What do I look for in a book proposal?

Jim Bull, Publisher

When I started my manuscript acquisitions career in college publishing in the 80’s, I had a lot of help deciding which projects were worth pursuing and which I should decline. The company had an editorial target list – a short list of college courses they wanted me to find new textbooks for – and when I did find a new project, it was up to outside reviewers and my bosses to decide whether it was a good publishing bet. I was considered young, inexperienced, and lacking in editorial instincts. All true, and I was lucky enough to be able to hone my own acquisitions instincts over 13 years at the same publishing house, using their cash to place my bets. I had many gratifying successes and also some terrible failures – one book I published never even sold 50 copies.

So, what have I learned to look for?

Most successful health books we have published have one thing in common: an author on the front lines. Either through active research, working in a health care setting, or actively promoting a program for improving health or physical performance, these are the people who generally make our best authors. They often have a good grasp of the best-selling approaches to their topic on the market, yet they have more to say. They want the world to know about their particular approach or the unique content they have developed to deal with the issue. Often they are on the road, running workshops, classes, or presenting their research in an academic setting.

Writing ability counts for a lot. Our books are meant for the lay public, so manuscripts that are dense, overly scientific, or written with one’s peers in mind don’t generally work for us. A writer who knows how to present complex, occasionally scientific information in an informal, approachable, interesting manner is ideal. Organizational skills and a good sense of content flow are also great to see.

If you are considering sending us a new book proposal, please do your best to include the following: A content outline or table of contents; a discussion of why you are writing the book; an overview of competing books and a concise description of what sets your book apart from the rest of the pack; and a sample chapter or two, ideally from different parts of the manuscript.

I should add that this process is not completely intellectual – the heart is also involved. Probably the greatest pleasure in publishing is watching a book that I had a hunch would succeed do just that, even though its merits weren’t initially clear. Whether it’s because I have a personal interest in the topic or the timing and authorship just seem right, I will sometimes take a chance on a book even though it doesn’t meet the standard criteria. When it takes off, the feeling is exhilarating.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you are considering submitting a proposal to Bull Publishing Company. My email address is jim@bullpub.com. It may take me a few weeks, but I promise to give you my straight impressions.

Take care,

Jim Bull, Publisher

photo of Jim Bull