Some Tips for Writing Effective Book Proposals

David Haviland, writer and script doctor, gives advice on preparing a non-fiction submission.

Writing an effective proposal is arguably the most important stage of planning and producing your book. This document alone will determine whether or not your book will be published, the size of your advance, and how publishers will position and market your book. Even if you have a history of successful books, or have already completed a high quality first draft, the proposal is still of paramount importance, as it is usually the only thing publishers will read before making their offer.

With this in mind, here are some tips to help you produce a compelling proposal.

Synopsis

The proposal should open with a one-page synopsis, summarising the main details of the plot or narrative. This synopsis should also give a sense of the book’s intended structure, genre, style, and tone. Will it be told in the first person or the third? Will it focus on one character or many? Will the book be serious or light-hearted? In what ways will it be new or fresh? Will the book focus on one particular question or line of investigation?

In general, you should try to avoid making empty claims about the book’s strengths or potential appeal. Simply stating that the book will be a thrilling narrative, or that it will captivate readers, tells the publisher nothing of substance. Instead, include examples and details which demonstrate how these strengths are inherent in the story. Does the book include any particularly powerful scenes or details? If so, make sure these are included in the synopsis. Think of the synopsis as being a bit like a movie trailer, and put the best bits in.

Can your book be summarised in one line? If not, this may indicate a problem with the premise. Most successful books have one, clear purpose, and focus solely and comprehensively on pursuing this single goal. A biography of Winston Churchill, for example, is a book with a clear, single purpose, which is easy for publishers and readers to understand. On the other hand, a biography of Churchill which also compares him to Tony Blair, say, would be a confusing and unappealing prospect.

CV

Your proposal should include a single page detailing your background and credentials. Broadly speaking, this section has three aims. The first is to demonstrate that you are a capable and experienced writer, who can be trusted to do a good job. To demonstrate this, include details of any previous publications, provide quotes from any positive reviews, and mention any serialisations, international sales, or translations. Have any of your books sold particularly well? Are any used as textbooks?

Secondly, you should demonstrate that you are the ideal person to write this particular book. Do you have any specific experience that qualifies you to write on this subject? Are you a member of any relevant organisations? Are you regularly asked to speak on the subject in the media, or otherwise acknowledged as an expert? Alternatively, do you have access to new sources, or personal relationships with important figures in the book? Have you written on the subject before?

Thirdly, publishers will be interested in any other benefits you personally can deliver. Perhaps you write for a newspaper or magazine editor who has suggested that he might be interested in serialising the story? Are you an experienced public speaker, with a flair for interviews and other promotional work? Is your name well-known enough to guarantee a certain volume of sales, or interest from retailers and reviewers? Does your weblog generate thousands of hits? Do you have anyone notable in mind who might be prepared to write a recommendation for the book’s cover? Do you have a particularly interesting story to tell regarding your personal life, or your experience of writing the book, that would make you an appealing guest for TV or radio appearances?

Competing Books

This section is crucial, but often neglected. Writers frequently use this section to criticise previous books on the subject, sometimes in fairly vague terms, describing previous books as being ‘too dry’ or ‘badly written’. Instead, this page should demonstrate two things: that there is a large market for books of this type, and that the proposed book will differ from previous offerings in at least one significant respect.

Therefore, it is in the interests of the writer to praise previous books, rather than to damn them. Have any of these books sold particularly well, generated positive reviews, or been frequently reprinted? Were any serialised in the national press, or sold in translation? Are any regarded as classics, or used as textbooks? Have any won awards?

Since your aim is to ‘sell’ this market as much as possible, broaden your approach to include a wide range of successful books. Rather than mentioning only books on the same subject, try to also include major titles from the same genre, or books that are comparable in some other way.

Once you have made your case that this is a thriving market, you then need to make it clear how your book will differ from previous offerings. Remember that editors are usually looking for ‘the same but different’, so your book need only be different in one significant respect.

Specialist Marketing Outlets

In most publishing houses, editors are no longer authorised to make new acquisitions without the approval of the marketing department. Therefore, like it or not, it will be marketing people who decide whether or not to buy your book. This section is your opportunity to flatter them and win them over.

The aim of this section is to demonstrate that there is a large market of people with a particular interest in this type of book, and that there are lots of ways to reach these people. Are there magazines, journals, organisations, websites, or TV/radio programmes dedicated to this subject? How many readers, subscribers, members, visitors, viewers etc. do they have? Do these organisations review books, interview authors, or host events? Do they operate book clubs, or sell direct to their readers/members? Do any national newspapers have regular sections dealing with this subject? Would any local publications have a particular interest in covering the book?

Sources

Obviously, this section is only necessary for certain types of book – you may not need a section on sources when writing a memoir, for example. In this section, try to be as comprehensive as possible, and emphasise any fresh or unusual sources or modes of research.

Chapter Summaries

Your proposal should include a one-page summary for each chapter of the book, including chapter titles. In these, as in the synopsis, try to include the book’s best details and scenes, and provide a sense of the chapter’s plot and structure. What are the chapter’s main events or sections? Is there enough material to justify a whole chapter? Does one chapter lead naturally into the next?

Try to avoid using commentary in these summaries (such as ‘This chapter will deal with the first months of the war…’) or empty salesmanship (‘This will be a thrilling, exciting chapter…’). Instead, simply tell the story scene by scene, and allow the narrative to naturally reveal these strengths.

Sample Chapter

Finally, your proposal should include a sample chapter. This is your opportunity to showcase your talent as a writer, and to demonstrate the book’s intended narrative approach, style, and tone.

The first thing to decide is which chapter to use as the sample. Writers frequently use the first chapter, but this isn’t necessarily the best approach. In my view, the sample chapter should be the one which best summarises the book’s strengths. It should include one or a number of the book’s best scenes; it should deal with the book’s main themes and content; and if the book will contain any new research or revelations, these should be included.

More generally, to create the best impression, make sure the proposal is neatly presented, consistently formatted, and fully justified. It should be double-spaced, with no typos, spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors. The proposal is your only opportunity to show publishers that you are a professional, reliable, and conscientious writer, so it is important to make the most of it.

About article author

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David Haviland

David Haviland is a writer, editor, and ghostwriter, with a number of bestselling books to his name, which have been sold to publishers all over the world and widely serialised.David has written a number of books of amusing trivia and popular science. The most recent, How To Remove A Brain (Summe...More about David Haviland