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Run your book through the “so what?” machine


Where can you find some of the best big game hunting in the world? It's a place that may surprise you. Tonight, we're going to take you on a journey into a world that many people don't even know exists.

To get the best view, we flew by helicopter over this vast terrain. From the air, we could see herds of African antelope and zebra charging across the wide-open spaces. It looks remarkably like Africa, but it's not. This is Texas.

At the heart of this 60 Minutes story about endangered species being raised on Texas ranch land lay a paradox. Rare species of gazelle, antelope, and oryx could flourish here. In their native African habitat, they were close to extinction. Here’s the kicker, though: to pay for the operation, the ranchers allow big game hunters to hunt a limited number of animals.

Right out of the gate, we can see why viewers would be interested in this story. We can easily answer the “so what?” question.

Your book proposal needs to answer that same question. “So what?” is one of four questions that agents and editors will have in their minds as they consider your book idea. They want to know—and fast—why this book is unique, and why readers would be motivated to buy it.

My high school history teacher delighted in nudging students with the “So what?” question. In her margin notes on our essays, she constantly urged us to explain not just what happened, but also why it matters. Sure, it drove us all crazy at the time, but it was a great lesson.

A good book proposal answers the “So what?” question. It doesn’t just set up a bunch of interesting facts and then expect readers to join the dots ourselves.

When I edit a book proposal I often write in the margins, “Why should your readers care?” anyplace the author hasn’t made it obvious. It’s a gentler version of “So what?” (hey, I’m a gentle person, what can I say?) but it makes the same point.

Don’t bury your “so what?” too far back in your proposal. Book proposals are not thrillers. I shouldn’t have to wait until the last page to find out the most critical piece of information.

After “So what?” agents and editors have three other questions they want answered.

Why you?

Why are you the best author for this book—what makes you someone readers will respect and pay attention to?

How do you know readers will listen to you—what are your credentials, your track record of acquiring audiences (through any channel, whether it’s a blog, public speaking, articles, workshops, or podcasts)?

Do you have a unique ability to convey your message in a voice, style, structure, or context that makes it easier to understand?

What is your competitive edge, and how do you plan to sustain and even grow it?

Why now?

Why is this book needed in the current marketplace?

Why does what you have to say matter right now? What’s timely about it?

How is it relevant, given everything else that’s happening in the world now? (And what we anticipate happening in the 1-2 years until your book is published.)

Do you have a "burning platform": a particular kind of pain message that relays a sense of serious urgency?

Who cares?

This question is not meant sarcastically, but literally.

Even if your book is interesting and timely, is the message being delivered to the right people — the ones who would stand up and say, “Yes, I care!”

What is the identifiable group of readers who will spend $20 on this book?

Why is this message specifically relevant to its intended audience?

How are you going to reach those people?

In the case of the endangered species in Texas story, nonprofit marketing expert Kivi Leroux Miller explains that you have two different groups of people who have an interest in keeping these species alive. The wildlife preservationists want to protect the species without hunting them. The hunters want to protect the species so they can hunt them. You also have a third group of readers who see this arrangement as a practical reality, even if less than ideal.

You really need to know which of these three groups you are talking to. That’s why understanding your readers—the who cares—and why they care is so essential. If the 60 Minutes story were a book, the perfect book for the hunters would be quite different from the perfect book for the animal rights advocate.

On the surface, these four questions may look simplistic. Don’t underestimate them, though. Too many book proposals fail to engage agents and editors because they lack the substance necessary to bring a central idea to life, and therefore to be commercially viable.

Run your book idea through the “So what?” machine to make sure it satisfies its readers: first, agents and editors; and later, the wider audience for your book.


Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

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© 2020 Sally Collings

The Book Proposal Expert

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