CAMP 2017: Advice for aspiring authors

Story by Corinne Boyer, 2017 JAWS Fellow | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

Before you even think of tackling that book proposal, you need to ask yourself a lot of questions.

Two publishing experts, Jane Isay and Gail Ross, hosted “Your Path: So, You Want to Write a Book?” discussing book ideas, proposals and outlining the “table test”— a set of criteria for finding a book deal—at the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) Conference and Mentoring Project in Hot Springs, Ark.

Jane worked 40 years as an editor, editing and publishing “Reviving Ophelia” by Mary Pipher and “Friday Night Lights” by H.G. Bissinger. Gail is a media lawyer, literary agent and president of the Ross Yoon Agency, where 80 percent of her clients are journalists.

Gail says she loves JAWS and wants workshop attendees to learn whatever they can to do a better job of writing, selling and publishing their books.

“Publishing is fairly stable right now—ebooks are flat at the moment,” Gail says. Print books make up 76 percent of the market, electronic books account for 21 percent and audio books make up three percent and are “growing like crazy,” Gail says.

The first step to getting a book deal is determining whether you have a book. A handout explaining the “table test,” a list guidelines to consider before seeking a book deal, was given to attendees. It contains “four legs,” which cover the book idea, the agent, having a platform and crafting a book proposal.

“The four legs don’t have to all be equal,” Gail says. “I spend a lot of time putting a matchbook under the weakest leg.”

Jane suggests asking yourself a number of questions when considering a book idea. “Are other books like your book? Do you have something to say that people need to know about?” she demands. “Would people be interested? Have I found something that no one else has found? Do I have the ability to tell a story?”

Another query from Jane: “Do you have a narrative or an argument?”

Gail adds there are two reasons people read books: to educate themselves and to be entertained. “My favorite books are books that do both,” she says.

When searching for an agent, Gail suggests asking people who are happy with their agents. Another leg of the “table test,” creating a platform “that will help publishers sell lots of copies” is tough, she says. In the past, Gail has suggested that potential authors go speak at events for a year to build an audience.

The final leg is the book proposal. Jane says to use a table of contents as the book’s spine. “The titles of each chapter need to be thought through,” she says.

An agent should be purposely tough to make sure the book proposal is good, and they should only send out to editors proposals they care about. A typical book proposal is usually 30 to 50 pages.

“It’s the most difficult work that people do,” Gail says. “Start with a scene that makes people think, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ ” she says. A good assessment for an interesting book proposal, Gail suggests, is to craft something “so interesting that you miss your subway stop.”