Sending a book proposal to a publisher is the first big step to getting your book into print. Whether you’re working alone or with an agent, our guide will help you write a book proposal that will wow everyone who reads it! And even if the first book deal doesn’t work out, you’ll be equipped with the skills to keep striding forward on your journey to being a published author.
Congratulations on your book! Perhaps we’re a little premature, but if you’re looking into writing a book proposal, you probably have a great idea (and maybe even some chapters drafted) for a book that you hope to see published in the next couple years.
Think of your book proposal as an elevator pitch. If you were a consultant, your book proposal would be a slide deck. But instead, you have 50 pages (give or take) of text to wow your editor. You have one document to convince a set of editors that your book deserves the financial, monetary, and procedural investment of publishing.
Today we’ll take you through the process of writing the book proposal. You’ll learn how to write a book proposal — a great proposal that will knock the socks off your agent, editor, and publishing board.
1. Preparing to write a book proposal
It can be terrifying to start writing a book proposal, especially as a first-time author. Your fate as an author is entrusted to just a few dozen pages with no guarantee of success!
Worst case scenario, your proposal is rejected and you get to try again with a new publisher, new agent, or new proposal.
Best case scenario, you land an amazing book deal, your book hits a bestseller list hot off the press, and the publisher asks you to write another immediately.
With so much at stake, don’t dive into the process without careful preparation and discernment.
You don’t need a finished manuscript to write a book proposal, as your publishing deal will likely include major edits and even reorganization.
However, even if you just have a few chapter ideas and stream-of-consciousness content typed up in a Word doc, there are three ducks to have in a row before you start writing a proposal.
A NEED TO BE MET
Unless you’re writing fiction or a memoir, your book has to unambiguously solve a problem for a particular set of people. You will have to prove not only that you have a solution for this problem, but that the need is there and remains unmet among readers. Make sure you’ve done enough market research to know where exactly your idea fits in among the books already out there (or soon to be published). If you find out someone already wrote about your idea, read their book and see what they missed. There lies your opportunity.
AN AUTHOR PLATFORM
This could be a social media following, newsletter community, or readership from a book you’ve self-published already. Traditional publishers will demand proof that people are willing to buy your book, respect your expertise, and are easily reached by you. If you’re a speaker, publishers will be excited to have you as a representative not only of their book, but their brand. Start your journey to becoming a speaker by checking our speaker fee calculation tool here.
A LITERARY AGENT OR A GAME PLAN WITHOUT ONE
We’ll talk about this more in Section 3, but a literary agent will be an invaluable asset during the publishing process. Since agents work off of commission from your book sales, you will not have to pay them up front but you will need to hook them on your idea. If you choose not to work with an agent, make sure you have a means of trusted feedback on your proposal so you don’t face a cycle of rejections!
Once you’ve established these three essentials, it’s almost time to write the proposal.
Even before you start writing it, make sure you’ve discussed your book idea with friends, family, or acquaintances–even if they’re not in your target readership. When writing a proposal it’s easy to get caught up in your interests and expertise, but your editor won’t necessarily share those interests. If you’re writing a book about starting a software company, don’t dive straight into the niche technical language that only a software professional will recognize. Your editor might not know the first thing about software companies! Could you walk into a bar and explain your book to a total stranger? Use that language for your proposal.
Another thing to keep in mind as you prepare to write your proposal is the sample chapter (keep reading for more details on that). If you are in the early stages of composing your book, this could be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be! Remember: during the editing process, your content and organization will likely change quite a bit. The sample chapter is just one tool for selling your book idea, just like everything else listed below!
2. Sections of the book proposal
Use these five sections as a guide for putting together your proposal. Specific templates abound online, but always check if your publisher has specifications of their own! Formatting or organizational errors will show the publisher that you didn’t read the fine print, lack attention to detail, and don’t meet their standards. In the absence of proposal guidelines, a good agent will help you understand what your publisher is wanting.
1. Title page
Start with a thorough title or cover page. This should include your name, the book title, your contact information and website, and contact information for your agent.
The first thing you want the editor to see after the title is an overview. This could vary from a few short pages or a lengthier synopsis of a more complex argument. This is the first real content that the editor reads, so make it good! A good overview that hooks your editor right away will put you at an advantage!
Summarize the idea of your book in easily digestible but comprehensive terms. Include the gist of the details you will cover later in the proposal. Why is now the time for this book? How will it be organized? Who will read it? What will they learn from it? What problem will it solve? Leave the particulars for the subsequent sections.
3. Table of contents and sample chapter
Here you explain the organization and content of your book while showcasing your writing style. Include a short summary of each chapter in the table of contents, especially if your chapter titles are creative rather than self-explanatory.
To choose a sample chapter, think about the hypothetical traveler who pops into the airport bookstore and pulls your book off the rack. They open at random and scan a few pages, wondering if it’s worth the purchase to keep their five-hour flight interesting. What do you want them to read? What would get them absolutely hooked? Something that will hook readers, not a super technical section that is difficult to extract from the greater context.
