How to Write a Book Proposal

A Good Proposal Is a Must…

A first-rate proposal is the vehicle to a publishing agreement with the best terms in the shortest time. It is impossible to overstate the importance.  The most difficult aspect about creating a good proposal is trying to determine the balance of being thorough, and also appeal to the greatest number of your audience, which in this case is a variety of Acquisitions Editors (AEs) and their colleagues in editorial, marketing, and sales. You are looking to engage, not the lowest common denominator, but the highest common denominator.

Most writers are not trained to refine a concept of a book into, what is essentially, a business proposal.  And it is especially challenging if you are unfamiliar with the business of publishing.  As agents, we do what we can to help guide you through this process.  What follows is by no means the only direction you can find on this subject.  You would be well served to visit our Resources for Writers page for more resources; have conversations with independent Developmental Editors, visit your local bookseller, or library for more information about book proposals and the publishing industry.

AEs are deluged with submissions. They are vexed by, and inclined to reject, proposals that (a) do not sell them on the book in the first few paragraphs; (b) do not anticipate and answer basic questions or allay obvious concerns; (c) are not ready to go to their editorial acquisitions meetings, or editorial superiors; (d) require them to do work the author (or agent) should have done; (e) raise any doubts about the author’s commitment to the project or ability and resolve to deliver a well-written manuscript on schedule and in stellar order.  Your proposal forms the AEs first impression of you. If the proposal is top-drawer, the acquisitions editor will think of you as a pro. If it’s inadequate, you probably won’t get a chance to make a second impression.

Occasionally, an idea is so compelling it can be sold on just a query, or a TIP sheet.  However, for all but a few submissions, NEPAgency requires a completed proposal. And few projects can overcome a weak proposal. The negative impression left by a poor proposal can hurt the author. The AE will hesitate to give the author the benefit of the doubt when there is a problem; will read the manuscript with a more critical eye when it is delivered, and will be less inclined, or able, to drum up in-house enthusiasm for the project. A strong proposal will raise the author’s credibility with the Acquisitions Editor, and her/his colleagues.  A weak proposal is simply an invitation to rejection.

The process of writing a good proposal is as important to you as the finished product is to the AE. Writing a strong proposal forces you to think out what you want to say, how you’re going to research the book, how to organize the material and, most importantly, to decide if the subject really holds your interest. To deliver a good proposal, an author must think deeply about the needs of the book’s audience, which is exactly what determines whether the book succeeds after publication.

As agents, we decide which houses and AE your project will appeal to on the basis of all your submission materials; the TIP sheet, The Annotated Table of Contents (ATOC), your sample writing ~ but your proposal may be the ONLY document certain members of the publisher’s acquisitions meeting team may use to determine their interest in a project. A proposal can outline how to “position” your book to the publisher, and to the marketplace; hence how to answer questions or refute objections from sales staff, booksellers, the media and even consumers. A proposal gives all stakeholders confidence in your work. Publishing operates on the “it takes a village” philosophy.  For a project to be successful, the AE needs to corral the support of her/his colleagues in Sales, Marketing, Rights, and others.  A strong proposal will help your agent get a better deal, because the AE is able to get more “villagers” to become invested in the project.

A proposal is a sales document. Your job is to convince the AE that by acquiring your book s/he will (1) earn out the advance and make money for the house; (2) look smart and professional in the eyes of her/his boss, co-workers and the industry; (3) have a pleasant experience working with you. Accomplish these three goals, and a successful sale is nearly assured.  Grab the AE by the lapels by using the book’s most compelling justification, from the publisher’s perspective, right up front, in an introductory paragraph or the concept section. Often this is a statement about the size of the market or the need for your book. But if you are the head of an organization that will commit to buy 20,000 copies, or your last book sold 100,000 copies, or you have unassailable proof that Elvis is alive and well in Argentina, say so right away. One way or another, convince the editor she risks passing up a winner if she/he stops reading.

