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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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Getting your manuscript published

September marks the beginning of Spring in my home state, and the arrival of the Tasmanian Writers’ Festival. This year, I was lucky enough to score a place in a masterclass on becoming published, run by Bradley Trevor Greive. If you don’t know the name, he’s the world’s best-selling humorist, with 24 books published and having sold more than 30m copies in over 115 territories. That’s a lot of books — if anyone could help me understand the publishing industry better (and how to get my books published) it’s him.

The session did not disappoint. My debut novel (Human Resources) has been picked up by a publisher, but that contract came via a writing competition, rather than the traditional submission / rejection cycle, so I had a huge amount to learn. I still have a huge amount to learn, but I know a lot more than I did before the session.

The great news is BTG is a wonderful person who gave me permission to share his most useful tips on my blog, so here we are. Absolutely all credit goes to Mr. Greive, who not only shared this content, but was generous to donate his time at the festival so the proceeds could go towards the local writing community.

Note: the following has been written by me from the notes I took during the session, it isn’t an exact reproduction of BTG’s words (nor the entire course). I feel the need to point this out so you understand: a) any genius here is all his; and b) anything that doesn’t make sense, or is plain wrong, is my error.

Further note: if you ever get the opportunity to attend a masterclass with BTG — I strongly recommend doing so.

Yet another note: this post is entirely concerned with the traditional publishing process. That’s not a judgment on other avenues to publishing (after all, my debut has taken a non-traditional path), they’re just out of scope this time.

Be a pack

“There is no such thing as a lone wolf.” I’m paraphrasing BTG here as I can’t remember the exact words, but the message is important (and mirrors my experience); making a book is a team effort. Even if you write a perfect manuscript, there are a myriad of tasks that must be done to make it a successful book. Self-published authors take on many of the activities usually handled by a publisher, but even there, the most successful usually rely on others for at least part of the process. So, if you’re building a team, you need to know who the players are…

When I started this process, I had little idea how the publishing process worked, nor how publishing houses were structured. Here’s the basic departments:

  • Editorial: your editor, editor’s assistant / reader, publisher, etc. all live here.
  • Design: responsible for the visual design work. The level of exposure and author will have to this department depends on the nature of the work. A novel will typically be mainly about the cover whereas a children’s picture book will be much more involved.
  • Production: these are the people who actually print the book.
  • Distribution: gets your book to warehouses and retailers.
  • Marketing / Publicity: self-explanatory.
  • Legal: handle your contracts, ensure you stick to it, and protect it in different regions.
  • Finance: handle and pay royalties.

There are a range of publishers out there, both large and small. Don’t be surprised if smaller publishers in particular outsource some of the above.

Publishers are people, not companies

This is important, and will be mentioned again later. There are two parts to this:

  1. Terminology: a Publisher is a company that publishes books. However, a Publisher is also the title of a senior member of the editorial department.
  2. Strategy: people decide who they want to publish. You need to win over an editor and a publisher (the person) before you get near the publishing board. Every single one has their own tastes and personalities. Within a single publishing house, one editor may dislike your work whilst another loves it. Always remember you are working with people.

Know the steps

This was an eye-opener for me. The process from submission to book publishing in a traditional publisher is likely longer than you thought. Here’s what the process may look like:

  1. You send in your submission.
  2. Submission goes to a reader. This may be an assistant editor, the reception staff, or a volunteer. If the reader likes your submission, they pass it to an editor.
  3. If the editor also likes it they’ll make contact and probably ask for more.
  4. If the editor still likes it, they take the book to their publisher.
  5. If the publisher likes it, they may choose to take it to the publishing board. Note the “may” here — the publishing board is competitive, so if the publisher has multiple “good” manuscripts from their editors, they may only take the one they like the most (or think will win at the time).
  6. The publishing board is made up of the publishers (7-10), plus advisors from other departments (marketing, finance, legal). Each publisher competes against the others, arguing why their book is the one that should be published using the limited funds available in the budget.
  7. If the publishing board decides to go ahead with your book, you receive an offer which you / your agent / your lawyer negotiate and accept.
  8. Editing happens. You forget what the outside world is like, rewriting over and over again, until finally…
  9. 3-18 months later your book is published.

