What goes in a book proposal?

If you’ve spent any time researching the book publishing process, you’ve likely encountered a variety of perspectives on what makes up a good book proposal. I suppose this post is simply my contribution to the crowded conversation, but, in my view, most advice about book proposals is over doing it. Editors and agents receive dozens—even hundreds—of proposes each week. To make your pitch stand out, you’ll want to get right to the point.

Here’s what I like to see in a proposal:

  1. A Short Summary: Think of this as an elevator pitch, so get right to the heart of the matter, and don’t go longer than a few paragraphs. Describe the hook of your book—the topic you’re covering, the unique angle you’re going to bring to that topic, and why that topic is essential for readers right now.
  2. Your Audience: A description of who this book is for. Be specific—no book is for “everyone.” Show that you understand the target audience for the book, and that you know why a person in that audience will see your book as essential reading.
  3. An Outline: Give us your outline or table of contents with 2-4 sentences under each heading or chapter. Show how you’ll develop the structure, and how you’ll keep the whole book interesting.
  4. Your Platform: Even publishers with the most robust publicity and marketing operations rely on author platform to sell books these days. So highlight the strongest elements of your platform, whether that’s social media followers, newsletter subscribers, industry connections, or your credentials in your field.

Other tips for querying:

  • It’s fine (even advisable!) to submit your proposal to multiple agents and publishers simultaneously, but be sure you’re doing your due diligence and reading their guidelines before you hit send. Find out what genres the publisher or agent represents. If they don’t publish or represent fiction, for example, don’t submit your novel to them.
  • Speaking of research, do your best to find a specific person to address your query to. Even if a publisher doesn’t list their editors on their website, you can usually sleuth it out by searching deal announcements on Publisher’s Marketplace or Publisher’s Weekly, investigating the publisher’s social media presence, or other googling. If all else fails, go with the name of the publishing company (i.e. “Dear Premier Books”). Please don’t address your query “Dear Sirs,” which is sexist.  
  • You’ll notice that my list above doesn’t say anything about competition. Most proposal advice suggests listing several comparable or competitive books on your proposal. But it is really easy to go awry here. The tendency is to want to list only best-sellers, but that often communicates an unrealistic understanding of the potential for your book. Another common mistake is to list comps that vary too widely in topic or genre. If you do list comps in your proposal, be sure that they communicate a clear knowledge of the market and your audience.
  • If you’re pitching a nonfiction book with a complete manuscript, you still need to complete and send a proposal. Sending your entire manuscript without a shorter summary or any information about your platform and audience greatly increases the chances that an editor will skip over your book. Make it easy for us to learn everything we need to know about your book in the first few pages we see from you.

Happy querying!

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