Slush/ Unsolicited manuscripts
A pile of unsolicited manuscripts, taken by children’s book editor Kate Sullivan

All too often proposals for books or articles end up on the slush pile simply because authors don’t know how to put them across to editors. Commissioning editor for Pen and Sword Books, Jen Newby, reveals how to hook an editor and get your non-fiction proposal noticed.

As a former magazine editor and now commissioning editor for a publishing house, I have read a lot of proposals from authors. Many of them have really interesting ideas, but all too often the way that their proposal is written sounds warning bells even before I’ve opened their sample chapter. If you’re finding it hard to get your writing in print, then I’d advise you to make sure you’re avoiding all these common mistakes:

Dear Editor…
It might sound irritatingly obvious, but if your email is rushed and full of typos and misspellings, an editor is unlikely to bother reading your lovingly crafted sample chapter. Neither will they be tempted to scroll down a dense block of endless text, however carefully written it might be. Your first point of contact is your chance to convince them that you can write. It’s worth taking time over and fine-tuning. However, any more than three paragraphs and you’ve probably written too much. 

Less is more
Rather than attaching lots of documents like your CV and previous work to an email, it’s easier for an editor to read through a few sentences summarising your previous writing experience. Include a few links to blogs and websites, publications or online articles, so they can find out more if they want to.

Know the competition
Show that you understand where your book would fit in the market, and that you’re familiar with competing titles. The more research you do, the more impressive your proposal will look and you’ll be able to demonstrate a gap in the market for your title – or avoid pitching an idea that has already been done to death.

Display your knowledge
When pitching a non-fiction book or article it’s essential to show that you know what you’re talking about, that you’ve done at least some relevant research and that you know your sources. The best proposals give a few examples of work that the author has already done, for instance referring to stories uncovered in the archives, and briefly explain the extent of the rest of their research.

Marketing, marketing, marketing
It’s easier for a publishing company to promote a book if there is an anniversary associated with an aspect of your book coming up or a recent popular TV series on the same topic. If your book has an obvious connection with something contemporary, point it out.

Research the publishing company
It’s essential to check out the publishing company that you’re pitching to. Make sure to look at their back catalogue: what formats do their books tend to be in; do their titles tend towards any particular style; what have they already covered? How can you shape your proposal to make it more attractive to them. If you’re pitching to a magazine, then get hold of a copy first. It will be very obvious if you haven’t.

And finally, after this long list of ‘don’ts’, have confidence in your work and don’t be put off by hasty rejections scribbled by editors with over-flowing inboxes!

Jen is starting up a new social history imprint for Pen and Sword Books ( Contact her by email on .  She’s also promoting her own book Women’s Lives, published last year, and blogs on women’s history at . You can find her on Twitter @_Womens_history .