7 Questions for Preparing a Proposal

Many thanks to Jeevan Sivsubramaniam, Managing Director Editorial at Berrett-Koehler Publishers and a speaker at the San Francisco Writers Conference for this first-rate handout:

Many people have great ideas for books to help change the world politically or socially, or to help individuals grow in spirit and purpose. Keep these seven questions in mind when writing your proposal:

1. Is your book really needed?

Authors often write books that they feel people need to read, but that does not mean people will read them. More and more people are getting cancer, recovering from mental illness, overcoming addictions, or getting sick of the economy every year, but there are already 1,001 books on these subjects. Why is yours different? What makes your book especially compelling? If you have teenage children or nieces and nephews, pitch your book to them and gauge their interest –you’ll receive the same response from the marketplace.

2. Is your book tightly focused?

Too many people want to write a world-as-I-see-it-and-how-it-should-be type of book in  which  they comment on all aspects of a particular subject. These sprawling works hold little appeal for most book buyers. Readers don’t want a grand vision or blueprint for a new government or economy or behavioral model, unless you are an influential world leader who has the clout to make these changes happen. Exhaustive books are just that–exhausting. If you can’t sum up your book’s core premise in two sentences, it’s too scattered.

3. Who is the audience for your book?

Don’t look for overly general markets and say that your book is “for everyone concerned about “the environment,” ” democracy,” or “spirituality.” In nonfiction, there is no such thing as a general reader. Be specific and carve out a niche for which a sizable yet specific audience exists. No one walks into a bookstore and asks for a book about “something that could be for everyone.”

4. Are your qualifications, background, and knowledge directly related to your subject?

There are doctors who write about politics, politicians who write about economics, and economists who write about spirituality. The problem is that these people lack the qualifications and professional consulting and speaking experience in the subject they are writing about. Are professional qualifications the only measure of authority on a subject? No, but if you needed surgery, would you go with someone who has conducted a lot of independent research and learned a lot about medicine or a board-certified surgeon? You can disregard everything above if you are a celebrity, which explains why Tori Spelling can write a New York Times bestseller about parenting.

5. What are the competing titles?

This question is related to question number 1. Who else has written on this subject and what other books are already out there? How does your book differ–again, in a compelling way–from those? Be realistic and don’t list books by Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Thomas Friedman, and Malcolm Gladwell as competing titles, unless you are as famous as they are. Then again, if you’re famous, you can write about anything you want.

6. What will the length be and how will the book look?

Be aware of parameters that affect your book. Books are getting shorter, so you will run up against more reservations once you pass the 200-page mark. (Book pages are different from 250-word manuscript pages.) Color photographs and other graphic elements increase the costs for most publishers, so they will have to price the book higher to recoup costs. Inserts such as CDs or other materials also drive up costs. Be mindful of factors like these.

7. How will you actively market and support the book?

Books don’t launch movements; movements launch books. A book doesn’t launch an author’s career and build visibility; an author’s career and visibility are what launch a book, so don’t expect a book to kick-start your career. Don’t tell a publisher you are available to write articles, speak at events, and engage in other promotional efforts. You should already be writing, speaking, and consulting. Have an audience ready to buy your book before you start it so you have a base you can market and sell it to.

A Final Suggestion

Be careful when making assumptions about publishers and how publishing works. Publishing is an industry unlike any other, and the rules that govern other businesses don’t apply. Learn the lesson that Borders learned. The company’s last five CEOs did not have a publishing background and tried to run the company like their previous businesses. What could have worked wonders in other arenas drove a great store to bankruptcy.


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The goal of the blog is to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Rants, comments, questions, and answers most appreciated.

