Writer friends and Byte the Book members Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney are the authors of A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf published by Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA, out 1st June. This is their first non-fiction project and their article shares with us their journey through the non-fiction book proposal process.
Back in 2014, when we launched our literary website, SomethingRhymed.com, we wanted to uncover female writer friends of the past and we set ourselves a target to publish a blog post about one pair each month.
We had assumed that this would prove a challenge since very little had been written about these relationships. We knew all about Byron and Shelley, Hemingway and Fitzgerald but struggled to name the female writers to whom Austen and Eliot had turned for support.
But, with help from the suggestions of our readers, we came across so many fascinating stories of female solidarity that we have kept the site going all these years. The more we became interested in some of these friendships the deeper we delved, and readers of SomethingRhymed.com encouraged us that our discoveries warranted exploration in a full-length book.
Having experienced the long gestation period from initial idea to publication of a novel, we were attracted to the idea of selling a non-fiction book on just sample chapters and proposal.
But the process of writing the proposal proved far more arduous than we had predicted. On the last count it had gone through 25 drafts. This is perhaps unsurprising, since we had never read a book proposal until we found ourselves needing to write one.
Our first port of call was writer friends who’d already been commissioned to write non-fiction books. They kindly sent us copies of their successful proposals, and our agents also showed us some comparable examples. The vast differences leapt out at us, so we ended up picking and choosing the elements that would work best for our project.
Our proposal for A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf ended up comprising the following sections, which we hope might prove a useful guide for those of you considering a non-fiction proposal:
500 words in which we summarised the idea for the book.
List of Contents
Including hyperlinked page numbers for the convenience of editors.
- A paragraph that outlines the book’s projected word count, along with a breakdown of the chapter lengths
- The working title of each chapter
- A one line italicized summary of each chapter’s contents, making it sound as marketable as possible
- A 300-word account of the expected contents of each chapter
- We included photographs throughout, which proved a good starting point when our editor asked us for images to include in the plate section.
For UK submissions we included one full sample chapter but for the US we were advised to include at least two.
We included 500 words on why the time was ripe for a book on this subject. We had a lot to talk about since Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf all had anniversaries coming up. But this section may well be shorter in other proposals.
Competition and Market
250 words on the market we saw for this book and what made it similar and different from other books on the subject.
We spent a lot of time thinking about this since it would affect how the book was positioned. We didn’t want it to be mistaken for an academic book when we wanted to write accessible yet well-researched mass-market non-fiction. Top tip: ask your agent to look up the Nielsen book sales figures for your proposed comparable titles. We were surprised to find that books we’d seen everywhere hadn’t always done so well, and there was also a marked contrast in the US and UK markets.
A paragraph or two on where you will find the materials to complete your book. We had only conducted the secondary research in advance of submitting the proposal, but we already knew that the original research would take us to several county records offices and museums across the country, and that we would need to visit archives in the USA.
Think carefully about this. The date we came up with was exactly the date on which we had to deliver the manuscript and there was absolutely no wriggle room.
Time put into this section will save time later. The five main ideas we came up with here are all things we are now doing to promote the book.
A couple of paragraphs about why we were best placed to write this book.
About 150 words on each of us, highlighting our most significant writing achievements and our relevant experience as academic researchers and bloggers.
Between the two of us, our agents and their assistants, a lot of people had input into the document before it went out on submission. But publishers turned out not to be keen on our original idea to include fourteen pairs of writer friends with one chapter devoted to each. Editors complained that some of the writers weren’t sufficiently well known.
We began to wonder whether all of the work we had ploughed into the proposal had been worth the effort. But we chivvied each other on, and returned to the proposal, this time including only four celebrated writers and their literary friends. Three chapters would be dedicated to each pair, allowing for greater depth.
We look back and feel so thankful that we went for depth over breadth. And yet we also feel regretful that we weren’t able to shine a light on some of the neglected writers we’d included in the original proposal – especially writers of colour and writers with disabilities. In the process of attempting to publish the silenced stories of female literary friendships, some stories remain untold. We can only hope that soon the industry will lend an ear.
Have a look at their Byte the Book Hub entries to find out more about Emma and Emily. You can also read our review of A Secret Sisterhood here and you can buy the book here. We’ve also reviewed Emma Claire Sweeney’s Owl Song At Dawn. Do have a look here.