Book Proposals Mean Business

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Last week I blogged on three criteria agents use to assess your readiness for representation (here). Today let’s focus on what goes into the first of these: your proposal. The following tips will be helpful throughout your career because editors use the same three criteria plus sales history in their decision whether to offer a new contract to published authors.

Every year publishers go through the tricky steps to determine how many books they plan to acquire in the next year. Editors, publishing executives, and the sales team have been monitoring reader and book buying trends throughout the year in order to determine how many publishing slots in each genre to schedule for the next year. Then they have to fill the right number of slots with titles already acquired through multi-book contracts. Finally, they assign budgeting dollars to each genre according to the book-proposals150x150remaining number of open slots.

Clearly this is an over-simplification of the process. Factors such as budgeting marketing and promotion dollars for the open slots and predicting sales potential for contracted books weigh into their number crunching. Since these publishing professionals can’t know the future, they will be conservative in their marketing commitment to new titles they acquire for the next year because the last slot they fill might promise to be the most lucrative. They’ll want to have more marketing dollars available for that one. Profit keeps publishers in business, and we surely want Christian publishers to be fiscally healthy. They are the surest means to continue getting our Christian content to the public.

So why did I go into such detail about publishers before getting to the topic of proposals? Two reasons: to show you the imperfect science of the acquisition process because of the unknowns and the care publishers have to take in deciding what they will acquire. Understanding the tightrope publishers walk should lead to your greater understanding. And a greater understanding prompts a positive attitude in writers who are determined to persevere. The open slots are yours to seize.

Finding those gems publishers will be eager to contract is primary to an agent’s job. Your proposal is the key to opening the door to representation. For mid-list authors it’s key to getting the next contract. Gone are the days when a mid-list author could secure a new contract on the basis of a synopsis alone. There are too many new writers with impressive proposals competing for a slot.

I’m not going into specific elements to include in your proposal today. You can go to our archives and look through past blog posts on writing book proposals for those details. I want to share several insights and tips for maximizing the effectiveness of the unspoken impression your proposal creates, which you may not have been aware of until now. Agents discern as much from the unwritten communication conveyed in your proposal as they do from the information on the pages.

Appearance and format. A contemporary, easy to read appearance whispers to the agent that you are up to date and current with professional style trends. A well-organized format, in which you progress your information purposefully to build a compelling case, shows agents you have the know-how to promote your book. There is no one-size-fits-all template for this. Other than the necessary introductory material, arrange your business section to build emphasis on the strengths of you and your individual book and platform.

Design for a quick read. Eliminate verbose sentences the agent must weed through to get to the main point. Your manuscript or sample chapters are where you demonstrate your writing craft. The business portion presents your business prowess. Use of bullet points and succinct phrases wherever possible conveys you understand that agents and editors are exceptionally busy people, who appreciate the facts in quick sound bites. A hint, between the lines, that you are a team player.

Voice and Persuasion. Projecting confidence is a skill that comes more naturally to some than to others and is easier to muster in some settings than others. Fortunately, a written document is one of those easier settings. Strong verbs, assertive statements, and business-friendly voice communicate confidence. Anticipate and provide compelling information to support the need for your nonfiction topic or desire for the unique angle in your novel. Items such as pertinent market research and reader benefits. This added effort demonstrates to agents that you are a go-getter who is willing to work hard to successfully market your book.

In what ways was this background information helpful to you? Encouraging to you? In what ways do you need to improve your current proposal? Any other comments?


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Book proposals reveal your business acumen in the written words and between the lines. See how. Click to Tweet.

31 Responses

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  1. Jean Wise says:

    Sounds like there is still hope! I wonder what a contemporary appearance looks like?
    I appreciate you sharing with us the insider view.

  2. I may have to recruit my husband’s help on my proposal for my new work. He’s so gifted on the computer. He makes “eye candy” for a living (he calls it). He says it’s just all part of changing with the times … and moving forward regarding computers. I often get stuck in the simple computer capabilities … I have much to learn from him.

  3. I look at the query/proposal process as being analogous to a job application – both the resume and interview.

    * The format is simply putting your best foot forward with the resume. You wouldn’t write one without being aware of current expectations for style and content – so why should a book proposal be different? If you look at the way an agency designs their own website (in terms of font and general organization) you can get a pretty good idea of their preferred style.

    * Designing for a quick read translates to understanding that, to the person you’re dealing with – time is important. When you talk to an interviewer, you don’t run on – you hit the high points of your experience and abilities. There’s always time for further exposition later, but throwing in unwanted exposition now can hurt you.