The 10th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 14-17, 2013/www.sfwriters.org / [email protected] / https://sfwriters.info/blog /@SFWC/ www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference

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Bedrock for Writers: What You Can’t Help Believe

What and how you write, how long it is, and the medium you choose to use express your ideas in reveal your relationship to your beliefs. Every time you sit down to write is an opportunity for you to use your beliefs to inspire your best work. As part of the human family, we share many truths. How we express them depends on nature and nurture, the family and culture we grow up in, our vision, our personalities, our creative gifts, and how we see our mission.

The Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes believed that truth is what we can’t help believe. People made tools 1.7 million years ago, painted caves and invented the flute 35,000 years ago, and built religious sites 9,000 years ago. Like us, they were born to be free and to create tools to communicate their truths in words, music and art.

Truths I Can’t Help Believe

Seven decades have brought me these irreducible truths:

  • Pain may be an early warning sign. It helps us learn and grow, but most of the time, it only hurts.
  • Injustice and unjustified suffering are obscene.
  • Human needs, fears, desires, and aspirations unite the human family more than money, power, culture, history, resources, religion, and politics divide them.
  • To be born gives one the right to food, clothing, shelter, health care, a healthy environment, freedom, an education that prepares one for the work that’s available, jobs that sustain those who do them, and the chance to develop all of one’s potential. These needs aren’t gifts; they are as essential to the health of a community as they are to the individual. Providing them is a test of government; if it fails, the people must replace it.
  • Systems can’t work. Why?

–They were created imperfectly with compromises, lack of foresight, and by the same committee that was asked to create a horse but produced a camel.

–They can’t encompass or respond well to all of the possibilities they encounter.

–The world is changing faster than they can change the system to cope with it.

–They are run by bureaucrats who try to justify their existence, shift responsibility, and resist change.

–There are people who try to undermine them and take advantage of them.

Increasingly ineffective systems become part of the problems they were created to solve. They magnify our burden, because we have to fix both the problem and the systems, which resist change. What would the founding fathers think about how their inability to end slavery led to the Civil War? How would they respond to the challenges we face?

  • Decisions generate trade-offs, so the challenge is to make the decision with the best set of tradeoffs.
  • Morality is a luxury of peace and prosperity. If people’s identity, beliefs, or well-being is threatened, they will fight to preserve them.
  • Nobody has a monopoly on truth, wisdom, or virtue.
  • Being a multicultural country will be an essential source of strength for our future.
  • Whether in art or politics, it’s easy to mistake technique for content.

The Effect of Technology

The rate at which the technology business is relentlessly transforming civilization is accelerating yet

  • No one understands it
  • No one is in charge of it
  • No one knows where it’s going
  • No one can control it.

But we still have to keep coming to terms with technology at home and at work. Author Ray Kurzweil predicts that by 2045, computing power will be greater than the collective human intellect. What could go wrong with that?

Technology helped bring about the miraculous changes in the Arab Spring that led to the Occupy Movement. But how do we balance technology’s potential for helping to create change with its potential for political and economic control?

The Laws of Power

  • Power corrupts. What individuals and institutions need is enough power to be effective but not enough to be corrupted.
  • Nobody who wants power should be allowed to have it without controls, including time limits.
  • The first job of those with economic and political power is to maintain the status quo so they can keep it. It takes a quarter of a mile for an oil tanker to make a right turn. The larger and older businesses and institutions are, and the larger–and newer the challenges they face–the harder it is for them to respond effectively, even if they want to.
  • The Golden Rule of Politics: He who has the money makes the rules. Contributions force politicians to favor those who provide them, which is why we have the best government money can buy.
  • People and institutions don’t yield power willingly.
  • If a society must choose between order and freedom, it will choose order.

The Greatest Opportunity Writers Have Ever Had

When Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, immolated himself in a Tunisian marketplace, he set the world ablaze with the unstoppable urge to do whatever it takes to be free, because being human creates the need for freedom. Part of that freedom is the need to learn and share the truth.

