I’m Barry Fox, author, ghostwriter, editor of some 50 published non-fiction books: business books, memoirs, health books, and more. I like to go beyond just ghostwriting the book or book proposal, to helping people properly conceptualize their books from the beginning to ensure that the book they write really represents them, and has a better chance of selling.
In the video above, I look at a few key components of creating and submitting a book proposal that gets agents and publishers excited about your book. I have written a lot of proposals which worked (by which I mean that publishers bought the books) — and I want to give a look at what it takes to do the same. The text below is a transcript of my speaking notes, along with some extra resources that I promised to share during the webinar.
What is a book proposal?
It is a document created by non-fiction authors. Broadly speaking, a book proposal is two things:
1) a description of the book-to-be; and
2) a suggestion of how much money the publisher stands to make.
It's a combination book blueprint and financial prospectus. The proposal has to make it clear to the acquisitions editor what your book is about, that it is interesting, and that it has a viable audience.
How Do You Use a Book Proposal?
For non-fiction books, you usually don’t begin by writing the book. Instead, you write the proposal that describes what the book is about, why it's interesting, and why it has an audience. It’s usually at least 20 pages long, often much longer.
With the proposal in hand, you will ideally start contacting literary agents. Or, to be more precise, you send a query letter that briefly describes your book idea and yourself. If they want to learn more, you send the full proposal right away. Agents have different requirements for approaching them — different information that they want in the query. I've written countless articles on this topic, so I'd suggest you check out my posts about literary agencies and publishers who accept unsolicited queries and proposal.
What Does a Proposal Consist Of?
The proposal can take numerous forms and, as mentioned, every literary agent will have their own preferences. Whatever the form, the key elements are:
- Title Page: with your selling sentences, also known as your hook, or elevator pitch.
- Table of Contents: for the proposal, not the book. This will help the agent navigate your proposal
- Overview/Synopsis: this includes an overview of book, your potential markets, genre, length, and any special features
- About the Author: a quick biography and a rundown of the author’s qualifications
- Competition: a realistic list of competing books along with a competitive analysis
- Marketing & Promotion: what you can do to promote the book
- Book's Table of Contents: just as it will appear in the book. But don’t slapdash your way through this. Remember, this is part of your opportunity to impress the agent and publisher with the fact that you are a great writer who knows how to hook an audience.
- Chapter Outlines/ Summaries: a few lines to a couple paragraphs about each chapter.
- Sample Chapters: usually one or two chapters — usually the first chapter.
This talk won't cover each of these in details. Instead, I will focus on a few key parts. For an in-depth guide, read this post on How to Write a Book Proposal [The Definitive Guide + Template].
Title Page with Selling Sentences
This is not a throw-away page; it's not just a few words you scribble and forget about. This is a key part of your prospectus and every word is important. Agents and publishers sift through hundreds of proposals, so you need to make sure they turn the page.
This single page will contain:
- Subtitle if any
- Your name
- Your credentials, if relevant, and very brief
- Your Selling Sentences
Your selling sentences are your first opportunity to grab a publisher by the neck and make them think, "Yes! I want to read more." As examples, I've included the selling sentences for two of my medically-related books below:
- Wake Up! You’re Alive — “An M.D.s prescription for healthier living through positive thinking”
- Cancer Talk — “Voices of Hope and Endurance from the World’s Largest Cancer Support Group”
Think of it as an executive summary. Now that you've piqued their interest with your selling sentences, your goal here is to entice the agent (and later, the acquisition editor) to read on. Make it concise and readable, show the agent/publisher that you understand how to hook readers. Also show that you truly understand what your book is about, that the topic is of interest to many, and that you are the one to write it.
You will want to mention:
- Just the essence of your idea or story. DO NOT delve into the minutiae, DO NOT give a blow-by-blow account of your topic.
- Timeliness. Is this tied to something coming up, like the 100th anniversary of a major event or innovation?
- What makes your book different from all others on this topic?
- How are you uniquely positioned to write and promote the book?
- Your methodology, if appropriate. If you will be working from the private papers of your biography subject, or interviewing scientists, or getting collaborators to contribute to chapters in an anthology, let them know!
- Your potential markets, both primary, secondary, and specialty (more on that later)
- The word count and genre
- Special features – photos, menus, worksheets, maps, quizzes, etc.
Anticipated delivery date, if more than 10 months or a year
Depending on which agent you are querying, the overview could be anywhere from 1 to 5 pages.
“In essence, this is your main selling statement. Concisely address all that is the most exciting, interesting, introspective and unique about your book. Make it clear that you are the best and most qualified person to write this wonderful and very necessary piece of non-fiction, as well as make a persuasive case for your intended market.”
— Bradford Literary Agency
“Pretend this is the jacket flap copy that people will read once your book is on display at Barnes & Noble or your local bookseller. It should make somebody want to read your book.”
