Where to Start

So, you have an incredible idea.  You are a devotee of a particular slice of history, be it in music, politics, the Civil War, psychology, business, sports, or any other wedge of potentially popular nonfiction. You want to write a book about it, but you have no idea of how to write the proposal that will:

  • catch the eye of an agent and secure representation,
  • excite a big shot editor at a traditional publisher and gain you a reasonable advance to write it,
  • rally the marketing and publicity departments of that publisher to support the project, and
  • successfully translate into a book that attracts a compelling enough readership to actually earn you a living.

Where do you start?

The first thing you might do is figure out if your idea is commercially viable.  That is, are there enough people on planet earth who care as much as you do about whatever it is you want to write?

How do you do that?  Try and put a number on it.

A while back, I was publisher of an independent company called Rugged Land Books.  I published Steve’s THE WAR OF ART in hardcover back in the day.  Anyway, because the company was small, I couldn’t compete with Random House or Simon & Schuster or any of the other biggies for agent submitted projects.  So, what I had to do was create projects myself and produce them from the ground up.

One night I was watching Monday Night Football.  The Green Bay Packers were playing the Oakland Raiders and it was just a day after the Packer quarterback at the time, Brett Favre, lost his father to a heart attack.  Favre and his father Irv were very close. Irv was Brett’s football coach in High School. He was so intent on developing Brett as a full player that he rarely let the eventual NFL career leader in passing yards throw the ball. Instead Irv ran a run heavy offense and Brett learned how to cope with getting hit—hard—play after play.  That training came in handy in the NFL.

No one expected Favre to play the Monday night game. But Irv would have. So to honor his father’s memory, Favre put on his helmet and took his place in the center of the Packer huddle.

Like every other football nut that night, I was glued to the TV.  What happened was otherworldly. Practically every ball Favre threw into the air, landed into the hands of Packer receivers.  When it was over, he completed 22 of 30 passes, of which four went for touchdowns on his way to compiling 399 yards in the air.  The final score was Packers 41, Raiders 7.

I knew Brett.  I edited his autobiography in 1996 when I was at Doubleday and it performed well. But that book was a traditional sports book—lots of “and then we played Dallas,” insider stories.

After watching the Monday Night game, I thought there was a bigger book to be had with Brett.  One that would capture the magic that tens of millions of football fans had just witnessed. It would have a lot of photos, a DVD of highlights, and never before told personal stories from his family and friends. It would peel back Brett Favre’s life and reveal how he was capable of such grace in so difficult a circumstance.

I wasn’t crazy enough to think that I would sell tens of millions of copies of a new kind of Brett Favre book, but I did think that a wide wide net of Brett Favre fans would include at the populations of Packer devoted Wisconsin and Mississippi (Brett’s home state).   Roughly an 8 million-person target audience confined in a very limited geographical territory seemed like a good bet. I estimated that one percent of the big target (80,000) would be excited enough to buy the book. I used 80,000 as my core number and worked back from there to create the best book I could from that economic possibility (I’ll do a profit/loss analysis for book publishing one of these days to explain exactly what 80,000 copies will throw off for production). It was a calculated risk, but at least it was calculated. I was wrong though. I couldn’t keep the book in stock and it reached #4 (Brett’s number) on the New York Times bestseller list.

I wasn’t a genius. I just watched a football game and recognized that there was a real STORY behind what was taking place. It was a universal story, coping with the loss of a parent. And it was truly inspiring. We all lose people we love, but very few of us have to walk onto a field and face 11 behemoths intent on knocking our heads off while executing a very complicated game plan all the while not really feeling like you have what it takes to get the job done.

When Brett Favre proved that you could carry a burden and still perform, it made everyone watching that game stronger. All I had to do was get to the bottom of that STORY—the specificity of the STORY—and have it told well for the people who cared—Packer fans, not readers of The New York Review of Books. I asked Brett’s mother, Bonita, to be a part of the project.  She agreed and together with Brett and Brett’s wife, Deanna, they did an incredible job.

That’s a way to put a number on your idea.  If you’re writing a book about bridge, find out how many bridge players on in the United States, then find out how many play competitively, then how many subscribe to bridge publications etc. Then try and broaden your audience. Would chess players’ crossover and take an interest in Bridge if the story was compelling?

But what if you have no idea how many people would be attracted to your idea?  Say you were obsessed with the life and times of a knock kneed race horse long since dead, forgotten. There really aren’t that many gamblers who make their living at the track anymore.  And horse books are usually warm and fuzzy stories targeted to teenage girls. You shouldn’t write that book, right?

This is the predicament facing the artist…Am I the only one who cares about this? Laura Hillenbrand didn’t let it stop her. The story was too compelling for her to not give it a shot. She had to write Seabiscuit, which in my opinion is one of the finest narrative nonfiction works ever published. And in publishing circles, the proposal for Seabiscuit is still spoken of with reverence.

There was a modest auction for the book, probably far less guaranteed money than was necessary to complete the book, but the proposal was so compelling that it got multiple houses to take a chance.  Hillenbrand was in business. If she told the story in the same manner she laid out in the proposal, perhaps actual book buyers would give Seabiscuit a chance too.

If a superlative narrative nonfiction proposal can get a bunch of big publishers to disregard the lack of an obvious market for a book and offer an advance anyway, how do you write one?


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  1. Jeremy Brown on June 24, 2011 at 5:25 am

    Hooked me again, Shawn! Thanks for pointing out that there’s a story in just about everything, and getting down to that and the people who care about it is how to get rolling.

    Can’t wait to read about how to write a knockout nonfiction proposal.

  2. Jeff on June 27, 2011 at 6:33 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Shawn. As Jeremy said, you’ve got a gift for hooking your readers. Can’t wait to read the next post in the series!

  3. Malisa Tatel on November 28, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Hey.. i’m not significantly into studying, but in some way i obtained to read through a lot of article content on your weblog.

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