Thanks to freedom and technology–writers of prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction–have the greatest opportunity writers have ever had to express their truths. In the void left by government, business, and religion, they can use their wisdom, guidance, and inspiration to push humanity in the right direction by helping people to understand what’s in their best interests, and to act on it. Not to do so, in what may become one of the most important years of the century, is to leave the world at the mercy of those whose words and actions benefit themselves, not the human family or the planet.

IBOR: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Two suggestions that will help from Kirk Boyd, a client I met at the conference and author of the regional bestseller, 2048: Humanity’s Written Agreement to Live Together (Berrett-Koehler):

  • Fostering a global consciousness based on what all of us have in common
  • Having an online forum so anyone connected to the Web can express and discuss their ideas with links to different subjects and countries.
  • Having an enforceable International Bill of Rights (IBOR) that’s posted on www.internationalbillofrights.com that you can sign and share. Kirk and I are collaborating on a book about the IBOR.

Another suggestion: Continuing online international groups of representatives, dedicated to the public good, discussing, mediating, and adjudicating issues. Have these discussions streamed live on the Web, so the public can comment and vote on them.

Three Questions That Will Determine Your Future

What’s bedrock for you?

What beliefs sustain you?

What is the best way for you to use your beliefs to serve your readers, your community, and yourself?

Your life will be the answer to these questions. Not to ask them and answer them honestly is to deny the only person and the writer you were born to be.


I will be moderating a panel about writing for change at the San Francisco Writers Conference, and we will be organizing a Writing for Change Conference this year.

I write the blog to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Did I get this post right? Rants, comments, suggestions for changes, questions (or answers) are most appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community/February 16-20, 2012/www.sfwriters.org / [email protected] / https://sfwriters.info/blog /@SFWC/ www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean/free classes/www.sfwritersu.com/[email protected]/@SFWritersU

Joining the Dream Team for Writers

Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.

–James Dean

The beginning of a new year gives us the opportunity to think about what we’d like to see happen in our lives. One of the disadvantages of youth is that the younger you are, the more time you think you have ahead of you. But nobody knows what fate has in store for us.

You’ve probably heard the saying that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. The ability of medical science to keep us alive and healthy is running neck and neck with the ways in which Gaia and human folly may do us in before we wear out. But the uncertainties in our lives don’t lessen the need to have dreams that inspire us and illuminate our daily life.

I urge you to dream big, because you can’t know how much you can accomplish in your personal and professional life. But the bigger your dreams, the more important it becomes to have a plan to achieve them, and to make every day count in striving to achieve them. I promise you that you can be more and achieve more than you think you can. And more members of the global village in more places need what you have to offer more than ever.

So plant yourself in the biggest pot you can. Spring is coming. May 2012 be your best year yet!


I write the blog to help you and me understand what we need to know about writing and publishing. Rants, comments, questions, and answers most appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community/February 16-20, 2012/www.sfwriters.org / [email protected] / https://sfwriters.info/blog /@SFWC/ www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean/free classes/www.sfwritersu.com/[email protected]/@SFWritersU



The Perfect Pitch for a Nonfiction Book: 11 Ways to Excite Me About Reading Your Proposal

The role of the writer is to make bouillon cubes out of chicken soup.

–Susan Sontag

Whether you’re talking about your book to a friend or an editor, the content of your book has to be scalable: You have to be able to capture the essence of it about it in a tweet, a one-paragraph pitch, a one-page query letter, and a proposal.

Pitching your book will take less than thirty seconds. How can you generate maximum excitement for your book in as few words as possible? Without being self-serving, the perfect pitch describes the essence of your book, why it will excite book buyers, and what’s most impressive about your platform, promotion plan, and credentials.

Six of the eleven parts of a pitch are optional; you may not need them. A pitch for a narrative nonfiction book, such as a memoir, will need two or three sentence about the setting, the subject, and the story.

