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Part skills lesson, part confession, part peptalk: this is my brand new radio interview on Your Book is Your Hook radio program, hosted by Jennifer Wilkov.  You'll recognize her as an expert-in-resident here at Pitch U!
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Erin Reel: Getting Hooked by The Book’s Concept

From Diane Holmes, Pitch U Founder:
We’re introducing a new monthly column today, and we’re so thrilled to welcome Erin Reel, The Lit Coach, to our Pitch U faculty. 

IMG_6091bestWEBPitch Perfect Proposal: Crafting Your Nonfiction Book Proposal From Concept to Pitch

by Erin Reel, Former Literary Agent and Modern Day “Lit Coach.”

Erin is a publishing and editorial consultant, writer’s life coach and host of the blog, The Lit Coach’s Guide to The Writer’s Life.  A former Los Angeles based literary agent with nearly 10 years experience in the publishing industry, she has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye  and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents .


Love Books Authors have done their job when they get me, the reader, excited about their nonfiction book. And I’m talking about the kind of excitement that makes me buy the book now, buy one for a friend or two and talk about it incessantly for the next two months.

A writer who can spur me on to that kind of action, a writer who lures me inadvertently into being part of their grass roots PR machine has done a powerful thing indeed – they’ve hooked me!

Before that author hooked me, though, they hooked their editor and publishing team with a solid, compelling, well-crafted book proposal. And usually before they hooked their publishing team, they’ve hooked their literary agent with a concept.

I say “concept” because most of the book proposals agents see (and I was one for several years) fall short of being ready to submit to editors for one of three reasons, (and sometimes two or all):

  • The way the author presented the concept isn’t unique.
  • The proposal lacks polish, supportive marketing data and/or other material.
  • The author platform isn’t developed.

Most agents don’t have the time to take on an under-developed proposal and/or author who has yet to fully develop their platform.

However, there are some agents who will take a chance on a new author because they like the general idea of the proposed book and usually, the author’s voice is what saves the project from being tossed into the proverbial “reject” pile. But this is a lot of work and agents are running out of time and patience with underdeveloped projects because competition to score their clients a book deal is fiercer than ever.

Don’t take your chances, writers; those agents who go a step above and beyond to help new writers develop their manuscript from concept to completion are a rare (and lovely) exception, not the rule. If you want to save your nonfiction book proposal from the recycle bin, it’s time to get your proposal pitch perfect!

It all begins with the concept.

It’s true; most ideas are unoriginal. You make an idea original by putting your own unique spin on it.

Sure, there are lots of “personal success” books out there, but there are many more “success experts” out there who have taken this well-worn topic and made it their own by shaping their perspective, experience and anecdotal material into a unique reading experience.

Lots of people can share an idea – what makes it fresh is their own perspective and experience with that idea. 

Turn that concept into a soundbite.

Imagine you’re a published author and you’re going to be a guest on The Today Show and Matt Lauer is about to announce your segment. He has a few precious seconds to grab the attention of their T.V. viewing audience with your book.

What will he say?

This is called the hook. Another way to think of the hook is by taking a look at the back cover of a book and studying how the publisher commanded your attention by their brief, compelling copy that tells you a little bit about the book. Or, the hook could simply be the title. Let’s take a look at a few successful examples:

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and catches like wildfire.” The Tipping Point (Little, Brown, 2000), by Malcom Gladwell.

This publisher lead with the definition of the title – which immediately captures my attention, as someone who is always navigating publishing and social media trends. I will be the first in line to buy this book (but I already have it).

The hook could also be the title! Here’s an example of one that caught my attention immediately:

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, (Metropolitan Books, 2009), by Atul Gawande

I’m a checklist fanatic, so I was immediately drawn to the title and I was not disappointed when I opened the cover.

On faculty at Bringham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Gawande has sharply honed all his surgical experience to one point: you are only as good as your check list and the checklist of your team. Can a surgeon afford to miss or omit a step on their checklist? Hooked!

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, (Harper, 2009), by Gretchen Rubin

Somebody turned happiness into their latest DIY project? I’m hooked!

What’s important to note here, writers, is that you don’t have to be an “expert” to turn an emotion or state of mind into a project, however for the sake of your platform, it would be wise to chronicle your “project” via a well-maintained blog to gain a following. Rubin chose to follow through on creating happiness, documented every minute of it and crafted her experience into something many people would care about.

How will YOU hook your reader?

Your Action

This week, pretend your book is already sitting on the shelf – physical or “E”.

If your hook isn’t in the title itself, how does your back of book jacket copy read? Practice pitching your hook and don’t be afraid to get messy in the process.

Need inspiration? Hop on Amazon or head over to your local bookseller or library and study some book jackets. How do they capture your attention (aside from the cover)?

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Reader Comments (3)

Great article! It almost makes me want to start a nonfiction project.

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSaytchyn

I know what you mean! I have a NF project from years ago.... I'm itching to get my hands on it again!

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Holmes

Thanks, Saytchyn! What's holding you back?

March 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin Reel

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