acros–without first gaining the perspective on our work (and the literary business) that is required in this age of wikipedia.
    Simply put, authors (published or green-behind-the-ears) have no excuses when it comes to general query letter ettiquette, proposal guidelines and formatting. YET we (writers) often spend all our energy, mind-power, mana, whatever, on writing the dang thing! (Or, at least some do. "I have the greatest idea ever, but don't ask for sample chapters… in fact, do you know someone else who can write it for me?")
    (to be continued)

  • http://www.AtlasTakesAim.com/ Masonian

    But simply writing it does little to see it get published.
    Like I said, us writers have no excuse. The information is out there. The guidelines and the "what-not-to-do's" are all waiting to be unearthed. Sure, there are always exceptions… but that in no way reverses the fact that 99.9% of time when someone claims "God told me to write this" He was probably telling the person to write it simply to keep him/her occupied and out of trouble. (Or, God told them to write it, but out of kindness hasn't yet told them "You know, I have standards to uphold. How bout you take up gardening instead?")
    So, authors: learn up. The publishing industry exsisted before you, it will exist after you. They have their own methods, expectations and etiquette. If you intend to dance you gotta learn the steps… at least enough to fake it without stepping on your partner's toes. (Thanks Dancing With the Stars)
    This concludes my broadcast.

  • http://www.AtlasTakesAim.com Masonian

    But simply writing it does little to see it get published.
    Like I said, us writers have no excuse. The information is out there. The guidelines and the "what-not-to-do's" are all waiting to be unearthed. Sure, there are always exceptions… but that in no way reverses the fact that 99.9% of time when someone claims "God told me to write this" He was probably telling the person to write it simply to keep him/her occupied and out of trouble. (Or, God told them to write it, but out of kindness hasn't yet told them "You know, I have standards to uphold. How bout you take up gardening instead?")
    So, authors: learn up. The publishing industry exsisted before you, it will exist after you. They have their own methods, expectations and etiquette. If you intend to dance you gotta learn the steps… at least enough to fake it without stepping on your partner's toes. (Thanks Dancing With the Stars)
    This concludes my broadcast.

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  • http://bit.ly/zSWc Jay Brock

    But Michael, God told me that my book on the end times is DIFFERENT!

  • http://bit.ly/zSWc Jay Brock

    But Michael, God told me that my book on the end times is DIFFERENT!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639540731 Rachel Lee Carter

    If you are trying to get a publisher (or an agent) to take your proposal seriously, there are at least ten things you should never say:

    1.God told me to write this book.
    2.God told me to contact you.
    3.My book is destined to be a bestseller.
    4.My book is perfect for Oprah.
    5.My book is very similar to [insert the name of the latest mega-bestseller].
    6.There is nothing like my book in the marketplace.
    7.This is a multi-million dollar opportunity. I hope you are smart enough to see it.
    8.I will only share my book idea with you after you sign a confidentiality agreement.
    9.I don’t care about the money; I just want to help people.
    10.You probably won’t publish my book, because most of what you publish is fluff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639540731 Rachel Lee Carter

    If you are trying to get a publisher (or an agent) to take your proposal seriously, there are at least ten things you should never say:

    1.God told me to write this book.
    2.God told me to contact you.
    3.My book is destined to be a bestseller.
    4.My book is perfect for Oprah.
    5.My book is very similar to [insert the name of the latest mega-bestseller].
    6.There is nothing like my book in the marketplace.
    7.This is a multi-million dollar opportunity. I hope you are smart enough to see it.
    8.I will only share my book idea with you after you sign a confidentiality agreement.
    9.I don’t care about the money; I just want to help people.
    10.You probably won’t publish my book, because most of what you publish is fluff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186010214 Darcy Wozney Downing

    So relieved to have found this forum. I am just beginning and discouragement remains at a distance. Thank you for the insight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186010214 Darcy Wozney Downing

    So relieved to have found this forum. I am just beginning and discouragement remains at a distance. Thank you for the insight.

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  • Kayla

    Do people just not have common sense? I don't know much about publishing but some of the crazy stories I read from agents are almost unbelievable. What was that quote…never underestimate the power of human stupidity?

  • Barry Landis

    Good stuff Mike. I once got a letter from a prospective artist that said, "if you do not sign me, I will leave town!".

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Did you offer to buy him a ticket. ;-)

  • http://www.sarahorn.com/ Sara Horn

    Great post. I once heard someone say there is no such thing as an original idea and I believe that. There will always be someone out there who has also had the same idea, maybe with a slightly different take, a slightly different angle. I think it falls to the author to show the publisher why their perspective on an idea will work – who is the audience and does your idea meet a need? When I put together a proposal for a new book idea, I avoid assuming it's never been done before, at least in some form or fashion. It's up to me to do my homework and show the publisher what other books have been done and how my book will be different. This has two purposes: it shows the publisher that the topic is timely and there is an audience for it, and it helps show the unique points my book will offer – not a unique idea but a unique perspective.

  • Kayla

    Do people just not have common sense? I don't know much about publishing but some of the crazy stories I read from agents are almost unbelievable. What was that quote…never underestimate the power of human stupidity?

  • http://www.sarahorn.com Sara Horn

    Great post. I once heard someone say there is no such thing as an original idea and I believe that. There will always be someone out there who has also had the same idea, maybe with a slightly different take, a slightly different angle. I think it falls to the author to show the publisher why their perspective on an idea will work – who is the audience and does your idea meet a need? When I put together a proposal for a new book idea, I avoid assuming it’s never been done before, at least in some form or fashion. It’s up to me to do my homework and show the publisher what other books have been done and how my book will be different. This has two purposes: it shows the publisher that the topic is timely and there is an audience for it, and it helps show the unique points my book will offer – not a unique idea but a unique perspective.

    • EbonyS

      And we love your unique perspective, Sara! Honestly, I really don't think your books are that similar to what has been offered before, at least that I've found. The 'military wives of faith' niche is still so young yet, because of the need, it is booming. When the publishing world looks back on the history of this genre, they will see your trail-blazing work at the forefront. But that's just my own 2 cents :)

  • Barry Landis

    Good stuff Mike. I once got a letter from a prospective artist that said, "if you do not sign me, I will leave town!".

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Did you offer to buy him a ticket. ;-)

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    Oprah told me to write this book. It is very similar to The Da Vinci Code except without the confusing riddles, the murders, and the religious references. The best part is that for a limited time, I'll take half the advance I would normally take. All I want is $50,000 upfront, then I'll let you read a sample chapter. Deal?

  • http://bradleyaharmon.com Brad Harmon

    There really isn't a comeback for “Being Christians ourselves and being convinced by your proposal, we don’t believe we will be around to publish your book!” is there? It does seem odd that being a Christian publisher you would include the first two items on your list.

    I assume this is meant to distinguish the crackpots from the sincere people who believe God has led them to write a book or to contact you. I can imagine that you receive quite a few proposals from people that expect you to act unquestionably when told they were sent by God.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I encourage people to let their work speak for itself. If it's from God, the proof will be in the pudding. But to claim God told you to write a book doesn't make a poor manuscript read any better.

  • http://www.generationalfathering.com Gary Taylor

    “…to claim God told you to write a book doesn’t make a poor manuscript read any better.”

    Just had to do a Tweet reply about the memo that the angelic PO misdirected. It was I for whom the memo insisted you publish. Then the phone call: Get off Twitter and write the thing first! He’ll follow up later with a correctly addressed memo. I am, after all, on assignment from On High.

  • meganjoyburdzy

    Thank you for your help in pointing out resources that can be used to better a writer's chance of doing well (assuming they do actually write well).

  • http://www.uwsp.edu/ATHLETICS/mbb/05-06/schedule.htm Schedule

    Best you could change the webpage subject How NOT to Pitch Your Book Proposal to more catching for your blog post you make. I enjoyed the post withal.