How do you write a non-fiction book proposal? Here’s one in full.
Like a lot of things in the publishing industry, the non-fiction book proposal is a mysterious beast. What is this magic document—which can get you a book deal before you even write the book—supposed to look like? Well, I figured I could do my part to help shine some light on things and post one that I wrote, here, in full.
Generally, these proposals follow the same basic formula. First is an overview, where you explain the basic premise of the book and why it matters, as well as a convincing explanation of why you are the right person to write it. Next is an annotated table of contents, where you summarize your best guess about how the book will move, summarize its narrative arc, introduce major characters and plot points, etc. That’s followed by a section explaining where the book fits into the current marketplace—any competing and comparable titles, current market conditions, etc.—and then some more boilerplate-y information about the author at the end. That’s the basic skeleton, though each writer can and should give it their own flavour. (You’ll also have to include a full sample chapter, which is a topic for another day.) Also, keep in mind that individual agencies and even agents may have their own preferences about how a proposal should be formatted or arranged. Always follow these if you see them. They are a test to see who actually takes the time to read the submission guidelines, and who’s just blindly firing off proposals by the dozen.
Some context for what follows. I’m a Canadian journalist and author who published a mildly successful small-press novel in 2013, and decided for my next book project to turn to commercial non-fiction. The topic? Teeth.
For the next three years, I wrote and re-wrote this proposal, trying to get the project off the ground in various configurations, for various audiences, and with the help of a couple of different literary agents—the last of whom, a very smart woman at a high-end agency in Manhattan, signed me as a client within 24 hours of receiving my unsolicited query in her inbox. She said it was one of the best proposals she’d ever received, which is why I hope it can be useful to others, too.
Also, a caveat. Namely: that the book didn’t, uh, end up selling. I don’t blame the proposal for that—in the end editors just seemed more uncomfortable with the topic of teeth than they were intrigued by it; I’m also not sure my personal platform was quite large or persuasive enough for some—but it probably bears keeping in mind.
Regardless, I hope this provides at least some small insight into the process, and if it gets anyone to a finished proposal of their own in less than three years, all the better. You can email me at email@example.com with feedback, or to send me links to the latest oddity from the dental world (books come and go, but Google Alerts are forever).
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QUITE A MOUTHFUL: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF TEETH
“Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.” —Don Quixote
There are few parts of the human anatomy that are as essential, or as versatile, as our teeth. We need them for everyday tasks like eating and speaking, and they’ve performed some important evolutionary functions along the way, too: we smile in order to attract potential mates, and we gauge an animal’s potential threat to us by whether its own fangs are bared. Teeth are so key to our species’s survival that their enamel has evolved into the single hardest substance in the human body.
And when it comes to understanding how our teeth work, there’s never been a better time to be alive. It wasn’t so long ago that the leading name in dentistry, Pierre Fauchard, advised warding off toothaches by rinsing with one’s own urine. Today, things are different. We no longer believe our eye teeth (also known as canines) are somehow connected to our actual eyes. Gone are the days when leeches and worms played central roles in dental literature. And anaesthetic, for centuries a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, is now a daily reality that ensures patients experience only minimal discomfort in the chair. With the backing of an industry that’s valued at $111 billion per year in the United States alone, our teeth are better attended to than ever before.
Yet they are also maddeningly fragile. Unlike sharks, we have only the one mature set to last us our entire lives. Human teeth chip. They get knocked out. And if we get a little lazy in maintaining them, we get cavities, toothaches, and worse. Receding gums. Abscesses. Root canals. Sufferers of chronic tooth pain are inconsolable, and can you blame them? That’s why, despite the scientific advances, as many as 75% of North Americans still experience actual fear at the thought of the dentist’s office. Teeth are one of the few great equalizers remaining in modern society, able to reduce even the most pampered billionaire to panic in a matter of seconds. We take our teeth for granted until the second they stop working perfectly, at which point we find ourselves unable to think about anything else. Teeth are our best friend, and our worst enemy.
They also play pivotal roles at every stage of our lives. Babies shriek for days as their first teeth erupt through the gum lines. Elementary schoolers wiggle their loose ones and then leave notes under their pillows for a magical fairy who will exchange them for cash in the dead of night. Teenagers grumble through their braces; adult men and women endure gauntlets of repair work; seniors pop out entire sets of false teeth and place them in glasses of water before bed. Everyone struggles to remember to floss.