    * Voice is YOU, communicating that you’ll be an asset to the business. Voice can say that you understand the jargon, and understand the business challenges in the modern marketplace, without coming out and saying those things flat. It’s a matter of style, phrasing, and nuance, of using jargon without it sounding like you’re ‘using jargon’.

    Look at the bright side – you can apply for a job as a writer of fiction without changing out of your jeans and ratty Petra t-shirt.

    Two questions, Mary –

    * Do you see a time when proposals will need to be submitted as active PDFs, with ‘click-ons’ for content, and embedded links to relevant sites (author website, blog, FB, comps, etc)?

    * Will Youtube trailers become a part of the proposal any time soon? I ask this because I recently saw a TV commercial (for a tablet) in which the actors were discussing an ‘incomprehensible’ book, and one suggested bringing up the Youtube trailer for it.

    It would seem to me that Youtube could become the elevator pitch of the future.

    • You’re the 96 box of Crayola’s, you know that???

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Wise insights as usual, Andrew. Thanks for sharing.

      Regarding your first question, Word docs are preferred by agents and editors because of the ability to record our thoughts as comments on the pages of submissions. Agents need to be able to do final edits/tweaks in clients’ proposals before shopping them to publishers. The purpose of PDFs is to not allow such things. And it takes only seconds to copy/paste a link from a Word doc to a browser, so the advantage of an “active” PDF isn’t really there. Some links in Word docs can be active as well.

      YouTube trailers are another story. One client in particular has already ventured into that realm in the pre-pub phase. The client gave the link to social media followers and the trailer was helpful in building anticipation for the book’s release. The key to a trailer being an asset is in making it as professional and impressive as possible. Authors who aren’t tech and presentation and voiceover savvy need to invest in professional help. I agree with you that YouTube may become the elevator pitch of the future.

  4. What Andrew said…

    My current proposal is awaiting a Proposaligist. I’m going to sit down in the next few days and tweak it.

    I can honestly say I’ll be sending it to friends for their help before my SAINTED agent sees the first draft.

    Did I mention SAINTED?

  5. This is helpful. I haven’t written a proposal yet, but I want to know how to do it well when I create one later this year. I’m probably showing my naiveté here, but when you say market research, are you talking about knowing the comparable books? Or is it something else? Also, when you mention reader benefits, what might this look like?

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Mary. It helps me know how to prepare!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Market research might, for example, include current statistics of people who are dealing with the consequences of issues covered by a writer’s nonfiction topic or numbers of real people who are affected by the same cultural/health/abuse/etc. struggles as your protagonist.

      Reader benefits should be listed in simple bullet points. Examples: enjoyment of a God-honoring romance, learning interesting details about your novel’s setting, understanding of various elements of you nonfiction book, and so on. Hope this helps.

  6. Jim Lupis says:

    Thank you for the great information, Mary. Very clear and concise. Any chance you can write my next book proposal? Grin.

  7. After working for months on 300 pages of story, I thought the proposal was a refreshing change of pace…a completely different format with those lovely bullet points. Yes, I’m completely serious. 🙂

  8. Angela Mills says:

    This is perfect, I am actually working today on my fiction proposal! It’s intimidating for sure, and this is so helpful. I’ll also be reading all the other proposal posts today.

    I have an image I bought from iStock to make a one-sheet. It is perfect for my story. Would it be appropriate to use as a header on the proposal? It is a contemporary illustration.

  9. Proposals Rock!

    Writing a book without a “killer proposal” is like – building a house without a blueprint.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Donnie, that’s a perfect simile for authors who work on their proposal before they write their book so they have the book firmly mapped out. What’s a perfect simile for authors who write their proposals after their books are complete?

  10. I have a question. Since books by famous authors will sell well anyway, why don’t publishers spend more on advertising for the newbies so their books would sell better?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Janet, it’s all about the surest ROI (return on investment). Publishers need this revenue to stay in business so they can take a chance and offer contracts, which means paying out advances, to new and mid-list authors, whose revenue generation ability is yet to be proven. In return it’s the responsibility of these writers to do broad pre-pub promotion and then to market their book aggressively when it’s published. This is why it is so important to be able to show that you have done your pre-pub work and have a well-developed marketing plan in your proposal.

  11. Thank you for the insights Mary. There is nothing quite like a proposal to help you better define where you intend to go with the book, and whether the need is there for that content!