Platform and promotion won’t be as important for certain kinds of books such as reference books, or for small or for midsize houses outside of New York. Here are eleven possible parts of a pitch that will excite me because it will arouse the interest of  editors in the Big Apple:

1. A sentence with the title and the selling handle for the book, up to fifteen words that show why it’s unique or commercial.

2. The model(s) for your book: One or two books, movies, or authors–“It’s The Tipping Point meets The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

3. (Optional) The length of your proposal. Proposals have an overview about the book and author, an outline, and sample text, usually about ten percent of the manuscript. They usually range between 35 and 50 pages. The right time to pitch your book is when your proposal is ready to sell. But if you have the chance to pitch your book before your proposal is ready, take advantage of it.

4. (Optional) The length of your manuscript, if it’s ready to submit.

5. (Optional) The names of people who will provide a foreword and cover quotes, if they’re impressive.

6. (Optional) Mention if you’re proposing a series.

7. (Optional) Information about a self-published edition that will help sell it.

8. The most important thing about your platform: what you are doing to give yourself continuing visibility on the subject, online or off, with potential book buyers, and if the number is impressive, how many of them. Wrong: “I give talks.” Right: “I give X talks a year to Y people.”

9. The most effective thing you will do to promote your book, online or off, and if the number is impressive and appropriate, how many of them. Wrong: “I will sell books.” Right: “I will sell X books a year.” Your promotion plan must be a believable extension of your platform.

10. What is most impressive about your credentials: your track record; experience in your field; years of research; prizes; contests; awards in your field.

11. (Optional) Anything else that will convince agents or editors to ask for your proposal.

For another approach to pitches, read agent Katharine Sands’ excellent book, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye. Elizabeth and I have chapters in it. Katharine will be doing a breakout session on pitching, and a two-hour intensive, open to the public, at the San Francisco Writers Conference, February 16-20, www.sfwriters.org. There’s more about platform, promotion, and proposals in the fourth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community
February 16-20, 2012 / www.sfwriters.org / [email protected] / Mike’s blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog @SFWC / www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference
San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / www.sfwritersu.com / [email protected] / @SFWritersU


Six Ways to Make the Best City in the World Better: A Letter to Mayor Ed Lee—Part 2

Here is the second part of a letter Elizabeth and I wrote to Mayor Lee about how to make San Francisco a better city.

4. Solve the homeless problem.

End the homeless problem by giving the homeless a place to live until they can lead productive lives. Create a combination of the Peace Corps, Project Homeless Connect (PHC), the Raphael House homeless shelter, Habitat for Humanity, and the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Use donated land, labor, and resources to build a green Victory Village outside of San Francisco (although there are empty buildings in the Presidio, and unused military bases elsewhere). Ask for donations to fund the village, and gradually shift money used for the present system to the village.

Build self-governing houses for fifty people and a live-in volunteer coordinator, where residents can either stay to help or learn to make a living and return to the city. Keeping housing low-scale will help prevent the village from feeling institutional and impersonal. Name buildings for large contributors to their construction. Enable those who can live and work independently to leave with a job, a place to live, the goods they need, and a support network. This will give a role to the city’s homeless-industrial complex.

Have a cafeteria, a nonprofit store, a library with computers, a website and a one-page daily newspaper that residents help run, a
bank for saving income they don’t need, and buses for transportation. Those who can’t function independently can still help keep the village going and will be out of the environment that enables dependency and generates crime. Make families that Raphael House can’t help a priority and figure out how to provide schooling.

Enlist volunteers, from high-school kids to seniors to help run the village, and provide education, healthcare, and treatment. Ask
businesses and nonprofits to donate goods and services and give jobs to residents when they’re ready to leave and reward them for their help.

Have a vegetable garden and use technology to create businesses with the goal of making the village self-sufficient and earn income
for residents. This idea creates practical and ethical challenges. But if, like Raphael House, you make compassion and community, not power, the governing principle, and if you ask the homeless to help plan and carry out the how it’s built and run, you will meet those challenges. The first ally to make is the Coalition for the Homeless.

