Writing a Book Proposal
Last week my brother Adam Sisman’s new U.K. publisher, Bloomsbury, sent out a press release announcing that Adam is to write the definitive life of John Le Carré (the pen name of David Cornwell). The biography is authorized—which, most importantly, means that Cornwell is providing Adam with introductions and much other information. Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins (the book’s U.S. publisher) described the proposal that Adam submitted as one of the best he’d ever read.
Say what you’re going to say, then say what you just said
Most nonfiction books (and occasionally novels by more established writers) nowadays begin with some kind of proposal, in which the author lays out his or her intentions, sometimes including a sample chapter or two. Adam started his at the end of December; it took him a month to write, not including time spent doing a (surprisingly large) number of preliminary interviews. At the most basic level, “a proposal has to tell what the book is and what’s interesting about it,” says Adam, who worked at various publishing houses for years before he began writing full-time. “Having been an editor, I know what a publisher wants to know. Many proposals are badly put together; they often assume the reader knows all about a subject in advance.”
So a good proposal is a summary—”Say what you’re going to say, say it in detail, then say what you just said”—but, Adam adds, “You must avoid repetition and boring people. It should be well-written, clear and, of course, exciting to read.” “Good writing is recognizable in short, compressed forms just as it is in longer,” Burnham points out. “If there is strength and energy in the proposal it’s more than likely it will be in the book, too. When I started in publishing, there was a dictum that great proposals make second-rate books and vice-versa, but I think that’s nonsense.”
Agents: the key
However great a proposal may be, it has to get an agent before it finds a publisher. Discouraging though it may seem, publishers today won’t look at anything that comes in over the transom. (Many years ago, the writer Robyn Sisman—she’s also Adam’s wife—spent a year as a slush-pile reader; she recommended one book during her entire time there.) “They got rid of the slush pile some time ago; there are no unsolicited manuscripts nowadays,” says Adam. “They all come via agents.” Despite the fact that publishers’ websites usually point this fact out prominently, Burnham, for example, gets 40 or more emails a day containing unsolicited manuscripts: “In many ways it makes it easier—I can just delete them without even opening them.” He adds, “There’s a very good book, The Forest for the Trees, of advice about all of this—including the omnipresence of the agent—by a former editor, Betsy Lerner, who has a blog of the same name. I think it’s a must-read if you’re a would-be author.”
In practice, an author’s agent is now usually his first editor. It was Adam’s agent, Andrew Wylie, who sent his draft proposal back, asking him to rethink its opening. Adam had started with a story that illustrated the moment—after the novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold came out in the U.S.—when Cornwell/Le Carré was summoned to America to be greeted by a limousine, flashing cameras and microphones, and realized his life had changed irrevocably. “Wylie felt that was not the heart of the story, and that the key to the book was the mystery of who Cornwell is,” he says. Wylie, graciously, remembers the whole thing as “entirely Adam’s realization.”
After that, Adam spent a week revising. The proposal’s original beginning moved to the end; the new opening quotes Cornwell himself—”People who have had very unhappy childhoods,” John le Carré wrote in his 1986 novel A Perfect Spy, “are pretty good at inventing themselves”—and goes on to describe the ways in which this writer has dissembled and obscured. By the second paragraph Adam asks, “Who is John Le Carré? This book will attempt to answer that question, with the help of the man himself.”
He points out that the mystery at “the heart” of the life is hinted at by Cornwell himself. “I’m a liar, born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist” refers as much to his unhappy childhood as to his years working in British intelligence, not to mention the obvious “hiding in plain sight” that writing under a nom de plume is about. “There’s always a biographical edge to his books,” says Adam. “A Perfect Spy provides tantalizing clues to his childhood. The early life of his central character, Magnus Pym, is obviously drawn from his own. Pym’s family, schooling, self-imposed exile in Bern, recruitment as a spy, and National Service in the intelligence corps are all virtually identical to what is known of Cornwell’s.” The proposal analyzes its subject through his own words and those of others, as well as dropping a few juicy anecdotes. It whets the appetite for the eventual read.
That appetite-whetting prose—and the strength of the original idea—is, for Burnham, one of three key factors in a good proposal. The others are, first, a genuine commitment to the project, and second, a lawyerly ability to make an argument. “A proposal must build a persuasive, logical case,” he says. “The situation with this one was complicated, because the subject is still alive and because of the nature of the man. But Adam could carry it off.” All of that came through in the proposal. “It was intelligent, wry, smart, engaging, crisp—but it also had something that’s hard to identify or put a stamp on. In fact, you shouldn’t be able to break it down into its parts; it’s in the DNA of the writing.” It was clear, Burnham felt, that Adam had a passion for the subject. “Many writers have an idea partly because they merely want to have an idea. What came off the page was that Adam was genuinely excited and clearly wants to do this book.”
The business of a book
“A good proposal should be understandable by anybody who reads it,” says Adam. This is not mere piousness. A serious nonfiction work that requires lots of research—especially if that involves travel—is a major undertaking demanding time and, usually, money. In Adam’s case, for instance, aside from a month’s worth of writing, he has already spent £2,000 on various expenses just to do the proposal—such as traveling to Seattle to interview Cornwell’s brother—for which he doesn’t get paid until he has a book contract (though that will be soon). The publisher, hopefully, invests that money in the writer. As a result, “when it comes to acquiring a ‘big book,'” Adam points out, “senior colleagues from other departments are usually consulted, since their input will be crucial to the book’s overall success.”
Partly because of that, the Le Carré proposal ends with four paragraphs about why this book matters, and here it’s evident that Adam understands the concerns any publisher might have about the business angle. He discusses why Le Carré is important both as a writer and a cultural phenomenon (and who else thinks so too—Philip Roth called A Perfect Spy “the best English novel since the war”), deals with any issues surrounding other books, existing or projected, about his subject, lists who he’s going to talk to, where he’s going to travel to, allays possible concerns over the difficulties of access to information about Cornwell’s career in intelligence, and reiterates Cornwell’s willingness to cooperate.
“It’s possible that good writers can produce lazy proposals because the art, or the science, of writing a good one isn’t interesting to them,” says Burnham. “I can understand that. But a proposal has other uses too. To begin with, it’s good to have a record of what everyone understands the book will be—and it helps writers establish a clear map of what their intentions are. It makes them think hard about what they are going to do.”
Doing the deal
With the proposal under consideration at Bloomsbury, Wylie—who’s a persuasive man—suggested to Michael Fishwick, Bloomsbury’s publishing director, that Adam come in to discuss the book with Fishwick and all the sales, marketing, rights, publicity and export teams. “I felt that in person he’d present his passion for the subject irresistibly,” says Wylie. And that may be what clinched the thing. “Everyone loved Adam and thought him a classy writer, but they were also carried away by the story,” says Fishwick. “We all immediately understood that Le Carré’s life was just as interesting as his novels, and that it represented the depths and contradictions of British life. We do well with spies at Bloomsbury,” he adds. “We recently published Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat and Agent ZigZag, as well as Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 and William Boyd’s novel Restless. In many ways, Le Carré’s complex character is not unlike Agent Zigzag’s. Spying and human nature illuminate each other.”
So the proposal was accepted and the deal was done. Of course, for Adam that’s not even the first chapter of the story. His proposal ends, “I envisage a book of 150,000-200,000 words, to be completed in four years’ time.” The real work is just beginning.