Chris Ferebee: “How to Prepare a Non-fiction Book Proposal”

• Chris represents Rob Bell, Shauna Niequist, Jonathan Merritt, and many other popular authors. His clients include several New York Times bestselling authors, winners of various Religion Newswriters Association awards, and a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist.
• This session covers the nuts and bolts of outstanding book proposals. Topics include identifying your match with publishers and agents, title creation, the one-sentence hook, the need and the solution, your uniqueness, audience characterization, platform description, proposal organization and style, and more
• 73 minutes including Q&A
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When Does A Book Proposal Come in the Writing Process?

– by Angela Scheff

A reader asked: How far along in the book writing process should you be before submitting a book proposal?

The answer to this is in the form of another question: Are you able to articulate the complete book idea in a sentence or two?

While you technically only need a few chapters complete when submitting a nonfiction book proposal, you do need to know exactly what your book is going to be about, including an overview as well as a chapter-by-chapter synopses. Basically, a complete book outline with the big ideas articulated is needed.

And while the proposal describes the book and author, the sample chapters are helpful to evaluate how the author is going to get to the ideas, including the tone and style used. It doesn’t hurt, especially for new authors, to have more than a few chapters written. This way, if a publisher/agent is interested in seeing more from you, you already have additional chapters ready to send.

Also keep in mind that you will need to be able to articulate in your proposal when the book will be completed. This helps the publisher evaluate if they have space in their list for your book.

A good proposal is not easy to put together and is a significant investment in your time, whether you have two chapters or the entire manuscript written.

Art Can’t Be Hurried

I was reading a work by the great writer Stefan Zweig. In it, he recounts a youthful conversation with an older and wiser friend. The friend was encouraging him to travel, believing that the experience would help broaden and deepen Zweig’s writing. Like me, Zweig believed he had to write right now and that he didn’t have the time to wait – he was feeling the urgency of a first-time writer too. “Literature is a wonderful profession,” the friend explained patiently, “because haste is no part of it. Whether a really good book is finished a year earlier or a year later makes no difference.”

Art can’t be hurried. It must be allowed to take its course. It must be given its space – and can’t be rushed or checked off a to-do list on the way to something else.

– from “Perennial Seller” by Ryan Holiday

It Isn’t Easy

Sometimes people say they are not sure they can be creative on paper every day. I tell them with all seriousness I am not sure I can be creative on paper each day either. Most of the time, writing a book more closely resembles digging a ditch then participating in some transcendent creative experience.

A pen and a keyboard and paper and ink are nothing more or less than the tools of a writer. They are to be regarded the way a construction worker regards a well-worn set of boots and a well-loved shovel. The tools simply remind the worker to get up each day and go back to work no matter how much or how little progress was made the day before. I became better at the craft of writing sentences on the day I finally understood I was engaged in a construction project as much as an artistic pursuit.

Writing a book is nowhere near as easy as it looks and heaven knows not as easy as some claim. Writing a book is seldom easy, even for those who have written some of them.

– from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen” by Robert Benson

The Four Stages of Flowing

What has happened to music, books, and movies is now happening to games, newspapers, and education. The pattern will spread to transportation, agriculture, health care. Fixities such as vehicles, land, and medicines will become flows. Tractors will become fast computers outfitted with treads, land will become a substrate for a network of sensors, and medicines will become molecular information capsules flowing from patient to doctor and back.

These are the Four Stages of Flowing:

1. Fixed. Rare. The starting norm is precious products that take much expertise to create. Each is an artisan work, complete and able to stand alone, sold in high-quality reproductions to compensate the creation.
2. Free. Ubiquitous. The first disruption is promiscuous copying of the product, duplicated so relentlessly that it becomes a commodity. Cheap, perfect copies are spent freely, dispersed anywhere there is a demand. This extravagant dissemination of copies shatters the established economics.
3. Flowing. Sharing. The second disruption is an unbundling of the product into parts, each element flowing to find its own new uses and to be remixed into new bundles. The product is now a stream of services issuing from the shared cloud. It becomes a platform for wealth and innovation.
4. Opening. Becoming. The third disruption is enabled by the previous two. Streams of powerful services and ready pieces, conveniently grabbed at little cost, enable amateurs with little expertise to create new products and brand new categories of products. The status of creation is inverted, so that the audience is now the artist. Output, selection, and quality skyrocket.

These four stages of flowing apply to all media. All genres will exhibit some fluidity.

– from “Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly


Tomorrow the sun will rise, God willing, and it will be time again for us to go to our tables. It will be time to pick up the pen or turn on the machine or take up the colored pencil.

Tomorrow we will look our juries in the eye and continue telling them the stories we started out to tell. We will craft sentences that are honest and true. We will finish the day’s words and be artful enough to leave ourselves in a good place to do the next day’s work as well.

There are stories that must be told and must be heard, stories waiting on you and me to do the telling.

Tomorrow we will write, write and not waste time. We will make dark marks on the page, the gift to which we have been given, the gift that has been given to us.

