So many of my followers on Facebook and Twitter have been reporting the various stages their book proposals are in, so I thought it was high time that I share with you how to write a book proposal! I’ve written about six in my life, and three have been accepted and published, and the others are with publishers right now. So it is something I’ve done successfully (and I hope to have good news to announce soon on a 2-book deal), and I’m going to share with you what I have found goes into a good proposal.
What Publishers are Looking for
My agent told me recently that publishers are interested in three things:
1. Writing Ability
2. Strong Idea
3. Platform (ability to sell the book)
Guess which one matters least? Writing ability! It’s great if you can write, but the world is full of talented editors and ghost writers. If you have a stellar idea, one that has been done before, but which catches the imagination or which speaks to this generation in a unique way, that’s what’s important! And if you have the platform to sell the book, whether it’s through a strong internet presence, media presence, or speaking engagements, then you’re attractive to publish, even if you don’t write well.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write your proposal well or work on your craft. It’s just that you must think like a publisher when they’re reading you book proposal. They’re asking themselves: Can I sell this? Does this author have the ability to sell this? They’re not really asking if you can write. Not anymore. Sounds cynical, but it’s true. So with that in mind, you need to slant your whole book proposal to show that this is an idea that has merit, that it resonates with people, and that you have the ability and the dedicaton to sell it.
What a Book Proposal Is For
A book proposal is not a book. It is simply a proposal to write a book. It is an outline of a book, a description of that book, a market analysis of what’s already out there and where this book would fit, and a marketing plan. It’s also a profile of the author. It’s there so that the publisher can scan it quickly to see whether it has merit. Send a book that the publisher has to read dozens of pages for before they can make up their minds and it’s doubtful it will even get looked at. Publishers don’t have time. You send a proposal so that publishers can skim.
With that in mind, let’s look at the main elements for a book proposal. You can follow this outline pretty much exactly. Where I’ve said Main Heading, simply make that a main heading, and then use sub-headings for the rest. Here we go:
Main Heading: Overview
1 - 1 1/2 pages in length.
Here’s where you sell your book! You’re going to spend a page to a page and a half describing what your book is about, what makes it unique, and how you will sell it! You’ll expand on all of this later, but here’s where your writing skills will come into play. Write this well, and you’ve got them hooked.
Open with a compelling or funny anecdote about the problem that your book is addressing, or the main element of your plotline (if you’re writing a novel). Make them WANT to keep reading. Don’t open with “my book will address this problem”. Open with the problem: 15,000 people a year die from addiction to Diet Pepsi, or whatever it may be. Or tell a funny story.
Then on to outline your book. Can you describe your book in a sentence? In a paragraph? You should be able to, because once it’s written, you’re going to need to in all of the publicity.
Here’s my sentence for my first book:
To Love, Honor and Vacuum is for all those exhausted women who feel more like maids than wives and mothers.
See? Or how about this one:
It’s 10 p.m. He wants to start snuggling. She wants to start snoring. Honey, I Don’t Have a Headache Tonight will help women break this impasse-and have fun along the way!
What you’re doing here is addressing the main problem that people who buy your book will have, and showing how your book fixes this problem. Don’t describe your book; describe the benefits that your book brings. If it’s a novel, describe the voice that you speak from, and the feeling that the reader will get from reading the book.
Heading 2: Description
1 1/2 - 3 pages
Next, you’ll start the description part of the book proposal. This may not sound that different from the overview, but you’ll go into greater detail. You’re not trying to be attention grabbing or cute in this section; you’re trying to help them picture what the structure of the book will be like.
Most books are divided into sections. If so, your description can have three headings, for the three sections (or whatever is applicable). Show which chapters go with which, such as this one for my book Honey, I Don’t Have a Headache Tonight:
Subheadings based on sections, like this:
How We Think of Sex (chapters 1-2)
How We Change Ourselves (chapters 3-4)
How We Change Our Relationships (chapters 5-8)
How We Address Specific Issues (chapters 9-10)
I think I called those sections something cuter, but that gives you a sense of it. Then, under each description, very briefly describe how you’re going to deal with the issue. Will you use mostly anecdotes? Do you have experts you’re going to interview? What works will you cite? What are the problems you’ll address?
