How to write a book proposal

This is not an easy thing for a professional writer to say, but here goes. If you are looking to get your book published with a traditional publisher, the marketability of the book is more important than the quality of the writing. If a publisher is not convinced that people will want to read your book or, more importantly, shell out £20 of their cash to buy it, it won’t matter if it is the best written prose ever.

The way to pitch to a publisher, and ensure your idea doesn’t end up on the dreaded slush pile, is via a book proposal. This proposal will succinctly explain what you want to write about and why anyone would be interested in reading what you have to say. For a non-fiction title, publishers will need to be convinced of your expertise and authority in the area. If you already have a large platform of followers who are interested in your views, so much the better. Those 100,000 followers on social media are all potential book buyers. Equally importantly, is the book original? When there are already hundreds of titles in a similar genre, your book will have to work hard to stand out. Publishers will consider any submission against comparable books and whether or not this type of book actually sells in any quantity.

There is, unfortunately, no single way to write and present a book proposal. Different publishers have differing submission guidelines. However, the sections detailed here do appear in almost every proposal, so they are a pretty good start. The best advice is to write your core proposal and adjust as and when you need to.

The first element of a book proposal is a tough one for most authors: the title. As every avid bookshop browser will know: a great title counts for a lot. Your title should communicate what the book is about, but do so in an edgy, interesting way. Take your time on this.

Now comes the big sell: the books description. Write about 300 to 500 words describing the essence of the book. Think about it in terms of the blurb you’d see on the back cover of a bestseller. This strong, short description distils everything you are going to say and why it will stand out from any other book on the shelves. Most importantly, it will leave the publisher wanting to know more. Certainly, it should lure them into reading the rest of the proposal.

Before you get into the detail of what the book will cover, there needs to be a section detailing the business case. Break it down into key areas which the publisher can then use when they pitch it to their associates, which is what will happen if the proposal piques their interest. Begin with the target market/audience. Who will buy this book? Don’t say ‘everyone’ because this simply isn’t true. Give as much detail as possible about an identifiable market of readers who are interested in this subject. Back your argument with meaningful statistics. A recent McKinsey survey found 50% of executives believed they did not have sufficient knowledge about up-to-date tech developments. Do though, avoid, generic statements: A Google search on understanding technology turned up more than 10 million hits.

The business case section should also include an analysis of competing book titles. List anywhere between five and ten books, including the title, subtitle, author, publisher and year of publication. Add a brief 100-word summary, describing the book’s approach and how it differs to your own. The aim is not to trash the competition, but simply to show you understand the market and to prove there is a clear need for your book.

A marketing plan is also required. This is a confident run down of what you will do to ensure your book becomes a bestseller. This is the place to detail that 100,000-person following on social media, as well as describe your regular blogs and appearances on TV, radio and the speaking circuit. Put specific numbers on your reach and solid connections, so the publisher can see you are in demand. These are the potential readers you can reach right now.

The final part of the business case is an author bio. Don’t be tempted to simply cut and paste the one you have on LinkedIn or on your website. Think what it is about you that will convince a publisher you are the person to write this book. What experience and expertise do you have that gives you the perfect platform? Feel free to brag.

Now is the time to turn to the overview of the content of your book. Write a summary of each chapter in around 200-words. Think in terms of how the book concept will play out from beginning to end, while conveying the scope and depth of your research and knowledge. Although I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that writing is not as important as the marketing of the book, the quality of the writing in this section is important. A bland summary that simply details all the information contained in each chapter is not going to excite anyone. You need to add colour, description and detail that is going to intrigue and grab the interest of the publisher reading the proposal. It should go without saying that your proposal should be carefully checked for typos and grammatical errors.

Finish the proposal by outlining the deliverables. This will include the proposed date that the manuscript will be available from and an indication of the word count. Obviously you won’t know the exact word count until its complete, but you can give a fair estimate. Most non fiction books, for example, will come in at around 70,000 to 80,000 words. Don’t forget to include your contact details at the end of the proposal. If a publisher has read this far, they are clearly interested.

Many publishers will ask for up to three sample chapters to accompany the proposal. Ensure the ones you choose to send back up what you have promised. If you said it is going to be gut-bustingly funny, make sure the chapters raise a laugh. Likewise, if you’ve talked up your ground-breaking ideas, the sample chapters should reflect this. Again though, if the publisher reads the chapters you are definitely on the right track.

Writing a good proposal is hard work and time consuming. But, look at it this way: if you can write a good proposal, you can write a good book. And, if the proposal is that good: your book will almost certainly sell.