As a book acquisitions editor, I've reviewed thousands of manuscripts and book proposals from literary agents and individual authors. Often they miss a key ingredient in their proposals. These proposals lack vision.
As the writer of the proposal (and eventually the book), it is your responsibility -- not the editor's or publisher's -- to create the basic vision for the book. It's much easier to change a suggested format or length than to create it in the first place.
Many people fail to include this specific information in their nonfiction book proposals. What does your book look like? Is it 40,000 words or 140,000 words?
When I've called authors and asked for this information, they often reply, "Well, what size of book do you need?" As an editor, I hesitate to give this size or cast this vision. I know that whatever vision I would cast, the author would tell me, "That's exactly what I was thinking," whether they were thinking such a thing or not. They are eager to sell the manuscript.
It is the responsibility of the author to cast the vision for the book and project a word count and finished length. To help you cast this vision, let me tell you that most standard 192-page paperback books are about 40,000 to 50,000 words. Many beginning writers are hesitant to give such a number because they've never written a long book. Others include a smaller number like 25,000 or 30,000 words. This size is not attractive to many publishers as it produces a small, thin book.
Why is the thickness a factor? Walk into any bookstore and look specifically at the number of books displayed with the cover face out on the bookshelf. You'll find only a few. More books can be stocked if they are spine out from the bookshelf. A 25,000-word nonfiction book will not have much of a presence in the store with the spine out.
Many writers tell me, "I want the publisher to decide how big the book will be." Then they say with pride, "I'm flexible." To be "flexible" will not cut it with the editor. You are the expert on this particular topic and subject matter; it's why the publisher is paying you an advance and investing a great deal of money to produce your book. You have a responsibility to envision the length of your book. How many words will you need to completely cover your selected topic?
This number is critical to a successful book proposal, as the editor uses this proposed word count to project the number of pages in the published book. Then he works with the production personnel to run the production numbers. These numbers are put into the spreadsheet document that gives the complete financials on the book. The author never sees these numbers, but based on these figures, the editor has parameters for offering an advance on the royalties of the book and the percentage for royalties.
Without the author's word count, the editor can't accomplish this important function -- or he takes a wild guess at the number, which could be substantially wrong. These financial figures are used for much more than simply your project inside the publishing house. They are used for annual budget projections for the editorial area and other places. While seemingly a small issue, these financials figure into other areas inside the publishing house.
Beyond the word count or length of the manuscript, you also need to provide a delivery date. It is important to remember the word count with nonfiction because the entire manuscript is not complete. You have written only the proposal and a chapter or two of the project. How long will it take you to write the remainder of the book?
When I have approached authors about this question, they ask me, "When do you need my manuscript?" Your editor cannot answer for you. You are the only person who knows the demands on your time and energy during the coming months and how quickly you can write the book. This timeframe is different for every person because one person may write several thousand words in a day while another may only be able to write several hundred words a day.
Why is the completion date important? Because whatever date you tell the editor for completion will go into your book contract. This date sets off a chain of events throughout the publishing house (production, marketing, sales and editorial). A detailed schedule of events and benchmarks to produce the book is created and various people are held accountable for the scheduled events -- events that authors know nothing about. Authors are notoriously late; however, a late manuscript can cause delays that could hinder the success of your book.
For example, who will be editing your book when it comes into the publishing house? It may be an inside person, or the publishing house may send your book to an outside freelance editor.
Last year we determined that one of my authors needed a developmental editor to work with her from the beginning of the project. The publishing house leadership was excited about this author and wanted the book to be excellent. I began to call my network of editors looking for someone to do it and to negotiate a timeframe and price for the editing.
For my first call, I connected with one of the top freelance editors in the business, whom I have known for many years. She regularly edits some best-selling authors who have sold millions of copies. Her first question was "When will this project begin?" I explained the manuscript was due in a few weeks. She instantly said, "My schedule is booked solid for the next year."
I was astonished, since I didn't know what I was doing next month. "You're booked for a year?"
Then she explained, "Yes, usually I am contracted at the same time the author is contracted." When I called some other freelance editors, I learned the same story from them -- their schedules couldn't accommodate this book that needed developmental editing because they planned their work 12 months in advance.
Let's return to the topic of casting a vision for your book and knowing when you will deliver the manuscript. If during the contract process, you agree to submit your manuscript in six or eight or twelve months, then your editor will be expecting your manuscript on time. If you deliver your manuscript a month or two late (it happens more often than you might think), you will throw off all the internal plans the publishing house is making for your book, plus the assigned freelance editor will have their schedule thrown off. You will set off a chain reaction that can and will influence the effectiveness of your book sales.
Also, the marketing will be affected regarding your manuscript delivery date. The publishing world has trade magazines such as Publisher's Weekly. These publications have a slightly different audience, but each one selects books to be reviewed and highlighted to booksellers (always an important market for authors). The submission deadlines are months in advance of the release date for a review of your book to appear in these key trade magazines. If your publisher doesn't have your manuscript, then your book will not be one of those submitted to the trade magazines for review and you will miss a key marketing opportunity. Almost every magazine is working four to six months in advance of the cover date printed on the magazine. The marketing department needs to have your book manuscript in order to make the greatest possible impact.
You don't want to bear the responsibility of your book not being properly marketed or sold into the stores because you missed your book deadline by a month or two or three. Be thoughtful about it and don't give yourself a deadline for delivery that will be impossible to achieve. Set a reasonable due date which will work for you. It's a key part of your responsibility with the vision casting for your book.