— LGR Literary
Things to avoid
Don't let this section run on too long, by trying to include every detail of your idea or story. Instead, show the agent or publisher you can be concise, yet complete and compelling. This overview is essentially an ad for both your writing and selling skill.
Also, avoid unrealistic statements like “Everyone will want to read this book,” or “A guaranteed one-million bestseller,” or “Every big TV host will be dying to interview me.” It's good to show a positive, can-do attitude but publishing professionals would much rather work with authors who have their feet on the ground.
Your goal here is to identify your potential readers and demonstrate you understand how many people might buy your book.
Don't say “EVERYBODY!” That’s completely unrealistic. I had a huge New York Times bestseller that sold well over a million copies, and most of the people in the country have never heard of it!
When talking about your potential market, avoid broad demographics like “all women” or “everyone who lives in a house.” There’s no single book that “all women” will read, or will appeal to “everyone who lives in a house.” But how large is your true potential audience? And who does it consist of?
A book on heart health is not "for everyone" just because everyone has a heart. It’s for people concerned about heart health, and, if your book is about an alternative approach, it's actually for people concerned about heart health who also like alternative medicine. This is the primary market.
You also need to point out your secondary and specialty markets. For example, you might be writing a romantic WWII memoir that's aimed at readers of genre romance — your primary market may be made up of women aged 50 and up. But your secondary market might consist of WWII buffs.
Then there are specialty markets, which might be comprised of niche stores, museums, gift shops, websites, and such. If you're writing a new history of the Texas Revolution, then you specialty market would involve the gift shop at the Alamo in San Antonio.
Publishers know the book market pretty darn well, so this is more of an opportunity to show them that you understand the challenge of selling your book. And if you know something they do not about this particular field and can offer them insight into a new market, then you're looking pretty good at this stage.
Comparative Titles and Competitive Analysis
This is a quick look at how other books like yours have done in the market. You need to show that there is a flourishing market for books like yours and that you can fill a gap in the market.
Your book needs to fit into an existing niche and show that it's somehow better or different. This might be a different angle on the topic, you might have new research, or the book might be targeted at slightly different readers. If there are no competitors, the publisher may conclude it’s because there is no market for your type of book.
I suggest the following approach:
- Select and briefly describe 5-8 books that compete with yours.
- Pick the top competing books to discuss in detail, including the sales figures if they are available.
- If you can't find public figures, you can also look at their Amazon rankings and put them through a sales calculator that will estimate their monthly sales.
Don’t ignore certain books if you think they will make your own submission look weaker. Editors will notice your omission and conclude that you are either uninformed or trying to trick them. Also, don’t trash other books when you're making a point about yours: just describe them. Who knows, the editor reading your proposal may have edited the book you are trashing
“Do not be negative ("So-and-so’s book is very similar in subject, but is poorly researched and boring) as you may be trying to sell your book to the comp title’s publisher, and you just sound like a jerk. Go for current titles (published in the past 3 years) and be realistic.” — WolfLit
To summarize, beware of:
- Saying that “there are no other books like this” or “mine leaves the others in the dust.” These are big red flags;
- Trashing other books;
- Giving misleading information about other books;
- Ignoring pertinent books;
- Relying on only well-known blockbusters that everyone else will cite.
The "Author" and "Marketing" sections
Whereas the competition analysis section will convince publishers that there is a market for a book like yours, this section focuses on you: why you are uniquely placed to write this book and why you can help a publisher sell this book better than another author.
About the Author
“This section is in the proposal solely to answer the two questions every editor thinks about when considering a submission: Should I risk my company’s money on this writer? What are the author’s special credentials to write this particular book? Focus your biography on answering those two questions, keeping this section under a page and on target.…”
— Roger Williams Agency
You need to mention your media "platform", which may consist of:
- Parts of your education that make you an expert on your topic;
- Experience that makes you an expert on your topic;
- Your publishing history, if any;
- Number of hits per day on your blog, Huffington Post page, etc;
- Social media engagement (Engagement, not impressions);
- Any previous media appearances – TV, radio, lectures, webinars, etc;
- Any articles written by (or about) you;
- Your personal contacts in the media;
- Your personal contacts with VIPs in your field who can help your book (Doctor, professors, etc);
- Seminars, classes you teach on the topic
If possible, show that you are the go-to person in this field, that you already have in place the means to sell lots of copies. Remember that the About the Author section is part of the overall pitch. It's not a laundry list of your life: use this section to demonstrate that you write well and that you understand the book business.
- Approaching this section as you would your CV/resume;
- Rattling on about your family, where you live, your hobbies, and your favorite foods (unless that’s relevant to the book);
- Fibbing about your past publications and sales figures — this may be fact-checked.
- Fibbing about anything.
Marketing & Promotion
This section is mostly a mix of paragraphs and bullet points listing your past and current promotional success – and outlining your future anticipated success. The goal here is to show the publisher that you are “book selling machine” who will generate lots of profit for them.
