Why Are All These Things Necessary in My Book Proposal?

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

When teaching a workshop on book proposals, I often see deer-in-the headlights expressions staring back at me as I list the necessary information writers need to provide. Granted, it’s an involved list of components. But as I explain why editors need this information and also what editors derive from details that are and are not included, expressions change to, Ah, I get it now. You might find these insights helpful too as you prepare your next pitch or written proposal.

This isn’t going to be the typical post on how to format a great looking proposal. There are a number of good books available to help you with that, such as Write the Perfect Book Proposal by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman, or How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal by Stephen Blake Mettee. Instead, I’m going to take you between the lines into the impressions you make on an agent or editor by your content and delivery. For simplicity, I’m going to refer only to editors from this point forward, but be aware that agents look at your proposal much the same way as they consider you for potential representation.

A few items to place right upfront are the hook, a brief description, genre, audience, and manuscript details. Think of them as your friendly, confident, enthusiastic, professional introductory handshake on paper. The many adjectives are intentional here because they combine to create your best first impression. What you write for each of these communicates something to the editor beyond the words on the page.

For instance, the editor learns much about your professionalism as a writer before he ever gets to your sample chapters. Your ability to write a hook that excites him in a mere couple of phrases or short sentence. A paragraph description that encapsulates the motivation, inner conflict and goals of the main characters or the main issues and solutions you address in your nonfiction book. The genre that is marketable for your audience demographic and is in the right word count range.

As the editor reads your novel’s synopsis or nonfiction book’s overview and chapter list, she is also gathering mental data on the level of your craft or ability to communicate a problem and provide a compelling solution.

If you have enticed the editor to continue reading up to this point, you are doing great. Now on to the business sections. Use of assertive business language and inclusion of the essentials—social media following, speaking schedule, organization and media networking connections—in your bulleted marketing plan, tell the editor you are prepared to market your book, of course. But they also give the editor a glimpse of how well you may function in professional settings such as book tours, signings, and media interviews. If you become one of their authors, you will be a reflection on the publisher.

Your list of comparable titles, those you include as well as those you don’t, tell an editor how aware you are of your competition, how savvy you are in positioning your book to be fresh and unique or to address an unmet felt need, and how concisely you describe the similarities and differences in your book. Don’t forget to include a section on benefits your book offers readers in your proposal. The publisher’s sales team wants this information because it tells them how easily they may be able to sell your book.

If you have succeeded in keeping the editor’s interest to this point, and she is gripped by your writing in the sample chapters, she will want to present your project to the editorial committee and the sales team. The thorough information you have provided gives her everything she’ll need in her presentation. She’ll like that. And you’ll leave the impression that you are ready to be published.

Do these insights motivate you to polish your proposal to perfection before you submit it? What is your biggest challenge with your proposal?


Insights into what your book proposal communicates to editors and agents. Click to Tweet.

Editors read between the lines of your book proposal. Learn what they see. Click to Tweet.


31 Responses

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  1. Anne Love says:

    Exactly what I need this week!

  2. lisa says:

    These thoughts are really helpful. I’m working at it! I can’t wait to be to the point that I leave that impression.

  3. Micky Wolf says:

    Ditto to Anne and Lisa. Mary, your “other side of the desk” insight is valuable indeed–makes this crucial part of the process seem a bit less intimidating. Thank you!

  4. Jeanne T says:

    Mary, thank you for sharing your perspective on proposals. I’m not quite ready to prepare a proposal yet, but I think when I do, this post will be a guiding factor in how I put it all together. Your insights are so helpful.

  5. MeghanCarver says:

    Thank you, Mary, for this overview of the proposal process from the editor’s perspective. It is always helpful to see a situation from someone else’s eyes. My brain is storming with another book idea, but I don’t want to breeze through proposal preparation on the book that’s done. First impressions only happen once. Your post definitely motivates.

    My biggest challenge right now is preparing for a conference appointment. Your post reads as if the proposal would be sent via email or snail mail. If the meeting is in person, should everything you mentioned be ready for presentation? I tend to over-prepare (although I could argue that there really isn’t such a thing as too much preparation), so I’m thinking I would just bring it all. Then, if a full proposal is requested, I would have it ready.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You are so right, Meghan. “First impressions only happen once.” Writing and polishing your proposal is good preparation for what to say in your oral pitch and what to include on your one-sheet for conference appointments. Most agents and editors who are interested in your book will ask you to email your proposal to them after the conference because they don’t have room in their bags to carry printed proposals back with them.

