Crafting a Book Proposal

By Patricia Monaghan, Ph.D.  2011.  All rights reserved.

Most publishers today require you to send them a proposal, as well as sample chapters or (in certain cases, notably fiction) the full manuscript, before they will consider a book for publication. Doing the book proposal professionally and comprehensively will increase the likelihood of your book’s receiving a positive response. This short article will guide you through the major parts of a book proposal, which are the overview, market analysis, chapter-by-chapter outline, and bio/timeline. (The order of the last three may vary, but the overview naturally always comes first.) The proposal is virtually always accompanied by approximately three sample chapters; in the case of creative writing, publishers expect to see the entire novel or book of poetry. (Note: many poetry publishers do not expect a proposal, but almost all nonfiction and fiction publishers do.)

The elements of every successful proposal are the Overview, Market Analysis, Chapter-by-Chapter Outline, Timeline/Bio, and Sample Chapters.

Overview: This is your “pitch.” If it isn’t well written and exciting, your potential publisher might not read further, so craft this section carefully. Describe the book factually. Remember that there is a fine line between enthusiastic presentation of subject matter and flagrant self-promotion; stay on the first side of that line. Don’t use inflated language; this is not an “advertisement for yourself” but an engaging description. Don’t claim that your book is “the best” or “the most authoritative” without some proof, especially if you are approaching an academic press. If your book has developed from previously published articles, mention them and the reception they received. Employ the language and tone of the book, so that your potential editor can get a feeling for how you’ll write it. Sometimes this part of the proposal can be adapted to become the book’s introduction—or the introduction you have written can be adapted to become the overview.

Market analysis: For most people, this will be the hardest part of writing the proposal. To do this effectively, you have to think like an editor. Who is going to buy your book? While it’s nice to think that “everyone in the world will be interested,” that is unlikely to be the case. To be effective, this part of the proposal will provide information about any similar books and how they have been received. While it is notoriously hard to get data on a book’s sales, quotations from positive reviews that speak of the competing book’s appeal can be very helpful. It might seem that saying “this is the only book of its kind” would make your book appealing to publishers, but the reverse is true. The editor may imagine that if there are no other books on the subject, no one is interested.

Be careful, however, to show how your book is different (and, of course, better) than the competition. Tie your book to trends, including demographic, disciplinary, and intellectual. If you are looking for an academic publisher, determine whether you think your book could be adopted for a course (in which case, you may wish to give examples of the kind of course that would use the book) or will be an addition to the literature (in which case, be sure to show how you have developed from earlier work to create a new space in the discipline). Academic books do not typically sell very well, with a good-selling title coming in at a few thousand copies, so you need to establish that your title will offer prestige and intellectual advancement to the press. If you are looking for a trade publisher, be as specific as possible about the audience you are trying to reach; trade publishers are interested in sales rather than reputation. Be patient and thorough in writing this part of the proposal. It will make or break your book. Writing it can also help you understand your own work better; you may discover information in researching this section that will help you craft a better book, so be open to that.

Chapter-by-chapter outline: I Break the book down into its parts and describe, in two-three sentences, how each part advances the argument. If you have already written the book, this part is easy. If you haven’t, be aware that this part is not a contract but a likely scenario. Don’t feel that you are promising never to stray from the outline; authors sometimes find, in writing a book, that the order or even content of the chapters change from what had been envisioned at the beginning. (Too radical a change might lead to the publisher rejecting the book as failing to fulfill the contract, however.)

Timeline/bio: These two sections are often combined as one, but sometimes separated out. The timeline is a paragraph or so that announces when the book will be completed. Editors prefer to hear that a book will be finished within a year of the contract being issued (which is about six months from the time you hear an expression of interest). If your book is going to take more time than that, hold off looking for a publisher until you are about 18 months from completion. If there is some reason that a book will take longer than a year from contract, spell out those reasons (which should not be “I’m very busy” or “I have other demands on my time” but must be related to the subject matter’s demands, such as religious festivals in various countries).

As for the author’s biography, this should be neutrally phrased and in third- rather than first-person. As with the overview, do not engage in flamboyant claims of your own importance but do not be overly modest. You want to answer the question that will be foremost in your editor’s mind: “why should I buy this idea from THIS person?” Academic and other creditions, including previous publications, are appropriate here, as are short lists of organizations in which you are active. If you are not currently active in any organizations related to your book, start now to get active—which means more than just giving papers at conferences. Publishers are looking for books that will sell, and someone who is on the editorial board of a journal or an officer of an academic organization will bring more possible exposure to a title than someone who just does their job and goes home.

Sample Chapters: To complete your submissions package, you will include some sample chapters. It goes without saying that, before submitting to any publisher, you should have reviewed their submissions policies. Some publishers only read during certain months; others require the entire book to be complete before they are approached; others have specific information that they require in every proposal. In closing, keep this in mind: think like an editor. Even if your editor loves your idea, she will have to argue with the publications board to get it published. Provide all the material your editor needs to make that argument successful.

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