The first book I ever acquired was called A Dab of Dickens and a Touch of Twain by Elliot Engel. Dr. Engel was a college English professor who gave (and continues to give) entertaining lectures on how the lives of famous authors influenced their work. We transcribed and edited seventeen of these lectures to create the book. In one of Professor Engel’s lectures, one that I don’t believe we used for the book, he explained that the word “author” came from the word “authority.” This is something I always thought of when I evaluated nonfiction proposals as an acquisitions editor. In what way is this author established as an authority on this topic? Is it enough to make a reader buy this book?
Let’s say you’re in a bookstore trying to find a parenting book. You pull two books off the shelf. One is written by a mother who shares her personal experiences. The other is by a child psychologist with twenty years of experience working with hundreds of families. Which one do you buy? The second one, right? Because the psychologist can give you insights that are applicable to most children, while the mother can only give you insights into how to parent her children.
So, does this mean you have to go get a degree in child psychology if you want to write a parenting book? Nope. Because there’s more than one way to be an authority. Why did that mother get a book deal?
Well, fourteen years ago when her first daughter was born, she started a blog. And it turned out that she was a great writer and people started following her. They found her brutal honesty refreshing and her sense of humor entertaining. Parents related to her, and her blog became more and more popular. Because she seemed so open, readers felt like they knew her like a friend, and started sharing their parenting problems with her. She’d offer advice drawing from her experience and things other parents had shared, and people found her advice helpful. So she made it a regular part of her blog. This author, it turns out, has a social media following across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube of over 500,000 people. And her blog has an equally impressive following.
So she decided to pitch a book. In her proposal, she focused on her social media following and how engaged her followers were—every blog or social media post received a lot of shares and comments and she gave numbers in the proposal. She also included a plan for how she would expand her platform over the next year. She kept track of the most common questions people ask, and organized those questions into ten general themes that she used as chapters for the book. She didn’t just copy and paste her most popular blog posts into the proposal to serve as the writing sample, but wrote an introduction and two sample chapters with all new material. She knew this was important because her primary readers are people who know her from her blog, and why would they buy her book if they’ve already read the material or could get it for free on her blog?
Using social media, this mother established herself as someone parents looked to for advice and insights on parenting--an authority. Which is why an editor thought her book had a good chance at success and made an offer to publish it.
Incidentally, both the psychologist and the mother are entirely fictional, though you could probably find authors who match their descriptions. Elliot Engel is real, and if you're interested in hearing his lectures, you can purchase them on CD or download them at his website ProfessorEngel.com. I've listened to and enjoyed many of of them. A few of my favorites are How William Became Shakespeare, The Brilliant and Bizarre Brontes, The Dickens Nobody Knows, The Genius of Mark Twain, and The Wizardry of Oz: L. Frank Baum. His book A Dab of Dickens and a Touch of Twain is available for sale at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.