What’s a Book Proposal (and why do I need one)?

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[Ep 221]

What's a Book Proposal (and why do I need one)?

If you’re trying to land an agent and eventually a contract with a publisher, you can’t get around it: you need to craft a compelling proposal to pitch your nonfiction book.

This may be the first time you’ve heard about this and you’re reeling from the thought that you can’t just send your manuscript directly to a publisher or agent.

I’ll fill you in. Let’s look at what a book proposal is and why you need one to pursue traditional publishing.

A Book Proposal Is a Business Document

Simply put: a book proposal is a business document used industry-wide to persuade publishers to partner with you to publish your book.

It’s a business document, yes. It’s a document that industry gatekeepers like agents, editors, and publishers use to discuss your concept, consider your author brand and platform, study your sample chapters, and make their final decision whether or not to partner with you on this project.

As you can see, there’s a lot riding on this one document.

And business documents can feel foreign to creative writers who are unaccustomed to the business world and business documents. That’s why it’s nice to have some input and guidance.

Some people think they can pitch their idea to an agent without a proposal, and they think the agent will love the idea and proceed to sign this writer and work with the writer to craft the proposal.

But that’s not quite how it works. Because even an agent will expect you to produce for them a proposal that they’ll use to decide whether or not to sign you.

Let’s say you queried an agent or you met an agent, they ask for your proposal, you send it, and they like what they see. They chat with you and decide to offer to represent you. They use the proposal to make their decision whether or not to move forward.

At that point, they’ll help you refine—and in some cases revise—your original proposal. At the very least, they’ll supply you with their agency’s template and have you drop your proposal content into their format with the brand at the top. And they’ll use that version of the proposal to shop it around.

But the process starts with a query or conversation with an agent in hopes that they request your proposal.

So you need to craft the best proposal possible for your project even to land an agent and certainly to land a publishing contract.

The Proposal Forces Clarity

But don’t view the book proposal as a burden. And don’t be overwhelmed at the thought of writing one.

Instead, see it as a chance to gain clarity and build confidence as you craft this document, because the process of developing a book proposal forces you to think through all aspects of your book and yourself as its author.

You’ll identify your target audience, determine the purpose and scope of this project, and generate a plan for how to help market the book.

The book proposal will serve you well.

What’s in the Proposal Itself

The document itself is super basic in the way it looks. I advise clients to keep the design simple, with minimal flourishes and no fancy fonts—in fact, I recommend using universally recognized fonts so the agent or acquisitions editor who opens the file can view it without needing to access a custom font.

Inside the document, the proposal covers a variety of elements that provide information about you and the book, like:

  • an overview of the project
  • a marketing plan
  • comps (competitive or comparative titles)
  • a Table of Contents (or TOC)
  • platform stats
  • an annotated Table of Contents (chapter summaries)
  • sample chapters

The template I use with clients includes these elements and others that are generally expected no matter who you’re querying. I’ve built it based on my own experience as an author crafting my own proposals, but I’ve added changes to reflect industry shifts over the years.

I adapted and modified my template to help a writer think through all aspects of the book, but you can find samples online for free to use as inspiration to craft your own compelling book proposal.

One tip is to visit literary agency websites. Most will explain what they want to see in your proposal and a few provide a sample document you can use as your model.

The Proposal with the Pub Board

Let’s say you connect with an agent or an acquisitions editor online or at a conference and they request and like your proposal. The agent signs you or the acquisitions editor takes your proposal to her team.

First it’s probably going to have to be discussed amongst the editorial team in a committee meeting before it goes to the next stage.

One way or another, let’s imagine it eventually winds up at a pub board meeting.

The pub board differs from one publishing house to another, but generally consists of representatives from the marketing, sales, and editorial teams, along with a bigwig—that is, someone high up in the organization with the power to ultimately green light or veto your project (quite possibly the publisher him or herself).

In small publishing houses this pub board meeting might consist of a few people who have overlapping roles; in large publishing houses, obviously, this could be a much bigger group.

While the frequency they meet will differ from one company to another, let’s just say they meet regularly to make these decisions.

Your project will have an advocate—most likely the acquisitions editor.

Your proposal will be one that they consider among several that day, as they determine titles they want to acquire and release in a future season.

The decision, you see, depends upon how compelling and persuasive—how irresistible—your proposal is.

That’s what they’re looking through: the proposal. The proposal helps them understand what your book is about and what you bring to the project as its author.

And that’s why documenting in the proposal a substantial and growing platform helps convince that pub board to choose your book. Because they need to calculate how many books they’ll sell.

Your connections—the ideal readers who know, like, and trust you already, who will already be interested in what you have to say and probably purchase this book—those numbers, those people, those connections are key.

Some of the pub board members will feed those stats into their algorithm while running their P&L, profit and loss, to determine the financial feasibility of partnering with you on this book.

To Sell a Book You Need Three Things

When you’re working on your proposal, keep in mind to sell a book, you need three things to come through loud and clear in the book proposal. You’ll hear publishers, editors, agents, and coaches all say the same three things in various ways—several have nice alliteration to help you remember them.

Any way you package them, it comes down to these three things you need to sell a book…

1. A Concept That Pops

The first is “a concept that pops.” A publisher shared this phrase with me once and it helped me understand his situation.

If he’s being presented with three or four books on a similar topic, what would make yours stand out from the rest? When he opens that digital file and sees that cover sheet, does it pop? Does he want to turn the next page and go deeper into the concept to learn more? Is your idea different, even, as I said earlier, irresistible?

