The Book Proposal . . . Will you marry me?

Oh come on, work with me here. The book proposal is the same as the “happily ever after” version because author and editor work together very closely. The proposal’s raison d’être is to convince a flighty, nervous editor to take the plunge and whisper a breathy “yes, darling, give me more.”

But there is a lot of consternation over book proposals because of their sheer length. What does a proposal consist of, and what is its purpose? The question has come up any number of places; the latest was last Friday when I had the pleasure of speaking at the Laguna Woods Writer’s Group. What a wonderful, lively, intelligent group! But I digress.

Proposals are requested by the editor or agent on the heels of a query. I say that, but it’s not always the case. I know a few agents who won’t entertain anything but a proposal. To protect your vulnerable hide, always check the submission guidelines.

Now many of you, upon seeing the request to provide a book proposal, rush to the bookstore and comb the shelves for writing the perfect book proposal. I can hear your cries of frustration from here. “ARRGH! I don’t wanna write a big ol’ proposal! I don’t even know how, and there are so many ‘How to Write the Perfect Proposal,’ I can’t see straight.” Relax, Dr. Proposal is here to the rescue.

Here be da basics:

  1. COVER SHEET (title and subtitle of book; genre, word count, author’s name, address, phone, fax, email)
  2. CONCEPT STATEMENT (optional—briefly state the target audience, why they need this book, why your book is unique or timely, why you are an authority on the topic, and what your book offers that other books don’t).
  3. OVERVIEW (how you came to write the book—weave in attention-getting facts; this must be the most compelling part of your proposal!)
  4. PURPOSE OF THE BOOK (what will your book do? what need will it fill? how will it benefit readers?)
  5. THE MARKET/AUDIENCE (who will buy your book? why do they want or need it? give statistics)
  6. COMPETITIVE BOOKS (what else exists? where is it shelved? how is your book new and better? how does your book differ from all other books on this topic?)
  7. MARKETING OF THE BOOK (bookstores, book clubs, Internet, clubs, associations; if applicable—these are sales outside of a bookstore environment such as retail store chains, specialty stores, catalogs)
  8. PROMOTION & PUBLICITY (list newspapers, magazines, TV & radio stations that the publisher should contact)
  9. AUTHOR’S PROMOTIONAL CONTRIBUTION (list everything you’ll do to make the book successful; be sure to include all of your ideas for author appearances and events)
  10. COMPLETION OF THE BOOK (state that “x” months from date of contract you will deliver the manuscript—usually a 9-12 month period is allowed)
  11. SEQUELS (optional—list 1-3 other projects that interest you and that have a large audience)
  12. ABOUT THE AUTHOR (your background and experience; why you are the best person to write the book)
  13. THREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS (your first three chapters)

What’s that? Am I still hearing you scream? Oh, knock it off already. We really do need this stuff. I stake the beagle’s blender of margaritas on it. And besides, you gotta be tough to be in this business.

Look at it from my side of the desk

Proposals are done mostly for nonfiction, so applied because many nonfiction books are incomplete when sold to an editor, and we need to have as much information as possible to see the book’s potential. But lately, book proposals are creeping up in fiction as well, and fiction, as we all know, are always completed works (except in rare cases).

I like it quite a bit because these lovely gems o’ love tell me everything I want to know without having to ask. In this ecomonic climate, editors are a lot more choosy about what they buy, and it’s not enough (sadly) to simply have a great story. We have to be able to sell it and promote it. If I have an author who sits home and knits toilet paper doilies and has an abject fear of crowds, I am unlikely to review to book any further. And yes, I’ve let good books go for that very reason.

Because writing a book proposal takes serious thought, time, and research, it’s a great way to weed out the serious writers from the hobbyists and noobs (noobs=authors who don’t know and don’t care). It tells me, “Hey, you. I’m lookin’ to get married, and this shows I’m serious about my intentions.” What better way to flatter a gal? Even the beagle’s margaritas don’t have that kind of zing.

And face it; all the information that goes into your proposal is stuff you have to have at some point in your submission stage, so why not save yourself the trouble and write one now. It makes my teeth itch when I ask for a proposal and the author either asks me what that is, or gives me a, “uhhh…can you hang on while I write one? I gotta research my title comps.”

What? [anguished cries peel the paint off the office walls]

Look, if you don’t know your title comps or who your target readership is, then you have no business trying to convince me to read your work because you have no idea whether your book is unique or not. You, plainly, haven’t done your homework. This spells noob to me. The beagle eats noobs during her midmorning snack time.

I talked a while ago about being a good Girl Scout, and that goes for every aspect of querying. Once you’re ready to hit the streets, you need to be prepared for unexpected. It’s a good idea to say at the end of your query letter that you have a full proposal prepared and would be happy to send it. If I like the query letter, I always take the author up on their invitation.

It may happen that no one ever asks for your proposal, but if they do, you have it. There now, don’t you feel better about yourself? As for my breathy “I do,” that’s for another post.

4 Responses to The Book Proposal . . . Will you marry me?

  1. […] the blog article is very articulate, and funny too, so if you want to learn more, you can read it here! This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← A Pumpkin Can Nurture […]

  2. Derek M says:

    I really appreciate you putting this here. I have not read it anywhere else and would not have known the information thus contained otherwise. I am aspiring to publish a book I have authored and this information was sorely needed.

  3. Jim Chapman says:

    I do understand that you need to know how to market this book, or any book, for that matter. I do imagine that you are expert in doing this. I am not and I look, therefore, to you for guidance. I don’t understand your insistence upon me being the one who determines how to market this book. When my car doesn’t work, I go to a mechanic. When I want a decent meal, I go to a good restaurant. I think there is something to be said for a book publisher doing what he or she does best, and the author doing what he or she does best, and that is to write. I am also a pewtersmith. Other people sell my pewter. It’s the notion of comparative advantage,viz., doing what one does best.
    Jim Chapman

  4. Janet Givens says:

    Hello, I don’t know how old this post on proposals is; I don’t see a date. But, I shall persevere, hoping it’s no more than a few months old.

    First, thank you for such a succinct summary of a non-fiction book proposal. I wish I had found it four years ago, before i bought all those “How To Write a Book Proposal” books you mentioned. They were helpful though, for they forced me to focus and helped me find a more universal story beneath the everyday happenings of my Two Years On the Kazakh Steppe (the first working title).

    BUT — which brings me to my Second point — i have recently read on proposal blogs from agents that I should be treating memoir like fiction when it comes to the proposal, i.e., Don’t Do It. Just send the manuscript. As a result, I have been diligently fine tuning my completed manuscript these past two years, using Story Engineering to see if I’ve got my Pinch Points in all the right places (I pretty much do) and Wired For Story to make sure I have effectively hooked my reader and kept her trapped in my tale. I have also neglected to keep my Complimentary Titles up to date (though I’ve continued to read memoir, working to identify the chaff from the wheat — or is that curds from the whey?).

    My third problem is word count. How seriously is this 100,000 word max? I use small words, so my count is higher than it might be (I average 325 words per page, rather than the 250 I keep hearing about). I like the adage, “Use however many words it takes to tell the story. No more, no less.” So, how to proceed? Have i totally ruined any future we might have had together? 🙂

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