The Bulletproof Book Proposal

Publishers ask five key questions about every project they consider. Here’s how to make sure your proposal gives all the answers.

You have a great idea for a nonfiction book. Your wife thinks it’s a great idea. Your parents think it’s a great idea. Even your neighbor who hates to read thinks it’s a great idea.

But will a publisher think it’s a great idea-enough to pay you an advance, commission you to write it, and publish and sell it?

That will depend largely on your book proposal. Here’s where you demonstrate persuasively that your idea has merit. Of course, even a solid idea and a great book proposal can’t guarantee success, but they surely can tip the odds in your favor. But if either the idea or the proposal is weak, your chances of a sale are slim to none.

It’s no secret what book editors look for when reviewing book ideas and proposals. You’ll improve your chances of winning a publisher’s contract by testing your book proposal against the five key questions editors ask. Let’s look at those questions and the best ways to answer them.

Is there a large enough audience interested in this topic to justify publishing the book?
The major New York publishing houses aren’t interested in highly specialized books written for small, narrow interest audiences. If you want to write the definitive work on LAN/WAN internet working, for example, seek out a publisher of technical books.

Big publishers are primarily interested in “bookstore books” that is, books that appeal to a general audience or at least to a large segment of the general population. Examples of such audiences include parents, small business owners, corporate executives, fitness enthusiasts, movie buffs, users of personal computers, teenagers and other large affinity groups.

A book aimed at a major publisher must appeal to an audience of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. To sell your idea to the editor, you must demonstrate that such an audience exists. In our proposal for How to Promote Your Own Business (accepted and published by New American Library), Gary Blake and I cited statistics showing there are more than 10 million small businesses in the US and 250,000 new businesses started each year.

One excellent source of market data is Standard Rate and Data Service (SRDS), a book listing US magazines that accept advertising and their circulation’s. SRDS is available at your local library or from the publisher (tel. 847/375-5000). If you’re proposing a book on freelance writing, for example, you could look up writers’ magazines and find that the two largest publications in the field have a combined circulation of more than 300,000; this is the potential market for your book.

But only a small percentage of the intended audience will actually buy your book. And a major publisher hopes to sell at least 5,000 copies of your book. So if you’re writing a book that appeals only to the 44,171 branch managers working at banks nationwide (say, How to Manage Your Branch More Efficiently), and 2% can be persuaded to buy the book, you’ve sold only 883 copies not nearly enough to make the project worthwhile for either you or a publisher.

Is this a book or a magazine article?
At the onset of the 1991 recession, I came up with an idea for a book I thought would be a strong seller Recession Proof Business Strategies: Winning Methods to Sell Any Product or Service in a Down Economy. It was timely. It had strong media appeal. And it contained vital information readers desperately needed.

But, as my agent pointed out, there were two problems with the book. First, its timely nature. From conception to bookstore, it can take 18 months to two years to write and publish a book. If the recession was over by the time Recession Proof Business Strategies came out, the book would bomb.

Second, my agent was concerned that there wasn’t enough material to fill a book. And he was right.

The average nonfiction book is about 200 pages in typeset, published form, with approximately 400 words a page. That’s 80,000 words; about 320 double-spaced typewritten manuscript pages. Your book might be longer or shorter, ranging from 35,000 words (a slim, 100 page volume) to 200,000 words or more.

Trouble was, when I finished writing everything I knew about recession proof business strategies, I had 5,000 words–too short for a book, too long for an article. The solution? I self published Recession Proof Business Strategies as a $7 booklet and sold several thousand copies. So a booklet not a book was the right vehicle for this material.

Many book ideas seem strong initially, but wilt under close examination.

For example, a (to me) wonderful book title popped into my head a while back: How to Survive a Midlife Crisis at Any Age. My co-author loved it and wanted to do the book. But when we sat down, we couldn’t think of anything to put in it! We soon abandoned the idea.

How do you know whether your idea is a book, article or booklet–and how do you convince a publisher that your concept is a big one? Here are some guidelines:

First, see if there are other books on the topic. The existence of a few similar titles indicates that this idea is big enough to deserve a book, since other publishers bought and published book length manuscripts on the topic.

Second, go to the library and see what else is written on the topic. If you feel overwhelmed by all the magazine articles, newspaper stories, booklets, pamphlets, surveys, reports and statistics on your topic, that’s a good indica­tion the topic is ‘meaty” enough to justify a full-length book.

For example, I heard a public service announcement describing a toll-free number you could call to get safety information about any car you were thinking of buying. I thought, “There seems to be a lot of these free consumer hotlines; why not organize them into a reference book?”

I researched the subject and discovered there were indeed hundreds of such hotlines. New American library bought the book and published it as Information Hotline USA. If I’d uncovered only a few such hotlines, New American Library would have rejected my proposal.

The third step to convincing a publisher that your topic is broad enough to warrant a book is to organize your information into chapters. Think about how you would logically explain your topic or present your information, and organize it into major categories. These will become chapter headings.

A full-length nonfiction book typically has 8-15 chapters. If your outline has fewer, the publisher may think there’s not enough information to fill a book on your topic. Shoot for an outline with at least nine chapters.

On index cards, organize all your research material by chapter. Then add the most important or interesting items as bullet points in your chapter outline to create a complete table of contents for your proposed book. Here’s how my co-author and I described Chapter 15 in our proposal for How to Promote Your Own Business:

Chapter 15: On With the Show-Trade Shows and Displays

· Why do people attend trade shows?
· How to select the shows at which you will exhibit
· Creating effective trade show displays
· Five things you can do to attract more prospects to your exhibit: demonstrations, product samples, free gifts, contests and entertainment
· Other uses for your display materi­als: retail point-of-purchase, malls, lobby displays

This type of detailed table of contents proves to the publisher that your topic is appropriate for a book, not just a magazine article.