We need to clearly define our concept and present an idea that’s saleable, that’s marketable, that would pop out from others on a stack of proposals. And that ultimately would pop out on a bookshelf and stand out to a reader making a decision that day to purchase or not purchase a book.

2. An Author Brand & Platform

The second thing you need to do is prove you’re the perfect person to write this book and that you can get it in front of a significant number of ideal readers. And you’ll do this through your author brand and platform, which work together to confirm your claim.

If you can show in this proposal that you have a way to connect with target readers and that your personal brand aligns with this topic—if you can present evidence that you’re known for this or that you’re uniquely prepared to address it based on experience, or expertise, or education— you’re on your way.

As you develop your proposal and realize more clearly who the ideal reader is for this book, you can make efforts to expand your platform to reach more of those people and to align your current brand with the idea of this book.

3. Writing That Sings

The third thing needed to catch the eye of that publisher—and to bring out in and through the proposal itself—is writing that sings.

This phrase comes from Chad R. Allen, a writing coach himself who worked many years as an editor at a Christian publishing house before he began coaching full time. In an interview, he used this phrase to describe that third necessary element needed to sell a book: writing that sings.1

If you continually search for ways to improve at the craft of writing and inject musicality into your prose, you’ll draw the eye—or should I say the ear, that inner ear—of an editor, for sure, and probably a publisher, as well. But you don’t need to have the skill-level of an MFA graduate to write at this level, to produce writing that sings.

Throughout the proposal your writing comes through but most of all in the sample chapters. That’s where the magic happens. The sample chapters feature your unique voice. That’s where a style appropriate for this type of book will emerge and you will entice literary-minded people to dive deeper and take you seriously.

Two of the Three

With these three things align—a concept that pops, an author brand and platform, and writing that sings—you’ll be well positioned to pitch.

Some say two out of the three might be enough to garner attention, but lately I’ve heard again and again that without a platform, it’s a hard sell to the pub board. So continue to work at establishing and expanding your platform, even as you develop your proposal.

Use the Proposal to Confirm Your Interest

Jeff Goins interviewed Dan Pink on “The Portfolio Life podcast.” Dan’s the author of books like To Sell Is Human, When, and Drive.

On that show, Dan pointed out that you work on a book for two or three years and then live with it much longer than that.

I’ll interject here that from the point of signing a book contract to the day a book is released is, on average, two years. But you’ve been developing the idea yourself for months, maybe years, before you even began working on the proposal before you even landed that contract. That’s just an indication of how long you’ve been working on this project.

So Dan’s point is that you have to love the topic and want to talk about it and be known for it for years.

He told a story of how someone who interviewed him asked him about a book he’d written years earlier, so you have to want to be known for it for years.

And for this reason, for this time commitment, and for this connection to the topic, Dan said, “the bar has to be really high. You have to be deeply, deeply interested in it.”2

Are You Deeply, Deeply Interested in It?

I agree with him and urge you to seek the same high bar for your project.

You want to craft a book concept and content that’s compelling and irresistible to agents, yes.

And to publishers, yes.

And to your future readers, absolutely.

But it has to be compelling and irresistible to someone else, first:

And that’s you.

Like Dan says, you have to be “deeply, deeply interested in it.”

You yourself are the first decision-maker.

You yourself are the first gatekeeper.

You are the first to consider the merits of this project among all other projects you might be toying with.

And you yourself—assisted by the book proposal—get to determine if you are deeply, deeply interested in it.

Like Dan Pink, you can use the book proposal to vet the idea.

Apply his series of questions as you develop your own 30-, 40-, or 50-page book proposal, to let it help you determine several things. This is what Dan says he asks himself when he works on his proposals:

  • Is this a book?
  • Is this a good book…one that people would want to buy?
  • Is this a book you want to spend two or three years working on and perhaps the rest of your life talking about?
  • Is this a book you’re the perfect person to write?3

If the Book Isn’t What You Hoped

Maybe you do all the work of developing your proposal and you determine it’s not a book.

Or you determine it’s not a good book that people would want to buy.

Or you determine it’s not a book you want to spend years working on and the rest of your life talking about.

Or you determine it’s not a book you’re the perfect person to write…

Well, isn’t that good to figure out before you devote years to a project?

If that’s where you end up, go ahead and write a series of blog posts on that concept.

Write an article and send it to a magazine.

Give a short speech on the subject matter, then move on to another great topic that is a book—one that people would want to buy, one that you’re the perfect person to write, one that you’re ready and willing to spend years working on and the rest of your life talking about.

The Proposal Prepares You

Crafting a compelling proposal prepares you to enter the world of traditional publishing so that you can persuade publishers to partner with you to publish your book.

And it’s a tool you can use to confirm that this is a book you’re deeply, deeply interested in, and that you want to devote years to writing and being known for.

Resources

What's a Book Proposal (and why do I need one)?

Craft a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal 90-Day Program

I’m preparing to launch a 90-day program for writers ready to craft a compelling nonfiction book proposal.

Enrollment extended to March 20, 2020.

Sign up below to receive more information and visit the main page to learn more.

Footnotes

  1. Chad R. Allen’s interview with Chadwick Cannon in which he mentioned writing that sings is no longer available online.
  2. Goins, Jeff. “How to Use Time to Be Your Most Creative with Dan Pink.” Goins, Writer, 7 Dec. 2018, goinswriter.com/dan-pink/.
  3. Ibid.

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