  1. Title, SubTitle, Author Name: I am sure you know to put a Title, SubTitle, and your name on the proposal, but there are some points to be made about your book’s monikers. A book Title, SubTitle combination is a billboard. Unless you have an extremely rare case, DO NOT set your Title, SubTitle combination in stone. Publishers may want to change your Title, SubTitle combination. As agent, we may want to use a Title, SubTitle combination to solicit the attention of an AE knowing full well that the publisher will change either, or both of the Title and/or SubTitle. Remain flexible. As for your author name, if appropriate to the book, you should include and title you have that identifies your credentials (PhD, MD, LLD, etc.)
  2. Handle: Fifty thousand plus new titles are published in the United States every year — and that does not account for all the self-published titles now flooding the market. What can you, the AE or the publisher’s sales representative, or publicist, say to distinguish this title from the other 49,999 books? Whether it’s called the “sales handle,” “the hook,” or “the keynote,” every book needs a pithy (25 words or less) description that tells the target reader why to buy your book. If you can work the handle into the title, great, but you should still begin your proposal with a section, call it “Handle”, or “Hook” that is in the form of a sentence on why the AE, or anyone, will be interested in your book.
  3. Description:  Describe your work in two or three paragraphs defining your audiences; what is new, revelatory, newsworthy – describe how you are uniquely qualified to present this information; why and how consumers will hear about your book. The best exercise in writing a book description is to spend some time at your local bookstore reading hardcover jacket flap copy. Designed to entice a consumer into actually buying the book, jacket flap copy is akin to the sort of book description you will want to write on your proposal. In your description, you can also include crucial sales points, mention special features (illustrations, charts, etc.). Remember the question in the editor’s head is: “Will it sell?” Keep this section short and to the point.
  4. Market & Audience: Flesh out whatever you said in your introductory paragraphs or the concept section about WHO will buy your book, WHY they will buy it, WHERE they’re likely to buy it and HOW they can be informed about its existence. You can define your market by common interests or problems, membership in associations, magazines or analogous books read, job requirements, etc. Be specific and quantitative. Be realistic. Explain specifically how your book uniquely meets the needs of the market.
  5. Comparative Titles: This is a VERY important section. Identify the books, preferably published within the past few years, that appeal to a similar demographic audience as does your work.  Above all, you need to explain how your work fills a niche that does not exist in the target market. Include title, author, publisher, ISBN, year of publication, current price and, if you have solid information, sales figures. Do not overwhelm the editor with a list of every book ever published on the subject, but make sure you cover all titles the editor might be familiar. Look online for references to comparative titles; your editor will. Also talk to your local public librarian or the buyer at a well-stocked, independent book store. Remember the purpose of this section is to distinguish your book from the others. Be truthful but merciless in exposing the weaknesses of the perceived competition.
  6. Methodology: This section is optional, depending upon the nature and complexity of the book. The more ambitious the project, the greater the need to convince the editor you’ve carefully thought out how you’re going to research and write the book. If you’re writing a biography, explain here how you will gain access to private papers or whom you will interview. If the preparation of the book requires costly foreign travel, put your budget here. If your book requires contributors, how will you recruit them and what will you pay them? If the book requires maps, where will they come from? If it’s an entry-based reference book, what are your criteria for selection? How will you compile your headword list? Don’t go into unnecessary detail or go beyond two pages.
  7. Author’s Qualifications: This section is in the proposal solely to answer the two questions every editor thinks about when considering a submission: Should I risk my company’s money on this writer? What are the author’s special credentials to write this particular book? Focus your biography on answering those two questions, keeping this section under a page and on target. Unless your book is a personal story, write in the third person.  The best way to address the risk issue is to prove you’re a tested writer: list your published works with the name of the publisher, year and sales figures (if they’re good). Review extracts or awards also reassure the editor. If you’re an academic with scores of published articles, say so but don’t list them all, only those specifically relevant to the proposed book.  Explain what makes you an authority on this subject. Why should readers trust what you have to say on this topic? The research you’ve done or plan to do may be mentioned, if it’s impressive. Certainly, cite any previous articles or books you’ve written on the subject—and explain how they differ from the one proposed. Family status and personal details should be excluded unless they are germane to the book’s topic.
  8. Promotion or “Platform”:  Publishers also are responsible for the basic marketing and publicity of your work to the industry and to media outlets. Publisher marketing and publicity teams are responsible for creation of seasonal catalogs, publicity mailings and bookings and bookseller promotions. However, promoting the printed, or digital word has evolved. There are still remnants of multi-city author autographing tours, point of sale displays, bookmarks, posters, and newspaper advertising. Now, most radio is done remotely, displays, posters and bookmarks are rare, and most advertising has been replaced by social media.  A successful partnership with a publisher requires that authors remain proactive in marketing, publicizing and promoting their own work. Publishers want to know what YOU are going to do to promote and sell your book both immediately upon publication and thereafter. You should put as much thought and effort into this part of the proposal as you do into the annotated outline. You need to include as much information as possible on what you know about reaching an audience for your book. This may include connections to authorities that can give you endorsements, your own list of media contacts, your online presense, or your ability to promote your work through social networking.
  9. Delivery: State specifically when the manuscript will be delivered. Most publishers want delivery within 12 months of contract unless the book is unusually long or requires a great deal of research. However, as the pace of publishing has accelerated, some projects may be on a compressed schedule. Never promise what you can’t deliver. Delivery dates are contractual and missing a delivery date could result in a canceled contract and repayment of the advance.
  10. Word Count: Identify actual, or anticipated word count for the manuscript and note how much is already written, if a significant section has been completed.
  11. Annotated Table of Contents (ATOC): This should amplify the concept section. Cover organization, structure, themes, key elements, newsworthy information, conclusions.  Unless you’re writing a reference book, the bulk of your proposal will be an annotated chapter-by-chapter summary. Make each chapter title as enticing as possible. Begin the annotation with a specific anecdote, story or statement that illustrates or sums up the theme of the chapter. This should be followed by no more than one or two brief paragraphs explaining what the chapter will cover or what questions it will answer. It should be clear to the reader not only what the chapter contains but also how it advances the story and fits into the whole. If your book is a reference book, the equivalent to a chapter summary is a tentative headword or entry list.
  12. Sample Chapters: Almost all proposals should include two or three complete and polished sample chapters. (If this is impossible, you will certainly have to include a sample of your previously published work—preferably on the same topic.) Make your sample chapter(s) as representative of the whole book as possible.
  13. Format & Presentation: Appearances are important. Your proposal’s presentation will be seen as indicative of the form in which your entire manuscript will be delivered. Moreover, a clean, easy-to-read proposal encourages an editor to put it on the top of the “to do” pile.  AEs are looking for materials delivered in electronic form – specifically, the manuscript unformatted MSWord.doc. Illustrations, charts, graphs, etc must be on separate documents, or on a physical disc. Proposals are double-space with reasonable margins on 8 ½ x 11 pages. On the page headers, put you surname, and book title; in the footer, page numbers.

One Final Note About The Length Of Your Proposal.   Given all that is outlined above, I’ve rarely seen a book proposal that is less than about twenty pages.