The Savvy Ghostwriter: 7 Smart Questions to Ask About the Book Before You Sign the Contract

If you have seen these questions before, it’s because they are the basis for any book proposal. An author must be able to answer them, or you can assume he is unaware of the process or hasn’t thought through these fundamental questions before you asked them. If an author cannot clearly “fill in these blanks,” he will be unable to give you the direction you need to write the book.

1. What is your subject matter?

Why are you writing this book? What are you trying to achieve? And, most important, what is your book about … in one sentence? Why one sentence? Because that sentence tells you about the book’s purpose, content, or benefits. That may sound easy, but, in fact, it takes most people quite a while to describe their books in a way that others understand. The author may think he has explained his subject quite clearly, but if you don’t get it, no one else will either.

2. Why are you uniquely qualified to write this book?

What makes you an expert on this subject? What is your background (education, professional experience, personal experience) that gives you credibility to write about this topic? What is the thread that connects you to your subject matter? You don’t want the author’s resume or life’s story. You want him todemonstrate his knowledge, experience, and expertise in relation to his subject. You want the blurb on the back cover of his book to instill confidence.

3. Who is your target audience?

What are the characteristics potential readers will share (gender, age, education, socio-economic status, interests)? What problem do they expect you to solve? Each of these questions builds upon the previous one. Not only must the author know who his readers are but why would they want to read this book and how they will benefit. It’s not enough to say, “Oh I think everyone would be interested in this topic.” Every book has a category and thus goes in a certain section of the bookstore (self-help, biography, business, computers, philosophy, etc.). People go to those sections expecting their specific questions to be answered or needs to be met.

4. What else is out there on this topic? How will this book be important/different/better?

In other words, have you checked out the competition? Have you Googled your topic or perused amazon.com? Have you walked around a bookstore? The key to whether this book is different or better is knowing its purpose and how that purpose will be achieved. Will it solve a problem? Answer a question? Explain a process? Tell a story? If there are other books that attempt to do the same thing, what are they missing? What are they doing differently? What makes this book special? Is it the author’s own stories, research, experience, knowledge, or creativity? The author won’t know unless he has done some research.

5. How big is the market? How will you reach it?

How many potential readers for this book are there? How do you know? How will you find them? How can you let them know about your book? Most authors face this question with trepidation. Defining the market and how to reach it is difficult. It takes a lot of digging. The best place to start is with people who are interested in this broad topic. Who is reading about this subject? What publications are they reading? What is the circulation of those publications? It’s an ever-widening circle of questions. If the author is an executive, he may have staff people who can do that research. Many authors enjoy the digging, and a good research librarian can be a big help. Or perhaps the author wants you to do it. If so, be sure that is included in the contract.

6. How will it be published?

Have you thought about this? Do you have an agent/publisher in mind? Are you considering self-publishing? Do you know anything about the self-publishing process? This may not be something the author has considered yet or has ever investigated. Thus, a big part of your job will be to explain publishing options, the pros and cons of each, the importance of a literary agent if the author opts for conventional publishing, and the preparatory work that will be required in each case.

7. How will the book be promoted/marketed?

Are you aware what your role in promoting your book will be, no matter how it is published? Do you know how best to reach the market for your book? Do you have or will you develop a website? Authors with a “marketing mindset” may have given this some thought or even begun from this perspective, but book promotion is a mystery to many first-time authors. Your job is to determine what he knows and is willing to do to ensure the success of his book.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of these questions, especially if you are being asked to write a proposal, as well as the book. Any agent or publisher will expect them to be answered in full, but they are equally important to you and the author in order to determine the viability of this project.

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