This is an older version of my post. Please read the updated one HERE rather
You may want to write a non-fiction book that is based on your professional expertise. Or perhaps it's an illustrated children’s book, a cookbook or a photographic travel book. The good news is that you don’t have to write your entire book first. You can submit a proposal. In fact these books are generally commissioned by publishers on a proposal basis. (I am going to use the terms publisher / agent interchangeably).
This means that writing a proposal is actually a Pretty Big Deal. They are long and they take a whole lotta work. But they will easily weed out the serious writer (that’s you) from the ‘don’t care enough’ to an experienced publisher. Don’t rush the process of the book proposal and don’t underestimate how carefully crafted this needs to be. This is what is going to get your book sold.
Strictly speaking an editor will only ask for your proposal after they have read your Query Letter (your short, snappy email telling them about your book). But personally I often send a Proposal interchangeably as a Query Letter to publishers on behalf of authors.
Why do publishers want them? We need to have as much information as possible to see your book’s potential. It also allows us to see an indication of what the book is going to cost to produce.
Many publishers will detail exactly what they want you to include in your proposal, others leave it up to you. Check their website if you can first. For my first book proposal I sent two pages and a rough chapter outline but I was very clear on what I was saying and my chapters were carefully crafted. A shorter one can work if your book is compelling and meets a clear gap in the market.
I am going to give you the pretty simple basics that generally work for any proposal.
Let’s take it step by step.
BOOK TITLE + SUBTITLE
Titles are fantastically important and can sell a book. A non-fiction book title does not leave the reader guessing. It tells a reader exactly what your book is about. They are not vague, elusive – but they can be very clever. Like...
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Rich Dad Poor Dad What The Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
There isn’t a ‘random musings’ category in a bookstore. Where is your book going to sit and be sold? Children / Travel / Business / Spiritual / Self Help / Parenting / Sports. If you have done any work with me you know I am a total Genre Fanatic. If you don’t know your genre you are not even going to get off the starting block with a publisher.
Think of this as your executive summary. It needs to answer the question – what is your book about? It’s short and snappy and gives an overall idea of your book and its message. The best way to do this is to look at how other authors have crafted this – as a blurb or back cover copy. It’s going to make the agent or publisher take notice and it's the thing that makes a reader pluck your book off the shelf. This overview has to contain your book’s single essential message. Look at the above book titles. See how clear the message is? What’s yours? I also like to see the writer’s tone come through in this. Is this book funny? Show me here. Is it heartfelt and gentle? Show me.
MARKET / AUDIENCE
OK this is critical. Who is going to read your book and why? The publisher wants to have a sense of the possible market. Is this a business-to-business book aimed at sales managers or is it a self-help book aimed at divorced women? Is it for men or women? Children? What age? Be specific.
Please read this article for a breakdown of how to do this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is the blurb written in third person about you .... like 'Sally Anne is a vet who talks to animals'. Why are you qualified to write this book and who are you? If this is a non-fiction you need to present your professional credentials in a smart and readable way. Stick to one paragraph. Again bring your tone in here. If your book is funny, use your humour here. If it’s gritty, make this writing reflect that.
This is an idea of how your book can be sold outside of bookstores. This section is important for publishers. Dig deep but don’t embellish. Make a list of all and any outlets, bookshops, supermarket chains, websites, publications - electronic or hard copy - TV and radio stations, marketing forums, blogs or social media outlets that you can think of, which might be interested in stocking, distributing, advertising, circulating, promoting, reviewing, featuring or mentioning your book on publication. Do you have a blog or newsletter – how many followers? Do you do talks or workshops? How many and how many people attend?
An easy section – what other titles are being sold in your genre? Get down to a bookstore, check on Amazon. Don’t list them all but include the larger titles that set the tone in your genre. How is your book different – even if it's a modern / updated take on the idea.
This only applies to a book that includes photography (cookbooks / photo / travel) or illustrations. It is key if it is a children’s book. I want to see a sample of what the book is going to look like. Here you are going to have to put out some money if you are not doing the illustrations yourself. I highly recommend few pages actually designed, or at least some visuals of how the book is going to look. Don’t go too far as the publisher will have their own layout artists, but if images are critical to your book – include some of them.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Present your content or chapter list. Make them clear and obvious (not obscure and smart) so the editor can see exactly how you are going to organize your information.
I like writers to include a few well-crafted paragraphs about what is going into each chapter here. You may find this a bit like hard work but the more effort you put in at this stage the easier it is for you to write the book when you get a contract.
Send your best three completed chapters with your proposal. Generally speaking these should be the first three for clarity, but there is no total rule on that. Keep them under 5,000 words a chapter.
Be prepared to rewrite your proposal several times to get it better and better. Now go and nail it!
Sarah Bullen is a writing coach, literary agent and book editor. She coaches writers on how to become authors and how to write to get published.