You did it. You crafted the perfect query letter for your non-fiction book, and as a result, an editor at a large publishing house has requested a full book proposal. At this point, you have a 50/50 chance of seeing your work on a bookstore shelf. The difference maker will be a strong book proposal that exhibits knowledge of your audience, what that audience needs and wants, and how that audience can be reached on a cost-effective basis.
When an editor makes a request to see your book proposal, he/she will most likely send along a brief overview of the publisher’s book proposal guidelines. You might want to make some subtle adjustments to your proposal in order to meet those guidelines. But under no circumstances should you wait for a book proposal to be requested before actually writing one. A well-written, professional book proposal takes several days, oftentimes several weeks, to compose. It should be the first thing you write – before both the query letter and the manuscript itself. Despite the guidelines, each proposal is unique, and the quality of yours will be THE difference maker in determining whether or not the publisher takes a financial risk with your book. So put your best effort into crafting a blockbuster book proposal. Below, you’ll find a list of the basic elements of a book proposal that, if mastered, will all but guarantee the offer of a book contract.
Element #1: The Title Page/Table of Contents: The first page of a book proposal is the title page. The title page states the working title for the book you are proposing along with your contact information (and that of your agent if you have one). Make sure to center the text. Generally, it isn’t wise to use fancy borders or cutesy graphics. You’re writing a business proposal. Make sure it looks like one. On the second page of your proposal, provide a short table of contents for the book proposal itself. List each of the following sections along with their corresponding page numbers: Summary, About The Author, Audience, Competition, Publicity & Promotional Opportunities, Outline, and Sample Chapters. Some will say the Outline and Sample Chapter sections are optional, but remember, you’re trying to sell a book. Providing the publisher with a sample of your writing, especially if you’re a first-time author, might well mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.
Element #2: Summary: In the Summary section of your proposal, provide a brief overview of the proposed book. Try to envision the blurb that will appear on the back cover of your final product. Make that blurb the opening paragraph. Show the editor you can hook him/her on your proposal from the very first sentence, and you’ll convince them of your ability to hook a potential reader as well. Elaborate on the contents of your query letter by addressing the following subjects: the content, the audience, and the author. What is the premise of your book? What does it promise its reader? Who is the market for the book? How large is that market? And, finally, why are you the best person to write this book at this time?
Element #3: About the Author: In the about the Author section of your proposal, go into greater detail about yourself. In general, it’s best to use third person. But it’s okay to use first person if you feel more comfortable doing so. Why are you the best qualified person to write this book? What are your credentials? Are you an expert in the field? Has your previous work been published (not just in books, but newspapers, magazines, ezines, etc.)? Are you a prolific public speaker? If so, how many speeches do you give each year? To what types of audiences do you speak? Do you have media experience or media contacts? If so, let the editor know. If you have limited experience in any or all of these fields, say so. Be honest and direct. Experience helps, but lack of experience itself will not lead to rejection. Misrepresenting yourself will. Never include information about your personal life unless it is essential to your ability to sell the book.
Element #4: Audience: In the Audience section of your proposal, clearly define the market for your book. First, identify the demographic segment you hope to target. Examples of demographic characteristics are gender, age, political ideology, religion, nationality, education level, economic status, etc. Be specific. Research the size of the audience and back up your claims with real numbers. Avoid broad claims such as “everyone will love this book,” and instead use such statements as “4.5 million college-educated Christian men between the ages of 21 and 29 will be drawn to this book because of its unique…” At this point, define the psychographics of your audience. What is the motivation of this demographic to buy your book? What unmet needs and wants do they harbor that your book is sure to satisfy? In short, make certain your Audience section clearly indicates 1) who will buy your book, and 2) why they will buy it.
Element #5: Competition: In the Competition section of your proposal, provide examples of well-known published books similar to yours (or, if your book covers a new niche in a popular subject, list those books that target a similar audience). It’s always best to cite bestsellers. If you can track down the sales figures for these books, provide the number of copies each title sold. The larger the sales figures, the more you strengthen your case that a large market exists for your subject matter. Once you’ve established that a large market exists, explain why your book will be different. In what way will you position your book in order to differentiate it from its peers? Do any demographic trends aid your case for continued demand in this market? State explicitly why your book is unique and why the market is ripe for its release. However, be wary of a bold statement such as “nothing like my book has ever been written before”. You may have uncovered a unique angle for your subject, but in all likelihood, you haven’t invented a new genre or field of study.
Element #6: Publicity and Promotional Opportunities: In this section of your proposal, outline the promotional avenues open to your book. If you’ve already established that a market exists, this section will be the make it or break it section of your proposal. The publisher must know how you intend to reach the audience you’ve identified. Do specific groups exist with a high likelihood of being receptive to your book? Good examples are the audience members of a specific radio or television show, readers of specific magazines or newsletters, book clubs, non-profit organizations, or trade groups. Identify the groups relevant to your book and point out the vehicles a publisher can use to reach those groups in a cost-effective manner. Do you have media connections or experience? Potential exposure on nationally syndicated radio and television shows is the best way to capture a publisher’s attention. Booking the author on such shows is free, and the resulting sales can be astronomical. So publishers are always looking for authors with a media platform. Do you have one? What angle or hook can you provide a producer or editor that will land you a coveted interview or feature story? If you develop a strong enough hook, you might land a book contract based on this aspect of your proposal alone.
Element #7: Outline: For this section of your proposal, provide a list of the proposed chapter titles, along with a brief overview of the contents therein.
Element #8: Sample Chapters: In this section of your proposal, simply attach the first two or three chapters of your proposed manuscript. Providing sample chapters is essential for a first-time author. If your chapters are of high quality, they give the publisher confidence you can produce a publishable manuscript in a timely manner.
Element #9: Presentation: The presentation of your book proposal is as instrumental to its success as the content. Make sure to proofread zealously. If you think you’ve finished, proofread it again. Read, correct, and rewrite your proposal at least twenty times so as to be confident that it’s the best it can possibly be. When it comes time to print the final draft, the body of the proposal should be double-spaced and printed in black ink on clean white paper using a LaserJet printer. Finally, just as with any business document, send your book proposal via FedEx. This will create the immediate impression you are a professional who will be businesslike in his day-to-day dealings with the publisher.
Once you’ve incorporated these nine elements into your book proposal, you will be left with a finished product worthy of commanding the respect of any editor. But in order to create a true blockbuster book proposal, make sure to… Define the book’s concept. Identify the book’s audience. And outline exactly how to reach that audience. Do these three things well, and you’re certain to obtain a book contract. So don’t waste any time.