Following the Rules: Book Proposals

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office

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Confession: All my life I’ve been a rule-follower. I obey all posted signs. I follow the letter of the law. I feel most comfortable with clear, unambiguous rules. I’m neither a maverick nor a risk-taker. There. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m glad that’s out.

When I was a new writer, I studied book after book, article after article about book proposals. I took at least a dozen different workshops on proposal writing —fiction, nonfiction, children’s. And you know what?  The more I learned, the more confused I became. When they say “table of content” in a proposal do they refer to the table of content of the book or of the proposal? (Hint: you’ll see both.)

Long before I became an agent, I cried “uncle” when it came to the rules of a good book proposal. For every carved-in-stone rule you’ll find, you’ll find an agent or an editor who’ll contradict that rule.

So what’s a writer to do?

Here are my common sense generic rules for creating a book proposal:

  • If you are preparing a proposal for your agent, use the agency style sheet. If you are doing the proposal for a specific house, see if they have a sample proposal on their website to use as a guideline.
  • Strip way all the voodoo that surrounds the proposal mystique. You are simply writing a business plan for the book. You’ll want to present the book in the best light and answer any potential question about the book or the author in advance.
  • Don’t be annoying or cute. Be professional.
  • Be distinctive. (This doesn’t mean fancy fonts or decoration.)
  • Summarize the book succinctly. I like to see both a two or three sentence hook and a back-cover-copy-sized summary.
  • Understand that the proposal for a novel and a nonfiction book will be different. The novel will need a synopsis while the nonfiction book gets an annotated table of contents, chapter by chapter.

The generic fiction proposal needs:

  • Short Summary (Promo pitch—a couple of sentences)
  • Longer Summary (Like back cover copy)
  • Info about the book, including: Genre, Audience, Manuscript length
  • Market Comparison
  • Author Bio
  • Synopsis (Not too long, a few pages—just enough to tell the story in detail.)
  • Promotion Plans (This is a welcome addition in CBA, not so much in ABA)
  • Three sample chapters

The generic nonfiction proposal needs:

  • Short Summary (Promo pitch—a couple of sentences)
  • Longer Summary (Like back cover copy)
  • Info about the book, including: Catgory, Audience, Manuscript length
  • Market Comparison
  • Affinity Groups (Any markets or groups which will especially connect with the book?)
  • Author Bio (including platform, if any)
  • Annotated Table of Content, chapter by chapter
  • Promotion Plans (Again this is a welcome addition in CBA, not so much in ABA)
  • Three sample chapters

As for all the formatting rules—do the best you can to craft a clear, clean proposal. Most experts will tell you that the business part of the proposal is single spaced while the sample chapters are double-spaced in regular manuscript format (You can’t go wrong with Times New Roman 12 pt.).

Just remember, your goal is to give a clear picture of the book, the reason the bookstore will want to purchase the book, who the buyer will be, who the author is and what the author can do to partner with the publisher to make the book a success. Just like a business plan, the book proposal process will help you develop the book and keep you focused.

Now it’s your turn: What do you do in your proposals to give a clear picture of your book? Do you get so caught up in the dos and don’ts that book proposals become a chore? Got any hints for your fellow writers?

11 Responses

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  1. Michelle Ule says:

    And if you write a mystery, please tell us who did it. The purpose of a proposal is for us to completely understand the project–we want to know if we can sell it. You only irritate us if you don’t tell us the full story . . .

  2. Teri D. Smith says:

    I struggle most with that dreaded synopsis. I find it hard to make it sound as vibrant as the book itself. I probably just need to spend more time on it.

  3. I have never sold a book and I’m not agented so my answer isn’t worth much, maybe (but then I haven’t really tried to sell very hard…I’ve not submitted much because I haven’t been ready). But I can tell you what’s made me happy about the proposal process that I’m getting into now whereas I used to think it was a chore.

    I have always been a rule follower, and I would drive myself crazy thinking I had to read all the rules, and apply them all to every proposal.

    One day I jotted off a quick note to an editor at Highlights without thinking about any rules, and she bought my story. I also got very good responses from other magazine editors when I wrote conversationally and with a bit of humor. I realized that when I didn’t try so hard, I was more attractive.

    Someone, I can’t remember who, said at an SCBWI conference that no one wants to date the desperate girl. I loved that line. It says it all.

    The rules I follow now are, be professional, be conversational, be yourself, and write a darned interesting story that grabs them at the throat on page one and doesn’t let go until it’s over.

    Easy as pie. I’m thinking someone is going to snap me up any day now! heh heh

  4. Wendy Lawton says:

    Great advice, Sally. We all need to relax a little. An overwrought proposal does not sell the book.

  5. Wendy Lawton says:

    Teri, Don’t worry about making the synopsis shine. Just tell the story in a clear, concise way. No one judges your writing from the synopsis.

    Someone once told me they bought a magazine in the grocery store– I think Soap Opera Digest– that does synopses of the soap operas for people who work and want to keep up with their soaps. (I guess before the days of DVR.) They learned to write synopses from that.

  6. Carla Gade says:

    Thank you, Wendy. This is one of my greatest fears in life, manuscript submission. I’ll probably end up published posthumously by someone who finds all of my finished novels that I have yet to send in. If I wait any longer, that just may become a reality!

  7. Lyla says:

    Thank you for this post! I am such a rule-follower myself… the proposals and queries are where I get bogged down for months on end, trying to fine-tune all the details. Sally, I also enjoyed the “desperate girl” comment!

  8. You have to sell it. Right out of the gate. Too many of us expect the professionals in the industry to only see the potential for professionalism in our work instead of realizing they expect us to deliver it to them right then and there. Professional means a perfect pitch ninety percent of the time, and it takes a lot of time and effort to achieve that kind of percentage. A selling proposal doesn’t always mean the cleanest copy, the best hook, or nailing the perfect formula, because even these often miss the mark. The purpose of a selling proposal is to sell something.

    I have found the secret of selling — whether to an agent, or publisher, or reader — to mean practicing and refining until I can successfully communicate the human factor. The proposal is the time when I must find and bring to the front that one, distinctly distilled premise of my story that can cause a person — any person — not just to merely see possibilities in it, but to recognize something there which makes them stop what they’re doing and say, “this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and “we are all made this way.”

    I believe the human factor is the selling factor, and that’s what we have to get better at proposing. It is the true heart of storytelling, and any proposal — at the very least — must bare the heart. Maybe proposals that fail ninety percent of the time are not being taken seriously enough by their authors to begin with. Proposals are serious business. They are the one moment when you must be at your most convincing, because you might only get that one moment.

    You have to sell it.

  9. Thanks, Wendy, for this post. I’m going to print it out (along with the comments) and keep it handy. I love this common sense approach far better than keeping a long list of do’s and don’ts, some of which vary with the agent/editor. (Speaking of agents and editors, thanks for the reminder to check websites for their particular guidelines.)

  10. Hello
    I am also a new writer and I am just similar like you.I am also reading many articles,books etc.Thank you very much for giving such good knowledge and information about book proposal.

  11. Great tips! I owned a small business as a personal trainer for over 10 years, and worked on many business plans. I agree that a book proposal is very much like a business plan.