Among the hundreds of queries I receive each week, I must uncover those that are engaging and marketable. I receive queries from prison inmates on a regular basis but to date only one seemed viable. An initial query letter from Michael G. Santos, an inmate at a minimum security federal camp in Colorado, immediately piqued my interest, based on his continuous accomplishments under incarceration. He earned a bachelor's degree from Mercer and an M.A. degree from Hofstra. The college degrees, coupled with three books published by prestigious academic presses, deserved my attention. His publications were much too academic for the general interest reader. Given the the astounding and growing number of American prison inmates, I believed that I could sell a straightforward nonacademic account of living in prison that would inform the reading public about conditions in American prisons.
I am a firm believer in the importance of a well-executed, professional proposal for nonfiction works. The days of editors like Maxwell Perkins, who were able to publish their authors of choice, no longer exist. An editor, no matter how enamored he or she may be about an author's work can no longer make a unilateral decision to publish a book. Instead, he or she must face his or her associates in a "pub" meeting and convince them of the viability and marketability of the book. Often the sales department can put the kibosh on a project they do not believe they can sell. Therefore, the author must provide the editor with as much ammunition as possible. By presenting the concept, competition, marketing strategies, etc., along with at least two or three sample chapters, the author provides the impetus for agreement among the editorial staff.
I suggested to Michael that he check out books on publishing that guide writers in the preparation of a book proposal. Often, templates of solid outlines and ideas are suggested and when followed result in the development of a winning proposal. Michael did his homework and followed up with a dynamite proposal for his book, Inside: Life Behind Bars in America. Within ten days of making multiple submissions, I received a call from an editor at St. Martin's Press expressing interest in the work. A contract was negotiated and St. Martin's published the book in 2006.
My advice to authors is always query first. Then if you are asked to send a proposal, do your homework and get that winning proposal off to the agent.