(or Catching Your Editor)
You may have seen film of baby turtles hatching, scrambling out of their sandy nest, making their way down to the edge of the foam, dodging marauding gulls, then braving the first wave, only to become a treat for any roving shark. Perhaps one in a hundred will make it to adulthood.
Books are like baby turtles. A few of the strong and lucky survive. Publishing is evolution in action, if you want to be published by a respected company. You can publish privately, of course, and that is thoroughly worth doing, but it just postpones the winnowing process.
Publishers always have a slush pile awaiting assessment. In a well-ordered publishing house, there will be a discipline of regular review. Most publishers are trying to do far too much with far too little time and even less money, so this discipline is often skipped. I have known proposals simply to be left – ignored, not even glanced at – for months on end. It’s management by neglect, of course, and indefensible, but it’s commonplace.
Faced with such indifference, an immediate practical step is to ensure you are writing to a person, if the company will allow it. Brass neck helps here. Ring the switchboard and ask for the name of an editor. Sometimes it works. Many companies simply tell you to write to ‘submissions’: OK, do that, but give it thirty or forty days and then pick up the phone. Keep in mind the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18.
Some companies outsource their slush pile and will only consider submissions from agents. More on this below.
It is up to you to create momentum and spark curiosity. I have encountered authors who have basically told me, ‘I have written the book I wanted to write. If no one wants to read it, that’s their loss.’ If you are expecting the reader to provide the enthusiasm, you are expecting to fail.
So, what can you do to make your proposal robust and visible? You have to craft a hook.
A good hook is more than something to catch a jaded editor’s drowsy eye. It’s a reason to buy. Even if your baby turtle makes it as far as the sea, a book faces a lot of competition – not just from other books, but from Netflix and Facebook and Strictly and the latest governmental inanity.
A hook will be used by the publisher to catch the attention of bookshop managers and of the media. It will help answer the question: on which shelf would you put this book?
A hook is multifaceted. It includes topic, author and title. It ought to hint at a story, if possible. Even the driest of topics is part of a story, if you look hard enough.
A hook goes to the essence of a book. It will be brief. It should be significant. It might be amusing, or informative. It should create a common thread between writer and reader. Whether you are writing a novel or a 300-word article, you always need a hook. There is an old Fleet Street adage: ‘You’ve shown me the sausage, but where is the sizzle?’ A hook always has a sharp point.
Another, less respectful, term is ‘clickbait’.
In weighing a proposal, I am always looking for hooks. Here are a few that might grip my attention.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has provided a foreword.
In two years we will celebrate the centenary of …
I had killed six men. I was a hard man, in prison for life.
Last night my wife made me sleep on the sofa.
My gambling habit lost me my home, my job, my wife, my family and my dog.
I have seen two women raised from the dead.
I was Johnny Depp’s bodyguard.*
Part of a hook should be the title, and here you need to aim for information and intrigue. Think of your favourite book titles. What makes them distinctive? Many of the titles I have been offered are bland to the point of invisibility. You have to entice, to tantalise, as well as to inform. Often there will be a pleasing balance or tension between title and subtitle. Here are some successful titles:
God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse: What Hawking said and why it matters
Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think
His Needs, Her Needs: Building an affair-proof marriage
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to stay emotionally healthy and spiritually alive in the chaos of the modern world
God on Mute: Engaging the silence of unanswered prayer
Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? (Fran Hill’s excellent semi-memoir has no subtitle, but a glowing quote by Adrian Plass – ‘The Victoria Wood of the classroom’ – says everything needful)
The ideal title is both informative and intriguing, holding out the prospect of instruction and pleasure, even excitement. The examples above achieve this goal.
Fiction titles draw much more heavily on shades of allusion. If you are writing a novel, what does it promise? A novel should command attention and imaginative engagement – the capacity to entertain should be part of any author’s toolbox – so you can’t be too prosaic. A good title arouses a frisson of expectation:
The Handmaid’s Tale
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
The Thursday Murder Club
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Good fiction proposals sometimes draw on arresting facts to support the novel’s premise: during the California Gold Rush the village of San Francisco grew from two hundred in 1846 to 36,000 in 1852; most African slaves were sold into bondage by neighbouring tribes; the last giant aurochs, upon which species an entire ecosystem once depended, was slain in Poland in 1627.
If your novel is light on facts – indeed, if facts have been ruthlessly set to one side – then select an arresting moment to tempt the editor.
A fiction proposal will clearly indicate genre, of course. Provided you are not too ambitious or too flagrant, it is reasonable to suggest comparisons to other novels alongside which your own might stand. Research the list of the publisher you are approaching, to suggest parallels. Avoid the depressingly obvious: for many years every children’s fantasy novel was favourably compared to The Chronicles of Narnia. (More than a few made it into print, and swiftly out again.)
Every proposal should include a good precis. It takes time, effort and intelligence to summarise a book, but if you skip this step you will probably be ignored. Don’t be offended if your wording is not actually used on the cover: your editor has more experience in this area than you do. But your summary is a vital step in the process by which your book wins an editor’s sponsorship. Incidentally, you can always tell if an editor has not really grasped the essence of a book, because the cover wording will be too long. Most good blurbs run to a maximum of 200 words, preferably fewer.
The other component in your hook will be yourself. You, the author, are your own brand, and this requires work, more so than ever in these days of slim margins and social media. Wendy H Jones has written eloquently on this, and I refer you to her Power Packed Book Marketing (Scott and Lawson, 2016). Every editor will look for information about Twitter followers, friends on Facebook, profile on Instagram, etc. If you have a support base, use it. Whom might you approach for commendations? What articles might you write in support? How well do you interview? Where do you speak? Can you sell your own book? I have worked over the years with many authors who cheerfully purchased 1,000 on publication and came back for more, which is always likely to attract a publisher’s attention. (Incidentally, before you sign the contract, make sure you have negotiated a satisfactory author discount. Much easier to agree at the outset.)
A word about devotionals. The Christian literary world is well endowed with devotional material, much of it excellent. I recommend, however, that if you are a relatively unknown writer you do not venture down this path, because the essence of a devotional is that it invites the reader to spend a month or a year in the daily company of the writer. Only a small minority of readers is likely to invest so much time in someone they don’t know. Most successful devotionals are written by established authors, who constitute the hook. Devotionals are tricky to summarise well, incidentally.
Finally, you might need the services of an agent. An agent may be more able to push past the guardians blocking the gate, will negotiate a decent contract and keep a watchful eye on royalties and statements to ensure the publisher does what they promised. An agent can also offer guidance on your writing plans and pick out the flaws in your opus. Agents, however, will not waste time on a book without an arresting proposition, an intriguing precis and an author who knows how to present themselves. So you still need that hook.
Tony Collins has worked for Hodder & Stoughton, Kingsway, Angus Hudson Ltd, Lion Hudson and SPCK, and started the Monarch Books and Lion Fiction imprints. He is now a literary agent.