How do I evaluate a submitted nonfiction book?

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I’ve been a publisher since 1982 (and had 41 of my own books published) so when mostly my National Speaker’s Association buddies asked if I did any professional book evaluations, I said yes. That was about 15 years ago. Let me tell you mostly what I look for or the questions I try to answer. (Here’s where I send every new client at the outset so they know what I need to do a good job and what they will get in return.)

First, they send me a completed questionnaire (see link above) and usually a copy of the book and its cover. They can mail or email it, with attachments. (The text is almost always in English, though I’ve done a few in Portuguese or Spanish.) I don’t do fiction or children’s books.

Most of my clients want to self-publish their book, though a few want to submit it to a big house. Those in the latter group send several chapters and a proposal.

For the big housers, I try to respond as if I were the editor, or I specifically point out what the editor must know but isn’t adequately covered in their proposal. I also look at the book contents to be certain they are professional quality and well proofed.

Some of the self-publishers only want to have their books released by the ancillary houses, like Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, iPad, Lulu, or Blurb. That despite the fact that nonfiction ebooks at best sell modestly published that way. Ebooks only need a front cover. (I also send them a copy of my how-to-step-by-step book How to Get Your Book Published Free in Minutes and Marketed Worldwide in Days.)

Most of the rest have a paperback or even hardback (cloth) book in mind. They will need a full cover (front, spine, and back) that will compare favorably with their competition on library and bookstore shelves.

At this point I suggest that the client seriously consider preparing their book as if it were a paperback (they can get the full cover later) since the ebook can be the same file with modest digital conversions. That way, they can easily publish both ways with very little extra work.

First I look at the book’s title and cover. Does the title work? Or does it need more work? What’s missing? Would I buy that book because of that title? Does it contain or suggest the benefits the buyer will receive? Does it need a subtitle? Or should the title be preceded by its target market (like Investors: Don’t Lose Your Cents with Penny Stocks.) I suggest Dan Poynter’s back cover example in the Self-Publishing Manual for the paperbacks, which includes a testimonial or two and the bar code (with a specific ISBN).

Then I compare the title with the table of contents. Are they about the same thing? Does the process followed seem logical? Is the table of contents too cutesy or cryptic? What isn’t listed that logically should be? Why not? Is it loaded with irrelevant material? Is the artwork included (which includes graphs and charts) high quality and easy to comprehend?

I usually read the first chapter, one that beckons me near the middle, and the last chapter. (I’m not proofreading the book so I needn’t see every word, though I do thumb through the entire book to see if anything is missing, upside down, or clearly misplaced.)

Here, I’m reading the chapters to check the writer’s skill. Do the sentences read well? Do they vary in length? How are the word choices? The spelling? Do the paragraphs fit well together? Do the sections dwell on one theme or their subtitle? Does each of the chapters adequately, or better, convey the information in a similar style? Does the humor work? Is it scattered to the same degree throughout the text?

What about the book’s style? Is the layout consistent? How well is the table of contents presented? Do the chapter heads match, and are they spaced the same? Is there ample space at the top, bottom, and sides of every page? Are the odd number pages on the right? If footnotes are used, are they consistent? How attractive is the header or footer?

I read the Introduction closely because it’s often the first thing a reader reads. Does it grab your attention quickly, and does it somewhere include the working question—what the book is about?

How professional does the artwork look? (That includes line drawings, photos, graphs, charts, maps, and so on.) Is there anything in the book that looks out of place, too amateurish, or less than ready to go? Is there an index in the paperback version? The author’s bio?

In short, I look at everything, and closely read three chapters plus the Introduction. The client has asked me, “Is this ready to submit or print?” I’m the court of last resort, so I don’t hesitate to tell them, in detail, if I see a slant or section that needs reworking—or deleting.

There’s an important second element. Often, in their questionnaire, they have asked me to look at and give thoughts about whether the book is salable as is. Alas, most often this is the weak spot. I sense that the writer hasn’t had a specific buyer in mind so somehow the book’s purpose (to sell to fourth-grade teachers) never was mentioned! Related to that purpose, the writer should have in mind the readers’ sex and age and the book’s cost, and accessibility.

Do I ever give a total thumbs-down to a book? Frequently, but then I tell what is usable as is, what can be salvaged, what can be done differently, and what, minimally, must be mentioned or addressed to keep specific buyers informed and satisfied. Often, parts of a book stray, or are far less researched, or just don’t fit. The most surprising thing is when I ask in the questionnaire “in summary what is the book about?” they can barely answer that at all.

Having said all of that, most books are at about an 85% (or B) level. I focus on removing the weaknesses so the end product is seamless and much sought.

In closing, probably the most frequently asked question is, when I see the book in print later, did they pay any attention to my suggestions? In every case I see real improvements, though it may be that those who rejected my suggestions didn’t publish the book at all.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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