Let’s begin with three scenarios.
On a recent trip overseas you stumbled across what you think is an incredible idea for a first-person travelogue, a book that will both delve into a fascinating slice of history (that people should know about), and your own personal journey of self-discovery.
Or perhaps this: Over the course of your life as a serial entrepreneur and start-up veteran, after failures and wild successes, you developed a groundbreaking and practical new planning tool that will revolutionize the way businesses launch.
Maybe after college you crafted an intricate and tragic epic American novel about a refugee family that overcame great hardship to move into a suburb of a small town in Michigan, transforming from oppressed people to capitalist superrich, in three generations.
YOU ARE WRITING A BOOK
Whatever the premise, you’re writing a book. You want to share something with the world. An idea. A story. You’ve outlined the concept, or written the entire thing, beginning to end—either way, what now?
Creating a compelling book proposal is your first step to getting your book to the right publisher. But perhaps more important, the exercise of crafting a proposal can also help you further refine and shape your own book idea. Sometimes when you try to describe your own book, seeing the words in print can bring clarity to parts of your book that you had yet to fully clarify.
Ultimately, the purpose of your book proposal is to cast a vision so that the publisher (the group of people who make up the company) can see how they would effectively market and sell your book to a broad audience. Think of it this way: You’re essentially writing jacket copy or back cover copy for your own book.
What would grab your attention?
PUT YOURSELF IN THE MIND OF YOUR FUTURE PUBLISHER
Think of your book proposal as a business plan that you would present to a potential investor. And of course, the publisher, or editor, is your potential investor. Ultimately, your proposal will be read by several key pairs of eyes before you receive an offer to publish. And the goal is to save those eyes time by offering key information succinctly.
So who are these readers, this hidden gauntlet you must overcome?
First, you will need to make a fan out of your acquisition editor. These folks go by many titles. He or she could be an associate editor, acquisition editor, editor, senior editor, executive editor, or the editorial director. Either way, this person can often become the one who champions you and your book for the publishing company (representing you) throughout the publication process.
Next your book proposal will travel to a larger group. Sometimes that group will feature more editors, marketing professionals, publicists, and sales people. Your goal is to make friends and fans of each of these people, if at all possible—because this could be the team that rallies around your book later to promote it to the world.
Finally, other key people include the finance professionals and executives such as the Publisher and Associate Publisher.
None of these people have the time to physically read through every manuscript that crosses their desks. Similarly, authors do not want to write a dozen books for every one they sell (at least not the authors I know). So when it comes to nonfiction especially, the book proposal is a happy compromise for everyone involved. However, fiction is often different. Most publishers require that first time novelists submit a complete manuscript. Novelists with a track-record however, can get away with submitting a short book proposal for future fiction projects. The more successful that track record, the less they will have to submit to the publisher.
BOOK PROPOSAL FORMAT
I have reviewed tens of thousands of book proposals in the many years of my publishing career, and here's the thing: In all that time, I’ve found that there isn't one, perfect book proposal format, though some agents or publishers or editors would like to make you think this is the case.
If an editor sees a dozen proposals a week (or more), a truly unconventional book proposal can easily stand out. Some proposals are especially designed for the book concept, with a creative flair to illustrate the topic or story. So long as the key pieces of information are included and made clear and readable, innovation and creativity can be very good.
Still, to ensure the best chance of getting a fair read from your publisher of choice, your book proposal should clearly and professionally present the following important pieces of information.
1.Book Title & Subtitle
Even if you’re not yet sure of your working title, do your best to come up with a title for your book. Include an evocative, intriguing subtitle for nonfiction, and a series name (if there is one) for fiction. If you have alternate title ideas, it is okay to list those in the book proposal for possible publisher consideration.
2. Concept Snapshot
I encourage writers to develop a short description of their books, an elevator pitch that is 1-2 lines in length. List this “quick concept” early on in your proposal to try and grab the reader’s attention and keep him or her reading. Avoid cliché, and seek to surprise and delight.
3. Author Biography & Information
I often flip to the author biography early on in my read of new book proposals. I always want to know about the author, and for me, this area can make or break the proposal. Does this person have the experience and credibility to write on this topic? What study has he or she completed? Be sure to include any experience, background, or information that will give your proposal or your story a fuller picture. Most important, include any previous writing or publishing experience. If you have written and published a book before, include any and all relevant sales information—or at least, an explanation about why that information might not be relevant.
