Traditional Publishing, Part 3: How Do I Write a Book Proposal?

This agent says she wants to see a “complete proposal” for my nonfiction book? What does that consist of?

The proposal is an important sales tool for nonfiction books, one that is often requested by agents and editors. It’s possible to sell a book that is not yet written on the basis of a good proposal. Essentially the proposal includes:

  • a description of the book
  • your background
  • an analysis of the marketing possibilities for your book
  • an annotated list of competing books, noting why yours is better or different
  • a detailed outline
  • sample chapters

Sounds like a big project? It is. My proposal for Childless by Marriage was 32 pages, not counting the sample chapters, but looking at it from the plus side, writing the proposal forces you to clarify what you’re writing and where it fits in the market. As discussed when we were talking about book queries last week, you really need to be able to sum up your book clearly and briefly in order to sell it, and indeed in order to write a good book. You also need to know who is likely to buy it and how you can reach them, as well as how it fits in the marketplace. Is there another book out there just like it or is your book something new and different? The outline will force you to organize your materials and see where you might have too much or too little.

Can you show me examples of good proposals?

If you Google “sample book proposal,” you will find many possibilities. Among the most trustworthy: http://www.writing-world.com/publish/samples.shtml; and http://www.absolutewrite.com/novels/book_proposal.htm. No, they’re not identical. Different folks like different styles, but the elements are the same. The agent who liked my Childless by Marriage proposal sent me a sample of the style she likes and had me revise my proposal to match before she sent it out to publishers.

How do I submit my proposal?

First, only submit proposals to agents or editors who say they want them. If they only want a query, send them a query. However, if their guidelines ask for proposals or they request a proposal in response to your query, follow their directions as to how to send it. If they tell you to send it by e-mail, do so, usually as an attachment, and be grateful to save the postage. If they want it by snail mail, print out a clean, double-spaced copy, with the pages numbered and your name and the title of your book at the top of each page. Fasten it with a big clip or a rubber band. Do not put it in a folder or binder. Put the whole thing in a big envelope, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for their reply, take it to the post office and cross your fingers.

Where can I find more on book proposals?

There are several great books that will guide you through the process of writing a book proposal. Three I would recommend are Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal, Jeff Herman’s Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why, and Stephen Blake Mettee’s The Fast Track Course on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal.

Next time: how to write a synopsis, which is a different critter from a proposal.

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