Your proposal is like a business plan for your book.

It needs to justify why your book is worth not just years of your time and effort, but the time and effort of dozens of professionals around the country (and maybe even around the world) who will be needed to get your book on shelves. Not to mention the time and money of the many thousands of readers you hope will buy it.

This is perhaps the hardest idea for writers new to publishing to wrap their head around: you write the proposal and sell your book before writing it.

This took me years to fully understand. It completely went against the vision in my mind of a writer toiling late into the night, for years on end, only to emerge victoriously with a completed manuscript in hand. In this vision, the writer doesn’t have to prove that the book will be worth reading. She already has it, so she can just show that it is worth reading.

But this simply isn’t how the process works. Publishers are investors, and they want to feel like they have a hand in the development of the book. They don’t want to be just a source of funding combined with a printing outfit. They want to be creative partners in your book. And partnership requires that they be involved from the beginning.

This is also best from the writer’s point of view. You don’t want to spend several years writing a book, only to have it flop. You want to have some assurances that there is a ready and willing audience for what you have to say.

Since you can’t go out and secure promises from one reader at a time that they will buy it, the next closest thing is to have a promise from a publisher that they will publish it. That promise is the contract you sign when you sell your proposal and land a book deal.

This is why I’ve focused this series on the all-important milestone of landing a book deal. It is the step you have to reach to even have a shot at all the other steps. Once you have a book deal, you have a team. A team made up of an agent, an editor, a publisher, a publicist, and others, all dedicated to helping you see your book through to completion. Until you have a deal, you should focus all your energy on reaching this milestone.

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