Timing

How long each step of the process takes can vary greatly, but here are some rough guides to set expectations:

  • Submission: 4-8 weeks.
  • Offer: Up to 12 weeks.
  • Contract Process: 2-4 months.
  • Editing / Rewrites: 3 months – 2 years.
  • Production: 3 – 9 months.
  • Publication: 9 months – 2 years. Note: there’s usually a clause in the contract which provides a window of time the publisher has to release the book before you can keep the advance and go elsewhere.

Strategy

There’s a heap to unpack here — people have written numerous books on this alone, so again, these are only the top tips I came away with. First up, your overarching strategy:

  • Understand your motivation. Know what’s important to you.
  • Understand the process (above).
  • Know who you are speaking to (the reader, the editor, the publisher, the publisher’s board). You need to keep each of those people in mind when crafting your submission.
  • Give them what they need to succeed. Understand the process and write your proposal to support each step. Make it as easy as possible for the publisher to prepare their argument for the publishing board (i.e. write it for them).
  • Don’t waste their time. Include everything they need, nothing they don’t. Your submission is one of thousands, if yours is too hard they’ll move on to the next.

Be a sniper

Sending out your manuscript to every publishing house you can find like the wild spray of a machine gun is considered unprofessional and can burn bridges. If you want to go down the traditional publishing route, you are looking to build long-term relationships. Do your research, select your target, hunt them down, one by one. No simultaneous submissions.

Remember, publishers are people, not companies. Finding the right editor / publisher is much more important than the imprint they work for, so do your research, build a hit list of editors you would love to work with, and approach them specifically — regardless of which imprint they work for, even if some work at the same publisher.

How do you identify the editors you want to work with? Research your favorite contemporary books from a relevant genre, who were the editors? Often, the author thanks them in the acknowledgements, so check there first, but the internet is a vast and beautiful resource. Build up your list, identifying the publishing house they’re currently at (for contact details, and to ensure you obey the submission guidelines). When you submit your proposal to them, don’t forget to include why you want to work with them.

Build relationships

As an author, your relationship with your editor (and agent) is the most important professional relationship you will have. Pick these people carefully and treat them with respect. Which brings us to a very important rule: “Never sign on with an agent / editor / publisher whom you wouldn’t invite home to dinner.”

That’s it for now. The session also included detailed tips and guidance on how to structure and write a proposal, but I’ll leave that topic for another time. I hope you find this helpful. Again, I want to acknowledge and thank Bradley Trevor Greive for donating his time to the Tasmanian Writers’ Festival, and for giving me permission to share my take-aways. Buy his books.

Also, check out my debut novel, the sci-fi Human Resources, coming out early 2018.

Recommendation: The Punch Escrow

The Punch EscrowThe Punch Escrow (TPE) currently holds a record place in my library, as I finished it in five days, which for a slow reader like myself is a huge statement. I couldn’t put this book down, and now I’ve read it understand why people have been comparing it (stylistically) to Ready Player One.

The novel is set in a somewhat distant future (2147) where teleportation has become the dominant form of transportation. It follows Joel Byram, a salter (he teaches AIs to be more human through mind games), as he’s drawn into a conspiracy that threatens the world order and forces him to question who he really is.

The novel is hard sci-fi and the author (Tal Klein) has done some heavy-lifting in the world building. There is enormous depth to the society he has created and the science that keeps it humming. An interesting style-choice Klein has chosen is to include regular footnotes to explain various aspects of society, history, or science as it is referenced. This wouldn’t always work — these footnotes can be huge info dumps — but in the context of TPE it feels authentic (and the explanations are fascinating.

The story is told directly by the main character, in the form of a message he records for others to find so the “true story” won’t be lost. This is a nice approach, as it lets Klein provide us more than one point of view while staying firmly in Joel’s voice, which is delightful. It also means all those footnotes I mentioned are also explained in character, which is part of the reason they don’t become boring.

I loved this book from beginning to end and can see why it’s been building so much hype. If you enjoyed Ready Player One, or fast-paced hard sci-fi with a sense of humor, I recommend picking this book up.

You can find it on Goodreads here, Amazon here, or Book Depository here.

Recommendation: Shades of Magic

Schwab - A Darker Shade of MagicThe Shades of Magic trilogy has rocketed into my list of top fantasy, my mind returning regularly to the remarkable world and characters author V. E. Schwab has created. I have a feeling it’s a series I’ll return to several times to relive the joy it brought me.

