Friday, September 15, 2006

A conversation with W. Terry Whalin

W. Terry Whalin understands both sides of the editorial desk--as an editor and a writer. He worked as an editor for Decision and In Other Words. His magazine articles have appeared in more than 50 publications including Writer's Digest, The Writer and Christianity Today. He is the creator and webmaster for

Terry has written more than 60 nonfiction books and his latest is Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success (Write Now Publications). Another recent book is Running On Ice: The Overcoming Faith of Vonetta Flowers (New Hope Publishers). See more about his writing at: For more than 12 years Terry was an ECPA Gold Medallion judge in the fiction category. He has written extensively about Christian fiction and reviewed numerous fiction books in publications such as Faithful and BookPage. He is the Fiction Acquisitions Editor for Howard Books. On a regular basis, he writes about the Writing Life. Terry and his wife, Christine, live in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Terry, thank you so much for taking time to share with us today. Getting published can be a challenge.

How important is an author’s platform?

To the editor, an author’s platform or visibility in the market can be the critical deciding factor whether they will publish your book or reject it. It’s not the only factor because the editor will also consider your writing (nonfiction or fiction) but it can be the critical element in the consideration process—whether you get a rejection letter or a book contract. Another essential step for the author is to understand how publishing executives make these decisions. In Book Proposals That Sell, I give authors a window of insight into how these discussions take place and how editors consider book ideas.

While writing is a creative endeavor, publishing is a business and the executives at a traditional publishing house are looking at your submission and judging what will make your book sell to readers. What level of expertise do you have about the topic of your book (fiction or nonfiction)? Have you written magazine articles? Do you speak on the topic? Do you have a following? Do you have a newsletter list? An author’s platform is the sum total of these types of elements and the estimation whether there is a big enough market for your book.

Now if you don’t have these elements, don’t be discouraged. Instead, figure out how you can build them. I suggest you Google the words “author’s platform” and begin reading different articles about how to build your presence in the marketplace. It will help you in the process of submitting to publishing houses. Beyond proving with your prose that your book should be published, you have to prove to the publisher that you will be a partner with them in selling the book and getting it into the marketplace. Your answer to these concerns should be your platform. One of the best articles that I’ve read recently about this matter was in The New York Observer from June 2006: and as a second resource, study this article from Annie Jennings PR with a Powerful Platform Checklist: and finally, Annie Jennings PR will send you a free CD on the topic called Create A Powerful Platform. You have to fill out a request form at:

Your Secret #10 Get High Profile Endorsements, how can an author do that when the book hasn’t been written yet?

I know it sounds backward from your expected path. You would expect to write the book then get the endorsements. As an acquisitions editor, I’ve presented book ideas to a room full of skeptical publishing executives and sometimes what turns the discussion from a no to a yes are the endorsements for the author. Who is in your personal network of friends and business relationships? Is there anyone who is well-known or high profile? If so, can you get a few words from this person about you? Or can you draft some “possible words” for this high profile person to change or OK?

Every single one of these high profile authors or celebrities or business people are regularly asked for these words of endorsement. Your task as the author is to do everything possible to make it easy for them to say “yes.” Often the author will “draft” something for the person. You’ve made it easy for the other person to handle and say yes. One of the best examples in this area comes from self-published author Jacqueline Marcell. If you google her name, you will learn this author has been on the Today Show, CNN and many other venues to promote her book, Elder Rage. Read this article but don’t just read it—study it: and here are some of her endorsements for the self-published book: Marcell’s persistence and hard work paid off and you can do it too. If you get such lines of endorsement, it may tip the balance so your book gets published and someone else’s idea gets rejected. If you gather such endorsements, it will distinguish your proposal from the others in the editor’s consideration stack.

Should authors query literary agents first or just send the entire proposal?

