Writing a book proposal – you are in the driver’s seat

Depending on what you write, you might be asked to write a book proposal. This will probably come from your agent. So you’ll sit down and dutifully ploink it out. You’re attempting to do your very best, but hey, you’ve never written one before so you hope you’re doing it right. But then you remember that you have an agent who will check it over again and finesse whatever needs finessing. Glory be, thinks you, I’m saved.

I’m here to say that you’re not.

How do I know? Because I’m the beanbag reading the end result, and too many times I’ve been scarily underwhelmed.

Let me say it here and now: You are in the driver’s seat. Yes, I realize your agent has the car keys, but judging from the questionable quality proposals that sometimes pass over my desk, I wonder if said agents checked the proposal before sending it out, or whether they don’t know enough to realize it needs more work.

Either scenario doesn’t bode well for you because the quality of a query or proposal is a direct reflection on your agent. And you want editors to like them/you. However, while they have the keys to the car, you are the one supplying the gas, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that you always know what you’re doing. And that means writing an effective book proposal.

I blogged about what goes into a book proposal, so be sure to go look at it. But I want to point out some of the common problems I see in book proposals that leave me scratching my head.

Overview/Concept Statement/Synopsis

This goes by many names, but the important thing to remember is that it’s the raison d’etre of your book; the synopsis, and the how and why you came to write the book.

I recommend that you avoid the “we see Main Character do this, we travel with Main Character to blah, blah, blah, and we share the Main Character’s sadness/heartbreak/joy/brilliance blah, blah, blah.”
I’m not quite sure why I detest this whole “we” type of writing, but I think it’s because I feel like I”m being talked to by a tour guide:

“And on your right, we will see an errant beagle rip a query letter to shreds. If we wait a minute, we will see an editor come screaming out of her office…”

I don’t feel like I’m being pulled into the story. I’m being told, not shown. If you’ve pitched your story effectively, there’s no need to play the tour guide and tell me what “we” will see or feel because I’ll get it already.


Somewhere in your proposal, you need to include your estimated word count and estimated time of completion. This is vital. And by golly, if you estimate the project will be finished by thus and such date, then you better etch that on your forehead. Fear of missed deadlines are one of the reasons I drink.


This is the section where you discuss the specifics of the intended market. It’s also a playground for all kinds of silliness, and it drives me buggy. When a proposal is filled with vague “people who love to be inspired/challenged/frightened blah, blah, blah,” it makes me wonder if the author (and agent) really know the intended market, or whether this has a market at all. I won’t do your homework for you.

Well…um…actually that’s not true. I will. When something piques my interest, I investigate the book’s viability like the beagle does when she gets wind of a good sale on tequila. BUT, it irritates me, so does that count?

I need to know that you understand the marketplace and that you know you have a large reader potential, AND that you know where they are. Why do they want it? Why do they need it? See, what you’re doing is convincing/proving to me that your book has wings and can fly straight to the bestseller list. Me likes that. Me accountants likes it even more.

Comp Titles

Oboy. This is an itchy issue because this requires you to know your competition. I’m amazed at the number of people who have no clue as to their competition. At some point in your writing career, someone is going to ask. How would you feel if Katie Couric is interviewing you and asks, “Say, Brilliant Author, who would you say is your closest competitor?” Sorry, but sucking your thumb with a deer-in-the-headlights look doesn’t translate well in front of millions of viewers.

But before you ever get to that stage, your editor is going to ask because her sales teams are going to ask – because the genre buyers ask them. It’s Dominoes, and it all flows back to you. If your comp title section fails to list any comps and instead says something like, “there have been any number of books on Topic A, but they are of a political/humanistic/artistic flavor…so they don’t really compare,” then this is a Title Comp Fail.

And. I. Will. Be. Cranky.

First thing I’ll do is go over to Amazon and prove you wrong because I fail to accept there are NO BOOKS that remotely compare to yours. You might be very good, but there is always a book that compares to yours. That an agent would allow you to get away with this in your proposal makes me wonder if they have rocks in their heads. And yes, I’ve seen this numerous times.

If you do include comps, then I want to see how your book compares and contrasts. After all, if the book doesn’t contrast, then why bother? That book already exists. What is that something new that you bring to the party?

