What Your Proposal Says about You

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Writers communicate volumes of information between the lines and paragraphs, in what is there and in what is missing in their proposals. Today, I’ll let you in on some of the first things agents and editors notice.

First impressions stick in our minds. We respond positively to a firm handshake and a warm smile. Chances are we’ll remember that person. Conversely, a weak handshake and no direct eye contact will leave a negative impression in a business setting. So it is with your proposal. Often at conferences, I talk to writers who view their proposal as a sort of Book Proposals_E289356C-51CC-4846-AAEB-8341971D7FAEintroductory cover letter. But the truth is you need to put as much effort into perfecting your proposal as you do your book. It’s the first impression of your work for an agent. If you want an agent to get to your sample chapters, you have to make sure your proposal is a stellar representation of the quality of your book.

Now to some of the things agents notice.

Format and Style. The formatting is the first thing an agent sees when he or she opens your proposal document. When I come across a proposal that maintains consist formatting and clear style of headers, sub-heads, indents of bulleted lists—an orderly visual presentation—my first reaction is to continue reading. If the writer has followed our submissions guidelines posted on our Books & Such website by including all the requested information and samples, I’ll continue reading because:

1.            The orderly formatting exhibits your professionalism in business communication. Remember, a book proposal is your offer of a business partnership.

2.            Compliance with submissions guidelines indicates publishing industry professionalism and the potential you will be pleasant to work with.

3.            The third reason, more subtle, is the writer demonstrated the effort and consideration to make the proposal clear and concise for the agent or editor to read. We struggle to keep up with what feels like a self-propagating stack of proposals. A well-organized format communicates your understanding of this dynamic.

RECOMMENDATON: Have your published critique partners review your proposal along with your manuscript. Purchase a book on writing a compelling book proposal. Attend a workshop on creating a compelling book proposal at a writers conference. First impressions matter!

Inclusions. Literary agencies and publishers have their own requirements regarding how much of your manuscript to include with the proposal and the information they want to receive. Rather than sending the same basic proposal document to all the agents you plan to submit to, modify it in separate documents according to each agency’s specific guidelines. It reflects that you did your homework, which in turn leaves the impression you did thorough research for your book and that you’re teachable and pleasant to work with.

Marketing Plan. Your marketing plan is one of the inclusions virtually all agents or editors go to quickly. This is where I see problems most often, yet it’s one of the most important and revealing areas of your proposal. Along with the standard items agents and publishers expect (quantified social media numbers, organization affiliations that will market your book, online or in-person book launch parties, and so on), here are some RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • Use declarative statements. For example: “The following radio stations have agreed to interview me when the book releases” promises assertive participation in promoting your book. Saying “I’m open to doing radio interviews,” is passive and lacks initiative and passion for your book. If you aren’t energetic about your book, no one else will be either.
  • Be creative. Think of unique ways you can market your book. What is the setting for your contemporary romance? List the names of local businesses, restaurants, libraries, and tourist bureaus in the area that you will contact about promoting your book. What is the core message of your nonfiction book? List appropriate interest groups and organizations you will approach to cross-promote your book.
  • Be specific and creative. List churches, libraries, bookstores, and organizations you have connected with to schedule a book signing or reading.

Grammar, punctuation, spelling. I’ve harped on this subject enough. Anything less than stellar tarnishes your professional image.

RECOMMENDATION: If this is a weak area, study up and get help from whoever proofreads your book. It will be well worth the investment.

Submission. Agencies and publishers have their specific submission policies posted on their websites. Electronic submission in a Word document is much preferred. Following guidelines to the letter reveals your business savvy and cooperative spirit. Conversely, not following them communicates you, (1) are such a newbie that you didn’t know to look for a prescribed procedure, or (2) think you are so special you don’t need to follow the rules.

What in your current proposal could reflect positively or negatively on you or your project? How will you remedy it? What is the hardest part of writing a proposal for you?


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36 Responses

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  1. Mary, the hardest part of a proposal for me is switching gears in my mind, from writing to selling … and condensing the story. It’s almost like I have to tie myself to the chair. Maybe that comes from being more of an introvert … so that may be the first thing I need to work on! Thank you, Mary.

    • I’m the same, Shelli, as far as being an introvert. I have a hard time trying to “sell” myself (but I’m working on getting better!), and yes, I agree that it’s very hard to condense a story! 🙂

    • One trick that I use in condensing the story is to reduce it to bullet points, a sort of outline…and then expand on those.

      Going from the full structure to a synopsis is hard; the method of going from an outline UP to a synopsis seems a bit easier.