Previously-published authors and well-known experts in their fields can talk about:
- Books and articles they’ve already published;
- Their TV, radio and lecture schedules;
- Their incredible social media action;
- and more.
If you’ve got all that, or some of it, great! Mention it. However, if you’re a first-time author or don’t already have a great media platform, there are still things you talk about in this section:
- Mention your small media platform – even the fact that you teach a class on this topic at the local college;
- Get yourself on local radio/TV or webcasts, whatever, RIGHT NOW;
- Have some quotes or blurbs to hand;
- Get a VIP coauthor. I used to develop an idea, then look for an expert to be the named author;
You can also look for corporate, organizational, or museum tie-in — placed that want to see your book published, or who might:
- Want to buy copies;
- Sell it in their stores or on their website;
- Give you access to their mailing list;
- Invite you to speak
Failing all that, you can always pledge your advance to hiring a PR firm selected by the publisher. This is more common than you might imagine.
Other useful resources
That pretty much does it for the points I covered during the talk (and in the video above). But if you're still not bored yet, I have a few more points you might find useful.
In every proposal, you'll be expected to submit one, two, or even three beautifully-written chapters. The first chapter is almost always included, because it introduces the topic. You may include the next chapter or two, or skip ahead to a chapter of special interest.
The purpose of these samples is not so much to educate the editor on your topic, but to demonstrate that you are indeed, a great writer, and that you can deliver what you promise in the proposal. However, you should still ensure that your sample chapters represent your book at its most interesting or relevant.
- For a bio on a famous person you may include the first chapter and the one in which she makes her great discovery; or maybe the last chapter where the hero dies.
- For a health book looking at various diseases in alphabetical order, you may use the first chapter than skip to the chapters on cancer and heart disease, as those are the two most common diseases in this country.
Proposal Format & Length
“Appearances are important. Your proposal’s presentation will be seen as indicative of the form in which your entire manuscript will be delivered. Moreover, a clean, easy-to-read proposal encourages an editor to put it on the top of the “to do” pile. AEs are looking for materials delivered in electronic form – specifically, the manuscript unformatted MSWord.doc. Illustrations, charts, graphs, etc must be on separate documents, or on a physical disc. Proposals are double-space with reasonable margins on 8 ½ x 11 pages. On the page headers, put you surname, and book title; in the footer, page numbers.”
— Roger Williams Agency
In general, I would say that the trend is moving towards shorter proposals. However, difference agents prefer their proposals in different formats and lengths. To give you an idea of how much they can vary, I'll include a few examples of the guidelines provided by agencies. Bear in mind, I didn't get these through any secret literary backchannels: you can find this information on their websites. I would urge you to always follow an agency's submission guidelines. It sounds obvious, but you'd be blown away by the number of authors who shoot themselves in the foot every day.
Serendipity Literary Agency
“Some of the main components that need to be clearly detailed within your proposal include, but are not limited to:”
- Market and Publishing Rationale:
- Brief description
- Book Description/Chapter Outline
- Key Features and Selling Points
- Author Platform and Bio
- Competition or Related Titles
- Book Specifications
Ted Weinstein Literary Management
“Here is a basic template for a book proposal, which many of our clients have used successfully. ”
- Target Audience
- About the Author
- Competitive Titles
- Marketing and Promotion
- Detailed Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
[Kirsten] Wolf Literary Services
“A book proposal should include each of the following sections, in this order:”
- Format – paperback/hardback/ trim sizes, word count
- Competitive and Comparative Titles
- Chapter Summaries
- Sample Chapter
[Laura] Bradford Literary Agency
“While every agency and editor may have a slightly different opinion on the mechanics of writing a winning non-fiction proposal, most successful proposals have the following elements in common:”
- Chapter Outline
- Projected length and date of delivery
- Sample Chapters
Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency
“Basic book proposal guidelines:"
- "COVER PAGE (with the title, your name and your full contact information on the lower left)
- BOOK PROPOSAL TABLE OF CONTENTS (include all the major components and their respective page numbers in the proposal)
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- MS. DETAILS (projected delivery date and word count)
- COMPARATIVE TITLES
- BOOK TABLE OF CONTENTS
- SAMPLE CHAPTERS (at least one sample chapter)”
Book proposals do seem like a tricky art to tackle, but you won't go too wrong if you remember a few key things: that your proposal must convince and editor that your book is interesting, that it has a viable market of readers, and that you are the right person to write it if the them. Focus on those three elements and you'll be doing a great job.
If you want to learn more, check out Reedsy Learning's course on submitting book proposals. Or if you want a professional's assistance in shaping your proposal, get in touch with me by asking for a free quote on my Reedsy profile. Good luck, authors!
If you have any questions for Barry on the topic of book proposals, or want to know what a ghostwriter can do to help you crack the code, drop a message in the comments below.