Schwab has declared the series will remain a trilogy, the three books being A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, and A Conjuring of Light. However, a recent announcement has confirmed we will get to return to this world in a new series, something I’m ecstatic about.

Schwab - A Gathering of ShadowsThe trilogy is set in a universe of alternate realities. Specifically four, each connected by a city called London. Though they share a name, each London is different, as are the worlds they inhabit. Grey London is our own Victorian England, drear, industrial, and devoid of magic. Red London is vibrant with power, the river coursing through its heart a pure source of power that glows bright red. White London wastes away, cut off from the magic it once possessed, people value power above all else. Black London is dead, destroyed by magic long ago.

Only a rare few, the Antari, can travel between the worlds, and they are becoming fewer, leaving each world almost completely isolated from the other. The trilogy follows Kell, one of the last two living Antari, and Delilah, a thief with a talent for surprises. Together, they set off a chain of events which set the worlds on a collision course of epic proportions.

Schwab - A Conjuring of LightThe world building in this series is beautiful. From the cultures, to the cities, to the magic — it’s a joy. The characters are complex, engaging, witty, dark, and I challenge you not to fall in love with them. In addition to the two main characters, Schwab gives us a diverse cast of players who delight.

You can find more information on the series on Goodreads here. Or you can pick up the first book (A Darker Shade of Magic) from Amazon or Book Depository.

On Old Friends and New Beginnings 

This announcement makes me incredibly happy.

Victoria (V.E.) Schwab

I was halfway through writing A CONJURING OF LIGHT when I realized I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
My characters were on a boat in the middle of the sea, en route to a floating market, when I called my editor, Miriam, and said, “I’m not done.”

Miriam asked if I needed another book in the Shades of Magic arc—an idea we’d floated once or twice, when trying to decide if the series was a trilogy or a quartet—and I said no. There was a story I was telling in Shades of Magic, a story that started with a simple black stone, a story I wanted to finish.

CONJURING was the book where I was supposed to tie off all the threads. Closed the doors. Write the end.

And I did.

But I also took a chance.

As I wrote, I starting weaving in a few new threads. Not many…

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Recommendation: The Falcon Flies Alone

Disclaimer: I read a free review copy of this book.

The Falcon Flies AloneThe Falcon Flies Alone is a supernatural science-fiction novel set in Switzerland and Germany during the 1950’s. It follows the fraught tale of Peppa; the recently orphaned daughter of a respected chemist who is a skilled scientist in her own right. When we join her, however, she is far from the halls of Radcliffe where she had expected to be studying. After the death of her father, she was left in the care of her Aunt until she came of age at twenty-one — a situation she couldn’t stand, leading her to flee and hide in the country until her birthday when she could claim her inheritance. Unfortunately, things spiral out of control when she is implicated in a violent and deadly incident in the town, one that unleashes a falcon spirit inside and leaves her questioning her sanity as she flees the authorities.

The story is interesting, deliberately keeping the reader guessing as to whether Peppa has really transformed into a giant raptor, or whether the drug she was tricked into ingesting cause a psychotic break. The novel is well-written, and I enjoyed it, though there were a few elements that held me back (all subjective).

My biggest problem was Peppa. She’s a naïve character who has grown up submersed in science, leading her to interpret the world and events through an almost purely clinical eye. She goes through a great deal in the book, and is undoubtedly the victim, but at the end of the day I just couldn’t bring myself to like her. It’s not always necessary to want to be friends with the protagonist in a novel, but in this case, I struggled a little to care about her future. This is definitely my subjective experience, and I have no doubt others will love her. She just wasn’t the style of character I’m drawn to.

Mathieu has done a lot of research for the book, and it shows. While there are supernatural elements to the story, it focusses on its science-fiction basis, and there is a lot of science to unpack. In places I found it a little heavy handed, but throughout most of the book it flows well. Some people will love the detail provided, others perhaps not so much. You’ll know if you like your stories with a heavy dose of science — I again present this not as a criticism, but as a subjective experience.

The Falcon Flies Alone is the first book in a series, the book nicely closes the primary story arc while opening into the next. The novel is action-packed with rolling twists and turns. Gabrielle Mathieu is strong writer who has delivered an interesting period science-fiction which will be loved by those who connect to the main character.

You can pick up a copy from Amazon here, or read more reviews on Goodreads here.