Lessons Learned From Shark Tank on Writing Book Proposals

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

For a few years now, higher-ed versions of Shark Tank have been popping up on campuses and at academic conferences. The sessions follow the model of the reality-TV show but, rather than entrepreneurship, seek to shed light on faculty and administrative work.

Naturally the lessons of Shark Tank for scholarly writing jumped out at me, as a diehard fan of reality television. Nine years ago, I wrote a column positing that Project Runway — a weekly show featuring hopeful fashion designers who compete in creative challenges judged by a panel of experts — was close enough in concept to graduate education that it should be required viewing for all students. 

Later I branched out and got hooked on America’s Next Top Model. It raised some of the same parallels with graduate school: How well do aspirants take correction and direction? Who starts out kind of hopeless and ends up getting better each week? Any teacher knows the pleasure that comes from watching students develop into the best version of themselves.

So the popularity of repurposing Shark Tank for academic endeavors is reassuring. It shows I’m not the only professor who can provide self-serving rationalizations for the value of this kind of watching pleasure. Lately I’ve been thinking about all the ways that the show is relevant to the process of submitting a book proposal.

In case you’re anti-TV, or anti-reality TV, or anti-pop culture, here’s how the show works: A panel of five “sharks” — titans who have made lots and lots of coin — sit in comfortable chairs as hopeful entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for products. The sharks ask questions, sometimes like Supreme Court justices interrupting before the presenter has a chance to finish a sentence. They prod and poke and quickly suss out whether the supplicant has what it takes and whether they’ll invest in the idea.

When publishers read your book proposal, they are debating whether to invest in your work, although you’re not there to witness it. I’ve written about the nuts and bolts of book proposals before. Here, now, are some of the lessons of Shark Tank that might improve the odds that a publisher will want your book.

Don’t send it before you have the goods. Many hopeful entrepreneurs get shot down because the sharks feel it’s too early in the process.

As a former book editor and now a published author myself, what I know about book proposals is that you must do boatloads of work before you even know what the book might be. You have to figure out how you will develop the argument. That means being far enough into the research and writing to know how you will get to where you think you want to go.

You must have a good elevator pitch. The sharks ask the entrepreneurs: What problem does your idea solve? What need does it meet? They’re not looking for a long speech.

Likewise with publishers, you must be prepared to say in a single sentence what question your book will answer. That sentence should appear prominently in your cover letters, and if it’s good, an editor will lift it to pitch the book to colleagues. Later, the marketing staff will cut and paste the sentence into catalog and jacket copy. Do the hard work for them. Say, briefly and compellingly, what the book is and why anyone would care to read it.

Anticipate the questions that will be asked and know the answers. The sharks are quick to eviscerate any entrepreneur who can’t tell them the cost of customer acquisition or whip out sales figures. 

For your book project, be able to identify your potential readers. How will you reach them? What’s the competition? What are some comparable books? In what types of courses could your book be used? Are there any news pegs you can hook into? What are your connections with media outlets? How many words will the final manuscript have? Will there be illustrations, maps, or graphs, and if so, how many? How much research and writing have you already done? When will you deliver a final and complete manuscript?

Samples go a long way, and they’d better be good. Even though they’re filthy rich, the sharks are always hungry for free stuff. They’re always eager to sample the goods. You can have the best idea for a new drink or a different kind of sweater, but if it doesn’t taste or feel delightful, the sharks won’t be investing. 

Publishers also need to be able to experience what is being promised. But they do get to decide whether your work makes it into print. While we all want to say that our books will be lively and engaging, the proof of the manuscript pudding is in the reading. Your sample chapter should show off all your best moves and tricks, give away the juiciest bits of your research findings, offer the most surprising arguments. Hold nothing back; you only get one shot.

You don’t have long before those with decision-making power start getting bored. Sharks tend not to be particularly patient and sometimes they show, rudely, that a budding entrepreneur has failed to capture their interest. 

Except when you’re a student, you will never have a captive readership for your work. In your book proposal, make sure you grab the reader’s attention from the very start. Pose a question that people need an answer to. Tell a story that is engaging and illustrative.

Be prepared to say how your background has prepared you for this. It’s always reassuring to know that someone has expertise in a field, but sometimes what gets us to an invention, or a book topic, is really just passion. You have to say how you got to this point, and why the project makes sense for you. 

One of the big buzzwords in trade publishing is “platform” — meaning “an ability to sell books because of who you are and who you can reach.”

For academic books, that’s a little less important, but a scholarly publisher will still want your proposal to answer these questions: Why are you the right person to write this book? And will you help it reach potential readers? If you say your book will be used in courses, it might be useful for editors to know what you teach and which other books yours might replace.

Know that the sharks sometimes fight with each other. Sometimes the relationships of those on the decision-making side matter on the show, and even get in the way. They’re human, after all, not cold-blooded cartilaginous fish and there are internecine struggles you won’t be aware of. 

The same is true of publishing. Sometimes, even in the happiest of publishing families, squabbles break out. Or someone has already lined up a project that would compete with yours. There’s often no way for you to know this, so cast your net wide when sending out your proposal to potential publishers. And yes, it’s fine to submit it to multiple places — just say you’re doing that in your cover letter.

It’s a performance. And a high-stakes one at that. Your book proposal must be rehearsed, practiced, and polished. 

If you’re super famous or have a track-record with a publisher, you might be able to get away with dashing something off to secure a contract. But most of us have to do a lot of tap-dancing to get serious consideration. That means putting in tons of work on the proposal. 

You don’t want the first person reading your proposal to be an editor who has the power to reject it. So try it out on others, especially people not in your exact field. Notice what confuses them. Have them read it aloud to you and see where they stumble on the prose.

Be gracious in rejection. A chance to get expert feedback is valuable, but only if you listen. Rejection can be a chance to rethink and revise your approach. And sometimes, it’s not about you. A shark will say, “I love it but it’s not for me.” It’s not personal. 

One of the things I truly love about Shark Tank is that, after contestants make a pitch that goes badly or are arrogant or deluded about the value of their idea, the sharks always wish the hopeful entrepreneurs well on their way out the door — even when the conversation got heated. 

That underscores a point that often gets lost and is applicable to scholarly writing: As close as you are to what you produce, the end result is still a product and not you. You are not being rejected. It’s this proposal, or this idea. So if (when?) rejection comes, it’s a time to reassess and re-evaluate, but not to give up.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her latest book, Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay, was published by the University of Chicago Press. Her website is Racheltoor.com.

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