Meditation on book proposals

If you want to write a non-fiction book, you need a book proposal to convince agents to represent your book and to convince editors to publish it.  As a writer, I’ve found that the process of writing the proposal helps me wrestle with the prospect of spending the next year with this project.  Do I love it enough to work my butt off to get the proposal right?  Or is it one of those cases where I think the idea might sell, but I don’t really want to put that much effort into it?  With the industry in the state it’s in, I only work (as a writer) on those projects that I love enough to write a killer proposal for, even if it takes me three months and fifteen drafts.  The other ideas are gathering dust on my hard drive.


On the other side of the desk, I’ve been getting book proposals in my inbox at the Salkind Agency that could have used a bit more work — and that’s disappointing because while I want to find projects to represent, I don’t have the time to coach everyone with a viable idea on how to make their proposal sing.  So here are some general tips you may find helpful: 


The book proposal is like a business plan for your book.  It “sells” an agent or editor on your book and convinces them to invest in it.  It also helps you create a roadmap for what you will do as you write and promote the book.  Essentially, your book proposal contains these sections:


  • The Overview – a narrative section that describes your book and how it will be written, with details such as length, illustrations and special features
  • About the Author a full description of who you are and why you’re the right person to write this book
  • Marketing/Promotion – a section that defines your audience and outlines your plans for promoting your book, including special marketing hooks/ideas.  This should contain action items that you plan to do (promote the book on your blog, keynote at relevant events) and suggestions for publicity that a publisher wouldn’t automatically know about (in other words, yes, your potential publisher realizes that the New York Times publishes book reviews; it may not know about Your Hobby Monthly, which has fourteen gazillion subscribers and which publishes five book reviews a month.)
  • Competition – a comparison section that describe how your book is similar to – and different from – other books that have already been published.  If there has never been a book like yours, that is a very bad sign.  Include titles that are fairly recent (publishing works in dog years.  If something was published in 1999, it is ancient.)  Comparison titles should be ones that have sold well, so that the agent/editor will think, “Hmm, there’s potential here.”  Not: “Well, we’ll lose our shirt like everyone else who’s published on this topic.” 
  • Chapter Outline a description of each chapter of your book, usually a couple of paragraphs per chapter.  Use bullet points to get material across quickly. 
  • Sample chapters – one or two full chapters showcasing your writing and the subject about which you’re proposing your book.  Editors are having a hard time getting proposals past committees without really solid sample chapters these days. 

The basics described here are the generally accepted parts of a book proposal.  Some agents and editors may want to see a slightly different presentation, which you can easily accomplish by varying your final format according to their needs, which you can often find on their websites.


As you work on your book proposal, remember that it will be seen by agents and editors who have hundreds of other query letters, manuscripts and book proposals stacked on their desks.  They often have assistants screen the pile first.  Your goal should be to hook them – overworked agents and editors and underpaid assistants – with your well-polished, well-thought out proposal.


A book proposal book I like to recommend is Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal.  Anyone in the audience have others they also like?

1 comment

  1. Thanks for this great post! I really found Write the Perfect Book Proposal by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman to be really helpful, particularly the variety of sample proposals they included.

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