Contents of a book proposal

This is my second post summarizing notes I took during a masterclass on getting published run by Bradley Trevor Greive (who gave permission for me to write these posts). You can read part one here, which covers introductory information on book publishing and pitching strategy. This post will focus on what should go into your book proposal.

What is a book proposal? It’s what you submit to a publisher or an agent when asking them to take you on, introducing yourself and your book. If they like your book proposal, then you may get to give them your completed manuscript. There’s more information on how the process works in part one.

As we drop into this, remember, your book proposal is a sales document, a fact that should sit foremost in your mind as you craft it.

What goes into a book proposal?

There are three parts of a book proposal:

  1. Cover letter
  2. Book proposal
  3. Writing sample.

Cover letter

The cover letter is exactly what it sounds like; a letter of introduction you write to the agent / editor you are pitching to. Outside of your book, this is the most important thing you write; a bad letter can kill your submission. “If you can’t write a letter, you can’t write a book.”

The purpose of the cover letter is to:

  • Introduce yourself.
  • Introduce your book.
  • Make them want more.

The key to your cover letter (and every other part of the submission), is to be brief and compelling. These people receive hundreds or even thousands of proposals each year, do not waste their time. “Get in, get out, delight.” Some basic rules:

  • No more than 300 words.
  • Don’t share your life story (that first time you read Harry Potter and knew you wanted to be come a writer? It isn’t going to make them buy your manuscript).
  • Do tell them why you want to work with them (see part one for information on strategically targeting agents and editors).

Book proposal

As noted in part one of my notes from the masterclass, getting a book published can be a lengthy and complicated process. To maximize your chance of success, you need to do more than convince the agent / editor you have written a good book, you need to make it easy for them to sell it up the chain. The book proposal should include all the information and selling points that will:

  1. Sell the book to your agent, and
  2. Help your agent sell your book to your editor, and
  3. Help your editor sell your book to your publisher, and
  4. Help your publisher sell your book to the publishing board.

The following is a basic outline of what the book proposal should include:

  1. Book title and author’s name.
  2. Overview
    The elevator pitch / longline. A brief, compelling description explaining what your book is about (genre and subject). Keep it very short but try to inject your personality into it.
  3. Market comparison
    Compare your book to two best-selling titles that your work resembles in some meaningful way. If you haven’t seen a “comp” before, they tend to be in the format “Puff the Magic Dragon meets The Walking Dead”. Ensure that at least one title is a current or recent release.
  4. Target audience
    Who will purchase this book / What is your primary audience? Demographic information on who reads books in your genre may not be easy to obtain. Search the internet, read book reviews of similar books. If all else fails, put
    “women 18-45”. This is the largest demographic for books overall and is the “default.”
    Note: you can list more than one demographic.
  5. Production notes
    Does the book require anything specific to be produced? Colour images, special paper stock, finishes, or new technology?
  6. Additional resources needed to complete this book
    Is there anything you need the publisher to provide to help you finish the book? Photographs, illustrations, a paper engineer?
    For example, if you have a specific illustrator you want, name them. If there’s a specific style of illustration you want, provide examples.
  7. Completion date
    When will the manuscript (and / or your illustrations) be finished? The correct answer for a new / emerging author is typically “now.”
  8. Launch / Promotion
    Marketing advantages and suggestions to maximize the impact of your book. This is your chance to be creative and come up with ideas.
  9. Media / Social Media Presence
    Do you have a media profile of note? How big is your social media following? How strongly do they engage? Do you have a strategy for building that platform?
  10. Commercial extensions
    Could your book be the basis of TV / Film / Theatre Production, toys, greeting cards, video games, board games, apps, clothing, etc?
    Note: this can be useful, but keep it all “on brand.”
  11. Future projects
    What else do you have planned? If you’re planning one or more sequels, talk about it here (none of these projects need to be completed). If you have unrelated projects planned, you can talk to those too. Ideally, you want a long-term, positive relationship, so show them you have more than one story in you.
  12. Author Bio
    Keep it short and surprising — this is the least important part of the submission. Unless you’re famous, or there’s something in your story particularly important to the current story (e.g. a PHD in the topic of your non-fiction book), it isn’t that important.

Writing sample

This is your actual writing — the thing you want them to publish. However, when submitting your initial book proposal, you don’t give them the whole thing, only a sample. If they like what you’ve submitted, they’ll ask for more.

The length and format of your writing sample will vary publisher to publisher. Each will have a guide for submissions and you must follow it. If your proposal is for a novel or other long-form work, you will likely be asked for a synopsis as well. Again, each publisher will have their own expectations for a synopsis you must follow their guidelines. Look these guidelines up online — if you can’t find them on the publisher’s website, check writer’s marketplace.

The sample itself is fairly explanatory — select a section of your work that best shows your writing style / skills (hit: it doesn’t need to be from the beginning). Follow the guidelines for length and format and you’ll be right.

Synopses can be more confusing, and a search of the internet will reveal countless authors complaining about them. At their heart, a synopsis is a breakdown of the story, showing the structure, key events, and proving you’ve planned everything out. Some publishers like a relatively long, detailed synopsis, whereas others prefer a two to three page “cliff notes” version. Either way, the goal is to summarize the important plot-points of the novel. There is a huge amount of discussion and material on synopses out there, and I’m not going to reproduce all of it. The best piece of advice I’ll relay is this:

  • A synopsis may be heavily summarized, but it is still an exercise in story-telling. Try to inject your voice into it and give it personality.
  • Don’t focus on the physical events (though you will include the important ones), focus on the drama. What are the events that impact characters? What are the impacts of those events? What choices are the characters faced with? What sacrifices must they make?

In summary, for the writing sample:

  • Read / follow the submission guidelines!
  • Do not send your entire book.
  • Choose the best sample of your work, not the first chapter.
  • Keep your synopsis brief, showcase structure, highlight drama.
  • Add your personality to everything.
  • Less is more.

Final Submission Checklist:

  • Intro letter (300 words or less). Compelling intro / sales document, not your life story.
  • Book proposal summary (less than 2 pages).
  • Writing sample as per submission guidelines.
  • Additional flourishes to set you apart / make you memorable (no gifts).
  • A very small selection of credible press clippings and / glowing reviews. One, maybe two.
  • Don’t forget to include your contact details.

How to submit

Electronic submissions are fine. If you are submitting a physical submission, don’t use regular mail.

If you have a contact you are targeting (agent / editor), don’t send to the standard submission address — you’ll go straight into the slush pile. Send it to the person you are pitching to.

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