    • Jim Lupis says:

      I just read your story on FamilyFiction.com, Shelli. Excellent job, very touching.

      Praying you do great! 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Shelli and Jennifer, it may help to adjust your mental approach to the “selling.” Focus on your book and off yourself. You want to get the word out about your book to agents, editors, and ultimately to readers because you’re excited about how they will benefit from it, either for sheer enjoyment and inspiration or for personal growth and encouragement.

      It may feel like you’re doing a mental trick on yourself at first, but really, you’re adjusting to a more accurate view.

  2. In preparing a proposal, it helps me to step back and ‘disown’ my book – and my persona. I look at both as a products, with a certain set of market advantages, and some liabilities. The former have to be emphasized, and the latter compensated.

    The proposal is all about marketability, both for the book and the author. It’s a form of oursourcing practiced by both agent and publisher, and the author’s competing for the outsourced product contract.

    It’s a lot easier to think ‘product’ when you’ve distanced yourself.

    There are some Catch-22s inherent in the process. For example, it’s tough for a first-time author to organize events like local signings or radio interviews for a book that may be two years from publication – if it’s ever published at all.

    The requirement for significant social media numbers is kind of interesting, in that it seems that the trend is to publish ‘celebrity’ books. You’ve got to have a following before you can get that first book published, but that following has of necessity to be built on something besides your book, since it will not be available for years…unless you freely hand out Beta copies, in which case some agents and publishers won’t touch it because it’s been ‘published’, or at least distributed as if it were.

    So you’ve got to be a really cool person, stretching out Andy Warhol’s requisite fifteen minutes of fame into a viable social media presence.

    There’s a dark side to the social media thing – it’s easy to inflate Twitter numbers artificially (a bit harder with FB). They look good, but they don’t reflect a potential (or actual) core readership, and the practice can become a downhill slide into fudging the truth. All the bad things we read about Madison Avenue in the Sixites…but I just dated myself. Groovy.

    I don’t find the process hard (except for writing a synopsis, and I understand that no one enjoys that). But I’ve always had to maintain competence in widely disparate areas, and this is more of the same.

    I do feel sorry for the writer whose heart is in the writing, and who simply can’t connect with social media – the person who writes what he or she wants to read, and writes not for market placement.

    I fear that, faced with the necessity of an all-singing all-dancing proposal, that writer will give up, and we will all be the poorer.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Andrew, good suggestion to “step back and ‘disown’ [your] book–and [your] persona” when writing a proposal. It helps in switching from the emotionally attached writer brain to the objective business brain.

      The middle of the writing process is a good time to personally introduce yourself to local media and tell them about your book. Ask them if they’d be willing to interview you when your book releases. Most local media are eager to promote one of their own, especially when they know you. The added benefit for you is that you can add an assertive bullet point to the marketing plan in your proposal: “XX has agreed to promote the book when it releases.”

  3. Thanks for this info, Mary! More good material for me to pin. 🙂

  4. Mary, this is a helpful post. I think for me, one of the harder parts of the proposal is figuring out an effective marketing plan. Knowing how to put myself out there, i.e. to get a radio station to be willing to interview me. I’m willing to put myself out there. Do you have tips for establishing those kinds of public relationships for pre-pubbed authors?

    • Some thoughts about radio publicity…

      * First, listen to the stations you might approach over a period of time, and get to know their style.

      * Ask to speak to a specific person, be it an on-air personality or programming manager.

      * When you make your initial approach, come from a community-interest standpoint. Stations have to air local-interest stuff, by law, and it’s not easy for them to find interesting topics or interviews. If you can position yourself as involved with local issues, you can do an initial interview with the “I have a book coming out” hook at the end, and get invited back.

      * Maintain contact. Don’t be a pest, but don’t disappear after you drag out some sort of commitment. Send updates.

      * Look at what you can add to the radio station’s value. It’s not about you, it’s about them, when you appear. It’s about increasing listner share. How can you help them do that? A contest, perhaps? You may not have books to give away, but maybe the contest prize would be that you help a couple write their wedding vows?

    • jeanne, a further thought of publicity, expanding on the “wedding vow contest” idea –

      Why not approach bridal shops in your area, as an inspriational/romance writer, and offer to set up a table to help couples with their wedding vows (or the dreaded best-man speeches), say on a Saturday afternoon?

      Do it for free; let the store reap the rewards of increased traffic, while you can distribute publicity one-sheets for the forthcoming book, and get newsletter signups.

      This can also lead to an interesting sideline, since many couples want their own vows but have trouble putting them together.

      Doing this, you also have something with which you can approach radio (and television) stations, both on behalf of the store, and to talk about wedding vows in general.

