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.

Here are the main components of a standard proposal, as described in The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (affiliate link) from which much of the content in this series is drawn:

  • Table of contents
  • Overview
  • Bio
  • Audience
  • Competition
  • Marketing and promotion
  • Manuscript specifications
  • Outline
  • Sample chapters

Each of these sections should be no more than a few pages, double spaced, with the exception of “Marketing and promotion,” which can be longer.

Let’s examine each of them in more detail.

Overview

The overview is an executive summary of the whole proposal, allowing anyone to grasp its essence in just a page or two. It needs to entice and invite while illuminating how your book is unique and urgently needed. It should briefly describe every other part of the proposal.

Here’s the Overview from the proposal for No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, which teaches readers how to write a novel in 30 days:

When I was 26 years old, I accidentally founded an institution that now produces more fiction than all of America’s MFA programs combined. I blame it all on coffee. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) began in a moment of overcaffeinated ambition when I sent out an email to friends, challenging each of them to write a 50,000-word novel in July. Since then, the escapade—chronicled on the CBS Evening News and NPR’s All Things Considered and in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles around the world—has grown to include a high-tech website, hundreds of spin-off fan sites and discussion groups, and thousands of enthusiastic participants every year. Part literary marathon and part rock-and-roll block party, NaNoWriMo is based on the idea that anyone who loves fiction should be writing his own. Not for fame and fortune (though those may come in time). But because novel writing is ridiculously fun once you throw away the rulebook. My rallying cry as NaNoWriMo cruise director (and fellow participant) is simple: No plot? No problem! That low-stress, high-velocity approach has helped tens of thousands of writers set aside their fears and dive headlong into the joys of homemade literature. Based on four years of experience as the director of NaNoWriMo, No Plot? No Problem! will be a thoughtful, encouraging and fun guide to blasting out a 50,000-word novel in a month.

This overview is effective because it accomplishes many things at once:

  1. Demonstrates the same playful voice he will use in his book
  2. Shows what an interesting, funny, ambitious person he is
  3. Identifies both a rabid fan base and a wide potential audience that is likely to buy this book
  4. Demonstrates marketing and publicity potential
  5. Shows how much thought has already gone into every aspect of the book
  6. Proves that there’s no other book quite like this one

Bio

Your bio makes the case for why you are the ideal person to write this book and sell it to the reading public. It’s up to you to demonstrate why you have the expertise, life story, and passion to make it happen. You should also try to anticipate any objections that publishers may have.

Here’s Chris Baty’s bio:

Founder and four-time National Novel Writing Month winner, Chris Baty is the Web’s most sought-after writing coach. The 29-year-old Oakland, California, freelance writer has been called “an indie David Foster Wallace with compassion” (Fabula Magazine) and has been profiled in newspapers ranging from the L.A. Times to the Chicago Tribune to the Melbourne Age, as well as being featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and a host of BBC radio programs. When not heading up NaNoWriMo, Baty is usually on the road, covering Louisiana juke joints and Parisian thrift stores for such publications as the Washington Post, the SF Weekly, the Dallas Observer and Lonely Planet guidebooks. His funny, freewheeling style landed him an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award for Best Music Writing in 2002. Before becoming a full-time writer in 1999, Baty spent several years behind the editing desk, first for Fodor’s publications and later as the New York, London and Chicago City Editor for the travel Web site ontheroad.com. Baty holds degrees in cultural anthropology and psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. His quest for the perfect cup of coffee is never-ending and will likely kill him someday.

Here’s what this bio accomplishes:

  • Shows that he already has a wide reach with his writing
  • Presents many facts and accolades highlighting how many things Chris has done
  • Provides testimonials from famous, influential people praising Chris’ work
  • Associates Chris with top publications
  • Demonstrates once again his freewheeling and funny writing style
  • Establishes Chris’ writing and academic credibility

Audience

This is where you describe your audience as specifically as possible. Prove that they have a willingness to buy and that you’ve been actively connecting with them and listening to what they have to say. Quantify the size of the audience, their buying power, and how many of them you can reach.

