Writing a Book Proposal

A while back, I wrote this piece about what happens to your book once it’s been accepted at a publishing house. But, before a writer gets to that point, they have to do a lot of work – including write a book proposal. Generally, if a writer is interested in writing a book, they do one of four things.

1) Contact their existing agent, and see if the agent thinks the new book is a good idea. If the agent doesn’t, they either don’t write the book or they decide to find another agent for that book. If the agent likes the idea, they will work together to create a book proposal.

2) The writer creates a query letter about their book that they send to agents, hoping to find one that thinks they can sell the book. If someone shows interest in the query letter, the writer will then create a book proposal. The agent will look over the proposal, and if they are still interested in representing the book (ie. they think they can sell it to a publisher) they work with the author to improve the book proposal and perhaps look at the manuscript if it is already written. Then they begin submitting the proposal to publishers who they think may be interested in the work.

3) The writer creates a book proposal and submits THIS to agents. If an agent is interested, then the steps are the same as in option 2, starting with where the agent reviews the proposal.

4) A writer will send a proposal or a manuscript directly to a publisher. This is generally the least successful method for a number of reasons that I will not get into here.

So, all of these, excepting the last one, boil down to creating a book proposal. So what exactly IS a book proposal, anyway?

A book proposal tells the agent or publisher what your book will be – both in terms of what you will write about and the way that information will be presented. You are “proposing” – asking the agent/publisher to enter into a relationship with you. According to What Editors Look For by Jane von Mehren, a proposal is both a sales tool and a business plan. Most book proposals include the following pieces (NOTE: if you are submitting a book proposal without previously submitting a query letter, affix a query letter to the front of your proposal):

1 – A Statement
Generally a few pages long, this explains the concept of the book you plan to write. This section should hook the editor/agent on your idea. Use active voice to explain why your book is unique and why you are submitting it to this person, at this time, and why you should be the one to write it.

2 – Marketing Section
While this section does not always come second, most proposals include a marketing section. This section includes market research; other books currently published on the topic, sales figures if available, and explain how your book is different and why people want to know about that difference. Pick successful books to compare your book to – the idea is to show that your book can be as, if not more, successful than the books mentioned.

3 – A Table of Contents (for non-fiction)
This is exactly what it sounds like. If you were to open your book, what will it include, in outline / list form. This will tell the editor exactly what you will include and how you plan to structure that information. Either instead of a table of contents or in addition to it, include …

4 – A Chapter by Chapter Summary
Chapter by chapter, providing a paragraph describing what will be in that chapter. And yes, this needs to be done for the entire book.

5 – Production Details
How long will your book be (pages / words)? How long will it take you to write it (or is it already finished)? What will it cost you to finish (i.e. travel expenses)? Will it include pictures, charts, graphs – how many? Color or black & white? What will rights to these images cost? Be realistic. Otherwise, you may end up paying the difference out of pocket.

6 – The Author Bio
Write this in the third person (I know, it’s weird to talk about yourself as “he” or “she” but you can do it). Establish your credentials in more detail than you did in the initial summary. First, mention previous writing credits, especially any on the subject matter of your book. Then give a list of your qualifications: academic degree(s), career highlights or even a life-long study of the subject matter. Essentially, establish yourself as an expert. Include any media contacts, or contacts who are experts in the field that might endorse your book. If you blog, say so. If you’re active on social networking sites, mention it here.

7 – Sample Chapters
Finally, provide a few sample chapters from your book (generally 2-3). For non-fiction, include whichever chapters you think most interesting or most well written. For fiction, include the first 3 chapters. In either case, 3 chapters should be more than enough to hook an editor if you’re book is going to hook him or her. If it doesn’t … chances are they won’t even read all three chapters. Do not include more than that unless otherwise instructed by an agent (and I can’t imagine a scenario where an agent would recommend otherwise).

The best proposal is the one that elicts the fewest questions – because you have provided all of the answers. It is not an outline of your work. It is a summary of everything the publisher or agent needs to know to decide if they can sell your book – in the agents case, to a publisher. In the publisher’s case, to readers.

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