This post is a companion to Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published. My expertise on this topic comes from more than a decade of acquisitions experience at a traditional publisher, where I reviewed thousands of proposals.
What exactly is a book proposal?
A book proposal argues why your book (idea) is a salable, marketable product. It is essentially a business case or a business plan for your book.
Book proposals aren’t something you dash off in a day or two. They can take weeks or months to write if properly developed and researched. A proposal can easily reach 50 pages, even 100 for complex projects.
When is a book proposal needed?
Book proposals are used to sell nonfiction book ideas.
Instead of writing the entire book—then trying to find a publisher or agent (which is how it works with novels)—you write the proposal first, which convinces the editor or agent to contract you to write the book.
New writers might find it easier to simply write the book first, then prepare a proposal—which isn’t such a bad idea, since many editors and agents want assurance that an unknown writer can produce an entire book before they commit. (But having the manuscript complete does not negate the need for the proposal.)
That said, drafting a proposal first (even sketching it) can give you a better idea of what your book needs to include to make it stand apart from competing titles.
When is a proposal NOT needed?
The easiest answer is: When the agent or editor doesn’t require it in their submission guidelines. This can be the case with memoir, where the quality of the writing or manuscript holds more weight than the business case.
Generally speaking: When your book is more about information or a compelling idea, then you’re selling it based on the marketability of your expertise, your platform, and your concept—and you need a proposal.
If your book will succeed based on its literary merit (its ability to entertain or tell a story), then it becomes more important to have a completed manuscript that proves your strength as a writer.
What about “novel proposals”?
You may occasionally hear someone refer to novel proposals, which includes a query or cover letter, a synopsis and/or outline, and a partial or complete manuscript—along with any other information the editor or agent requests. This bears little to no relation to a typical nonfiction book proposal. Go here to read more about novel synopses.
Do I have to be an expert to write my nonfiction book?
Usually some level of expertise is necessary to produce a successful nonfiction book, especially for fields such as health, self-help, or parenting, where no one will trust your advice without recognized credentials. Your background must convey authority and instill confidence in the reader. (Would you, as a reader, trust a health book by an author with no experience or degrees?)
Some types of nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction and memoir, can be written by anyone with proven journalistic or storytelling skills.
How do I know if my memoir is salable or marketable?
It’s probably safe to assume that your memoir is not salable unless you’re confident of several things.
- Your writing must be outstanding. If your memoir is your very first book or very first writing attempt, then it may not be good enough to pass muster with an editor or agent.
- You must have a compelling and unusual story to tell. If you’re writing about situations that affect thousands (or millions) of people, that’s not necessarily in your favor. Alzheimer’s memoirs or cancer memoirs, for example, are common, and will put you on the road to rejection unless you’re able to prove how yours is unique or outstanding in the field.
- You need a platform. If you have a way to reach readers, without a publisher’s help, then you’re more likely to get a book deal.
Do I need an agent to sell my nonfiction book?
It depends. Consider these factors:
- Are you writing a book that has significant commercial value?
- Do you want to publish with a New York house?
- Do you need the expertise and knowledge of an agent to get your proposal into the right hands?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you should probably look for an agent. Projects that don’t necessarily require agents include scholarly works for university presses; regional works likely to be published by regional or independent presses; and works with little commercial value.
How do I submit a book proposal?
Check submission guidelines of the agent or publisher. Sometimes you have to query before sending the book proposal; here’s a guide on how to write a query letter for a nonfiction book.
The submission guidelines will also indicate any mandatory information that must be included in the proposal. Wondering how to find an agent or publisher to submit to? Check this post.
What does a book proposal consist of?
For better or worse, there is no “right way” to prepare a book proposal, just as there is no right way to write a book. Proposals vary in length, content, approach, and presentation. Each book requires a unique argument for its existence (or a business case), and thus requires a unique proposal. For example, a coffee table book on dogs would be pitched differently than a scholarly tome on presidents, or an expose on a celebrity.
However, here’s what an agent or publisher is essentially looking for.
Always answer these three questions
While these questions are not explicitly addressed in the proposal (e.g., with specific sections), these questions will be running through the mind of every publishing professional who considers your project. Make sure, as a whole, your proposal effectively answers them.
- So what? This is the reason for the book’s existence, the unique selling proposition that sets it apart from others in the market.
- Who cares? This is your target readership. A unique book is not enough—you must show evidence of need in the marketplace for your work.
