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What’s in a Book Proposal?

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What is in a book proposal? Well that depends. Is it an…Indecent Proposal? If so, all sorts of lurid opportunities are at your feet.

But if not…

…the short answer is: whatever sells the book. Whatever grabs the reading editor and says “I defy you not to love this. I defy you to pass this over. Ignoring me is forbidden.”

But true as that may be, try beginning your proposal with a sentence like ignore this at your peril and prepare to be ignored.

Let’s walk it back a little bit first.

What is a book proposal?

I didn’t know this until II began this process a couple of years ago, but with non-fiction an author generally sells the idea of the book and then the book gets written. The idea is presented in the proposal, which is a document that says “Buy me.” That’s it.

Fiction vs non-fiction proposals

Fiction is generally different. It is going to be much more difficult to sell the idea of a novel, get paid based on your pitch, and then sit down to write it.

Why the difference? Well, authors of non-fiction probably have some verifiable credentials. If you pitch a house on a book about quantum physics and they can verify that you are a professor of quantum physics, then they can feel reasonably confident that you know what you say you know and can write about it (as you’ll demonstrate in the proposal).

I’m not credentialed in much, but I sold a non-fiction memoir because I’m an expert in my story. You’re an expert in yours.  The proposal convinced them, and of course I’m the one most familiar with my own sordid exploits, so I get the honors of telling it.

With fiction, your manuscript–or a big chunk of it–is the credibility. We can probably all think of someone who could tell that their fiction is beyond compare. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. Don’t expect any publishers to take you at your word when you say you’ve got an idea for a hyper-literary meld of Madame Bovary and Roadhouse. You’ll probably have to prove it with your manuscript.

Today I’m only going to talk about non-fiction proposals. I haven’t done anything else.

The pieces

I’ve read a lot of sample book proposals.There are pieces that can vary wildly, but the core elements were present in all I’ve read, and in every discussion I ever had with my agent .

I’m not going to give anything specific from my own proposal beyond telling you what comprised it. You’ll have to buy the book to see what I’m talking about. Wait, no, 10 books.

I will tell you that I worked on it with a former executive editor from Times Books/Random House and I was willing to be led through much of this process, particularly with the sample chapters. I’m waiting to hear from her on whether or not she wants to be linked to. If so, I’ll tell you who it was.

It was well worth it.

overview

This is basically the introduction. It is both a teaser and a summary of everything the book will be. There seem to be a real art to the overview, which was why I was so happy to have someone explain it to me.

Author Bio

Pretty self-explanatory. This says who you are, why you’re the right one to write this book, and may or may not include an incandescent photo of yourself. Mine was a couple of paragraphs and was pretty light-hearted, but no so light-hearted that the whole thing seemed like a joke.

Audience

This tells the publisher who’s going to want to read your book. Over and over my agent and editor said “Everyone will want to read this. My audience is everyone.”

That would be nice, but it just doesn’t seem to be the most persuasive way to go. This question of the audience led to some very interested discussions about who my book was for, because there are so many things going on in the story. Kind of like on this blog.

Comparable Titles
While it may be tempting to say “There’s nothing else like this!” there probably is something else like it, at least in subject matter. Which titles could your book be compared to?

How is it similar? This is also a great chance to work in how your own book is different.

Publicity and Promotion

Back to the question of the audience: this is where you get your chance to say “And here’s how I can tap into my audience and galvanize them into a buying frenzy.” You can probably guess a couple of my obvious tools: the blog, the speaking etc. Some of the others might surprise you, but of that I shall not speak more! (yet)

This is your chance to show them that their marketing departments will not have to do 100% of the promotional work.

Future Projects

Are you a one trick pony? What else are you working on? Are you interested in a career of great longevity? Tell them about it, if in fact you’re working on other things and have specific ideas about your writing future.

Blurbs

Brief testimonials. What have people said about you? Do you have a sheet of rave reviews from people with any sort of legitimacy or clout in fields similar to that/those of your audience?

Sample Chapters

I’ve seen a lot of different opinions on how much is too much. Sample material is actual, polished-to-perfection material from the book. This comprised the majority of my long proposal: I wrote an introduction and five full chapters with an editor’s help. This was an incredibly rewarding experience and showed me that I’m capable of levels of craftsmanship that just don’t happen here on the blog.

I’ve read stories of editors who just skip everything and go right to the sample chapters. If there’s a chance that that’s true, you’d be smart to make sure they’re as good as you can get them.

Chapter Summaries

Differing opinions on this. I had roughly 10 chapters left to summarize to show that I knew where the rest of the book was going. They weren’t bullet points, although I’ve seen bullet examples of chapter summaries that can apparently work fine.

Mine were all scene-based, told as a narrative. There was a lot there. Over 40 pages.

Summary

Those were the pieces of my proposal, just like most other proposals. The story is unusual enough that we took some latitude and tried to do more with some of the sections than someone else might.

I don’t want to pretend I know things I don’t. Every sample proposal I’ve ever read included these sections I’ve talked about above. I am sure that there are authors who have gotten away with less, and finally been persuasive enough with more.

And I doubt that my second book will require anything as exhaustive as what I did on this first book.

It worked in the end, so that validates our effort. Or maybe we just got lucky. Or who knows?

But what worked for me might not work for anyone else, or it might not have worked for any other editor.

All you can do is follow the guidelines and ensure that you have done everything you can to make it as undeniably wonderful as possible.

And when that doesn’t work, just submit somewhere else and keep hoping.

Okay, ask if you’ve got questions! I’ll answer according to my own knowledge and stay maddeningly vague as far as the particulars of my own proposal.

Josh

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  • Srinivas November 8, 2011, 8:30 am

    Hey Josh,

    I’m in the process of writing my book proposal. Actually it’s already written and I’m getting feedback on it. But this is really helpful. I realized that for the marketing and promotion section I’d interviewed about a dozen authors, so I went back and listened to my interviews with them to see how they did it. HEHE.

  • Pauline November 8, 2011, 1:37 pm

    Josh, all this is helpful to my family members who are working on a book about educating their son with disabilities, their saga of educating the educators, urging the school district to listen, and trials at school and at home with the child. They have a good start and will be happy to use your guidelines wherever they apply. Thanks for including so many details!