Winston Churchill believed that Americans always act wisely once they’ve exhausted the alternatives. It’s time. This solution will reduce crime and panhandling and accelerate the transformation of Market Street and the Tenderloin.

5.   Create a San Francisco currency.

Have a contest to design a four-color San Francisco currency for one, five, and ten-dollar bills, capturing the city’s beauty, institutions, most memorable people and places, and landmarks. Make them so beautiful that, attractively packaged, visitors and collectors buy them as gifts and souvenirs. As with other local currencies around the country, they will be usable only in the city. Ask banks and other businesses to underwrite the printing in exchange for including their names on the bills.

There’s also money in the merchandise. Partner with local businesses to create gifts such as cups, note cards, and hoodies with the art. Do a new set of images every year.

6.  Paint San Francisco.

Enlist homeowners, house painters, color consultants, preservation organizations, paint companies, art schools and students, and
volunteers to transform the greatest collection of redwood Victorians in the world into an irresistibly beautiful collection of buildings as only San Franciscans can do it.

These Painted Ladies will be as unique and as much of an attraction as the cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge. They will attract
millions of visitors from around the world. Painted Ladies are worth more to owners, the city, and the tax assessor than colorless old buildings. Have an annual contests for owners and professionals for the most beautiful homes and businesses with an awards ceremony on Alamo Square with Postcard Row in the background. Help fund the restoration of Victorians that have been victims of

While you’re at it, there are a lot of blank walls that, with a creative makeover, will help transform San Francisco into the most
beautiful city in the world. The city’s sunshine, radiant blue sky, and the clarity of the light call for color that reflects and enhances their brilliance.


If the only value these ideas have is to spark your creativity about how to use one of the world’s greatest resources—the people of
San Francisco—to transform it into the best city it can be, it will have served its purpose, and you will earn a place in the pantheon of the city’s greatest mayors.

The growing San Francisco Writers Conference, which we’re co-directors of, brings in almost 500 speakers, volunteers, and writers from around California, an average of thirty states, and several foreign countries. Like us, they love being in this beautiful center of culture and the country’s second largest publishing community, and we encourage them to explore the city.

Former President Bill Clinton has observed that national change can come from the bottom up. Programs like the prize-nominated Healthy San Francisco may be the beginning of the only healthcare solution that works.

So let’s make San Francisco “The City That Knows How” again. Call it Project City Connect. Cities around the country will use these ideas as they adopted Project Homeless Connect. As it did with the Painted Ladies, San Francisco’s example will once again help transform the country. But only one city can be the best in the world. Let’s keep it San Francisco.

Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada, literary agents and co-authors of six books about the Painted Ladies

[Formatting anomalies in not draft.]

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / www.sfwriters.org / [email protected] / https://sfwriters.info/blog / @SFWC / www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free
classes / www.sfwritersu.com / [email protected] / @SFWritersU

Michael Larsen-Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agents / Helping Writers Launch Careers Since 1972 / Members: AAR / [email protected] / www.larsenpomada.com



Six Ways to Make the Best City in the World Better: A Letter to Mayor Ed Lee—Part 1

What follows is the first part of a letter I emailed to Mayor Lee. Hope you find it of interest and that it stimulates your creative juices.  

To Mayor Ed Lee:

San Francisco is the best city in the world. Solving the problems cities face is essential to the San Francisco’s future for the quality of life of its residents and for tourism. Meeting these challenges is also a goal worthy of San Franciscans’ creativity, passion, and idealism. With an innovative, tech-savvy leader, they will do it.

The simplest, fastest way to make San Francisco the top tourist destination in the world and solve its economic problems is to arouse and reward the creativity of people of all ages who live and work in the city, as well as visitors, and friends of the city elsewhere. Here are six ideas to consider:

1. Ask for suggestions and reward those who provide the ones you use.

Ask the public, visitors, and students at all levels for ideas. This will unleash a torrent of creativity. Set up a volunteer board to review and develop ideas and present them to you when they’re ready to implement.

