Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Non-Fiction Proposals and Unfinished Manuscripts

Hi Rejecter,

I've been querying my memoir to agents - and one has asked to see it. Now, everything I've read, and published memoirists, have told me that NF doesn't have to be complete to sell. I have 130 pages written. Based on my query, an agent emailed me yesterday and said, "I'd like to see [name of book]. Please send it to me in XXX format."

So, now what do I do? As I write to you, I am cleaning up the chapters (spelling, grammar, transitions) + planning to email to her with the note that this is my "working manuscript." Or should I just hold off, polish it completely + make sure I have a full book before sending it? Or can I send what I have and say this is a partial? My initial instinct was to email her back yesterday and say, "this is a work in progress, I'll send what I have," but I also don't want to waste her time with explanatory emails.

It's true; sometimes non-fiction is sold to a publisher based only on a thorough proposal and sometimes non-fiction is sold when it's a finish piece. The traditional reason that a proposal is submitted is so that the author has the money to go do the research required to write the book, which may involve things like taking time off work or travel or acquiring rights to photos or just, you know, income to justify their time. That's the only reason an editor would put cash up front to a writer, and they would only do it with a VERY thorough proposal unless you're a celebrity, and even then you should have your ghostwriter already chosen.

In your case, you have a right to say "I have the proposal ready but not the book" but obviously you have to be upfront about that. If the book's not done because you just haven't gotten around to writing it all, you have less of an argument for not having written it all and you should finish before you submit. If you need the advance money first (or just want it first), you have to make it clear to the agent that the book isn't done. This should be in the query letter, and if it's not, immediately after the first positive response.

For anyone considering writing a proposal and then going ahead with only a couple chapters, let me give you some advice: getting published is a hugely stressful ordeal. Some people (most people) find it even more stressful if they've been paid up-front for an unseen product. However detailed the proposal was, the fact of the matter is that the editor still has not seen the entire product. The editor probably won't back out of the deal after paying the advance based on the remaining chapters being not what he/she expected, but if the editor isn't happy with the final product, he/she will either spend a lot of time editing it or the company will kind of shove it aside and not put huge publicity money into it. So, if you can possibly avoid that stress by writing the book ahead, do so.


Anonymous said...

I've published 2 nonfiction books based on a proposal and a couple of chapters. I understand from my agent (who does mosly nonfiction) that this is routine with her clients. Your questioner, though, refers to a memoir. I've always been told that memoir is a special case, more like fiction, in that you need to do the entire thing before querying.

Anonymous said...

I am a first-time author who is publishing a memoir/narrative nonfiction book. I am not a celebrity--just a very good writer with a unique concept. I sold it on a proposal with only a 5,000 word sample chapter.

That said, I've seen a division of opinion of memoirs, which live on the borderline between novels and nonfiction.

I did not need to any research other than what was in my head. One other reason why some editors like to buy an unfinished book is that they can help shape the work while it is in progress.

Anonymous said...

My memoir was sold on a proposal and 2 sample chpts. A couple of agents I queried (and in the query stated that's what I had) asked to see "the manuscript." (I suspect they were form emails.) Every one of them (including the one I ended up signing with) said, "Just send what you have," when I explained again, that I just had the proposal and 2 sample chpts.