I’m often asked about book proposals. Are they necessary? If so, why?
Purpose of Book Proposals
Generally, most literary agents require a synopsis (long, short, or both). Some may require a book proposal in addition to a synopsis. There is no “set in stone” formula for book proposals and each has to be customized for your project, fiction and nonfiction, including memoirs and biographies.
However, there are certain elements that should be included. I’ll share a few points from my own experience and author/agent feedback.
In general, a book proposal is written to convince a literary agent and publisher that your unwritten or unfinished book will sell, especially if you are a first-time author. However, some agents may require a book proposal even if your book is complete. Why? Well, book proposals are not so much about the content of your book (like a synopsis), but have everything to do with marketability and profitability that publishers consider the bottom line.
What do Book Proposals Include?
Proposals vary, but generally include:
- An overview — what is your book is about and why is it significant?
- Target audiences — who will want to read your book? Does it have crossover appeal (for instance, a memoir of multiple careers, multiple causes, or multiple topics that will draw additional readers — history buffs, animal lovers, genealogists, self-help, fans of thrillers that can segue to medical mysteries, etc.)?
- Competitive title analysis — who has written books like yours and were they successful? This type of market insight is important, for it tells you about your genre and the fierce competition you may face, but may also indicate if there is a gap in the market that your book fills.
- About the author — what experiences, background, and compulsion led you to envision the book? Are you a subject-matter expert, have a incredible vocation (sports, medicine, law), have a story too good not to share (like the adventures of a plumber or the life of a traveler), or have a great imagination that takes sci-fi to another level? Maybe you are calling attention to a rare disease, an incredible cause, or feats of faith. Whatever your reasons for writing your book, make sure your passion and belief in the premise shines through. If you are unable to adequately articulate these points, hire a professional who can do it for you.
- Marketability — what will make your book sell?
- Let’s revisit social media. What social media following do you have on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter? These are free platforms — use them to their full advantage. Remember, the bigger your visibility and network strength, the better, so start increasing your online footprint now.
- Now, let’s talk about other marketability factors. How popular is your genre? How popular is your topic? Who is willing to endorse your book (blurbs)? Are your endorsers recognizable and high profile? What pull outs (sometimes referred to as call outs or pull quotes) can be excerpted from you book and placed in magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc.?
- Marketing plan — when you are confident that you can argue your books marketability, do some research and define the market itself. What is the need for your book? Why should people buy it? How will you spread the word about your book (social media, blogs, radio, groups, outreach to media and organizations)? Do you have a website (you should, and I can recommend an experienced web developer who specializes in authors) — and be thinking about how will you increase awareness and sales on your own. Let the literary agent hear how you will advocate for your own book.
- Table of contents — if you don’t have one, create a working version from your book outline and notes.
- Sample chapters — include three that are most compelling, thrilling, poignant, etc. This allows the potential publisher to see your “writing chops” and can also be the “hook.”
Do You Need a Book Proposal?
That depends, and here are two points to ponder.
First, if you are determined to write a book or have already done so, then consider bypassing the book proposal unless you know for a fact that one will be required. Have your book professionally edited; have a professionally written large and small synopsis ready; research literary agents (many tweet submission call outs); follow every single instruction on their websites; and then submit your query letters (and whatever materials the websites call for). Follow instructions on a literary agent’s site to a “T” — this demonstrates that you are a professional and respect guidelines.
Note: I personally suspect that some instructions have a degree of difficulty in order to weed out weaker authors. Or, perhaps the literary agent is simply busy and has a system in place to expedite the selection or rejection of authors. Regardless, do precisely as you are instructed. If you are one of my book editing or ghostwriting clients and get “stumped,” you can contact me for advice. I’ll do my best to steer you in the right direction.
Secondly, if you are a high profile name with an extremely good social media following or an established and popular blog, then a book proposal may be less important than the synopsis and manuscript. You might be able to weave in the marketability of your book in a query letter, or possibly through emails if an agent shows interest.
Know What You Are Doing
Yes, you can put together a book proposal yourself, but you must know exactly what it entails. Research what is required, and by all means, have it edited. Or better yet, hire a professional writer (like me) who has done book proposals before. Through collaboration, brainstorming and putting your “best foot forward,” together we’ll come up with ideas and strategy. We’ll pinpoint all the appealing factors and wonderful worthiness, and weave it into your book proposal. This will minimize, say, a lack of writing experience or name recognition. We’ll focus on your strengths… and what a publisher will consider the book’s strengths.
As a side note, check out this “experimental” collaboration between Palgrave Macmillan and the public on book proposals — the first of its kind that I’ve heard about.
Convince, Convince, Convince
Again, a book proposal is simply a tool to convince publishers to offer a contract. This is why literary agents might require it. But… if you can demonstrate the likelihood of strong book sales without a proposal, then do so! It could save you time and money.