Additionally, make sure that your contrasts are compelling. If you wrote about police addiction and your contrast is that your book deals with short, bald cops with police addiction, then that’s hardly compelling. You’re picking nits, and we’ll bust you for it.

Stamp this on your forehead: Wimping out on comps is not acceptable. If you can’t provide comps, then you have some serious reading to do.

Marketing and Promotion

Book proposals must, must, must have a promo plan. If you or your agent didn’t include one, my mind will be officially blown. And this shouldn’t be anything like, “I will be available for book events.” That’s like saying you’ll use soap in the shower. Duh. In my particular world of nonfiction and limited fiction personal journeys, I”m looking for authors who have a platform that will command attention. And I’m not unique in this endeavor.

Avoid generalities like, “Brilliant Author travels all over the US and will feature the book at her talks.” What talks? Where is she going? To whom is she talking? How large are her audiences? 10? 50? 100? 1,000? It makes a difference.

Statements like, “Brilliant Author has contacts at several major and local newspapers,”  also make myblackened heart shrivel up because there aren’t any specifics. You may as well tell me you know the president because how can I verify that? Besides, telling me you know people doesn’t equate a promo plan. I’ve seen cases where Big Names were promised to offer a foreword or public support, and those plans mysteriously disappeared. Unless an author already has it in hand, I’ve learned to be leery.

A promo plan is just that – a plan. It things like:

  • “Ms. New York Times columnist has already agreed to write a review/interview when the book is released.”
  • “ABC Talk Show Host has agreed to have me on her show.”
  • “Several Mr. Huge Radio Personalities have scheduled interviews.”
  • “I have a regular column with HuffPo that deals with the same issues in my book.”
  • “I am scheduled to speak to Audience ABC in New York, Los Angeles, etc. while on a X-city book tour.”
  • “Sooper Dooper Magazine has accepted three excerpts from my book for their Pick-A-Month issue.”

These are specific plans that name names and takes numbers. These are plans my sales teams can take to the libraries, indie stores, and genre buyers when they ask, “what is the author doing to support book promotion?”

We look to see how many people know you. Yes, Virginia, writing is a business these days, and those who reach the top are those who are properly prepared and sufficiently educated about the industry.

A book proposal is a vital piece of information that we need to sell your book to a lot of people. If you have an agent, that’s great, but you can’t necessarily depend on them to ensure your proposal rocks. Some agents are incredible, but not all are, so make sure that you’re sitting squarely in the driver’s seat and can pop out a fabulous proposal that will have editors jumping on their desks with joy joy thoughts.

And may I also suggest that novelists would be well-advised to write a book proposal. If nothing else, it forces you to think about the true worthiness of your book in ways you hadn’t thought of before. The more you know, the better advocate you are for your book.

2 Responses to Writing a book proposal – you are in the driver’s seat

  1. Miriam says:

    Lynn, the part of the proposal where I declare why my story is vital, timely, and relevant. It seems it can go in the query, overview and competitive titles.
    Each year the ability to spin straw into gold advances, and I wish I had a close relative who was a publicist or a PR executive. I’m playing devil’s advocate with my piece. After I list all the positive reasons, I take the opposite approach and say, ” So what?”
    This leads me to wonder what Tuesday’s with Morrie, Marley and Me and Eat Pray Love said in their proposals. When you take it down to the basic premises, you have:
    Spending time with an old teacher dying of a Terminal illness.
    A goofy dog destroying furniture and sheetrock, then dying of old age.
    A woman getting divorced, eating pizza in Italy, meditating in India and falling in love in Bali.
    I loved all three of these books, and I found them relevant and vital. However, if I use all the criteria that’s being published about how publishers and editors review proposals, what could they have said to make their story irresistible?
    (Other than all three authors had either worked as journalists or lived in that world.)


  2. Miriam, it probably didn’t matter what they said because they had a…platform.

    The idea of relevancy is what the editor or agent is looking for. For instance, I have a very narrow, specific bandwidth because it’s what I know I can sell. Others are much wider.

    I blather on so much about relevancy because it’s an important selling tool. If an author can define what makes her book a “gotta have it,” then that gets coupled in with the pitch and makes it (hopefully) more irresistible.

    Nonfiction really needs a solid platform in order to answer that “so what?” question and make it more marketable.

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