HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL
by Joelle Steele
Not every publisher wants or needs a book proposal from an author, and writing a book proposal is not a simple task. But, a book proposal can be an excellent tool to help you, as a writer, envision your manuscript as a completed work and assess its viability as a book, something that every writer should consider before putting pen to paper — or fingers to keys. At the same time, a book proposal will allow you to create the structure in which to frame your manuscript, and in doing so will help pinpoint any plot problems or other details that might otherwise come up as you write — certainly not the best time to be working out a major inconsistency in plot or factual information.
There is no right or wrong way to write a book proposal. But, there is a lot of information that should be included. A book proposal is basically constructed in three parts: the introductory matter, the author background, and the outline with sample chapters.
Next to the sample chapters themselves, this is the longest part of a book proposal, and it is what sets up the outline and sample chapters. It is also what is necessary to convince a publisher that they should even take the time to read the outline and sample chapters. It is the part that tells them whether this book is for them and their reading audience. In the introductory portion of the book proposal, you should explain what it is about your book idea that makes it better or different or unique among similar works. You should refer to the book by its title, even if it is just a working title.
Try to be specific about what it is that sets your book apart from others of its kind. If it is a work of non-fiction, explain how it will benefit the reader. If it is a novel, explain why a reader would buy it rather than some other similar book of its kind. If you have had an expert or known author write an introduction, now would be the time to say that. If the book is illustrated or contains some special features, explain it all in detail. Be sure to mention if your book will include an index, glossary, bibliography, or other "back matter." In addition, you should also state what market would probably be most likely to want to read your book — we're talking demographics here: age, sex, socio-economic level, educational level, etc. You may even have a very special niche market that will be interested in your book. Don't assume that the publisher already knows any of this information just because they are a publisher. Every book is a little bit different, and that is why you are doing this introduction to yours.
To illustrate whatever you are saying in this section of the book proposal, you might want to include statistics or quotes from known authorities. You might also want to mention some growing trends that would likely affect your book's sales. Leave no stone unturned in describing why the publisher should publish your book. Maybe it is the kind of book that has room for a sequel or two. Maybe it is the ideal kind of book to adapt into a screenplay. However, with regard to the latter, remember that you are not selling them on a screenplay; you're selling a book, and that should be your top priority in this section.
Another item to consider for inclusion in this section is that of the competition. What other books are out on the market that are similar to yours or that have overlapping information? The publisher needs to know this, and so do you. Take the time to go through the bookstores in your town as well as the online bookstores like amazon.com, and see what's out there. Just because someone wrote a similar book doesn't mean you have to shelve your idea; you just have to make your book better! Point out how your book differs from each book that is similar to it. This will help you avoid duplication and will also help you fill in whatever gaps are missing from the other books.
Lastly, you must describe the book as you envision it when completed. For example: Building The Brick House, 6" x 9", 346 pages, 96,000 words, 28 line drawings, 2 pie charts, first in a series of three how-to books on home-construction.
Who are you? The publisher needs to know. If you don't already have a bio (written in third person), now is the time to write one or have one written for you. It should state not only your credentials for writing this particular book, but for writing in general and for your life in general. If you have never written a book before, publishers are more likely to take a chance on you if you are a known expert in your field or if you have a track record of published pieces, such as poetry, articles, short stories, etc. You should also explain why you decided to write this particular book, particularly if it is based on something that happened to you, some event in your life, or some lifelong desire to tell a particular story.
You also need to describe your role as the author. What do you need in order to complete the book? An advance, travel or phone money, artwork that you can't do yourself, access to a particular celebrity or expert you have been unable to contact? And if your manuscript is not completed — which, by the way it should be when you submit the proposal — how much time do you need to finish? Don't just guess at this. You need to be very specific and very accurate, because if the publisher wants your book, they are going to base the delivery time for the manuscript on the information you provide, and your MUST deliver within that timeframe. If you've got a full-time job and three kids to raise, you might not be able to deliver it in three months, or even a year. Be very realistic.
And be realistic when you describe what you can and cannot do to promote the book. This can be anything from attending book-signings to going on lecture tours, writing articles (gratis), appearing on TV or radio spots, etc. If you have never done any of this before and feel even the least bit uneasy at the thought of it, do not commit to it. Let them know if you have not done it and state whether or not you are open to doing it all or in part. And if you have experience in these areas, let them know that as well.
If you are a published author, you may wish to include some clippings of your best works, probably not more than six pages worth.
The Outline and Sample Chapters
Your outline should be as detailed as possible, indicating on a chapter by chapter basis exactly what is in each chapter — what information is covered, how the plot is developing, etc. This part of the book proposal, above all others, will actually help you write your book if you have not yet begun that process. It is a vital part of writing any book, and it shows the publisher that you are a professional, even if you have never written a book before. At the beginning of each chapter's outline, you should probably write a brief little sentence that sums up what happens or what is covered in that chapter and that defines the purpose of the chapter.
At the very end, you will need to attach some sample chapters. Only one is really necessary, but it is better to include three, especially if the chapters are very short or if it is a non-fiction or reference work in which one chapter doesn't really spell out everything that's in the book (and it won't). When selecting the sample chapters to include in the book proposal, always choose ones that are the most interesting, most compelling, most informative. If necessary or appropriate, you can also include an 8-1/2 x 11 storyboard, particularly if your work is heavily illustrated and lends itself to this format. And, if you have any sample illustrations or cover art, you might want to include a few of them as well.
Your book proposal should look as good as possible. Make sure it has a title page. It should also be double-spaced, on 20 or 24 lb. white paper, in 10 or 12 point Arial or Times New Roman. Don't use a lot of fancy fonts. Keep it all very clean and simple. Make everything left justified, 1" margins all around, headers and footers on each page with your name, address, phone, page numbering, title of book, etc. Spell check everything and read it over very carefully. This is not a place to be sloppy — you are, after all, trying to sell them your book! Your credibility is on the line. So, put it down for a few days and then look at it again to catch anything you might have missed the first time through. Do not bind or punch your book proposal. Just use a spring clip to hold the loose pages together, put it in an envelope, and mail it off with a short cover letter to the person who requested the proposal.
As you can plainly see, writing a book proposal can seem a bit daunting. Make no mistake about it, this is not something you can just whip out in a few short hours. A good book proposal takes at least 60-80 hours to complete, and that's assuming you have already written the sample chapters. But it is a necessary part of writing any book. Those who have written book proposals before can easily attest to the value of this process to the completion of a book. And, if you're like some writers/authors, you'll find that the process can not only help you write a better book, but can also help you avoid starting to write a book that has nowhere to go but downhill because it says nothing that has not been said previously or because it has problems inherent in the content.
You owe it to yourself to write a book proposal. It is a learning experience that no budding author — or experienced author — should be without.
This article last updated: 04/26/2010.