The surest way to stimulate ideas is by rewarding people with money and recognition. If an suggestion saves or generates money for the city, give a percentage of the income made or saved to the person who provides the idea. Start making millionaires and you’ll get all the suggestions you want. Recognize people whose ideas you use with an award in the form of a light bulb at an annual event at City Hall.

Build a website to:

  •  Gather, post, attribute, and develop ideas.
  • Encourage people to send videos about their ideas.
  • Be a forum for people to help collaborate on ideas, contribute resources to develop them, and assemble volunteers.
  • Acknowledge everyone who helps.

2. Make San Franciscans ambassadors.

Make San Francisco a city that cares about its visitors more than just as a source of income. Staff the empty kiosks in key locations with volunteers to answer tourists’ questions. Have phones at the kiosks so foreign-speaking visitors can talk to bi-lingual volunteers who can help them. Kiosks can give away sponsored “Ask me. I live here” buttons in different languages to residents willing to answer questions.

Posting a FAQ list on the kiosks and having touch-screen computers built into the kiosks will make information available 24/7, as will a 24-hour hotline. The kiosks can give away sponsored copies of the list with tourist resources in different languages, designed well enough to be a souvenir visitors will copy or pass on to others planning to visit the city. Hotels can provide the list in their rooms, lobbies, and concierge desks, and include the location of the kiosks. Guidebooks can include the list and mention the kiosks. Have advertising on the kiosks to maintain them.

3. Create a nonprofit venture-capital service like Kickstarter.

One key to America’s greatness is that if an idea is good enough, the resources to make it happen emerge. As with the previous suggestion, build a website and ask residents of all ages to email ideas for businesses they want to start that have value to residents, visitors, or the city. Ask those who can to post videos of themselves explaining their ideas. Make character and ability as important as skill and experience in choosing what to fund.

Have volunteers, including members of SCORE, MBA students, and service organizations, help them develop business plans. Arrange for college students to receive school credits for developing plans. Post plans on the site, with videos of the entrepreneurs explaining them.

Give residents the first chance to invest money, products, and services in businesses that excite them. Encourage investors to mentor their businesses. Like Kickstarter, only fund businesses that reach the funding goal in their plans. Enlist businesses to provide internships in related fields to help prepare new entrepreneurs to run their businesses.

Divide fifteen percent of the net profits into three parts for investors, the city, to cover the costs of running the service. Do as much online with volunteers as possible. Use technology as well as on-site volunteers to provide the entrepreneurs with the guidance they need. Enlist the local tech community to help enable businesses to network with and support each other.

Ask Kickstarter for assistance, and businesses to supply products, services, advisors, and discounts, in exchange for becoming exclusive providers to the network. Give city residents priority for jobs and city businesses priority as suppliers. This idea has the potential to become a huge, ever growing engine of synergy, commerce, and income for the city. Use Kickstarter to ask for funds to start the service.

The second part of the letter will appear in the next post.

FYI: Tomorrow evening—Wednesday–at 5 PST (8 EST), I’ll be doing a teleseminar with author and SFWC speaker Nina Amir about Content, Character and Connection: The Three Keys to Becoming a Successful Writer in a Bottom-Up World. It’s the title of a new talk and day-long seminar that Elizabeth and I do, and that we’ll speak about at the conference. To register, click here: http://www.copywrightcommunications.com/WNFIN-Teleseminar-Registration.html

[Formatting anomaly not in draft.]

Michael Larsen-Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agents / Helping Writers Launch Careers
Since 1972 / Members: AAR / [email protected] / www.larsenpomada.com

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / www.sfwriters.org / [email protected] / https://sfwriters.info/blog / @SFWC / ww.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free
classes / www.sfwritersu.c om / [email protected] / @SFWritersU