At the end of the description section, relate any “extras” that will be in your book. Do you have an appendix where you’ll include your survey results? Do you have questions at the end of each chapter to use as a Bible study (that’s a big plus today!). Do you have little tips you’ll be including in boxes throughout the book, offset from the text? Talk about these!
Subheading: Spin-off Products
Can your book be spun into a movie? Into a screenplay? Can you write a workbook for it? Does it lend itself to a calendar? Don’t just name every possible spin-off; only the plausible ones here.
Heading: Market Analysis
Here’s the tough part: where does your book fit into the current market? You’ll need to include some books that your book resembles, and then tell why yours is better. So do your research! Get on the internet and look at other books written in your field. How is your book different? How does it solve a different problem? Does it complement this book? It’s not always bad to have a book that is similar but not completely the same, because if that book sold really well, and you can piggy-back on it, then your book will look more attractive!
Subheading: Primary Market
Next tell who your primary market for the book is, as specifically as possible. Don’t just say “Christian women”, say Christian women, from 25-40, who are married with children at home and attend an evangelical church”. Really break it down so that they know who your target is.
Subheading: Secondary Market
Are there other groups your book will fit with that will be easy to market to? For instance, you may think your book will sell great with Catholics, too, but evangelical publishers have troubles selling in the Catholic market, so that may not be the best one to mention. But if you think your book could sell well at Christian camps, or at marriage conferences, or as a study book for women’s Bible studies, mention this under “Secondary Markets”.
Heading: Marketing Plan
Here’s where you come in! What are you going to do to sell this book? This is often the section of the proposal that sells it to the publishers. If you can make a realistic marketing plan that shows that you are dedicated to doing the work that sells the book, then you’re much more attractive.
And what goes into a marketing plan? Don’t say that you’re willing to do book signings. Everybody does book signings, and they don’t sell that many books. Talk about what events you’ll create that you’ll talk to bookstores about, like “Girls Night Out” events where women come to scrapbook and hear a reading, or “Mommy’s Corner”, where moms bring their little ones for a story time.
And what are you willing to do online? Do you already have a buzzing website? Do you already have a blog that attracts a bunch of readers, or a Facebook Page where people stop by religiously everyday? Are you on Twitter? Do you have connections with some of the big websites in your niche, where you can guest post? Write these all out.
I can’t list all the ideas (I’d need a separate blog post for this), but here are some possible sub-headings you can use to fill in:
- Website Marketing
- Social Media Marketing (including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.)
- Bookstore Events
- Media Blitz (what radio stations and TV Stations you’ll contact)
- Speaking Engagements
- Book Reviews
Under each sub-heading, don’t just say that you will contact magazines for book reviews. Talk about the magazines you already have a working relationship with, or the websites that you already have built up friendships with, to show that you have an “in”. Everybody is competing for space, and if you can show why it’s more likely that you’ll be granted space, you’re much more likely to be believed!
Heading: About the Author
Brag about yourself for one page! Talk about who you are, what you’ve done, what credentials you have to write this book, what marketing you’ve already been involved in, and what you’ve already written. Make it personable.
Heading: Chapter by Chapter Outline
1 page per chapter
Now you provide the outline, chapter by chapter, for your whole book. I find this part challenging, because it’s hard to write an outline for a book you haven’t written yet. How do you know what will go in each chapter? But try your best to make it compelling, and include short anecdotes to open each chapter outline, if applicable.
Heading: Sample Chapters
Include 2-3 sample chapters, usually near the beginning of the book, and usually consecutive, so publishers can get a sense of how it reads.
And that’s it! Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It is! It’s almost as hard as writing the book! But do it right, and by the time you sit down to write the book you’ll be much more focused. You’ve already thought about how the book will be positioned to sell. You’ve thought about what the real message of the book is, and what benefits it brings to the reader. You’ve summed it up in one sentence. You know what your different sections are. And now, when you put it all together, it flows better!
If you’re finding this intimidating, you can get more information on writing a book proposal from Michael Larsen’s excellent how-to book. But know that you can do it!
Create an idea that excites and has merit, and build yourself a platform so that you can show the publisher you have something to offer. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to tackle the book proposal!
And if you need to know where to send it, Sally Stuart’s Christian Writer’s Market Guide lists all Christian publishers in North America (and some elsewhere). It’s a wonderful resource.
You’ve got all you need now. So go to it!