      Publicity is synergy.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, it’s valuable to personally introduce yourself to local media early in the writing of you book. Establish a friendly relationship, and like Andrew commented, find ways to benefit the media as well as you and your book.

  5. I have a question about promotion. An editor requested a full of one of my manuscripts at a conference and is looking at it. But for this particular word count they publish an e-book only. How do you promote an e-book? I know that you can still do radio interviews and blog tours. But I was thinking about launch parties and book signings and book store or library or school visits… How could I show up in a school or bookstore without an actual book in hand for folks to look at and possibly buy? Just wondering what your author’s do to promote an e-book.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Good question, Kristen. You can do a reading–from your e-reader–at any of those places. Have postcards or bookmarks with the book cover and links where the book can be purchased and downloaded. Take stand-up posters of your book cover to place nearby. Many libraries have e-book check-out now. Ask if they would highlight your book on the day you do the reading and perhaps keep one of your stand-up posters by the computer check-out beyond your visit.

  6. Jim Lupis says:

    Mary, I am in the process of writing a book proposal, and your post couldn’t be more timely. What I have learned is the proposal must be as good as the book, if not better.

    And taken just as serious.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jim, that’s absolutely right. Agents first, and then publishers may love your book, but they are keenly aware that you, their author, will be a reflection on the publisher when you are out promoting your book. Your proposal is your opportunity to show them you are able to function articulately and professionally in business and media settings.

      • “Your proposal is your opportunity to show them you are able to function articulately and professionally in business and media settings.”


        Time to eat my “grow up now” vitamins.

  7. Thank you for addressing this topic, Mary. It will allow me to clear up some questions that have come up while I’ve been working two proposals: one for a nonfiction memoir that, though I’ve nearly completed the proposal, I’ve decided to set aside till some future date (or possibly forever!), and another for a women’s contemporary fiction series.

    To effectively compare my own work with “competitive” titles, I should have been reading as much Christian women’s contemporary fiction as possible. This is going to have to become a goal for me, because as I work on my Competition section, I realize that I can only compare using generalities that are mentioned in the book’s description on Amazon, for example, the competitive title’s setting, subgenres, relationships between characters, and storylines. I wonder whether that will be good enough?

    Another issue or question that has come to me, as I work on my Marketing and Promotion sections, is the difference between marketing and promotion. My perception is that:

    • marketing is developing a readership/audience/social media numbers that reflect a possible readership;
    • while promotion involves the actual activities and places where one will show up to talk about or sell the book after publication.

    Is my perception correct?

    There is really nothing like writing a proposal to make an author realize that he or she has no choice except to consider the marketability of themselves and their book. I strongly feel that a proposal with a synopsis is where I’ll BEGIN my next book!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Angela, regarding your comparable titles, using those generalities isn’t thorough enough. A stellar comparison would include similarities and differences in main theme and struggles of the main characters. For that it’s best to read the books. Editors learn a lot about the writer by reading the comparable titles section of his or her proposal, so it’s best to read the books before using them as comparables.

      Your marketing plan is specific to your book. For example, you wouldn’t market ice to an Eskimo. Your strategy would be to find the best ways to reach people who need or want ice. You can form you marketing plan early in the writing process. Then, you would begin getting the word out to them (promotion) about your book’s release close to the publication date using normal methods directed to your market.

  8. When it comes to things like proposals, I am a visual learner. If I can see what is needed, then I can work toward getting it right.

    That being said, when I was given an example that my agent asked me to follow, I managed to totally not follow it properly the first time. I felt like a moron.

    Basically, I need to stare at 3 or 4 examples, and drool a lot, before I get it right.

    Or…I can make Andrew write it!

  9. Susan Mathis says:

    Good input, Mary!

  10. I’m hoping to dig deep this summer and finish a proposal. Thanks for reminding me how very important it is. I keep soaking in your posts to be ready.

  11. Sheila King says:

    Mary, is there a preferred font for the query letter and the book text itself?

  12. Sarah Broady says:

    Thank you for this timely post. I’ll be attending a writer’s conference this week and am preparing for it to the best of my ability by doing my research. Your information is very helpful to me and I am enjoying putting everything together. I believe I will be meeting with you personally as well, which I am looking forward to!

  13. Luke says:

    Hi there
    I am now almost ready to submit my book proposal to a UK publisher that I have targeted as being a good fit for my manuscript. However, one of the questions in the publishers guidelines for submitting a book proposal is that I give an example of the ‘optimum and maximum’ price of my book. How do I find this information? My book is creative non-fiction on the subject of schizophrenia.