      Here’s a tip to help them remember you easily. Include the same author photo on your one-sheet (that you leave with the editor in your appointment) and in your proposal next to your bio.

  6. Thank you for another glimpse across the table on the editor’s side, Mary. Many blog posts cover how to write proposals, but few talk about why they are so important to the editor. It’s easier to write a proposal when we understand what an editor’s needs are.

    I enjoy writing book proposals. For me, it’s a place to pull together the creative/writing side with the practical/business side of my work. It’s also a place where I can organize my thoughts for marekting plans. Sometimes I feel like my mind can go a hundred miles an hour in different directions when it comes to marketing. It can be an overwhelming prospect. The proposal helps me to focus on attainable goals and ideas, understanding that what I write in the proposal is what my publishing house will expect from me. I believe a book proposal is just as important for the writer as it is for the agent and editor.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Kudos to you, Gabrielle. Thanks for clearly stating a most positive approach toward writing proposals and the various ways the process is helpful to authors. Some authors prepare their proposals before they begin to write their book for these very reasons. Your approach will surely serve to make your proposal shine.

  7. Mary, can you give examples of media networking connections?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jenni, here is an example. Introduce yourself to area radio and TV personalities to request that they will schedule an interview with you when your book releases. Most of them will be open to highlighting a local author. You may be able to come up with additional media networking possibilities in your area. Editors like to this kind of initiative and expression of business confidence in your marketing plan.

  8. Excellent information, Mary. I’m finding that as I start new projects, the proposal is always in the back of my mind. As I finish reading novels that are good comparables, I start a running list outlining similarities/differences. That keeps me from starting a proposal nine months down the road, scratching my head, and trying to remember what book I’d read. Same goes for getting a head start on the synopsis, hook, etc., as inspiration strikes. I love the feeling of being ahead of the game when I dive into the meat of the proposal.

  9. Proposals are so intimidating to me. Part of that is probably because I’ve never really done one; but also, I fear I won’t be able to capture my passion for a project with the proposal.

    Thanks for sharing these insights, Mary. They are very helpful.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Cheryl, Sarah’s suggestion to begin writing your proposal early in the manuscript writing process might be very helpful for you. Whenever you have a moment of inspiration or passion for your characters or story, you can plug it into your proposal draft, and then edit and polish the content when you finish the book. It may relieve a lot of the stress of starting from scratch when the book is finished.

  10. Thank you, Mary, for the insights and tips. I am not ready yet to write a proposal, but I have been gathering information (such as studying the market for books similar to mine) so that I will be ready to go when it’s time to put the proposal on paper. Your generosity in explaining what editors and agents are looking for helps demystify the process. Thanks so much!

  11. Anna Labno says:

    Mary is tough. If you do meet with her, within seconds you will know she’s strict. And she really wants these things. You will pass the test in one moment or you won’t. But come prepared if you do meet with her. 🙂

    I wasn’t ready when I met with Mary. I found agents to be so different from each other. Agents are people. What might work for some won’t work for others. Still the best thing you can do for yourself is to have a great book. And don’t stress. Believe in yourself and in your work.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      So true, Anna. A great book is the best thing you can do for yourself. But you have to deliver it with a professional proposal that communicates those positive messages between the lines that an editor needs to learn about you.

      I don’t believe it helps writers advance in their craft and career by sugar coating realities of the industry. But I hope I came across in a kind way at the same time I was “strict.”

  12. Simple as it may seem, I must admit that I find choosing a genre a bit taxing. In fact, that factor was one of many that prompted me to go self-publishing with my first book. I have just completed my second and I am once again a bit confused.
    Given the expertise of the editor and publisher, this novice is wondering whether leaving the choice to the professional is such a bad thing. Comments would be appreciated.

  13. Mary Keeley says:

    Roger, it would be most helpful for you to join a critique group in which one or more of the members are further along in their writing craft. They can help you identify the right genre for your book and also critique your writing and help you grow in your craft. Many a writer will tell you their critique group was their path to success.

  14. Lynn Hare says:

    Mary, I appreciate this blog post because it reinforces the importance of attention to detail in the proposal. I need to expand my platform with a greater social media following, speaking schedule, organization and media networking connections.

    Thank you for your workshop on proposal writing at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference last week. It was timely and informative. You’re such an encourager!