As an acquisitions editor, my job is to shop for books, but of course it’s not the final bound product I’m looking for. I shop for the material needed to create books – a commercial idea, a promotable author, and solid writing. All of these elements come through in a successful book proposal.

Book proposals are the universal language authors use to convey the value of their work and get a contract — either from an editor or an agent. All good ones follow a certain formula, which Writers Marketplace and numerous other resources can demonstrate. But there’s a certain panache that comes through when you understand a bit about the publishing process. Here’s an insider’s look at a few pieces of advice I tell aspiring authors on a daily basis to make their proposals shine.

1. Know your comp titles.

Editors work by comparison. Outside of knowing how to write and having a killer working title, the best way to get an editor’s attention is to include an accurate list of  “comparables” – published books that are similar to yours. At one of the publishers I worked for, the acquiring editor the next desk over asked all aspiring authors the same question when he first got them on the phone: “What are your favorite books in this genre?” If he sounded enthusiastic after he heard their answer, I knew the authors had a better chance of being published. Know your genre, and know it well.

I tell aspiring authors there are two types of comp titles – your cocktail party answer and your practical answer. It’s your job to have an intimate understanding of both. I asked one fiction writer what his comp titles are, and he said, “My writing is a little Woody Allen meets Michael Chabon.” That’s a tall order! In the right situation, it’s fine to compare yourself to a world-renowned filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize–winning author. It’s a quick, effective way to assert your style. But when you are talking to an editor, you need to share a few realistic comps, as well. Select an author with a single published book, a modest platform, and worthy enough sales. If you are pitching to a small publisher, include comps from other small publishers. List one comp that’s positioned for the same audience as yours and another comp whose author has a similar voice. And never rely on books more than 5 to 7 years old. Publishers want to know what’s selling now.

2. Editors pitch, too.

When your pitch is effective, an editor turns around and pitches it herself. This means she shares it with her pub board or acquisitions committee. Keep this in mind on two counts. First, write for your audience. A book proposal is meant for the discerning eye of a pub board – not for a guy in a bookstore. Supply detailed descriptions of the value of your book, who is going to read it, and what your promotional efforts will be. Your editor uses this material to create a cover sheet summarizing the pros and cons of your book – and then shares the cover sheet with her acquisitions committee with your proposal and sample chapter.

Second, since the editor makes copies and distributes your work to a group of people, make it easy for her to share your work. Use footers with page numbers, your name, and contact info. Set your work in a highly readable font. And always send your work as one document. Never litter an editor’s inbox with more attachments than necessary.

3. Polish up your sound bites.

Imagine an editor’s desk piled high with stacks of unopened manuscripts and proposals. How are you going to make your work stand out? Festooning your work in ribbon or binding it up at Kinko’s is not the way to go. Be elegant and impress an editor with useful, engaging sound bites.

When I acquired a dream dictionary with lots of smart content, I described it as “the thinking person’s dream dictionary.” When I acquired a unique book about the history of Jinn, an ancient race of genies, I started my pitch by writing, “It turns out genies aren’t so dreamy after all.” These sound bites immediately attract attention and convey the innate value of the book.

Understand the beauty of brevity and seduction. Work on your elevator pitch – the brief, charming summary of your book you could share between floors 1 and 18. Put this juicy summary at the front of your proposal. I tell my authors to think about their book in terms of a movie trailer and themselves as the director. Go so far as to imagine your book as the new summer blockbuster in which a typhoon takes over New York City and the bold voice of the narrator says, “In a world where . . .” Write your sound bites in this ridiculously big voice and see what you come up with.

4. Show us your face.

A book proposal without an author photo is like a real estate ad without pictures of the exterior of the house. An editor can see that the structure is sound, but she can’t get a sense of the full package.

If you are serious about being published, include a professional portrait in your proposal alongside your bio. You know the saying that you can tell a lot about someone by their shoes? Imagine how much more you can tell by their face. An author’s vibe contributes to the packaging and positioning of the book. If you are pitching a memoir about your year in Italy, include a picture of you smiling broadly in the Tuscan sun. And keep in mind two pieces of advice — don’t be shy, but don’t be at all fake. Make sure the picture is highly flattering and all about you, but only in a natural, understated way — that means no excessive make-up or accessories. Follow the path of Elizabeth Gilbert, wildly successful author of Eat, Pray, Love. Every picture of her I’ve seen is natural and remarkable at the same time.

Written by Carrie Obry
A former Llewellyn acquisitions editor, Carrie is now executive director of the Midwest Booksellers Association, a nonprofit organization that represents independent bookstores. ...