What’s different or better-about your book?
The first page or two of your book proposal must contain an overview of your idea. This describes what the book is about who ifs written for and what’s in it.

Your overview must also tell the editor why and how your book is unique, different or better than other books already published on this topic. And you must do this within the first two paragraphs (if you don’t, the editor probably won’t read further).

The hook the angle that makes’ your book different-can take many forms: It might be a slant toward a different audience, a better way of organizing the material, or inclusion of topics not covered in other books. The key is to make your book seem both different and better.

For instance, if the other books aren’t illustrated, say that your book will be-and explain why that’s important. If the other books are lengthy, promise to write a more concise book. If the other books are incomplete, describe the topics they omit-and tell how you’ll cover them in your book.

When planning How to Promote Your Own Business, my co-author and I hoped to write a book on advertising that would appeal to small business owners rather than advertising agencies, PR firms and other advertising professionals. We used this as our hook; our proposal began:

How to Promote Your Own Business is not a book for the professional publicist, promoter or advertising professional. Rather, it is a practical working promotion guide for the 10.8 million Americans who own their own businesses, and the 250,000 entrepreneurs who start new businesses each year.

We wrote a previous book, Technical Writing. Structure, Standards and Style, because we believed the existing technical writing books were too lengthy and dull to be suitable as references for working technical writers. We wanted to create a handbook for technical writers that emulated the concise, to-the-point style and format of The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White’s popular style guide for general writers.

Our proposal called our book “the Strunk and White of technical writing,” which instantly communicated the key appeal of the concept. Our agent sold the book-within three weeks-to the first publisher who looked at it. Interestingly, McGraw-Hill also used the phrase “the Strunk and White of technical writing” in publicity and promotional materials describing the book.

Another section of your proposal that positions your book in relation to others on the same subject is the “Competition” section. Here you list and describe competing books; each listing should emphasize how your book is both different and better. Here is an example from our How to Promote Your Own Business proposal:

1. How to Advertise and Promote Your Small Business, by Connie McClung Siegel, John Wiley & Sons, 1978, 128 pages, $4.95 trade paperback.

This book is part of John Wiley’s “Small Business Series.” The author neglects several vital areas of small business promotion, including mail order, sales literature, trade shows, and displays, contests and newsletters. There are very few examples of actual promotions, and the author gives no indication of the costs involved or the results achieved. The book does not provide step-by-step instructions for selecting and implementing promotions.

Include in the “Competition” section those books that cover the same-or very similar-topics as your book; that are published by a major publishing house; and that are no more than five years old. How many books you list in this section will be important. ‘Me presence of two to six competitive books shows there’s a market for this type of book, while still room for one more. On the other hand, if there are seven or more books a publisher may think the field is overcrowded, and you’ll probably have a difficult time making the sale.

Will people pay $22.95 for this book?
The average hardcover nonfiction book sells for $22.95 or more; the average trade paperback for $12.95. Your book must be interesting or valuable enough to make readers part not only with their money (remember, they can always read your book for free at the library), but with their time as well (many people would rather watch TV, go to the movies or nap than read a book).

When it comes to nonfiction, readers typically buy books to learn something, for reference or to be entertained.

A how-to or reference book proposal should stress the benefits readers will get when they buy the book. Will it help them save time and money? Make money? Look beautiful? Feel young? live longer? If your book will make readers’ fives better and easier, say so. In our proposal for How to Promote Your Own Business, we said:

How to Promote Your Own Business is unique because it goes right to the heart of the problem: How can the owner or manager of a small business-a person with little time, money and promotion expertise-promote his business as effectively as his bigger, wealthier competitors?

If your book is biography, journalism, history, or any other form of nonfiction written primarily to entertain, your proposal should highlight some of the more fascinating details of the book. Your aim is to make the editor want to read the whole story.

Why should the publisher hire you to write it?
Your proposal must show why you’re uniquely qualified to write the book. Such qualifications fall into two categories: writing credentials and expert credentials.

Writing credentials establish your expertise as an author. In an “About the Author” section of your book proposal, write a brief biographical sketch of yourself, being sure to include such information as:

· titles, publishers and dates of publication for any books you’ve written
· total number of books and articles written (if the number is impressive)
· names of major magazines and newspapers in which your work has appeared
· excerpts from favorable reviews about your work
· sales figures for your best-selling books (if they’re impressive)

Expert credentials establish your position as an authority in the topic of your proposed book.

Actually, you don’t have to be much of an expert The trick is to make yourself seem like an expert to the publisher.

For instance, author Wilbur Perry wanted to write about mail order. To make himself more appealing as a potential author for a book on the subject he started and operated a small part-time mail-order business from his home. This gave him the credentials he needed to convince John Wiley & Sons to publish two books by him on the topic.

In my experience, your expert credentials don’t need to be in-depth. Editors understand you can research the topic, and they don’t require you to know everything about it before buying your book. They just want to convince their editorial board-and buyers-that you know what you’re talking about.

Of course, having a published book to your credit is one credential that always impresses publishers. And that’s a credential I’m sure you’ll soon have if you follow the five key points covered in this article.

This article appears courtesy of Bob Bly‘s Direct Response Letter. Learn more and get your free subscription at