Here’s an excerpt from the audience section of the proposal for No Plot? No Problem!:

Readers buy how-to books expecting a silver bullet—a magical formula that makes a daunting activity understandable and achievable. This is exactly what No Plot? No Problem! delivers: a results-oriented plan for people who want to nurture their inner artists without getting tangled in time-consuming classes or ongoing writing groups. After one week of the No Plot? No Problem! regime, participants will have already written 46 pages of their novel. By delivering huge results in a short time, the book will have instant appeal for busy people who want to experience the creative joys of writing, but who have limited free time to devote to the project before the demands of real life intervene. Also, by framing novel-writing as a short-term, highly accessible activity for everyone, No Plot? No Problem! casts its line out beyond the confines of “serious writers,” tapping into the vast demographic of people who have no fiction-writing experience but who feel they have a story worth telling. The structured creativity of No Plot? No Problem! will reassure first-time writers that they already possess all the skills necessary to write a rough draft, and that the only thing standing between them and their manuscript is a month’s labor.

Competition

Identifying your competition has two purposes:

  1. To prove that no one has published the same book already
  2. To associate your book with others that have been successful

For the first, you want to articulate how your book is different from others. For the second, how it’s similar. It’s a delicate balance to strike.

For each “comp” (a comparative, previously published title), describe the book’s message in a short paragraph. Say why your book will succeed where the comp has failed. Or, speak to an aspect of the subject they have failed to address.

Here is an excerpt from this section from No Plot? No Problem!:

And unlike the overly broad books for novice writers that cover everything from brainstorming protagonists to handling royalty checks, No Plot? No Problem! brings all of its taskmastering to bear on the first and highest hurdle: surviving the first draft.

Marketing and promotion

It is your job to convince publishers you will make an all-out effort to promote the book in every way possible.

Here are the kinds of questions this section should answer:

  • Which public venues, both in-person and online, will you speak at?
  • Which radio, television, magazine, or newspaper audiences will you reach?
  • Which bloggers or media figures will you get in touch with for interviews, guest appearances, or guest articles?
  • Are you affiliated with any large groups?
  • Does your website receive a lot of traffic?
  • Will you make a short trailer video showcasing the main takeaways?

Manuscript specifications

This section is highly concrete and practical. It includes such details as approximate word count, any special design features or illustrations, and how long it will take you to complete the book once you’ve accepted an offer.

Outline

This doesn’t have to be final, but you should show that you have a solid working plan for the book’s contents.

Include section and/or chapter headings with a few paragraphs explaining what each one will contain and how it moves the book forward. The voice and style of these paragraphs should match the voice and style of the book.

Sample chapters

You’ll need to include one to three sample chapters for a total of 20-50 pages. It’s a good idea to start with the first chapter so readers can more easily understand the flow of the book.

Other elements

A modern book is an artifact that exists in physical form but also extends into the online world. Here are some things you can include in the proposal as optional, but desirable, extras:

  • Blurbs, or testimonials, from well-known authors, journalists, or industry experts
  • Press kit and photos, which give publishers a taste of your marketing acumen
  • Website with links to extra resources or guides
  • Video trailer, presenting what the book is about in one to three minutes
  • Speaking engagements, showing that you have an existing circuit
  • Press coverage if you’ve received any

The book proposal is a very different kind of text than most writers are used to. It is much more cold, detached, and objective, presenting the business case for the book in terms of hard numbers to a skeptical audience for whom the default answer is “no.”

But that doesn’t mean there’s no creativity involved in writing it. This is persuasive writing at its best, crafting a vision of the future that feels so compelling and inevitable, that a publisher can’t pass up the chance to be part of it.

In the next post, we’ll look at what it looks like to start assembling the team that you’ll need to finish the book-writing journey.


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