Teeth are a constant presence in our lives, and a source of equal parts utility and anxiety. So how is it that the definitive book about them has not yet been written?
Actually, there is no shortage of published information about the teeth — so long as what you’re really interested in is dentistry. If that’s the case, scores of scientific journals are available to you. There are also plenty of specialty books documenting the rise of the profession, though almost none that are still in print. What is missing from the publishing landscape, however, is a general-interest title that liberates teeth from the realm of academia and instead tells the larger story of how this simple body part became a site of such enduring psychological anxiety, cultural fascination, and scientific and economic opportunity. This is the gap my proposed project, Quite a Mouthful: A Cultural History of Teeth, will fill.
Quite a Mouthful is well timed for two reasons: because such a book does not currently exist, and because we are in the midst of a resurgence of single-topic object biographies for general audiences (e.g., Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, Nicholas A. Basbanes’s On Paper). But nobody has yet given teeth anything approaching this kind of treatment — even Mary Roach, when she published Gulp, an examination of the digestive system, in 2013, skipped right past the most interesting part of the process. What does exist is too specialized, not intended for average readers, or long since inaccessible. The only titles that have come close are Peter S. Ungar’s Teeth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2014) and James Wynbrandt’s Excruciating History of Dentistry (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998, out of print). Again, by limiting their scope to the professional/technical realm, they leave huge swaths of material about teeth undocumented and therefore unavailable to the wider reading public.
My project belongs to the tradition of Roach and John McPhee, writers who are able to animate science and history in a way that’s infectious to scholars and average readers alike. A closer kindred spirit would be David M. Friedman’s 2001 cultural history of the penis, A Mind of Its Own (Penguin), which is erudite but nimble, and always eye-opening; it is a work of high-minded journalism that nonetheless stumbles across humour at almost every turn. I am also inspired by Jon Mooallem’s recent Wild Ones (Penguin Press, 2013), a book that sends its author into the complex world of endangered species in North America but remains accessible, curious, playful, and humane. My book will carve out a similar space for considering one of our most vital body parts in a new light.
Quite a Mouthful aims to be a panoramic, entertainingly omnivorous work that is as comfortable in Renaissance-era London as it is in MTV circa 2005, when the rapper Nelly released his #1 hit single “Grillz.” Wherever teeth go, this book will follow — and not reluctantly, plugging its nose with distaste, but enthusiastically. It has no loyalty to any particular discipline or specialty. Here high and low culture are not mortal enemies, but rather different tools inside the same toolbox. My book will also differentiate itself by combining scholarship with compelling narratives and first-person reportage. Every chapter will feature some kind of dynamic character, be it an eccentric personality from centuries past (e.g., the street dentist Painless Parker, who wore a necklace of 357 human teeth and legally changed his first name to avoid false-advertising legislation), a current scientist or dental professional (e.g., Martin Nweeia, the self-proclaimed “dentist in the Arctic” who’s leading the charge to solve the mystery of the narwhal’s tusk), or even a building (e.g., the Norwegian Tooth Bank, which recently collected 100,000 baby teeth from around the planet for a massive research project). Through these individual case studies, the larger global story of teeth will emerge.
Quite a Mouthful is much more than a bathroom reader of quirky tooth facts. Underlying each chapter is a consideration of the meanings humans have given to teeth throughout history, how we choose to understand them in the 21st century, and an ongoing interrogation of why these thirty-two pieces of enamel-coated pulp continue to evoke fascination and disgust in equal measure. How did the tooth fairy, a character who appeared on the mythological scene just a century ago, become such an ingrained and beloved part of our children’s lives? Why, even at the height of the Black Death plague, were 1 in 50 Britons still dying of tooth-related causes? Why do athletes who use their teeth to cheat (e.g., Mike Tyson, Luis Suárez) inspire such visceral reactions, even in sports where the objective is to beat one’s opponent to a bloody pulp? Why are North Americans less likely to trust you if you have a crooked smile? And why have teeth been the active ingredient in so many great works of art, from Hans Christian Andersen to Marathon Man to Andy Warhol? These are just some of the dots that Quite a Mouthful will connect. In fact, there is hardly a part of our lives that teeth haven’t found a way to sink themselves into; look close enough and you can see the entirety of the human condition contained within.
