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Submitting a Non-Fiction Manuscript to a Publisher? Four Questions to Ask Yourself First

You’re writing a non-fiction book proposal or may be writing the actual book. Here are four questions to ask before you send your work to a publisher. (Hint: These are some of the questions publishing house editors ask when they consider proposals and manuscripts.)

First, is my manuscript well written? (Related questions are: Is it as good as or better than other books of its type/subject matter? Is it accurate, factually? Is it viable, legally?)

It is very difficult to determine whether the quality of your own writing is good or bad. I suggest that you visit a bookstore and take a hard look at books similar in style and audience to your own. Analyze the books. Then imagine picking up your hypothetical book. How does it measure up? For example, have you gone to the same effort as the other authors in documenting your facts? Is the “journey of reading” as clear in your book as in the bookstore books? What does your book promise to readers? Does it deliver on that promise as well as the books in the bookstore?

Second, is my manuscript written for readers?

That may seem a silly question. However, it’s worth considering a distinction between the logic of the material and the logic of the reader. Experts sometimes write books that make sense in terms of their discipline, but not in terms of what readers need or want to know – and when they need to know it.

For instance, a book may spend two chapters dealing with definitions and distinctions that the author feels readers must know before they read the rest of the book. Readers, however, want to know what the issue is before they will consent to going on a journey with the author through those important definitions and distinctions. That’s why most of the editorial work on manuscripts focuses on the way they begin. If readers ask themselves, “Why am I reading this?” then the author and editor have failed.

Third, who are my readers?

There are two reasons for asking this question. First, a book lacks unity as a book if it is does not address a clearly defined audience. And second, books are typically destined for sections within a bookstore. Non-fiction books aren’t just books. They’re political books, how-to books, biographies, autobiographies, etc. Your book may be well written, but if it doesn’t fit the type of books the publisher wants (i.e., the sections of the bookstore that they sell to), it’s a non-starter.

Fourth, what is my “author’s platform”?

Nowadays publishers reflexively ask of any manuscript they are considering, “What is the author’s platform?” They want to know what authors bring to the party in terms of expertise, connections, the number of people they speak to regularly, their ability to travel, and so on.

Just as your book must itself show unity of concept, writing, and audience, so it should be written by the right person in terms of promotion. I remember rejecting an excellent book on the stock market because the author was not part of the finance industry and therefore lacked the credibility and reach that we needed for promotion. Yes, it’s possible that a non-finance author could write a book that is better than one written by a financial advisor, but the book is not better from the publisher’s point of view, because it lacks an author who can help increase its sales.

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