I’ve heard this question many times—and it implies something that I’d like to answer first. Writers are always looking for a single answer or one way to approach agents or editors. There isn’t one single path. The business is a mixture between of creative and craft. Now if you want to get rejected, the most certain way to accomplish a pile of rejections is to fire the same material to each agent. Instead you want to target the preferences (likes and dislikes) of an agent. Do your homework and study the agent’s website and know what kinds of clients they prefer. A little research will go a long way to assuring your connection with the right agent for your work. Also make sure you are working with a legitimate agent—anyone can hang out an agent shingle and there are plenty of crooks who represent themselves as literary agents. Follow the advice in this article about the Safest Way to Search for an Agent:

One of the best ways to get an agent is to make a great first impression—whether you query or send your proposal or meet with them in person at a writers’ conference. Your opening paragraph or first few minutes of a face to face meeting are your best shot so make sure you take it. Too many authors don’t spend enough time on their query or their book proposal. To learn more about crafting a great query, here’s an article from literary agent Noah Lukeman loaded with wise advice: One of the best ways to get a top agent’s attention is with a well-crafted book proposal:

What is the most critical mistake authors make in nonfiction book proposals?

After reading hundreds of proposals, my answer may sound a bit simplistic yet true. In their eagerness and enthusiasm to get published, writers fire off to the editor a half-baked, incomplete book proposal which is missing a critical element and incomplete. For every element of publishing, whether it’s a magazine article or a press release or book proposal or you fill in the blank __________, one of the most difficult things to find is the missing element. How do you proofread something which isn’t there? It’s hard to think about the complete package and make sure it is really complete.

There is a high volume of submissions in every publishing house. To the receiving editor, your submission is the equivalent of drinking out of a fire hose. It’s an image that writers should never forget. Yes, editors “supposedly” develop proposals and work with authors (aren’t they called developmental editors?) but in reality the demands on their time and energy are limited. As an acquisitions editor, I quickly learned that unless the author’s proposal is 80-90% complete, then I don’t have the time to develop it. If you forget something critical like your marketing plan (every proposal should include a realistic marketing plan ) or the competition for your book (every book competes with something) or even your manuscript word count, then you are asking for the editor to give you their quickest answer that you don’t want to hear—no.

As an editor, some times I’ve called authors when they are missing some element—for example their word count. Excited to talk with a real editor, the author will answer my question with a question, “How long do you want the book? I’ll write whatever you need.” That’s the wrong answer because you are “the expert” in your subject. How long do you need for this book and what’s your vision for it? If you don’t have a big picture vision, then you do the necessary work to get one—before submitting your proposal. Use a checklist to make sure you’ve covered all of the expected elements. I include a checklist in Appendix A of Book Proposals That Sell.

If you need an extra day or two or week to complete your proposal, take it and send a complete package. You will not regret that extra polish and the editor will take your submission with increased interest.

By the time a book is published, it has been in the works for 12 to 18 months, how can an author know what trends are hot when there is such a long lead time?

What type of book are you writing and what is your goal for the book? Do you want to be “trendy” and a flash in the pan or do you want to write a book which stands the test of time? My goal as an author is not to catch the latest wave or trend but to write a book which will steadily sell for years to come and be a bright star on my publisher’s backlist. As an editor, I also look at books in the same way. I’m eager for the book to be relevant for the reader in five years as well as during the months the book is first released.

If you are trying to catch a hot trend with your book, then you will be frustrated. Yes, you need a hook for your book with the media and when the book releases. This hook can be tied to the trend for your release. Also understand your book marketing plans aren’t cemented in stone but can be reworked and shifted as needed. The publisher has plans but those plans change and are fluid. As the author, you should have the same flexibility.

Nothing in publishing is guaranteed. I have a simple philosophy: All You Can Do Is All You Can Do. Yes, you have to use wisdom to work smart and not hard but your task as the author is to write the best possible book for your reader. Then as the book releases into the market—and long beyond that release—work with your publisher to reach your audience for the book. It’s not a one-time effort but an on-going effort. Some books take several years of effort before they show up on any bestseller list. Yes, they appear to be an overnight success—which was years in the making.

Thanks Terry.

Tomorrow More about agents.

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