For all of these reasons, Quite a Mouthful will make a perfect gift for any general interest non-fiction reader. It is the kind of book that will catch your eye from across the bookstore, and, once opened, elicit cries of “I never thought of it like that!” It will equally appeal to professionals within the dental industry, whose numbers run to the hundreds of thousands in the United States alone, and millions more around the world. The book will have a cumulative effect, too, as familiar details pile up alongside new anecdotes until the reader becomes amazed at how high you can stack tooth-related material when it’s all gathered in one place. Teeth, it turns out, have been hiding under our noses all along.
It’s also important to address why I am qualified to write a book like this. While not a dental professional myself, as a generalist writer for magazines and newspapers like Wired, the Globe and Mail, Salon, and The Walrus, among many others, I’ve built a career off of launching myself into areas about which I have plenty of passion but no formal training — from potholes to bed bugs to mega malls — and then reporting my way out of them. That’s why Quite a Mouthful will be as steered by the many experts I will consult as by my own firsthand research and analysis. Reportage will play a primary role. And when I do appear in the text, it will be as an everyman figure: the kind of curious layman that the reader will readily identify with.
As a widely published book reviewer and a books columnist for the Edmonton Journal, I’ve been tracking the ebbs and flows of trends within the publishing world, in search of just such a book about teeth — to no avail. As a local media personality, who has made many appearances on radio and television as well as in print, I look forward to becoming the go-to expert whenever any program needs a strange or off-beat story about teeth. And as a novelist (The Dilettantes was published in 2013, where it was a #1 regional bestseller, went into a second printing, and was later translated into German), I have experience with the book format. Indeed, I’m itching to get back into it.
I am also particularly attuned to the existing public demand for and interest in stories about teeth. The first piece of this manuscript that I completed work on, about the surprising history of the tooth fairy — included here as part of the sample chapter — was published in the American online magazine Salon, where it was subsequently linked to by the Smithsonian and the BBC; I also discussed the article on NPR. Other tooth-related stories are already in the works. I am, it seems, a writer with teeth on the brain. It is my intent to continue this process of publishing stories about teeth throughout the writing of the manuscript, as this will have the joint benefit of raising my profile as an expert on the topic, as well as piquing readers’ interest about what a full book on teeth might have in store.
I am proposing Quite a Mouthful at approximately 80,000 words, plus pictures. This is long enough to provide a comprehensive look at the topic, as well as give the most interesting material room to breathe, but brief enough to avoid getting lost in a swamp of detail impenetrable to general readers. I expect to be able to turn in a complete first draft of the manuscript within 12 months of signing a contract.
In general, I believe the book should look and feel like the kind of thorough but inviting volume that could find a home on any shelf and in any setting. You can read it by the pool on vacation, on the bus to work, or in bed before turning off the lamp — only you won’t want to put it down without reading just a few more pages first. If readers own one book about teeth, it’s got to be Quite a Mouthful.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What Is a Tooth?: We open with a look at the earliest records of teeth emerging in the animal kingdom, and how humanity first came to conceive, categorize, and understand them on their most fundamental levels. (Aristotle, for some reason, believed that women have fewer of them than men.) What qualifies something as a tooth? Why does an elephant’s tusk count, but the terrifying serrations inside a penguin’s beak do not? We’ll also survey some oddballs and outliers. Like Harvard’s Martin Nweeia, who has led a group of researchers through the Canadian high arctic on a quixotic 15-year mission: trying to figure out what the narwhal’s tusk — a stunning, unwieldy, bizarrely overgrown canine that only afflicts males — actually does. What he’s discovered has been remarkable. This chapter challenges readers to throw away their dental preconceptions, and instead, with the help of some expert zoologists and archaeologists, start rebuilding their notion of teeth from the ground up.
