So you have an idea for an illustrated gift book, or what we in the industry do not call a “coffee-table book”? How do you go about getting it published? In much the same way you would a nonfiction book, but with some key differences. I see lots of information on how to draft a proposal for a novel or commercial nonfiction, but I’ve seen next to nothing on illustrated books, the kind I work on every day, so I thought I’d lay out a few basics for the would-be authors out there. Please keep in mind that all the information you’re about to see is my own take on what makes a good proposal and I’m sure that others would have different opinions.
What topics do illustrated books cover? At their core, illustrated gift books are really just nonfiction. Add pictures or drawings, and almost any topic can translate. It’s not limited to art and photography, the topics traditionally associated with coffee-table books. In fact, some of the most successful titles are in fashion, interior design, cooking, craft, humor, pop culture, history, and nature.
What does an illustrated gift proposal look like? It looks a heck of a lot like a nonfiction proposal. Only with pictures. Your proposal should include a summary of your idea and a detailed section on your platform and bio as it relates to the project. You can also describe the specs you envision for your book. Is it an oversized, expensive volume with 300 images and a cloth case? Or a small, impulse buy with 150 images? If you’re not sure, it’s okay, but if you have very strong feelings about the look and size of your book, you should spell them out. Chances are editors will have their own idea about appropriate trim size and page count for your topic, but it helps us to understand your expectations for the book as well.
Then, you should include a sampling of images that would appear in the book. I know this sounds obvious, but you would be amazed by how many proposals we receive that have no images. How are we supposed to judge the merits of a visual project without seeing the visuals?! The number of images really depends on the content, but you should include at least 10-15. The best way, in my opinion, to send images is in a lo-res, emailable PDF. Don’t bother to “design” your images or lay them out as you imagine they would appear in the book. This can actually hurt your proposal if your aesthetic doesn’t match the house you’re pitching and it may be harder to see the potential in images if they’re over-designed. Simple, full-bleed images in a PDF are ideal for easy viewing and distribution. If you’re sending a hard copy, same rules apply. One large image per page is fine. There’s one exception: graphic design proposals. Since design is an integral element to your book, we do want to see designed sample spreads.
Do I need to submit a full manuscript? Wait, do these books even have words? Yes, they have words. (I have gotten this question. It hurts me.) An artist’s monograph might only have 10,000 words, which would include an introductory essay and captions. But an illustrated biography or survey of the best tattoo artists in the world might include 70,000 to 100,000 words. List the word count and image count you envision and include a sample of the text. You do not have to have a completed manuscript to pitch an illustrated book. Like nonfiction, illustrated books are usually pitched on proposal alone, meaning the way you present your idea is truly the key. Include how long you would need to complete the work for the project and what kind of resources you would need. Where are your images coming from? Do you need to hire a photographer or illustrator? Will you take the pictures yourself? How many are completed? Will you be drawing from a private collection or from photo agencies? There are costs associated with each option, and I’d like to factor that in to my evaluation.
What about that platform bit you mentioned? Oh yes. Platform is incredibly important. Your platform includes your bio, in particular how it specifically relates to the topic you’re writing about. It’s important to tailor your platform information to your topic, just as you might tailor a resume to different jobs. Want to write a cookbook? Well, you need to be a successful, well-known cook or chef before you’re ready to be published.
That one seems like a bit of a no-brainer, but the problem of platform comes up a lot in proposals for photography books. If you’re a nationally recognized professional photographer, your platform is clear. You have gallery exhibitions and media attention on your CV. But lots of people who don’t make their living as photographers have ideas for visual books. All your friends love your cat pictures or vacation shots from Ecuador? Everyone says you should have a coffee-table book, right? “Everyone” is a relative word. In the case of getting a book deal, “everyone” needs to apply to people outside of your circle of friends, and I mean way outside. You need to have demonstrated interest in your project, be it through national media attention, a successful blog with plenty of pageviews and comments, or a booming business (or all three). If only your closest friends know about your project, that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t make a great book. It’s just not ready. A book is almost never the first step in getting your ideas and images out there.
What else can I do to help my book get published? Do research on the competition and the market. Include what you find in your proposal. Find out if your idea has already been done. If you think you can do it better, explain why. Tell me what’s different about your approach or content. We’re invariably going to look at what’s out there. So if you’re pitching me a book on Southern style (and I would like one), I’m going to look up every related book I can find, check sales figures, and compare your book to the others. If similar books have done well, that helps your case. If other books on the topic haven’t performed, there’s got to be something special and different about yours that will help it stand out.
Oh yeah, do I need an agent? I strongly suggest that you find an agent. Agents are invaluable assets to authors. They can get your proposal in front of the right people and they’re your first critics and constant allies and advocates. They know the publishing business and will help you navigate it. I could go on. That said, it’s true that not as many agents look out for illustrated proposals. The number of agents serving the illustrated gift book industry is just lower than fiction and commercial nonfiction, so finding one to rep you may be more difficult. But don’t fear. You don’t need an agent to get an illustrated publishing deal. Will it help? You betcha. But if your concept and platform is strong, most editors will still look at your proposal, even if you’re not represented.
Have questions about illustrated publishing? Include them in the comments.