How to Write a Book Proposal

(excerpt from Permission to Write: How to Write a Book & Other Myths from the Real World of Writing & Publishing by Patricia J. Parsons

The moment the publisher said “yes” she was interested in seeing more about my book with a view to possible publication was the moment I knew I’d have to learn to write a dynamite book proposal. I’d done enough research by then to know that I’d need to have not only that elevator pitch, but I’d also need a fully fleshed-out pitch in the form of a proposal to send before anyone would agree to publish my first nonfiction book. Now I needed to learn the elements of a great book proposal, and I had to execute it – and fast – before she lost interest.

I’ve held tightly to a personal belief for many years: I believe that you can learn just about anything short of brain surgery from a well-crafted book. So, I immediately rushed out and bought anything I could find on writing book proposals. These days, all a would-be author has to do is visit one of the online mega-bookstores, search “How to write book proposals,” and voila! Hundreds of books to choose from. And this doesn’t even include all those blog posts that writers have shared on the topic. This is both a blessing and a curse because you now have a much more complicated job of figuring out which ones are the most useful, most trustworthy and best-written ones. Trust me on this: they are not all great references. Back in the day, I had to go to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore to examine the possibilities.  

Over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about book proposals to the point where a few years ago, another one of my publishers (who had also said “yes”) suggested to me that I should teach other writers to write proposals since mine were so well-crafted – at least in his view. I was flattered, of course, so I’m going to share my personal pointers that I have honed since that first proposal.

Book proposals are essential to any nonfiction (and sometimes fiction) writers who want to be published by “traditional” publishers. #writing #bookproposals #nonfiction

Book proposals are essential to any nonfiction (and sometimes fiction) writers who want to be published by “traditional” publishers. What I mean by traditional publishers (which I’ll delve into much more later) is those publishers who themselves take on the financial risks associated with publishing your book (they edit, design, market, etc.). In fact, they might even give you money upfront (an advance against royalties). If you want to publish it yourself, then you don’t actually need a proposal, but I’d recommend that you develop one for yourself anyway. For now, we’re going the route of the traditional publisher, which is the route I’ve been taking with my nonfiction. This route requires you to understand that you have to be able to sell your book three times – a situation that I’ve mentioned before and will again.

First, you have to sell it to a publisher through an editor. The editor might even become very excited about your book. When this happens, he or she will then have to sell it to the marketing department (publishing is the only industry on the planet where the marketing department has so much sway over the products. In other industries, marketers are given products and told to use all of their considerable marketing skills to find a way to create a market – but not so in publishing – don’t get me started yet! (We’ll discuss this further in the chapters on book marketing and promotion). I was going to have to persuade this editor to whom I had spoken on the phone that she should take the next step with me.

Second, once the book is published, you have to sell the book to the book retailers. Make no mistake; both you and your publisher will eventually have a role to play here. Of course, this was much more of an issue before the days of digital publishing. Getting your book into an online retail site is a piece of cake. However, it will just sit there among the millions of others. If you want to see it in a brick-and-mortar store, you will find this is much more difficult.

Finally, when the book distribution channels (including booksellers) have it in hand – virtually and literally – you have to sell the book to your potential readers.

But we are going to concentrate initially on the first time you have to sell a book because that’s what your proposal is for: to sell it to a publisher.

I had an idea that I’d use my experience in the transplant and organ procurement business to write a book that would ask a lot of questions. It wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to answer them – since many of them were, up until then, unasked, and many had no real answers. I wanted to make people think about the way organ transplantation was approached. So, I had to ask myself a few critical questions:

  1. What was the real purpose of this book? What did I want to accomplish?
  2. How would I approach the topic? Did I have a theme?
  3. How would I organize the book? Would it have sections? Chapters? Stories?
  4. What kind of voice and style would I use? Would I use first-person?  Third?  What reading level would I use?
  5. Why was I the best person to write this book? Would I have any credibility?
  6. What other books will be competitors?
  7. Who would actually read this book when it got to the book stores?
  8. How could this kind of a book be promoted to readers?

If I could answer those questions, I could write a detailed proposal whose purpose would be to persuade the editor (the acquisitions editor to be precise) that this was a terrific book that I could write well and that readers would buy.

Here’s what my proposal looked like:

What is this book about? One of the most important aspects of writing – or perhaps selling – any book is being able to succinctly relate to anyone who asks exactly what the book is about. Some people call it the elevator pitch, but in a book proposal, it’s a bit more in-depth. In this section of the proposal, I include both theme and purpose. Although it might seem that the issue of theme is more appropriately associated with fiction than nonfiction, in my view, it is equally important in both genres. It’s important to consider how I want the reader to feel at the end of the book, and what aspects of that emotional journey would get them there. This is where the theme emerges. Also, although not so much the case with fiction, every nonfiction book needs to have a clear purpose. In other words, what is it designed to accomplish? What do I want the reader to have experienced differently when he or she has finished the last page of the book?

The author: If I’m writing a nonfiction book, it only stands to reason that any editor, and subsequently any reader, will want to know what it is about me that makes me a credible source for this particular topic. When it comes to fiction, editors want to see if you can write, so telling them about your previous publications is useful. Also, these days, for better or for worse, publishers will often be interested in your platform. This is a tough one because it is true that even if you have thousands of friends on Facebook and followers on Instagram and Twitter, there is no guarantee even a fraction of these people ever pays attention to you. This is the nature of the fractured attention-span of the social media user. That being said, it can’t hurt to take this into consideration when describing yourself as the author of a particular book.

The market: Who am I writing this book for? This is critically important in nonfiction because it helps to determine the potential numbers of interested readers and where they might be. However, it is also important in terms of the actual writing. Knowing your potential audience helps you to focus the writing style. I’m not suggesting that you write to readers, but there are times when it’s essential to have a grasp of their literacy level. This is especially key when writing books aimed at young adults or children.

The Competition: This is an essential section for a publisher. It also provides you, as the author, with a snapshot of what’s already out there on this topic. I start with the big one – Amazon – to research the kinds of material already on sale on related topics. Then I begin to analyze the offerings to determine what’s different about my approach. This is really important for self-publishers. Later on, after the writing and editing are finished, and you begin the publishing process, you will want to be knowledgeable about the categories in which your book will be best discovered. This early research can assist.

Promotion: I’ve said this before, and I will repeat it throughout this book: what new authors fail to understand is that books do not sell themselves. They never have. They never will. Even at this early stage, it’s important to consider what you will do or what a publisher could do with your help to promote this book. Will you speak at conferences where it could be promoted? Do you have media connections? Will you write op-ed pieces when the book is launched? Can you use your social media presence to promote it? It does not matter if you publish through traditional publishers or do it all yourself, you will still have to be involved in promoting your book. You might as well address that in the beginning.

Style & Approach: This is where I describe the voice I will use and then go on to create a tentative table of contents. Once I have that well-organized list of contents, I will write a two-or three-paragraph description of every single chapter.

When I wrote my first proposal, I had no idea whether all of the work to this point would pay off or not. It was finally ready to go to the publisher. Would she buy it based on the proposal? Would she ask to see the completed manuscript on spec? I had no idea. I just knew that I’d have to do a lot of work before I had an answer. I learned how to write book proposals that publishers want.

At this point in my writing career, I’m now confident that I’d need one in any case, whether to meet a publisher’s requirements or my own indie publishing ventures. In summary, exploring all of the questions posed above will help you to shape your ideas into a book that might find an audience.


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