- Who are you? You must have sufficient authority or credentials to write the book, as well as an appropriate marketing platform for the subject matter or target audience.
Basic book proposal elements
Before I detail the most common elements of a proposal, I want to emphasize the following. Editors care about one thing only: A viable idea with a clear market, paired with a writer who has credibility and marketing savvy.Knowing your audience or market—and having direct, tangible reach to them (online or off)—gives you a much better chance of success. Pitch only the book you know has a firm spot in the marketplace. Do not pitch a book expecting that the publisher will bring the audience to you. It’s the other way around. You bring your audience and platform to the publisher.
1. Cover page and the proposal’s table of contents
Long proposals should have a table of contents.
A two-page summary of your entire proposal. Write it last—it needs to sing and present a water-tight business case. Think of it as the executive summary.
3. Target market
Who will buy this book? Why will it sell? Avoid generic statements like these:
- A Google search result on [topic] turns up more than 10 million hits.
- A U.S. Census shows more than 20 million people in this demographic.
- An Amazon search turns up more than 10,000 books with “dog” in the title
These are meaningless statistics. The following statements show better market insight:
- Three major sites focus on my topic at [URLs], and none of them have been updated since 2009. When I posted current information about this topic on my site, it became the leading referral of traffic for me, with more than 100 people visiting each day as a result.
- Media surveys indicate that at least 50% of people in [demographic] plan to spend about $1,000 on their hobby this year, and 60% indicated they buy books on [topic].
- The 5 most highly ranked titles on Amazon on this topic are now all at least 5 years out of date. Recent reviewers complain the books are not keeping up with new information and trends.
4. Competitive analysis
This section analyzes competing book titles and why yours is different or better. (Resist trashing the competition; it will come back to bite you.) Don’t skimp here—editors can tell when you haven’t done your homework. Also, researching and fully understanding the competition and its strengths/weaknesses should help you write a better proposal.
Whatever you do, don’t claim there are NO competitors to your book. If there are truly no competitors, then your book might be so weird and specialized that it won’t sell.
Most importantly, don’t limit yourself to print book titles when analyzing the competition. Today, your greatest competition is probably a website, online community, or well-known blogger. Your proposal should evaluate not just competing print books, but also websites, digital content, and online experts serving the same audience. Google your topic and the problem it solves. What terms would people search for if they wanted information or a solution? What turns up? Is it easy to get needed and authoritative information? Is it free or behind a pay wall?
Where do online experts and authorities send people for more information? Do they frequently reference books? Ask your local librarian where they would look for information on the topic you’re writing about.
For more help on this, see my post: How to Identify Top Websites and Blogs in Your Category
In many nonfiction topics and categories, the availability of online information can immediately kill the potential for a print book unless:
- You have a very compelling platform and means of reaching your target audience, and they prefer books.
- You already reach an online market and they are clamoring for a book.
- You are writing something that isn’t best served through an online experience.
Many book ideas I see pitched should really start out as a site or community—even if only to test-market the idea, to learn more about the target audience, and to ultimately produce a print product that has significant value and appeal in its offline presentation.
5. Author bio and platform
Explain why you’re perfect to write and promote the book. More on this below.
6. Marketing and promotion plan
What can you specifically do to market and promote the book? Never discuss what you hope to do, only what you can and will do (without publisher assistance), given your current resources.
Many people write their marketing plan in extremely tentative fashion, talking about things they are “willing” to do if asked. This is deadly language. Avoid it. Instead, you need to be confident, firm, and direct about everything that’s going to happen with or without the publisher’s help. Make it concrete, realistic, and attach numbers to everything.
I plan to register a domain and start a blog for my book.
Within 6 months of launch, my blog on [book topic] already attracts 5,000 unique visits per month.
I plan to contact bloggers for guest blogging opportunities.
I have also guest blogged every month for the past year to reach another 250,000 visitors, at sites such as [include 2-3 examples of most well-known blogs]. I have invitations to return on each site, plus I’ve made contact with 10 other bloggers for future guest posts.
I plan to contact conferences and speak on [book topic].
I am in contact with organizers at XYZ conferences, and have spoken at 3 events within the past year reaching 5,000 people in my target audience.
