How to Write a Book Proposal: 3 Tips for Writing a Proposal That Sells

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How to write a book proposal: 3 tips for writing a proposal that sells

If you're a fiction writer who hopes to get your book published, you likely know that you'll need a finished book and a literary agent before you can get a book deal with a publishing house. But if you’re a traditionally published fiction author (or a non-fiction author) working toward your next book deal, you may only need a book proposal. 

Basically, book proposals allow you to sell a book idea without having actually written it yet. Amazing, right?

So, how do you write a successful book proposal? Let's explore.

What is a book proposal?

Whether it's a proposal for a memoir or a non-fiction book, a book proposal is a document laying out a detailed overview of an unwritten book, containing a chapter outline, initial writing samples, and some basic marketing analysis, such as comp titles, or a rundown of your target audience. Running anywhere from 10-50 pages long, book proposals are meant to convince a publisher that your concept will sell, so that they will contract you to write it.

The amount of work you put into both the pre-writing stage and the actual drafting of the proposal itself will be the difference between making a publisher feel confident in taking a chance on you and leaving your book unwritten and unpublished. For a breakdown of what to include in an effective proposal, and how to catch an editor’s eye, read the great tips we’ve got for you below!

The book proposal template

There are many different ways you can format or order the contents of your book proposal, but here’s a list of the sections that need to be included, and what each segment should contain:

  • The overview of your book should include:
    • The title of the book and your name (or penname).
    • An elevator pitch. Also known as a logline or a hook, this is where you’ll give a concise pitch of your book in fifty words or less. You should relay your story's plot or main point, setting, genre, and main character or point of view.
    • Comp titles. What are some books, shows, or other titles that are similar to your concept in style, genre, or content? The point of this is to show that your book appeals to an existing audience and can be expected to follow the market success of similar titles, while also standing out as a distinctive work.
    • Analysis of your audience. Who is this book for? Why will they want to read it? What will make your book uniquely appealing to them?
  • Author Bio. Include information about your experience as a writer, and any previous books you’ve published, especially if they were met with critical or commercial success. State your qualifications to write on the subject matter of your book, if it’s nonfiction.
  • Chapter-by-chapter Outline. This will be the longest section of your proposal. If you’ve persuaded an editor to read this far into the document, now is your chance to show them how much work and thought you’ve put into the content, setting, style, and themes. The length of each section will vary depending on genre and your own writing style, but you should have at least one paragraph for each chapter detailing its proposed content. Some fiction writers will even include key bits of dialogue in their summaries, but how intensive these sections will be ultimately depends on you, the work you’ve put in, and the genre you’re writing.
  • Sample Chapter(s). For an editor to request a full manuscript from you off of a proposal, they’ll need to be convinced that you are a capable writer. Provide one or two sample chapters that prove you have the requisite skills to turn this amazing concept into a book that delivers on all the promises you’ve made. Your agent can provide you with some guidelines on the word count.

If you’re pitching a work of fiction, you might also consider including a character breakdown. If your proposal is for a nonfiction book, be aware that editors might expect you to already have an audience in your area of expertise. As such, you should include any information about your existing platform(s), reach, industry connections, or relevant appearances, and how you might use these to market your book to the audience with which you’re already connecting.

One last thing you could put into your book proposal is a tentative writing timeline for producing a full manuscript, to demonstrate how soon an excited editor could expect to see a draft.

Tips for writing an effective book proposal

Do your research

Those of you who’ve been in the querying trenches before have probably realized by now that a book proposal is basically an elaborately expanded query letter. In fact, a lot of the same skills you employed to try and attract an agent will be useful now in catching an editor’s attention! Hurray for practice!

One thing that was true of querying, and is just as significant now, is the importance of intriguing editors from the get-go. You’ll do that by answering the following questions in your proposal: Who needs this book? What makes your book special? Why are you the best writer for the job?

Answering those questions requires that you do some market research beforehand. Do a deep dive into the genre you’re writing. What books are popular, up-and-coming, or evergreen? Are there certain trends you need to be aware of? A canon you need to be well-versed in? Read widely in your genre, know what’s selling, and take notes on how books like yours are being marketed. Using this information, you’ll be able to write an informed proposal with an intriguing hook, tantalizing comp titles, and a market-savvy analysis of your book’s potential appeal.

Make a strong case for writing the book

Your main goal when writing a book proposal is to make editors hungry to see a full draft, so that they’ll commission you to write what they consider a promising and profitable project. If you’re proposing a fiction or narrative nonfiction novel, that means demonstrating that your book is a page-turning must-read that will enthrall readers and potentially become a bestseller. Emphasize how the book fits in today’s market, its ability to stand out from the competition, and your glowing writing skills.

If you’re proposing a work of nonfiction revolving around self-improvement, health, or business-related topics, you may need to emphasize other things more than your writing chops. What will be the big selling point for your book: the unique way it will meet your audience’s needs? Its fresh approach to heavily debated topics? Your unique point of view?

Whatever the answer, make sure you show the publisher that you are the right person to write this book. For example, a publisher may be likely to take a chance on a mental health book written by a psychologist than an influencer. It’s so easy these days to find information via blogs, social media, or YouTube, so if you can, you should highlight how your background or your unique premise will inspire more confidence in readers than free, readily available resources online. If you can express how and why you’re equipped to draw audiences in to hear what you have to say, publishers will be eager to capitalize on that.

Be confident in your book proposal!

Lastly, don’t be shy about selling yourself! The whole point of writing a book proposal is to convince an editor to take a chance on you and your unwritten work, which naturally includes a level of financial risk. This is not something they’ll do if you sell yourself short, so put your best foot forward in every word you write. Just as with applying for a job, you must stand out from the competition, especially when so many already-written books are filling up editors’ inboxes, so don’t hold back! Confidently do whatever you can to charm and excite editors looking for rising talent, or the next big idea.

Here’s one final, bonus tip: if you have an agent, don’t be afraid to ask them for help! They can offer invaluable advice when it comes to today’s market, what’s selling right now, and how your genre is (or isn’t) currently selling to editors. Agents are in the trenches of publishing every day, so if anyone knows how to pitch or sell a book in the current climate, it’s them. Agents are premium resources, so don’t forget to rely on yours if you have one!

Ready to write a book proposal?

Now that you’re armed with everything you need to know about writing a successful book proposal, it’s time to sit down and get to work! Proposals can take weeks to compile, so don’t rush the process. Just remember to follow the tips above to emphasize your and your book’s marketability in today’s ever-changing market. If you do, you’ll be sure to get that book deal you’ve been craving before you’ve even written out your next publish-worthy book!

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