Overview, schmoverview. What is an overview anyway? And why do I need one?
An overview is the most important section of your book proposal, in fact it may be the most important thing you'll ever write. Skeptical? Try this thought experiment. Let's say you’re an unpublished writer. You don’t know how to get your foot in the door, so you go ahead and write a few letters asking editors at various publishing houses if they’d like to see your book. Meanwhile you’ve got no book to show them, you just want to find out how they’ll react to the new kid on the block. Guess what? They all tell you the same thing: “Sorry, but we don’t accept unagented submissions.” So you write to a few literary agents asking if they’d like to see your book, and guess what? Almost the same reaction, only this time the chorus says “Sorry we don’t look at completed manuscripts, just book proposals.” The point is that the way to get your foot in the door of the publishing world isn't to write a book, it’s to write a book proposal.
By William Cane
But you knew that already, didn’t you?
The introductory paragraphs of your book proposal are called an overview because they give the big picture and put your book in context. If a literary agent doesn’t read past the overview, if she isn’t hooked right from the get-go, if her toes don’t start tingling at your first few words — well, I don’t have to spell it out for you, do I? You get the point. Your overview is your entrée. It’s your calling card, your one real chance for success. It gets you in the door so you can make your sales pitch — to your literary agent, then to an editor, and then to the sales force of a publisher. In other words an overview is the beginning, and the most important section, of your book proposal.
So what exactly does an overview say?
A typical overview has three parts:
Let’s say you’re writing a book about Princess Diana. An introductory paragraph for your book proposal might read: “Who was the most famous woman in the world in 1997? Of course the answer is Princess Diana. And yet there aren't any books about her sense of fashion. This is a real pity because millions of girls and women, and even some men, would love to read about this subject.”
Your book hook is a one-sentence summary of your book. It must contain the title and it must summarize the book concisely. Another thing it usually contains is the phrase “the first book to... [fill in the blank]” because unique books stand a much better chance of selling. A book hook for our hypothetical Princess Di book might read: “DIANA’S FASHIONS is the first book to analyze the wardrobe of the late Princess Diana, explaining what she wore and why.”
Then you go on, in one or more paragraphs, to describe the book. The best way to do this is to outline the book’s major sections. For example: “The book will be divided into two parts. Part One will describe her entire wardrobe. This part of the book will include twelve color photographs. Part Two will analyze why her clothes were so fashionable.”
The book description should close with an indication of the length of the book and your expected completion date: “The book will be 55,000 words and contain a bibliography, photographs, and an index. The manuscript will be completed six months after receipt of the advance.”
By following this outline, you can write a book overview in a matter of hours or days. All it really takes is some thought, a little research and, most importantly, passion for your subject. Then you’re ready to move on to the next section of the book proposal — the marketing section.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson