Pointers from the Pros: Author Vincent Coppola on Pitching Nonfiction Projects

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.  This post is by guest columnist and WB member J.M. Lacey.

The August 2010 Scribblers’ Retreat Writers’ Conference in St. Simons Island, Ga., featured a stellar set of professional speakers.

The award-winning Vincent Coppola spoke on Friday of the retreat.

Coppola’s journalistic career spans more than 25 years—ten of which he spent at Newsweek, where he covered the early AIDS epidemic, the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the Atlanta child murders. As well, he has written feature stories for magazines including Tina Brown’s Talk, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Worth, Redbook and Atlanta.

In addition, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism grad has written three nonfiction books: The Sicilian Judge: Anthony Alaimo, an American Hero; Quest: A Search for a Soul for Modernkind; and Uneasy Warriors: Coming Back Home: The Perilous Journey of the Green Berets.

Here are some key points from Coppola’s program on “Pitching Nonfiction Ideas to Agents/Editors and Crafting Book Proposals”:

In General—

  • Look for an idea no one has had before.
  • Give people a voice.
  • Writing is more inclusive than feeding our own egos and souls. We can do good and serve a larger cause.
  • Think about what makes you unique to write a story—your background, where you grew up, etc.

“I was a working-class kid among the Ivy League elite.”

—Coppola (He was one of three out of his graduating class hired by Newsweek.)

On Book Proposals—

  • A bad idea is worse than none.
  • Why is this idea unique? Argue and explain why the concept is special. If your viewpoint is not original, you have to convince someone why it’s going to be a bestseller like the similar book(s) that is (are) out there.
  • A nonfiction book proposal typically runs 35 pages. The proposal shows the publisher/agent you are a good writer, that you’ve done your research, and that you have a good grasp of the story.
  • Sections:
    • 1) Seduction.
      • Why this person, event, movement.
      • Why this is a story.
    • 2) Audience.
      • Who is the audience? There has to be an identifiable readership.
    • 3) Detailed outline.
      • Chapter by chapter. This is your selling proposition. If the proposal is accepted, the book is ready with the chapter synopses.
  • Submit a real sample chapter. This is where you really seduce the publisher/agent.

On Agents—

  • Agents are flooded with book proposals. But there are hungry agents—young agents who will look at a manuscript.
  • There is always room for a good story. If you have a story, can tell a story, you will be successful.

J.M. Lacey is a freelance writer and marketing and PR consultant. She is working on a novel that gives voice to two unique subjects. Visit her Web site and blog.

4 thoughts on “Pointers from the Pros: Author Vincent Coppola on Pitching Nonfiction Projects

  1. Thank you so much for the tips! I’m in new territory writing a book, and the proposal has me tripped up at a standstill! No one could’ve used the advice more!

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