- Human Teeth: Why do humans have the teeth we do? And why this particular configuration? Now we narrow our focus onto homo sapiens specifically, examining human teeth through a practical and evolutionary lens. Because of the toughness of their diet, for instance, some of our early ancestors had to spend fully half of their day chewing; on the other hand, they never suffered from later problems like cavities or impacted wisdom teeth. Modern human teeth require more maintenance than any other creature’s. Why? How have our teeth determined our fate — or possibly even our success — as a species? We’ll be aided here by Harvard’s Daniel E. Lieberman and Peter S. Ungar, author of Mammal Teeth, among others.
- Teeth in Religion, Folklore, and Mythology: From Bram Stoker to vagina dentata to “Little Red Riding-Hood,” and framed by the story of Rosemary Wells, the woman who accidentally became the world’s expert on the tooth fairy, an overview of the many ways teeth have worked their way into the stories humans tell about ourselves, across all types of mythology, religion, and folklore. Tales of teeth abound, and what unites them is a deep, species-wide desire to come to terms with the growing list of anxieties that surround this crucial but confusing body part. (A full draft of this chapter is included below.)
- The Rise of the Dental Professional: A look at the wild history of oral hygiene, particularly as it relates to the emergence of dental professionals. The oldest known filling took place some 6,500 years ago, and was made of beeswax; since then, oral health has fallen under the jurisdiction of many different professions, from barbers to low-level surgeons to wigmakers. Results were, to put it lightly, mixed — and that’s to say nothing of the various species of outright con artists who’ve feigned expertise in this largely unregulated field over the centuries. Among our guides here are the group of 19th-century dentists who scrambled to claim the U.S. Congress’s $100,000 prize for whoever could invent a reliable form of anaesthesia, and Painless Parker, an infamous street dentist who hustled patients and skirted the law throughout his career, at one point legally changing his first name to avoid false-advertising legislation.
- Teeth and Prosthetics: If your teeth can’t be restored to their original state, they can always be upgraded. This chapter looks at the many ways humans have tried to add onto and even replace our natural pearly whites. Here we also see the emergence of a theme that will continue throughout the book: the conflict between seeing teeth as a functional body part (hence the need for things like dentures) and as aesthetic objects in their own right. The latter phenomenon can be traced back to ancient Mayans affixing pieces of jade to their teeth, and carries all the way through to 2005, when the rapper Nelly had a #1 hit with “Grillz,” an ode to the removable metal jewellery for the teeth that had recently taken the hip-hop world by storm. Throughout human history, teeth have been one of the most popular sites for showing off one’s affluence and status. Meanwhile, practical devices like retainers, braces, and headgear continue to be the bane of teenagers around the world. How do these two goals — teeth that function properly and teeth that look cool — coexist? Can they?
- The Tooth Collectors: Once a tooth has left the safety of your gums, it no longer serves a practical function. So why have so many people been compelled to hold onto them anyway? Here I consider the psychology behind this collector’s impulse, and turn to some of the most extravagant curators of dental detritus, including two present-day dentists who make no secret about their prized collections of celebrity teeth. One, Alberta’s Michael Zuk, recently shelled out $30,000 USD for one of John Lennon’s chompers, despite not even being much of a Beatles fan. For him, the tooth itself was the prize. The larger frame for this chapter will by my first-person accounts of visits to some of the many private, eccentric dental museums around North America and the world. Who established them? What do they collect? And what purpose do they serve, if any?
- Teeth and National Identity: When the British writer Martin Amis paid an exorbitant amount of money to have his teeth fixed in the 1990s, the backlash in his home country was swift and vicious. Why? Because bad teeth are a longstanding, albeit complicated, symbol of the English character. (Amis would go on to write a memoir that spent more time discussing his dental work than it did his novels.) This chapter investigates the surprising ways in which ideas about teeth unite people along national lines, as well as what teeth can tell us about larger national identities around the world. Case studies include the eerily perfect Hollywood smile; the Japanese trend of tseuke-yaeba, wherein teenage girls undergo a procedure to give themselves intentionally crooked teeth; and the curious case of Tajikistan, where a national obsession with gold teeth suddenly disappeared after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
- Teeth and Health Care: Despite so much progress, there are still billions of people who have no access to professional dental care. The consequences are stark: the World Health Organization estimates that one in five adults aged 35–44 has severe gum disease, and at least 30% of seniors have no remaining natural teeth whatsoever. Even in those developed countries lucky enough to provide socialized medicine to their citizens, dental care is rarely included in that vision. In this chapter I take a look at the political dimensions of teeth, and try to understand why the line between essential health care and cosmetic frivolity is so often drawn at the mouth. I will look at the efforts of the non-profit group Dentists Without Borders, the risky but tempting world of dental tourism, and what can be learned from those rare countries where dentistry is fully covered.
