October 3, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: Nathan Bransford 8 – Lasagna: How To Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

Nathan Bransford is a West Coast agent with the New York literary agency, Curtis Brown, Ltd. For the past nine years, he has been writing a popular blog reflecting on and illuminating the publishing world. Humorous, serious and ultimately enlightening, I’ll be looking at how THE ESSENTIALS (PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU QUERY) continues to influence my writing. I am using them with his permission and if you’d like to read his blog (which I highly recommend) go to http://blog.nathanbransford.com/.

To tell you the truth, I was going to skip this one because I don’t LIKE doing non-fiction. I don’t like reading non-fiction (*sigh*, all right, I don’t like reading non-fiction VERY OFTEN…OK, OK, so the book before the last book I read was a non-fiction book about the last year of a high school college guidance counselor called ACCEPTANCE: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find A College – and Find Themselves by David Marcus (http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Acceptance/David-L-Marcus/e/9781594202148)

ANYWAY…quit trying to distract me. I still want to skip this one and move on to the next subject, “Ten Commandments for Happy Writers”. That way I don’t have to talk about my success in writing non-fiction.

So my first book, which is still in print, was called Simple Science Sermons for Big and Little Kids. It is a collection of twenty-five kids’ sermons I used at my church that used some sort of science experiment to illustrate a truth of Scripture. I provided a Bible verse, a short script, the equipment/materials needed and directions. I also gave a brief explanation of HOW the science part worked.

To sell that one, I had the complete manuscript in hand, shopped it around and found a buyer the third time out. I will not deceive you – I took a rip-off deal that first time mostly because people are more impressed with books than they are with magazine articles or stories. The company’s initial $6000 investment; which included a check for $100 [When I asked for more, the reply letter essentially said that I was lucky to get that from them as this kind of book would never make any money and that I should count my lucky stars that they were willing to take pity on me and publish it], has been amply earned back in the twelve years since publication. Besides, the rights would revert to me when they were done making whatever pitiful amount of money they would probably make off it. The rights have yet to revert. I’ve asked. (I later looked at the cost of self-publishing it and this was what I would have had to front for the book). Their promise was supposed to have included a publicity packet that never materialized though I asked for it several times and also got several rude replies from the president of the company when I questioned their business practices.

They are still in business and I am much wiser now.

That initial contact was fairly straightforward in that I asked if they wanted to publish the book. I had the platform necessary to move some copies – I was a science teacher and I did these SSS at several churches each year. They said…well, the synopsis is above.

The next time I stumped for a non-fiction job, I was offered a work-for-hire and was part of a team that developed curriculum for a very, very popular PBS program called NEWTON’S APPLE. That was published and I moved on to AUGSBURG-FORTRESS and did a bit more work-for-hire via a recommendation from a friend.

I few years later, I got brave and actually sent a proposal to an on-line children’s magazine I had had a story published in. Some time after the publication, they announced that I and a few other writers would be included in a paper collection they were making. Not long after seeing that, I sent them an email (I CANNOT find the original! Grrrr.) pointing out that an activity book would go well with their anthology and that I would be the perfect person to write it!

They agreed, commissioned me and for $200, I worked on this labor of love. I KNEW this group couldn’t afford more than that, so I was happy to do it. The product went back and forth a few times until it was ready. They were thrilled. I was thrilled.

The economy tanked.

They offered me a $100 kill fee, which I took. I also took a copy of the activities book…which I can no longer find, so I’ll need to ask for another. But anyway – the upshot of this and what I learned from Nathan Bransford’s article is that: “writing a nonfiction book proposal is sort of like cooking lasagna. There are a thousand ways of making it, everyone has their own recipe, but most every lasagna will have a few basic ingredients and chances are it's going to taste good in the end.

So there you go. If I find my original query letters, I’ll post them or a link to them, but like Nathan Bransford says, “Lasagna!”

image: http://fooduniverse.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Lasagna.jpg

1 comment:

Paul said...

The penultimate season of 24 featured intrigue involving an African country called Sangala. Sangala is an acronym for lasanga. Using your (or, rather, Nathan's) analogy, 24 was a lot like lasagna. Each season was prepared a different way, but they all had a few things in common: plot holes, scenery chewing, torture, red-shirted security guards who followed the Star Trek precedent by dying early and often, an anti-terrorist organization with more moles than loyal employees, and so much technological hand waving that the whole thing was more fantasy than thriller. Maybe you should sic Jack Bauer on your SSS publisher.