This is part 2 in the series on
The Importance of Passion, Purpose and Authenticity in Your Pitch
Almost two years ago heard Kathryn McHugh, former executive editor at Da Capo Press Lifelong Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, in New York City, talk about how purpose, passion and authenticity can turn into publishable products. McHugh took on a particular project, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life by Cami Walker, and she did so in large part because she saw passion and purpose in Walker’s presentation—and in Walker herself. Walker was inspired, and after listening to her pitch at the 2008 Writing For Change Conference in San Francisco, McHugh got inspired as well.
I decided to ask her for more information on how she got involved in the project and how it became a book–and how writer’s could follow in Cami’s footsteps. This is the second part of that interview. You can read part one here.
NA: If you have an author who comes to you with a proposal, someone who has spent several years on a topic and has devoted time and energy to creating a website or blog or writing articles, is that considered platform—even if they don’t have a huge amount of traffic to their blog or website?
KM: Sure, if the idea for their book is sticky enough. These things don’t exist independently of each other. They are all component that exist together—a platform, an idea, an audience and the execution of a project. All have to be there, and some may be stronger than others. You may have a platform but if you don’t have a strong idea that is interesting, the book won’t go anywhere.
NA: What do you mean by “sticky”?
KM: Something that will catch people’s attention and be spread by word of mouth.
NA: What tips can you offer to aspiring nonfiction authors about how to catch the attention of an acquisitions editor eye?
KM: I’ll answer from a nonfiction editors’ perspective; I do practical nonfiction, memoir and inspirational books.
Idea and title are first and foremost. I would encourage authors to picture their book in a bookstore and their title on a book cover. You see your book on the table at Barnes & Noble. What does it say? Would the title interest someone enough to pick it up off table when it’s along side 10 other books in that category? That’s really what the acquisitions editor ultimately is wondering.
We see proposals all day, but our job is to get them to a finished book. When we read a proposal we don’t want to have to figure out what is this book, why do I need this book or who is this book for? All that should come across in the title and subtitle.
You want to spend time crafting the hook of your book. Ultimately why are you writing this book, who are you writing this book for, why are you the best person to write this book, what else is out there like it and how does it fit in with those books, why is your book going to sell, and why now? I like to see project that are timely.
Those are the question to ask yourself if you are a writer and are hoping to get published to a broad audience. Be prepared to convey that in your pitch and query letter.
NA: All these things should be in your proposal, right? They comprise the proposal.
KM: Absolutely, because your proposal is your pitch. What you are asking is for someone to invest in your idea—to give you money.
NA: Do you have any other tips to offer other aspiring authors?
KM: Remember the old adage: If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying, but keep refining what you are doing.
Also, producing a book takes practice and effort. A book is a big project. Cami didn’t just wake up one day and decide to write a book. She had been writing on a daily basis for quite some time—for a decade or so—before she went this route.
NA: When I saw you at the conference, the word “authenticity” came up often. What do you mean by that when talking about a writer or author? What makes a book or a manuscript authentic?
KM: On the page for something like a memoir it has to ring true and get you emotionally and pull you along the writer’s journey and make you feel what they were feeling. That’s one way I would describe authenticity.
The other is feeling that there are authentic reasons for wanting to put a book together, and it’s not just monetary. They’ve already done other projects and wanting to put a book together is just the next step. There needs to be a greater reason to put a book in print.
With 29 Gifts I felt this was Cami telling her story, which is unique and heartfelt, but also it could make a difference in the lives of other people in the same way her 29-day-giving challenge was making a difference in the lives of other people.
NA: Do you like to see a mission statement in a book proposal?
KM: It doesn’t have to be a page that says “mission statement” with an official looking statement. However, I think the mission of a book should absolutely come through in a proposal. An editor wants to know why you are writing this particular book, why this subject and why is the time for this book now?
It’s important for the editor has a sense of purpose. It’s a pretty simple thing. You have to be able to answer the question, “Why are you writing this book?”