When It Comes to Self-Help, Boy, Do I Need Help!

What do you get when a journalism major decides to minor in psychology? A self-help editor.

Baddump bump!

That was me, intending to become the next Lois Lane and minoring in psychology because I was smart and manipulative enough to convince my parents that a fifth year in college would make all the difference. Ironically, when it came to my future, I turned out to be right, because my future would be in self-help.

When I was about three years into my publishing career, I moved from a reference publisher to the publisher of one of the most iconic self-help book series, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and my fascination with self-help began. Later, when I left for another company to run my own acquisitions desk, mainly editing nonfiction books, primarily self-help, I was happier than a lunatic during a full moon. I eagerly attempted to chase down the next Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey (or win them at auction, which rarely happened). I was moderately successful, although never to the degree of stardom. But still, a plethora of sturdy self-help midlist books boosted my resume. (When there used to be such thing as a midlist. I'll save that for another post.)

Reading the latest Publishers Weekly fall self-help roundup, as I like to do every Monday night, I was left sort of underwhelmed, which seemed, to me, pretty counterintuitive to self-help. I thought about the evolution of my self-help education and about the books I have published, edited, written, read, and personally adopted as my own True North (by the way, Finding Your Own True North was up there in my love affair along with What Color Is Your Parachute?, but then slipped once I left my twenties, or more aptly, my twenties left me). There were tons of unwritten rules, some included:

Titling, or what the pros call "positioning." While it should go without saying that no matter the book or genre, titles mean everything, in my opinion, self-help is ALL titling. Will you go for the shock jock approach (Why Men Love Bitches)? Do you prefer empowering? Codependent No More (You almost want to add a slammer at the end.) How about empathetic? (Chicken Soup for the Soul) Kitschy? I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell; Authoritative? I Can Make You Rich; Provocative? How Doctors Think. How about literal? Self-Help. (For the trivia buffs out there, the first self-help book is said to have been published in 1859 by Samuel Smiles, titled Self-Help.)

Then there's the cadence of the title (publicists used to ask, "How would this title sound coming from Matt Lauer's mouth? Is it memorable, too long?") and the diametrically opposed titles: Rich Dad, Poor Dad; I'm Okay, You're Okay; Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus; and on and on.

The second rule also had to do with title, but extends itself to execution (which refers to how the manuscript is written and organized). If all else fails, slap a number in the title (7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" - oops, wrong blog post). Titles like this dictated how the chapters will roll out, i.e., execution.

Third also had to do with titling: make the promise or benefit of the book apparent in the title or subtitle, also known as the "why to buy." Identify the benefit and slap it on the cover, so the consumers will ID it too. A lot of times this translates into reasons why publishers are tempted to add on "and lose ten pounds in ten days" to the end of a subtitle for a book on knitting. I once saw a book about diabetes that had "and have better sex" in the subtitle. I never wanted diabetes more ...

Additionally, a phenomenon called "the hybrid" became something I pursued. When I think back, my experience with the hybrid coincided with the first wave of reality show stars publishing books. Many of them were personal stories that could inspire (i.e., "inspirational memoir") but with solid "takeaways" for the reader so they could emulate their favorite D-list celebrity, and maybe pick up tips on how to work for Trump or Tyra or Simon one day too. The takeaway part is the "prescription" part, thereby deeming the book a mix of self-help and memoir. In this case, we'd title the book something that would show the memoir aspect "How I Overcame My Fear" and also the prescriptive part, "And How You Can Too." I swear, one year, every book had the tacked-on "And How You Can Too." It was often hilarious fodder during catalog planning, until the English majors got their pants all twisted over the fact that technically the combo doesn't make sense. "It's actually saying the reader can overcome the author's fear to !" Ah, sometimes I do miss corporate America.

In self-help, the fourth rule (and by the way, this is not in any particular order of priority, I just have to get back to my real job soon) was to have credentials, but for Christmas sake, don't go overboard inundating the cover with them. The rule of thumb is if the general public does not know what the hell the letters stand for, then avoid using them. This rule varies, however, in niche publishing, where the audience is so select and targeted that it would know and care about the creds.

Back to the PW roundup. When I glazed over the titles upcoming from publishers large and small, I couldn't help but feel that self-help has become inadvertently parodied. And I think I know why. There is really nothing new to say, because, like politics, we haven't changed a bit, so in an effort to be unique, publishers go to outrageous lengths to use semantics to their advantage. Positive psychology is out and happiness is in, for instance. Call it what you want, we love semantics in this business. These days, getting self-help published depends on delivery and perspective, voice and celebrity. If you could make those different, then you have something.

