THE ELEMENTS OF A BOOK PROPOSAL
By Nancy Peske
To write a book proposal, start with an overview describing the book, why it fills a hole in the marketplace and is needed now, and why you’re the right person to write it. Describe the audience for the book and the benefits your book offers. When describing the audience for the book, you might offer some startling statistics to make the case that your book has a big audience. For example, in the book proposal for Raising a Sensory Smart Child, I wrote, “1 in 20 children has sensory processing disorder: That’s one in every classroom.” In general, statistics such as “Over 20 million people” and “Seventy million Americans” don’t grab people’s attention the way “1 in 20 people” does. Help your book proposal’s reader envision how many people are affected by the situation addressed in your book. If every hour, three people are diagnosed with the condition you are writing about, or if “by the time you finish reading this sentence,” something will have happened, your reader will say, “Wow!”
Alternatively, you might want to start with an engaging story or series of short anecdotes.
How long should the overview be? As long as needed to make your case. It might be 2-3 pages or it might be longer. Aim to keep your book proposal to no more than 60 pages double-spaced, 12-pt. type in a standard font (such as Times New Roman) without extra lines between paragraphs. Your proposal will have a sample chapter, so be sure to leave room for that.
Please note that some book publishers will have specific requirements for your proposal.
Why this book now is a subsection within the overview that sets up the urgency of the need for the book (for example, with a self-help book, the reader has an urgent problem the book aims to solve). Often, authors will introduce themselves in this section and explain why they’re the right person to write the book they’re proposing and how the idea came out of the work they are doing.
An author biography showcases your expertise as well as offering a sense of why you came to do the work you do. Include any degrees or certifications and descriptions of what you’ve done in the past and information about your author platform, that is, your foundation for being able to reach out to fans of your work. For example, if you have a podcast, have written articles for magazines and websites, and belong to professional organizations, note that in your bio. Note any relevant writing experience you have, such as previous books, and include references to any major media outlets that have featured reviews of your previous books or interviews with you.
Include where you reside, too.
Also, you might want to be a little creative and put a bit of your personality into the author bio, even if it’s just naming your fur babies.
Include a marketing statement. An author platform is key to your visibility and credibility, showing that that you have a loyal following that will be eager to buy your book. Include information on your social media followers and activities. An agent or editor will be looking at your social media accounts and website to see whether you have an online presence but also how big your online following is and how engaged your followers are. Provide links within your book proposal to your author website and blog and any social media accounts.
In your marketing statement for your book proposal, spell out what you are willing to do to get the word out about the book and to sell copies. Just as you would do in a business plan, here you have to convince a professional publisher that your book is a worthwhile investment. Do you have the ability to get your book announced to a quarter million people via your friends’ and colleagues’ and your email newsletters? Are you planning to do personal appearances you pay for, such demonstrations at wellness centers and speaking engagements at community centers, bookstores, and churches? Provide details.
Offer suggestions for niche media outlets to approach, such as specific types of magazines, websites, podcasts, or blogs that would be likely to feature the book in some way. If your agent and publisher have worked with authors in your genre before, they know that a press release and a galley (a pre-publication version of the book) needs to be sent to a larger and more obvious outlet, such as Parents magazine, but they might not know to send these materials to, say, Adoptive Families magazine. They might not be aware of some of the blogs that would let you guest blog or would interview you or run a Q&A.
Specify your partners—anyone in your field who will happily announce your book on social media and in their newsletter and blog, and interview you or review your book. The idea is to give your publisher a wide range of ideas for promotion and show them what you are willing to do and to pay for. Please note that the marketing statement must include a comparative books list to help the agent and acquisitions editor better understand what books are out there, easily discoverable and selling well. Discoverable could mean they are carried in brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as online bookstores such as Amazon.com and BN.com. It could mean they come up easily in an online search of Amazon or the Internet.
Write a list of contents for the book followed by an expanded chapter outline (also known as the list of chapter descriptions). Offer at least two paragraphs about what will be included in each chapter. I’ve seen book proposals that sold for six figures that had several pages of description for each chapter, making the proposal longer than 60 pages but irresistible to editors because the descriptions of what will be in the book are so substantive.
Don’t be vague when describing a chapter’s contents. For example, instead of saying, “Exercises will be included,” or just naming an exercise and leaving the reader of your proposal wondering what that exercise entails, you might say, “In this chapter, readers will discover my Moxie Mama Self-Care Exercise, a guided visualization combined with journaling prompts that help aspiring Moxie Mamas to take better care of their own needs and release any anxiety they have,” or “In this chapter, readers will learn about five keys to being a Moxie Mama when their child is struggling to make friends. They are . . . ”
In the expanded chapter outline, you don’t need to describe any chapters you’re actually including in the book proposal. Instead, just note that the sample chapter is included.
You might put a short sample of material from the actual chapter in one of the chapter descriptions to clarify a point. For example, in my book proposal for Raising a Sensory Smart Child, there was a sample chapter (chapter one) but also a section of sample practical tips to show what that chapter would read like. I knew that this particular chapter was extremely valuable for making the book a practical guide.
Provide a writing sample. The book proposal has to show what the writing in the actual book will read like. Include chapter 1, and again, consider including a section from another place in the book, too, but it’s usually best not to include the introduction. It will overlap with the overview. Note that I have seen memoir book proposals that sold that did not have a full chapter: The author took short pieces from throughout the memoir and sprinkled them into the expanded chapter outline. However, including an entire chapter, and even having a second one ready to go, puts you in a safer position with an agent or editor.
Specify the length and delivery date, also known as the “specs,” of the book you’re proposing. Within the proposal, either in the overview or in a separate section, you must note when you can deliver the manuscript and what the word count will be. Publishers generally want the book delivered within six to nine months, maximum, although they understand that it will take longer if you’re writing a work requiring substantial research.
As for length, you can specify your proposed book’s word count. To calculate the word count of your potential book, look at a book that’s about the size, shape, and length of the book you envision, count the words on a typical page, count the number of pages, and multiply. As an in-house editor, I was taught it’s best to specify word count in contracts so that’s what I do in book proposals as it’s much more accurate than citing page counts. Do a word count on several different books and you’ll see that the number of words that fit on the page depends on the page design (font, “leading” or space between lines, margins, design elements such as boxed texts and sidebars, etc.) Note that a typical length for a self-help book these days is around 60,000 to 65,000 words or even less. You might quote a range of 60,000 to 65,000 words or 65,000 to 70,000 words. If you don’t know how many words are going to be in your book, plan it out chapter by chapter. Nine 6500-word chapters = 58,500 words while twelve 5000-word chapters = 60,000 words, and so on. When you look at comparative books, you’ll start to get a sense of what word count you want for your book.
Include endorsements if you can, and even promise a foreword by someone with an impressive name if you can get this commitment from someone in your field. Typically, a foreword is written by another author, a physician or CEO, or some other expert. (Also, make sure you spell “foreword” correctly. A book doesn’t have a forward; it has a foreword.)