You’ve poured your entire self (and a ton of time) into writing your book.
Now it’s time to shop your manuscript to agents and publishers.
The next step is to write a winning book proposal—designed to persuade an agent to ask to see your manuscript and consider representing it to publishers.
Book proposals vary in approach, length, and style, but certain key elements must be included for yours to succeed.
In 10 to 25 pages, you must describe what you have to offer.
Your proposal should answer:
- Why this book? Why the world needs what you have to say. How does your book differ from others in its genre?
- Who might buy it? What kind of reader will devour it and tell their friends? (Hint: “everyone” is the naive, unrealistic answer agents don’t want to hear.)
- Why you? What qualifies you to write this book and what kind of following do you bring to the table?
Your proposal has one job—to pique an agent’s interest in seeing your manuscript.
Before You Begin:
- Follow literary agencies’ submission guidelines religiously. Details matter. Agents tell me they read a lot into whether a writer follows directions.
- Submit your proposal only to agents who represent your genre. This may appear obvious, but violating this is common.
- Be sure your proposal is easy to read. More complicated does not equal more impressive.
- Properly format your document: white background, black ink, 12-point type (Times New Roman or another serif type), 1-inch margins all around, double spaced, little or no bold-facing or mixing type styles.
- Use bullets where you can.
- Keep sections and paragraphs short and make generous use of subheads.
- Write in the third person.
The NonFiction Book Proposal
Elements that must appear in any nonfiction book proposal:
1. Cover Page
Keep it simple and clean; no graphics, fancy fonts, or inspiring quotes. Just the basics:
- Label it a Book Proposal
- Your title idea
- Indicate series or a standalone title
- Your contact information
A one-page summary of your book, focused on persuading the agent to solicit your manuscript.
3. Target Market
Paint the picture of who might buy your book. Be as specific as possible about why certain audiences would be interested.
If your book is about life as a veterinary surgeon, its primary target would be aspiring vets, the second practicing vets, and the third animal lovers.
Include statistics on the numbers of people who populate these categories.
4. Comparative Analysis
Tell how your book differs from or complements competing books. Focus on its strengths and distinctives without disparaging the competition. Present data and resist the temptation to exaggerate.
For example, existing works might skew clinical while yours is more personal and anecdotal, focused on the emotional side of veterinary medicine “they don’t teach you in veterinary school.”
5. Author Bio and Platform
Explain why you’re the person to write this book. Your platform matters.
Use tools such as Google Analytics to track your blog or website traffic and reveal the extent of your visibility both on and offline.
For instance, maybe you’ve been a vet for 25 years and are known for your sense of humor and pet rescues. Your “Day in the Life of a Vet” blog gets 5,000 hits a month and 25 comments a day.
You may also be known for your Twitter account (run by a grumpy English bulldog persona), which has over 25,000 followers.
6. Marketing and Promotion Plan
What do you bring to the marketing mix?
Include speaking engagements and audience numbers. If you have organized outreach and a tribe strategy, include that with numbers.
Review your resources and offer a solid plan. Express enthusiasm and outline your strategy for promoting your book.
I am committed to promoting this book through my wide network of peers [and be specific].
I will be one of the speakers at the American Veterinary Medical Association next year, which attracts over 20,000 professionals.
I host a webinar for about 300 vet students once a week. I also broadcast live while performing pet surgery every other month on Facebook Live, which gets upward of 1,500 views. I plan to use both online platforms to promote my book during the launch.
I am also an adjunct professor of veterinary medicine at Amherst College. The department head has expressed interest in using my book as required reading.
You might also list professional associations, your number of email subscribers, and any public or media appearances. Assure the agent that you’ll be an enthusiastic and available promoter.
7. Contents with Chapter Bullets
Offer concise one to two sentence summaries of each chapter of your book, written in present tense (Here I present the idea that…).
Also include your projected word count and completion date of your manuscript or state that it’s already finished.
8. Sample Chapters
Some agents suggest including your first three chapters; others ask for your first and then two others of your best chapters.
The Fiction Proposal
If you’ve written a novel, the proposal is less complicated.
It can be as simple as:
I have written a novel about a judge who is trying a man for a murder that the judge herself has committed. The main character is her daughter, who knows the truth, and the narrator is her fiance. It’s 90,000 words and is aimed at adult females who enjoy mystery and romance.
Also include, all in just a one-page query:
- A brief synopsis of your book
- Information about yourself and your platform
- Competitive titles and how your book is similar or different
- Potential marketing opportunities
If you succeed in getting an agent to ask to see the manuscript, simply submit it with a simple cover letter that reminds them of the request to see it: I have attached the manuscript you solicited in our correspondence of [date]. I look forward to hearing from you.
Make every word count. Resist the urge to sell (This is destined to be a bestseller…) or state the obvious (I hope you like it… or I’ll change whatever you suggest to make it better…). They know. :)
1. Sample Chapters
Most agents want to see the entire manuscript of a first novel, but check their submission requirements. Some ask for the first three chapters or fifty pages.
Agents read hundreds of proposals every month, so less is best. In as few as one to three pages, summarize your book.
If sending only your first three chapters, synopsize the rest and don’t pose questions—as you would if writing back cover or sales copy.
An agent is your potential publishing partner and wants answers, not teases like, Will she survive? or generalities like The future of civilization is at stake… Tell the agent what happens.
- Transmit electronically unless hard copy is requested; in that case, no bindings or staples, only loose pages, numbered.
- Mention (briefly) any personal connection with the agent.
- Include only copies of original artwork or documents you need returned.
- It should go without saying that you want to submit only ferociously self-edited copy with which you’re entirely happy.
Waiting for an agent’s response is like waiting for Christmas!
But what if you don’t hear back?
Some agents stipulate on their sites that if you get no response after a certain period, you may assume they’re passing.
In this technological age, when an acknowledgment of receipt can be triggered by a keystroke, I find a no-response rude. Sometimes you’re not even told they received your material.
In this case, wait six weeks and send a kind note inquiring whether they received it.
If you get a response, even negative, consider whatever advice they offer, and be grateful you heard something.
And don’t be defeated by a handful of setbacks. Many bestsellers were rejected multiple times before they sold.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, one of the bestselling children’s books in history, was rejected 27 times before it was published in 1962.
Andy Andrews’s The Traveler’s Gift was rejected 51 times before it was published in 2002.
Don’t give up.