Editor Extraordinaire: An Interview With Dedi Felman

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By Abbey Hester and Dalia Martinez


Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Dedi Felman. Dedi has been in the publishing business for over a decade. A decade! That’s a long time, guys. She’s worked at Oxford University Press, Simon and Schuster, and Henry Holt/Times Books.


Her authors have won prizes such as the Bancroft Prize, the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, and the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. Titles she’s developed have been New York Times bestsellers Naomi Wolf’s Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World, Mission Accomplished! Or, How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak, and Jonny Steinberg’s Sizwe’s Test Washington Post book of the year. She’s an editor extraordinaire!


Over the years, many hundreds of book proposals have floated across Dedi’s desk. She’s seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Most importantly, she knows first-hand what an effective book proposal looks like, and she’s got a lot of tips for how to write one. Dedi has taught at Columbia University and at numerous writers’ conferences and book fairs.


We are so excited that Dedi will be joining us on Sunday, January 19th for our Publishpalooza workshop, where she will help you make your nonfiction book proposal and book pitch irresistible.


To tide you over until the workshop, Dedi was gracious enough to answer our questions about the publishing world.


1. What are book editors looking for?


Editors are looking for great stories, well told. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy to find stories we’ve never heard before, stories that are compelling, well-structured and have an original argument and/or voice.


2. What are common mistakes people make with their book proposals? 


A common problem for nonfiction authors is not understanding WHO their book is for. Who will read this book? Why should they care? In my seminar, we dissect the effectiveness of a pitch. If you don’t understand and can’t communicate what’s most interesting about your book and crucially who is going to be interested in it (and no, it’s never “everyone”), you don’t have an effective proposal. Often in house the question is raised: “Will someone pay $27.50 for this book?” In an era of tightened purse strings, not to mention an age of increased competition for eyeballs on tablets, on phones, name your screen, that’s a high bar.


3. What’s the most important part of the book proposal?


There are two ways to answer that. The easy answer is the pitch or overview. If you’ve got an attention grabbing pitch, the world is your oyster. The dirty not-so-secret of the industry is that publishers bend over backwards to help authors who have an unusual story to tell. The less glib (and more appropriate for the non-celebrity) answer is that each piece is crucially important. A book proposal isn’t just selling a book. It’s selling you. And writing an effective book proposal is a great way to start to understand and shape a writing career.  You need to understand what’s being asked for in each section and you need to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. What you have in place, what needs more work. If you don’t have an effective structure for your book, you need to create one. If you don’t have a platform in place, you need to understand the steps to take and take them. The goal of the proposal is to make it easy for others to see how they will sell your book. But ultimately, the result of writing one is that you will come to grasp the various components of a successful writing career.


FacebookEffect4. When you were at Simon and Schuster, how did you decide which writers got book deals?


It’s never the decision of one person alone. If an editor is interested in a proposal, she then circulates it to her colleagues for discussion at editorial board. Marketing, Sales and Publicity all weigh in. An editor can love a book but if her colleagues feel they can’t sell it, the house won’t bid on it. That’s why understanding what’s unique about your book, understanding its market, understanding your own platform and what you bring to the table and putting all that into the proposal becomes so important.


5. What kinds of books are hot on the market now?


Don’t write to the market. Write what YOU are best qualified and suited to write. Hotness is and always will be defined by the unexpected, the story that only you could tell.


6. What can students expect to learn from you in your class?


There’s an analogy floating around publishing nowadays that a first-time nonfiction writer is like an entrepreneur with a start up. You need to convince the investors to invest in the business that is your book. In this seminar, you’ll learn to attract investment by others in your creative process and to create an enticing, persuasive proposal that will sell what you uniquely have to offer to publishers in New York. But most important, as above, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of the publishing industry, your own strengths and weaknesses, and how you can create a successful writing career.


Thanks so much, Dedi for chatting with us! 


Don’t miss your chance to learn from one of the greats. Claim your spot for our Publishpalooza: A Non-Fiction Proposal Workshop, Sunday, January 19th before it’s full.