10 Tips for a Great Book Proposal ~ Interview with Susanne Woods

on July 19 | in Interviews + Profiles, Small Business Ideas | by | with 16 Comments

We interviewed Susanne Woods in 2009 when she was new to C&T Publishing, working to launch the Stash Books imprint. In the years that followed we’ve admired the growth of Stash Books as they produce some really beautiful craft and sewing books, signing some of our favorite sewists. Susanne is an Acquisitions Editor and she’s always very generous about sharing her insightful publishing industry knowledge and perspective. As we celebrate the Grand Opening of the Sew,Mama,Sew! Book Shop we want to support those of you with book dreams of your own! We asked Susanne to give us her Top 10 List of What Makes a Great Book Proposal. Susanne shares lots of tips to turn your publishing dreams into reality. Enjoy!

Sew,Mama,Sew!: When we interviewed you back in 2009, you had not been at your job for very long. A lot has changed! Stash Books hadn’t even launched yet, had it?
Susanne: I actually proposed the concept for Stash Books when I accepted the job as Acquisitions Editor in late 2008. So, when you interviewed me back in 2009, I was in the midst of gaining alignment on the launch. I could see that C&T was not accommodating my 30-something generation of quilters and sewist. In fact, no one was. There were a few books available through general interest illustrated book publishers and they sure were pretty to flip through. But they were often riddled with errors and inaccuracies. So, I knew C&T were in an incredible position to combine emerging authors, beautiful design and then add the technical accuracy we are known for. That is the game changer that I hope Stash Books is: top notch authors, beautiful and inspiring photographs, and flawless instructions.

SMS: How has your job changed since Stash Books launched?
Susanne: As the Acquisitions Editor, the core of my job is to find exceptional designers and encourage them to submit book proposals. With the launch of Stash Books, I guess my overall role has morphed into being an advocate on behalf of the list, our authors, and the book throughout the whole publishing process. I maintain a very clear vision for each title contracted, and want to ensure that I honor the commitments I make to each of our authors. I help with styling at photo shoots, and have a lot of photography and design meetings to attend now, but fundamentally, my job is still to find great talent.

SMS: You already talked about factors to consider prior to submitting a book proposal here. What have you found makes a good proposal? What are you looking for? How much detail?
Susanne: Here is my Top 10 List of What Make a Great Book Proposal:

    1. Well, the first and biggest factor in creating a winning proposal is the work itself. We evaluate color, design, use of value, innovation, and quality of workmanship. You can have a perfect proposal but if your piecing is poor, or your work is sloppy, I will be writing a rejection letter (Sorry, I hate starting out with the bad news…).

    2. Don’t listen to everything you hear about the importance of social media. If you don’t have a blog, have never taught a class, haven’t published a pattern, have never even heard of Twitter, and your work is amazing, I want to hear from you. We have helped to create successful personalities just as frequently as we have published them.

    3. Follow the guidelines. I can’t say this enough. It is kind of shocking how many people don’t. Our guidelines are here. Each publisher works a little differently, so be sure to check the publisher’s website and… Follow their guidelines.

    4. Answer all the questions. We have one question in particular that most skip: ‘What makes your book similar to other comparable books already on the market?’ How this is answered tells me a lot about where the author sees their book selling well, what they feel their target audience is and who they believe their peers to be.

    5. Include photos of your work. Even if you are just asking me for an initial opinion on a concept (which I welcome, by the way), it is always essential. And by photos, I don’t mean links… I mean attached or imbedded photos.

    6. Send your proposal electronically. This not only saves postage, but it allows me to easily present your proposal to our key departments for their feedback. If you have magazine articles or anything else in hard-copy, scan it and save as an attachment.

    7. Don’t feel that you have to come up with a ‘gimmick’ or a ‘hook’ to unite your projects/process. If you want to work within a theme, that’s great, but when that theme is forced, it shows. If you trust in your work, and let it speak for itself… That shows too!

    8. Don’t be afraid to follow up. Spam folders, misspelled email addresses, and other electronic failures do happen. So does “busy.” If you are feeling that too much time has gone by since you heard from someone regarding your proposal, speak up!

    9. Research the publisher to be sure you will be a good fit. For example, we stopped publishing paper crafting titles about three years ago. When you are investigating potential publishers, be sure to pay attention to what they have published more recently as they may have adjusted their publishing program.

    10. Be gracious. I once received a proposal where the cover letter said that their work was so much better than most of the other authors we published. Even if that were true, when I evaluate a proposal, I always consider the working relationship I am about to engage in. More importantly, I consider the dynamic I am engaging my colleagues in. Everyone I work with, I value. A red flag like that speaks volumes about how the rest of the publishing process is likely to go and I always balance that against the desirability of the proposal.

    And the bonus number 11 is… Be professional. What you do, what you say, what you don’t say, what you don’t do, how you act… These factors are incredibly impactful. When I receive a proposal, I research everything about the designer. I am not interested in acquiring a book, I want to acquire an author. I want to create a partnership. Part of the craft in what I do is create a list that makes sense as a group, that is diverse but consistent at the same time. As a publisher, it is our job to support, publicize, market, and champion our authors and their work at every opportunity we have; however, in a partnership we need our authors represent us just as much as we represent them.

SMS: So, what happens if you do get a book deal? What is the process and the timeline?
Susanne: Once we agree to offer a contract, the timing varies. For us, it really comes down to what the author wants. Many of our authors have other jobs, or young kids, or they travel and teach classes. We want to make the process of writing a book as enjoyable as possible. We include a lot of milestones in the writing process and each author works with their own dedicated creative team throughout. We offer our authors the opportunity to review every stage of the process—from copyedited pages, to sample photography, to the book design. We create a collaborative relationship so that our authors are proud of their finished book and want to publish with us again. An average timeline from contract to books on the shelves is about 18 months. But, if the topic is timely and we want to get it to market as soon as possible, we can shorten that timeline to 12 months.

SMS: From a personal perspective, how has this job has worked out for you? All you’d hoped for or expected?
Susanne: Well, I’ve learned a lot! Even though I began my career in illustrated book publishing, I have been on the sales side for over 15 years. I had no idea whether I could acquire a book and was terrified for my first three months on the job. But, I did what I had advised potential authors to do above: I trusted my gut. I invited authors whose work I loved.

I am really proud of what we have accomplished and that I have been able to visualize a possibility, research the heck out of it, enroll an entire company in the viability of that vision, invite a whole new group of authors into a common concept, and have it succeed. Who gets the opportunity to do that? I’m passionate about my work. I think that helps feed the success. But, again, Stash Books is only as great as the content and would be nothing without our talented authors. Having the opportunity to present their work to thousands of readers has been the best part of my job.

I’ll share this: some authors came up to me at Market in Salt Lake City and said that they got to chatting about me (eeek!) the night before. They said that I made each of them feel that they were the only author I had on my list. Wow. For a publisher, it doesn’t get much better than that.

I can definitely repeat what I said in our last interview 2 ½ years ago: I LOVE my job, welcome questions, and can be contacted at: susannew@ctpub.com

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16 Responses to 10 Tips for a Great Book Proposal ~ Interview with Susanne Woods

  1. How sweet of her to answer all those questions and SMS asked some good ones!

    What a great peek into how publishing works.

  2. Hannah says:

    Wonderful interview. Very inspiring! I read it once and then re-read it 🙂

  3. Beth T says:

    What a fantastic interview–and I’ve learned things from reading the follow-up comments as well.

    So many of my favorite books are pictured above, and a few of the not-yet-released are already on my wish list. Thanks for helping me grow creatively.

  4. nicole says:

    Great interview! I wanted to support the idea that you don’t need to already be well known on the scene to get a book deal. I have a book coming out with Storey Publishing in the spring- 101 sewing projects!- and though I blog a little bit and sell at local craft fairs, I mostly develop crafts for Family Fun Magazine and really don’t have a lot of extra time to come up with ideas just for my blog- I craft daily but it is really behind the scenes work. The book proposal that my co-author and I created practically looked like a book- beautiful images, great projects, and complete how-tos. I do feel incredibly fortunate and was so surprised that they didn’t care that I don’t already have a large following. Definitely an “anything is possible” year for me. I encourage people to believe that and package up their ideas if that is a dream they have.

  5. Meg says:

    This was a great interview! I love Stash Books. I own several, and have been pleased with them all. Keep up the good work!

  6. Page says:

    I am an avid collector of craft and cook books so I will be adding many of these to my list!

  7. Marie says:

    Thanks so much for this interview. The tips list is amazing.

    Although I write, and I sew, I don’t intend to write about sewing. But there is so much common sense and good advice in this list that can easily be tweaked for any sort of book, that I will preserve this advice for future use.

    And you never know, one day maybe I’ll incorporate sewing projects into a novel! 🙂

  8. Wow, what an incredibly informational interview!! Thanks for sharing your tips and I have to say, you have one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever heard of! 🙂

  9. rebecca says:

    What a great post. Thank you for sharing all this information. I wish I was cool enough to publish a book (not that I haven’t dreamt about it!). I have read and re-read several of your books and have loved them all. Thanks!

  10. Cheryl says:

    Great interview! So bang on.

  11. Amber says:

    What a great interview – so interesting to hear her thoughts and opinions on books – I loved it!

  12. Kristi says:

    I love Stash books, they are my favorite line of sewing books! Great interview – lots of helpful information and insight into the process of producing these books.

  13. Evelyn says:

    ps. I visited Stash at BEA and loved your books. Great stuff.

  14. Evelyn says:

    As another publishing professional, I can attest that this list of 10 applies across the board, no matter the subject of the book.
    My house also requires potential authors to send a list of 3 people who they feel would be qualified to and interested in reviewing the material to give us feedback. These are not usually people they know personally, but it helps us evaluate the quality of the material and catch issues with the manuscript that only true fans/practitioners would notice.

    Be a believer in your manuscript and find an editor who agrees with you. If you get turned down, ask for feedback on changes to make or other houses to take your work to – you may not get an answer, but you might.

  15. Great interview. I have so many of these books on my bookshelf already, and have preordered many more. The quality is wonderful–from the author to the topic to the illustrations. The quality just shines through.

  16. Alissa says:

    Susanne is the best and her vision for Stash Books was and continues to be amazing! So happy to be a part of what’s happening there.

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