– Robert Benson “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

“How Do You Write a Memoir?”

Asking me how to write a memoir is a little like saying, “I really want to have sex, where do I start?” What one person fantasizes about would ruin the romance for another. It depends on how you’re constructed inside and out, hormone levels, psychology. Or it’s like saying, “I want a makeover, how should I look?” A Goth girl’s not inclined to lime-green Fair Isle sweaters, and a preppy scorns black lipstick.

– May Karr “The Art of Memoir”

Why My Articles Are 10 Days Late

Right after it happened, the horrible shooting in Las Vegas drew me into reflection on the causes of mass violence. For days I let the thoughts turn over in my mind and heart, paying attention to what emerged. I started writing an article about it, ran into roadblocks, and discovered I had the article’s primary and secondary focus exactly backward. A rewrite was in order.

Meanwhile, time and the news cycle marched on.

Name a current event, and I’ve been late to write about it. At least a week late, often more. This is a big problem for me. Maybe it’s a problem for every spiritual writer who grapples with current events.

The problem has to do with the usual writer metrics: visibility, reads, clicks, results that contribute to author platform. While I have no data on this, it stands to reason that tangible results go to the writers who communicate faster, whose writing hits the same news cycle as the event (or at least the next news cycle). In our short-attention-span world, their writing gets read, or heard, or watched because their topic is still in the headlines.

I can’t do that. I have to do what I did with the news from Vegas. So by the time I publish something, it’s old news, often ignored.

That’s not a whine; it’s just facts. I can’t be a contemplative spiritual writer without contemplating, and contemplation takes time. So my chances for market success slip away.

And yet all that contemplating turns up something different. It may be late, but it is often fresh, sometimes invaluable.

Almost immediately after the shooting, the commentators I heard brought up the same old arguments about access to guns, mental illness, access to guns for people with mental illness. Of course they did: there’d been no time to process anything further. To give them their due, those arguments are important in any conversation on the topic, and the “first responder” commentators do us some service by raising them again. But they’ve also become political footballs, so their restatement after Las Vegas accomplished little.

Meanwhile, the questions that turned up in my deepest self were different and, I would submit, deeper. Why is violence so deeply embedded in American culture? Is there anything we can do about it? Why are nearly all mass shooters men?

These questions don’t get asked nearly as much. Perhaps, if writers like me (and others) start asking them, we might get a fuller, more accurate, more useful picture of what’s happening with mass shootings. It might spark a breakthrough in the steps taken to reduce their frequency.

Is that a good enough result for a spiritual writer? For me it is (though it took me years to get to that point). But the answer will vary with each writer. It really comes down to why we write in the first place.

The marketplace for “late” contemplative writers may be small. But I can’t help thinking we—our world, our species—need them too, as much as we need writing’s version of first responders. If you’re on the contemplative side, your writing may not win you a comfortable retirement. But it can make a difference.


About the Author

A spiritual director, contributor to Huffington Post Religion, and associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes about contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing).

Go Slow

Of the nearly eight million words that have floated through my head onto a page, some of which have been deemed publishable, I am happy with about four dozen sentences. Four of those sentences I think are especially fine. I weep whenever I read them in public, mostly in the thought of having been lucky enough for those words to have chosen me and for my having been smart enough to say yes to them when they came my way.

I am absolutely convinced of this: the more I am willing to go slow, to treat each blank page as a gift, to pay attention to each word and each phrase and each sentence, and to be patient as they come to me, the more likely I am to wander into being the writer I am meant to become.

– Robert Benson “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

Should you Publish Without an Agent?

– by Jana Burson

I was recently asked if an author should publish without an agent. The quick answer to this is no! But, like most questions, there are multiple things to consider when making this decision.
Taking a step back, most of the major trade publishing houses actually don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or proposals in the first place. With that in mind, you’re going to need an agent who has existing relationships with the right publishing houses and editors who acquire in your genre to even have your book idea considered.
In the unlikely event that a publishing house does accept unsolicited proposals, you still might be better off with agent representation for a variety of reasons:

• Without an agent, you won’t have a third party looking out for your best interests and it puts you as the author in the seat of negotiator, rather than allowing you to keep your focus on the craft of writing and nurturing your relationship with your editor.

• Unless you are business and contract savvy, you’ll want an agent who understands the legal and contractual ins and outs of publishing so you don’t end up in a less than favorable position.

• If you’ve never published before and don’t have experience with the publishing process, you’ll want someone on your team who is willing to explain things to you and can foresee where you’ll need guidance and assistance in the process.

• While it would be nice to believe that a publishing house would never take advantage of an author who doesn’t have representation, the reality is that you will most likely not receive as good of a deal as your agented peer.

I’ve talked with a few authors during my history in publishing who have been fortunate enough to get book deals without an agent because they either had a personal connection or were approached directly by a publisher. But most of them look back on that experience and wish they had obtained representation before signing their contract. So how do you get an agent? Here’s a good place to start.

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