- Teeth as Big Business: We return to the professional realm with an in-depth look at the state of (and the business that is) modern dentistry. As people live longer, we require more and longer-lasting dental care. Dentistry itself has also become increasingly specialized, attuned to the client’s needs and even his or her mental health: odontophobes can now visit special dentist offices with relaxing colours, soothing music, and a staff specializing in bedside manner. And we pay for the privilege. To frame this chapter, I will shadow some current students as they begin their studies the University of Alberta’s School of Dentistry, in the hopes of better understanding the future of this lucrative, complicated, yet not especially well-liked profession from the other side of the drill.
- Teeth as Scientific Resource: Finally, a look to the future, via the microscopic secrets that are locked away within our “microbial Pompeiis,” as one researcher put it, and the full extent of which scientists are only just starting to uncover. The age of one John Doe was recently pinpointed by going back and testing the boy’s dental enamel for traces of carbon-14, an isotope specifically produced by nuclear testing by the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s. In recent years dental fossils have given us detailed and often radical new information about the diet and migration patterns of our earliest ancestors. Other researchers, including those at the Norwegian Teeth Bank, a scientific centre that recently amassed more than 100,000 milk teeth, see teeth as a new frontier for stem-cell research, following the discovery, in 2001, that stem cells are contained within the pulp of every child’s milk teeth. The truth is, we’re only starting to scratch the surface of the secrets that are contained within our teeth — and what scientists ultimately find there may well change the future trajectory of our dentally dependent species.
MARKETING AND PROMOTION
Because of its subject matter, Quite a Mouthful has several built-in audiences. First are employees working in the dental industry, of which there are hundreds of thousands in the United States alone, and none of whom have yet seen the stuff of their profession given such an accessible, panoramic treatment on the page. (If they aren’t giving a copy to someone for Christmas, chances are they’ll be on the receiving end at least once.) For this reason, the book will also be a topic of interest across the sizable world of dental-industry journals and newsletters, and could even be sold at conferences and symposia for years to come. Second are fans of the object-biography genre, as Quite a Mouthful will have no problem sitting comfortably on a shelf next to bestsellers like Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, Eula Biss’s On Immunity, and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies. Finally, this project will appeal to an even larger third demographic: people for whom teeth are a constant source of anxiety and attention, but who never consciously realized it until seeing this book in stores or hearing about it on the radio. In my experience, teeth is a topic that gets an instinctive, visceral rise out of people — both positive and negative — and once the premise of this book is in their heads, they won’t be able to shake it until they pick up a copy for themselves.
As far as publicity goes, I am an experienced and enthusiastic self-promoter with no qualms about being interviewed in any format or medium that will have me. When my novel The Dilettantes was released, in 2013, I did dozens of interviews for a variety of publications, received strong national print and radio coverage in Canada, organized a two-week national tour, and later travelled to Berlin to promote the German edition. And for my latest project, the Short Story Advent Calendar, I have done upwards of a dozen radio, TV, and print interviews in the span of a month. I look forward to applying that same work ethic to the promotion of Quite a Mouthful over the weeks and months following its release, doing as many in-store readings, media appearances (including making active use of my own social-media channels), festival panels, and industry events as I can get invited to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Hingston is a books columnist for the Edmonton Journal, as well as a journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Salon. His debut novel The Dilettantes (Freehand, 2013) was a #1 regional bestseller, went into a second printing, and was translated into German; the Winnipeg Free Press said that it “may well be the Great Canadian Comic Novel.” His Twitter account (@mhingston) has nearly 1,500 followers. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with his partner and two children.
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A more current bio: Michael Hingston is an author and journalist based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has appeared in Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the Washington Post. His book about Calvin and Hobbes will be published by ECW Press in 2018. Follow him on Twitter: @mhingston.