What does this mean for you, reader, who has come to this blog because you've been thinking of pulling that manuscript out of the drawer, putting pen to scribble pad for the first time, or are finally going to target an agent and get the whole damn thing over with already? It means that you're in luck! Self-help is still alive and well, and knowing where self-help has been and studying where it is now will help you to position and brand in a way that can give you leverage in the quest for publication.

Oh, one other thing. Finding your differentiator and bringing it front and center is a major ingredient for success. Next post we'll tackle building the book around the differentiator, instead of it getting lost in the middle. Till then keep your pen to the paper and your ink welling like there's no tomorrow.

It's Not Called a "Proposal" for Nothing

When my boyfriend got down on one knee on a mild December evening back in 2006, he proposed that we spend the rest of our lives together. He came armed not only with a diamond, but with the reasons why he believed we should be cohorts in navigating this wacky world and maybe knock out a few kids ... if we could get our hands on enough wine.

After reviewing thousands of nonfiction book proposals, either submitted to me as an acquisitions editor, an agent, or as part of Bookchic's assessment services, I can't help but recall that romantic proposal because it has helped me come to the conclusion that what could help authors achieve a more effective book proposal is remembering what the word "proposal" actually means.

In my experience, zeroing in on the "hook" of their book and the "why to buy" in their proposals causes writers and authors the most angst, and this is often demonstrated in the Overview section, in which both missions are to be accomplished. And, by the way, if you aren't familiar with the anatomy of a book proposal, I recommend The Complete Idiot's Guide to Book Proposals and Query Letters by Marilyn Allen and Coleen O'Shea for more information on that.

My shortcut advice when writing a pitch-perfect Overview is to remember that one of the definitions of "proposal" is "a plan or scheme proposed." Doing so can help develop a sellable hook, and offer convincing reasons why the editor, publisher, or end consumer should buy. What's the promise of the book? What do readers get for their $24.95 (besides a deep Amazon discount)? And what is your scheme to sell it?

If you think of it in terms of the marriage proposal, my boyfriend just didn't tell me, "If you marry me, you will be inspired, entertained, and enlightened by our life together." Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but if you think about it, why should a publisher get in bed with you (and pay you for it, by the way) if all you are predicting is that their readers will "discover insightful and never-before-heard theories ..." My boyfriend had to prove to me that he believed in me and that, in turn, he was poised to offer me similarly rewarding things.

When you write a proposal, you are getting down on one knee and proposing a partnership with an agent and/or publisher, and much of the time the following mistakes can lead to that engagement ring getting thrown in your face:

If you spend more time telling the agent/editor/publisher how the reader is going to feel or what the reader will think of the book, then you are really writing a Mayan prediction instead of a proposal. I recently warned a client against over adjectiving. (Yes, I made that word up. So what?) I'm guilty of it myself. Everyone knows I am blissfully witty, stunningly beautiful, and scarily intelligent. But that doesn't sell books, nor does it make you want to hire me for freelance services. Here are some others I've run across thousands of times:
  • In this book, readers will be surprised, engaged, and even shocked by the findings ...
  • Thought-provoking, the writing style is down-to-earth, fresh, and lively ...
  • There is nothing on the market as easy to read, accessible, and detailed ...

Sure, the serial comma always delivers a pleasant cadence, but these sentences don't make a publisher say, "Oh, yes, I've found my author! Here's a check for $75K and a publicity tour."

If you do not include in your Overview why, out of all the people in the whole wide world, you are the one they should choose, then rewrite it so that it does.

Even a marriage proposal has got to make enough sense to keep the recipient from staying on the market. For instance, I recently had a client who blogged for Zillow, but I didn't know about this gem until I got to page 4 beneath the About the Author section. In actuality the word "Zillow" should have been the first word on the first page. It certainly is now.

If you act humbly, you will die partnerless. Listen, if my boyfriend would have gotten on one knee and said, "I am well aware that there are other men out there, but I hope you will find me the most qualified to be your husband," do you think I would've said yes? (Oops, I just spoiled the ending!) You mustn't be afraid to go for it; talk up your credentials, qualifications, awards, blog ratings, book reviews, etc., throughout your proposal. A publisher will buy a book only if they know that the author will be a true partner in promotion and marketing (aka, you will do most of the work). Raise your hand if you've heard of the inequitable distribution of work in the home. You can still be happily married, right? Just go for it. What are they going to do, disrespect you for having some self-respect? If you can't brag a bit and sell yourself in a big enough way to be convincing, then you probably aren't quite ready to submit your proposal.

And that's fine. You don't have to be ready just yet, as long as you spend the coming year working toward getting to that confident place while setting a goal date for submission. My motto for 2013, which I have shamelessly stolen from my college roommate, is: "Go big, or go home." So maybe for you that means getting that proposal ready for submission, and if so, I hope you will stick with this blog for some more chic strategies and even contact me for additional help.

So, what part of the proposal are you wrestling with?

Until the next page ...
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