Use that for your sample chapter. And write it well. In most genres of nonfiction, editors will focus more on your unique argument than writing quality when reading your proposal. However, there is no reason not to make the sample chapter the absolute best example of your writing quality that you can muster, because if nothing else it will distinguish you from the competition!
4. Marketing strategy
Before you get to the methods you will use to market your book, you have to prove that your book will stand out amidst similar books that are already on the shelves. This competitive analysis goes by different names: competitive titles, comparative titles, or competing works. In short: show that you know the playing field. What’s missing from the playing field? Your book.
Once you have established the differentiating factors of your book, you have to outline your promotional plan. Who is your target audience? Be as thorough as possible. Do you already have a community waiting for your book? Hundreds of followers asking to be on a launch team? How will you make sure the good news of your book gets to the right people? How will you make sure it sells?
Use the promotional section to demonstrate how you will capitalize on your niche as described in your competitive titles section
No publisher will want to go through all the expense of taking a book to the press if it doesn’t sell. Even if you are relying on a big-name publishing house to boost your marketing efforts, they will expect an effective strategy. However, if you are in talks with a publisher and feel they are expecting too much (demanding you hire a PR firm when that’s outside your budget, for example), it’s time to re-negotiate, find a new publisher, or self-publish.
Speaking is a great way to get news of your book out to a massive audience–and it will impress your publisher! Find out how much you can charge for speaking engagements here.
5. About the Author
Moving on, we can’t forget about you, our brilliant author! It’s time to brag. You must establish your credibility, expertise, and any personal brand recognition that might lead people to buy your book! Include any self-published works, industry experience, or other activities such as speaking and consulting that could work in your favor.
The key for this section is staying relevant. Even if you think your juggling hobby is the most fun thing about you, leave it out if your book isn’t about juggling. Conversely, if you’re an accomplished executive writing a book about juggling, lean toward emphasizing your juggling prowess rather than your professional resume–no matter how impressive it is!
Don’t feel limited by these five sections. These are the essentials, but your book might need some additional details. If you have already clarified an estimated word count, book-related event ideas, or graphics and illustrations, include them. If your book has something special about it, like a connection to other products created either by you or by others, make it a selling point.
3. Proposing to a publisher
If you have done adequate preparation and completed a proposal with all five sections covered, you are well on your way to getting it out into the world.
Now, what do you do?
Find the right publisher.
Which publisher you propose to will depend on your subject, preferred audience, and writing experience, so take your time before you hit submit. Your competitive titles research will reveal the best publishers in your niche, so start there.
We recommend all first-time authors consider working with a literary agent, especially if you want access to the best publishers. An agent well-suited to your project will help you cater your proposal to particular publishers that they have experience with. They will help you with the business side of the book deal by negotiating more money and more rights for you. They will put in a good word for you if they’re friends with the editor.
If you’re on the fence about an agent, try submitting on your own and ask for as much feedback if possible if you are rejected. You will gain experience and understanding of the publishing world to bring to your next proposal draft, whether you start working with an agent in the future or not!
Be prepared for rejection the first few times you pitch a proposal. But if you can, turn that rejection into feedback. If an editor lets you know why your proposal was rejected, channel it into the changes you make before you re-submit. Since bigger publishing houses might take months to respond with a decision, you might find yourself submitting to multiple publishers at the same time. However, even if you have been working on this book idea for years, there is room to grow with each submission.
What do you do while you’re waiting for a response? Work on your author platform! Building your brand with a sleek website, online community, and recognizable expertise will do nothing but good in the publishing world and beyond. Taking extra time to work on your marketing potential is a worthwhile investment. Beyond the book proposal stage, this will give readers the confidence to buy your book with enthusiasm!
Well, you did it. You’ve written a book proposal for a publisher, and you’re already sending it out or awaiting review by your agent.
The next few months might bring you the greatest news of your life, but they might come with disappointment too. Even if you land a book deal, you might have to reframe part of your message, eliminate certain chapters, or even change the title!
And that’s ok. Any author will tell you that those little bureaucratic setbacks are part of the process– and a great reward awaits at the end. Even if your first book doesn’t land on the NYT bestseller list, establishing a relationship with a publisher will open the door to future opportunities for authorial success!
To sum everything up, here are the most common FAQs about how to write a book proposal:
What makes a good book proposal?
A good book proposal communicates your book idea, content, and marketing strategy in a way that convinces a publisher that the book is financially worthwhile to produce.
How long is a book proposal?
Most proposal lengths vary anywhere from 15 to 50 pages. Depending on the length of your sample chapter, it could even be longer. Make sure you check whether the publisher you’re writing the proposal for has guidelines for length organization.
What does a nonfiction book proposal look like?
A nonfiction book proposal hooks a publisher by explaining how the book will solve a problem for a clearly defined audience. The marketing strategy, target market, and competing titles sections are especially important!
How do you write a one page book proposal?
Use the same content you would in a normal book proposal (title, overview, table of contents, marketing strategy, and author bio) but condensed into short, punchy paragraphs. Make sure your contact information and book title are front and center!