7 Keys to Foolproof Book Proposals

You want to write a nonfiction book. You have a great idea and perhaps even an outline. You are motivated and excited. This is the best time to begin your book, right? Wrong. Experienced authors agree that you are not ready to write until you have thought through a book proposal.

What it is 

A book proposal is a document that outlines the content of your book, convinces an agent to represent you or a publisher to add it to his or her book list, and spells out in detail your marketing plan. It should inform, intrigue, and sell. It is the first, most important, and most difficult step in the book-writing process.

Why it’s important 

Conventional publishers and literary agents demand a proposal in some form. That form may be 25 pages long; a fill-in-the blank, online document; or a descriptive e-mail. What matters is the content. A book proposal accomplishes three other crucial tasks for you: it organizes your thoughts; provides the basic material you will use in the book; and, perhaps most important, tells you if you really have a book at all.

When to write it

Ideally, since this is a planning document, you will write it, or at least begin to write it, before you write a word of the book. You may not write the whole thing until you are finished with the book because it is a work in progress and may change along the way. Some authors balk at the idea of planning in this way and instead deduce the proposal from the completed manuscript.

Whom to send it to 

If you are hoping for a conventional publisher, you will send your proposal to an acquisition editor or a literary agent. The caveat here is that, in both cases, you must research, research, research to find the right person in the right organization. If you send it, it must be perfect, so have it copyedited and formatted to the recipient’s requirements before you push the send button. If you plan to self-publish, don’t cut corners. Your proposal must still be complete and well thought out, because it is your roadmap for every step of the process.

What questions it must answer 

No matter how long or short your proposal is, and whether it is for your own use or a publisher’s, it must answer the following questions:

  1. Why are you writing this book? What do you hope to achieve?
  2. What is your book about in one or two sentences?
  3. How are you qualified to write this book? What are your knowledge, experience, and expertise in relation to your subject?
  4. Why is this an appropriate and timely topic? What’s the big picture, the context? The political or social environment? Why this book now?
  5. Who are your target readers? What do you know about them? What do they read, do, enjoy? Where do they go on the Internet?
  6. How will they benefit? Why should they read it? What problem will it solve? What will they learn?
  7. How will you reach them? Where are they likely to buy this book? At Borders or Barnes & Noble? On line? In the grocery store?
  8. How big is the market? How many potential readers are there? What magazines are they reading, and what is the combined circulation? How many books can you sell?
  9. What else is out there on this subject? How is this book unique/special/important? Compare and contrast; don’t just list other books.
  10. How will you help to promote your book? What are your specific plans, details, connections, reviewers?

How it should be organized 

  • The concept statement is the encapsulation of the entire proposal. Thus, though it appears first, it cannot be written until the proposal has been completed.
  • About the book is a detailed description of the book, from which the concept statement will be drawn.
  • About the author contains the author’s bio, with particular emphasis on your qualifications to write the book.
  • About the market defines where the book belongs in the bookstore and assures the publisher that there is an audience for a book and that it will be a moneymaker.
  • About the competition should compare your book to others on the topic and point out the differences and advantages. What do existing books on the subject cover or not cover?
  • About production describes the technical aspects of your book and is especially important if you are going to self-publish.
  • About promotion tells the publisher how you are going to help promote your book. If you are the publisher, you should plan this part before you write the book. You will be doing most of the promotion.
  • Table of contents lists your chapter headings, as well as the parts of the front and back sections of the book. This is probably the section you will write first.
  • Chapter summaries are paragraphs that describe the rationale, organization, and key points for every chapter. They also provide a good idea of how you write.
  • Sample chapter(s) provide a preview of your best writing and become a template for how you will write the rest of the book. This is a key part of your proposal.

What else you should know 

The good news is that once you write a proposal you’ve done most of the really hard work of writing a book. The not-so-good news is that it is not something you can dash off in an afternoon. It takes thought, research, writing skills, and perseverance. If you are self-publishing, you will need every word of it; it you are sending it to an agent or a publisher, it is your calling card, marketing plan, and sales tool. Every minute you spend on your proposal is an investment in your book. Don’t shortchange yourself by taking shortcuts. It’s not worth the time you save.

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