The secret of a marketing plan isn’t the number of ideas you have for marketing, or how many things you are willing to do, but how many solid connections you have—the ones that are already working for you—and how many readers you NOW reach through today’s efforts. You need to show that your ideas are not just pie in the sky, but real action steps that will lead to concrete results and a connection to an existing readership.
7. Chapter outline or table of contents
Briefly describe each chapter, if appropriate.
8. Sample chapters
Include at least one—the strongest, meatiest chapter. Don’t try to get off easy by using the introduction.
What are common problems with book proposals?
- They’ve been submitted to an inappropriate agent/editor/publisher.
- No clearly defined market or need—or a market/audience that’s too niche for a commercial publisher to pursue.
- Concept is too general/broad, or has no unique angle.
- The writer wants to do a book based on his or her own amateur experience of overcoming a problem or investigating a complex issue. (No expertise or credentials.)
- The writer concentrates only on the content of the book or his/her own experience—instead of the book’s hook and benefit and appeal to the marketplace.
- The proposed idea is like a million others; nothing compelling sets the book apart
What if I’m told the market is too small for my project?
Maybe you approached too big of a publisher. Is there a smaller publisher that would be interested because they have a lower threshold of sales to meet? Big houses may want to sell as many as 20,000 copies in the first year to justify publication; smaller presses may be fine with a few thousand copies.
Is it possible to make your subject/topic/book more marketable by employing a sexier hook? Many times, writers aren’t looking at their work with a marketer’s eye. Think about how you might interest a perfect stranger in your topic. Have you really tapped into current trends and interests when it comes to your book project, and are you framing it in an exciting way for a publisher (or agent)? Just because you’re fascinated by your subject doesn’t mean other people will get it. You have to know how to sell it.
How big does my platform have to be before a publisher will be interested?
It depends on how big of a publisher you’re pitching, and the overall nature of that publisher. Let’s assume you want the best possible deal from a commercial, New York house.They will want to know:
- The stats and analytics behind your online following, including all websites, blogs, social media accounts, e-mail newsletters, regular online writing gigs, podcasts, videos, etc.
- Your offline following—speaking engagements, events, classes/teaching, city/regional presence, professional organization leadership roles and memberships, etc.
- Your presence in traditional media (regular gigs, features, any coverage you’ve received, etc)
- Sales of past books or self-published works
You typically need tens of thousands of engaged followers, and verifiable influence with those followers, to interest a major publisher. Make sure that every number you mention is offered with context. Avoid statements like these: I have 3,000 friends on Facebook or I have 5,000 followers on Twitter. These numbers are fairly meaningless as far as engagement. You have to tell the story behind the numbers. For instance:
Better: More than 30 percent of my Twitter followers have retweeted me, and my links get clicked an average of 50 times.
Better: I run regular giveaway events on Facebook, and during the last event, more than 500 people sent their favorite quote on [topic] to be considered for the giveaway—and to also be considered for the book.
Show that you know your market in a meaningful way, show specifically how and where the market is engaged and growing, and show the engaged role you have.
For more about platform, see these other posts:
- A Definition of Author Platform
- Draft Your Platform Action Plan: 5 Worksheets
- 3 Numbers That Matter to Your Platform
Does my book need or deserve to be in print?
Some nonfiction topics actually work better when presented on blogs, websites, or communities/forums—where interactivity and an ability to freshen up the content at a moment’s notice has more appeal to your audience.
Traditional houses are pickier than ever; producing anything in print is a significant investment and risk. They need to know there’s an audience waiting to buy. And, given the significant change in the industry, authors shouldn’t consider a print book their first goal or the end goal, but merely one channel, and usually not the best channel.
Looking for more?
For more than a decade, I worked at a mid-size publisher that specialized in nonfiction; I was also an editor at an award-winning literary journal specializing in journalism and narrative nonfiction. I’ve prepared book proposals for myself and critiqued hundreds of others. If you need help with your proposal, here’s what I offer.
If you haven’t yet written your proposal, here’s what I can offer you:
- A 3-hour video lecture series, broken down into six segments: The Big Picture, Research, Platform, Proposal Writing, Industry Know-How, and Selling
- A series of worksheets to aid in your research process that makes writing the proposal far more simple and enjoyable
- A book proposal template
- Sample book proposals
I’ve taught numerous conference workshops and online classes on book proposals, so my lectures anticipate your questions and address all the most common mistakes and weaknesses I see. To find out more, click here. After your purchase is complete, you’ll get immediate access to the course and all curriculum.