4. Summary / Overview of Premise
Take a few paragraphs, or even a page or two, to give your reader a sample taste test of your book. The summary should build interest by teasing out the content of the book, while holding back just enough. Yes, this is a delicate balance.
5. Book Details
There are key pieces of information that help the editor create a business scenario for the publisher, including the word count of the book, the timeline required to complete the manuscript (if it’s not already complete) and any other special features you desire to be in the final book, such as an index, photo insert, map, or recipes etc.
6. Marketing & Publicity Opportunities (Platform)
The buzz word “platform,” has many people chasing a long list of sometimes quite ill-advised strategies and tactics to put themselves out there. I define platform simply: “Platform is the ability to influence others to buy your product,” in this case, your book. Platform can include a long list of things such as a blog, podcast, TV show, radio show, business, social media following, nonprofit organization, Youtube.com channel, network, freelance writing, and more. But here’s a rule: Don’t force platform. I didn’t say don’t hustle, but I don’t believe people should try to do something that isn’t organic to who they are. Build on that which is natural for you, otherwise you risk spreading yourself too thin and perhaps even put yourself out there in a way that doesn’t help.
7. Competitive Overview
In your book proposal, it can be helpful to list several important books that are similar to the book you’re writing, and then describe briefly how your book is different or unique. Note: Only list books that appear to have been somewhat successful in the marketplace. If you list competitive books that sold poorly, the publisher might start thinking your book (which you described as similar) will sell poorly too. On the flip side, don’t just list million-copy, mega-bestsellers either, which is unrealistic.
8. Key Connections, Endorsements, or Partnerships
Who is likely to support your book? What influential people do you know whom might rave about your book? Are there businesses or organizations that might support your book due to a common cause or shared mission? Go talk to them about your project. But don’t list an organization without talking to them ahead of time. What friends, family members, or colleagues would be happy to post about your book in their social feed? Could you invite them to launch team on a social site such as a private Facebook group? Launch teams can help catalyze a small group of people to post about your book at key moments before, during, and after the launch of the book. List any key opportunities in the book proposal.
9. Table of Contents
Definitely include an outline for your book. Your outline might simply consist of a list of chapter titles, or it may include summaries of each and every chapter. For fiction, chapter summaries can be helpful to get an overview of the plot of the book up front before your future publisher reads any of your sample writing.
10. Sample Writing
Neglect to include sample writings at your own risk. Including sample writing will give your publisher a taste or your writing style, and can sometimes help them to fall in love with your book idea. For nonfiction book proposals, two chapters of your book will suffice. Include two of the chapters you feel best represents your writing style and the content of the book you are writing. For fiction, include several chapters in the book proposal, and the entire manuscript in a separate file.
A few minor points of follow up.
First, if you have a literary agent, include his or her name and contact information in the book proposal. If you do not have an agent, include your own contact information in the book proposal, either up front on page one, or on every page, in the Header/Footer.
Second, depending on how you decide to structure your book proposal, I believe it is wise to find a way to include your project's strongest selling point up front.
Third, some writers have asked me this question: What is the publisher looking for in my book proposal? In other words, what will help the publisher make the decision to offer me a publishing contract? At the risk of being overly-simplistic, I will answer this with a metaphor I’ve heard many times in publisher board rooms:
The publisher is looking for a three-legged stool. The three legs of the stool are the following: (1) A marketable and arresting book concept that offers a legitimate promise, or taps into a reader felt need; (2) An author with a significant, intriguing, or unique platform; (3) Clean, organized content and writing that sings. Sometimes you can get away with having two legs of your stool in great shape, but let’s be honest, if you writing isn’t any good it won’t matter how many Twitter followers you have.
Finally, edit your proposal. Eliminate run on sentences, errors, and misspellings. Also, many publishers have particular guidelines for accepting submissions—follow those guidelines religiously, even if those guidelines are: "We don't accept unsolicited submissions." If that is their policy, don't submit to them directly. That policy usually means that the publisher will only review book proposals from a literary agent.
Best of luck!