How to Turn an Essay into a Book Deal | Jane Friedman

How to Turn an Essay into a Book Deal | Jane Friedman

and white photo of a woman walking down a massive indoor staircase on which a quote from Anish Kapoor is painted in large letters spanning many of the stair risers: "All ideas grow out of other ideas."” class=”wp-image-65100″ srcset=”×667.png 1000w,×300.png 450w,×512.png 768w, 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px”/>Photo by CJ Dayrit on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author Catherine Baab-Muguira.

Getting a traditional, “Big 5” book deal is almost unbelievably difficult. Many will try. Few will succeed. What’s more, talent is cheap. Hard work, persistence, unchecked ambition-slash-megalomania? They’re cheap, too.

What can help you land a deal is “proof of concept.” Let me explain.

In marketing, “proof of concept” refers to the process of testing a new product or strategy to assess its sales potential and viability before you go all-in on a full-scale launch. It usually involves conducting a limited, real-world trial, the purpose of which is to gather evidence that will allow you to make a larger, grander case. I did 12 years’ hard labor in corporate marketing. That’s how I know.

When it comes to selling your book, proof of concept means demonstrating there’s a large, enthusiastic audience out there ready and willing to shell out $18 for your masterpiece. and a great way to do this is by publishing a nutshell version of your big, central idea in essay form.

How it worked for me

In the summer of 2017, after months of pitching with no luck, I finally found a home for the essay I was dying to write. It was about how reading the work of Edgar Allan Poe during a deep depression had effectively saved my life. Restarted my creative drive. Renewed my hope for the future.

Numerous prestigious outlets, from the Washington Post to The Atlantic, had rejected or ignored the pitch, so when the literary website The Millions agreed to run it and pay me a whopping $25 for the privilege, I was thrilled. My motivation came down to personal fulfillment and sharing an interesting experience with the world, not fame or money. The token compensation mattered not at all. What I hoped for was an audience, and in that, The Millions more than delivered. My essay went modestly viral in a literary world kind of way, racking up likes and shares on Facebook and Twitter, and became one of the site’s most popular articles of the year.

By this point in my freelance career, I’d grown accustomed to following my own work around the internet. It fascinated me to see Redditors discussing a piece, and to track which newspapers, magazines, and other outlets shared the piece on their socials was especially gratifying. Often these same outlets had rejected the pitch.

This time out felt no different, at least not at first. I googled the title of my article and discovered what readers were saying, a process that brings both pleasure and pain. Then I noticed something I hadn’t expected: my piece was being shared in gigantic Poe fan groups. For instance, by the official Edgar Allan Poe Facebook fan page, which has nearly 4 million members. I’d never realized so many Poe fans existed, or for that matter, that they gathered in dedicated online spaces.

I kept digging, and what I learned lit my brain up. Not only did my fellow fans number in the millions, many shared the same view of Poe as I did: He was their hero, too. A kindred spirit struggling with mental-health issues, and an inspiration to pursue their artistic work despite knowing it would almost certainly go unpublished and unappreciated.

It would be dishonest to say that, from this point, my book proposal wrote itself. Book proposals aren’t easy to write, hahahaha dear God no. But making the case for a self-help book based on the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe became much easier once I could point to the article’s success—and even share emails from readers responding to the piece.

I hadn’t meant to “pilot” my idea, but pilot it I had.

How it can work for you

How this advice applies to nonfiction is straightforward, but it can apply to fiction, too. You could pilot your big novel idea as a short story. You could also pilot it as an essay on your main topic or theme, or the autobiographical experience which inspired you to write the book.

Whatever genre you’re working in, the process remains simple—dare I say easy.

Step 1: Write the pitch.

Begin by crafting a compelling pitch for your essay. This pitch should be a concise and engaging description of your idea, clearly conveying the core concept that you plan to explore. (For more on freelance pitching, see here.)

Step 2: Pitch editors at relevant outlets.

Identify and research relevant online publications, magazines, or websites that cater to your target audience. Carefully tailor your pitch to these specific outlets, highlighting why your essay aligns with their readers’ interests, and referencing articles the outlet has recently published. Keep in mind you may have to pitch lots of outlets before finding a taker. Begin with your top choices and work down from there.

Step 3: Promote the hell out of your essay.

Do not bet on organic success. Instead, once your essay is published, do every last thing you can to maximize its reach. Share it across your socials, obviously, and don’t fail to beg your friends, family, and followers to do the same. Consider tapping into your professional network, too. For example, I belong to Study Hall, an online organization for freelancers with an active listserv, and once a year, members can ask each other to “boost” a particular piece. You may also belong to organizations in which you can ask for support from like-minded individuals, too, which can go a long way toward amplifying your essay’s reach.

Step 4: Gather data by stalking your work around the internet.

Keep a close eye on the performance of your essay. Google the headline in quote marks (as in “My essay title”) and see what Redditors are saying. Keep track of views, likes, shares, and comments. If notable people, organizations, or publications share your piece, make a note. This data will help you prove your concept resonates with a large audience, perhaps even a distinguished one.

Step 5: Belabor your essay’s success in your query and proposal.

What’s the point of all this? Making a big ol’ to-do about the success of your article. In other words, don’t bury the lede. Foreground that success in your query letter when approaching literary agents, and foreground it in your book proposal, too. You can and should mention its success in your Overview essay and in your Audience section.

Step 6: Maybe do all this in video form, not essay form. I don’t know. You tell me. It’s worth a thought.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how much the internet has changed since 2017. The heyday of the “first-person industrial complex” appears to be behind us, with short-form video most definitely emerging as the tool du jour. That doesn’t mean you can’t effectively pilot your book idea. It means you should consider piloting your idea via video, if that’s a thing you’re into and a medium you like. and, frankly, even if it’s not a thing you’re into and not a medium you like. At the very least, consider doing both—piloting via essay and via video. Leigh Stein offers some excellent advice on the point.

Break a leg, friends! and go get that proof of concept.

Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, was published by Hachette in September 2021. She also writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here.

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