1. Has it been done before?
If yes, how does your book differ? What does your book offer that others on the topic do not? You must provide unique, useful and desired material for an agent or publisher to consider at a book that's similar to others in the market.
2. What's the market?
Is your book really "for everyone"? Or is likely for a targeted market? If the latter, which niche market? Don't say "it's a little bit about everything". Those types of books are almost impossible to sell. If need be, narrow your focus.
3. Can I encapsulate it in an elevator pitch?
In other words, summarize your book in one sentence (preferably including how it reaches your target audience)…in the time it would take for an elevator ride.
4. What's your platform?
At the very least, you must have a website in today's market, even if it’s just an engaging blog. Even better if you have a frequently used Twitter presence and Facebook page. Don't have those yet? Start now. It's never too early to begin laying a foundation for your platform. In fact, the more solid the platform, the more confident you (and your potential agent/publisher) will be when it comes time to dive on launch day. Consider registering your name as your primary website URL (for example, JanetBoyer.com), or your book title. The former will give you more flexibility should you publish additional material, however. And, should a publisher sign your book, they may change your proposed title anyway.
5. Who are you pitching to?
If you're pitching to an agent, what other non-fiction books has she sold? What non-fiction authors does he represent? If you don't know, find out. You don't want to send off half-ass queries, pitching your non-fiction proposal to, say, an agent that's only interested in representing literary and YA fiction. If you're pitching directly to a publisher, Google them if you haven't already. Read past catalogues. Discover what, and whom, they publish. Read the Submission Guidelines on their website. Does your book fit in with the publisher's front list? Does your topic match past published genres? If you're still at a loss, then go get the most recent edition of Writer's Market which comes out every summer. And for crying out loud, get the name of the agent or acquisition editor right…and use it! (In other words, don’t even think of writing “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madame”).
If you've decided to self-publish:
Ask yourself the first four questions. If you want to be competitive, then you'll need to know the answers to those questions to effectively market your book. If you don't know the answers to those four questions, how do you expect to convince readers to plunk down money on your book? For the perceptive reader, self-published books are a risk because of their reputation for sub-par quality.
1. Are you willing to hire an editor?
You will likely need a content editor or a copyeditor or both. Even the best writers find it difficult to organize or edit their own work, especially for cohesion and for grammatical or spelling errors (that MS Word doesn’t catch).
2. Are you a graphics wiz?
If you can’t create an attractive book cover, hire someone who can. "You can't judge a book by a cover" simply isn't true, especially when it comes to self-published works. Almost every time, I can spot a self-published book by its (ugly) cover.
If you are overwhelmed by the idea of blogging or Tweeting, then hire someone who can translate your concepts into relevant, fresh web material. Read blogs you admire, follow Tweeters you find fascinating, fan writers who shine on Facebook—and then politely ask them whom they use (or if they can recommend someone who does similar social media marketing).
While hiring an editor, graphics designer and social media maven won’t guarantee book sales, these investments will at least elevate you to roughly the same playing field as traditionally published authors.
If you’ve decided to try the traditional publishing route, answering the first five questions concisely, accurately and sensibly will help you stand out in the minds of agents, publishers and readers.
Janet Boyer is the author of Back in Time Tarot (Hampton Roads) and Tarot in Reverse (Schiffer Books, 2012). A prolific blogger and reviewer, as well as a social media maven for publishers and authors, Janet’s main website is JanetBoyer.com.