Writing Your First Book Proposal

The moment my first publisher said “Yes” she was interested in seeing more about my book with a view to possible publication was the moment I knew I’d have to learn to write a dynamite book proposal. I’d done enough research by then to know that I’d need to have that “pitch” to send before anyone would agree to publish my first non-fiction book. Now I needed to learn the elements of a great book proposal and be able to execute it – and fast – before she lost interest.

I’ve held tightly to a personal belief for many years: I believe that you can learn just about anything short of brain surgery from a well-crafted book. So, I immediately rushed out and bought anything I could find on writing book proposals. These days, all a would-be author has to do is visit one of the online mega-bookstores, search “How to write book proposals” and voila! Hundreds to choose from. Back in the day…I had to go to a bookstore and see what was around.

But over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about book proposals to the point where a couple of years ago, one of my publishers (who said “Yes” again) told me I should teach other writers to write proposals – mine were so well crafted. I was flattered, of course, so here are my personal pointers that I have honed since that first proposal.

Book proposals are essential to any non-fiction (and sometimes fiction) writers who want to be published by “traditional” publishers. What I mean by traditional publishers is publishers who themselves take on the financial risks associated with publishing your book (they edit, design, market etc). In fact, they might even give you money upfront (an advance against royalties). If you want to publish it yourself, then you don’t need a proposal – you’d be the only one who would read it! Of course, we’ll talk about self-publishing versus other-publishing later on in this blog. For now, we’re going the route of the traditional publisher which is the route I’ve been taking. This route requires you to understand that you have to be able to sell your book three times:

  • First, you have to sell it to a publisher through an editor. The editor might even become very excited about your book. When this happens, he or she will then have to sell it to the marketing department (publishing is the only industry on the planet where the marketing department has so much sway over the products. In other industries, marketers are given products and told to use all of their considerable marketing skills to find a way to create a market – but not so in publishing – don’t get me started!). I was going to have to persuade this editor to whom I had spoken on the phone that she should take the next step with me.
  • Second, you have to sell the book to the book retailers. Make no mistake, both you and your publisher will eventually have a role to play here.
  • Finally, you have to sell the book to your readers.

But, we are going to concentrate for a bit on the first time you have to sell a book because that’s what your proposal is for: to sell it to a publisher. That said, the other aspects of selling are important to the development of this book proposal.

I had an idea that I’d use my experience in the transplant and organ procurement business to write a book that would ask a lot of questions. It wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to answer them – since many of them were up until then unasked. I wanted to make people think about the way organ transplantation was approached. So, I had to ask myself a few important questions:

  1. What was the real purpose of this book? What did I want to accomplish?
  2. How would I approach the topic? Did I have a theme?
  3. How would I organize the book? Would it have sections? Chapters? Stories?
  4. What kind of voice & style would I use? Would I use first person? Third? What reading level would I use?
  5. Why was I the best person to write this book? Would I have any credibility?
  6. What other books would be competitors?
  7. Who would actually read this book when it got to the book stores?
  8. How could this kind of a book be promoted to readers?

If I could answer those questions, I could write a detailed proposal whose purpose would be to persuade the editor (the acquisitions editor to be precise) that this was a terrific book that I could write well and that readers would buy. Here’s what my proposal looked like:

PJP's book proposal elements

Then I wrote a description of every chapter I planned. It was ready to go to the publisher. Would she buy it based on the proposal? Would she ask to see the completed manuscript on spec? I had no idea. I just knew that I’d have to do a lot of work before I had an answer.

If you’re interested, you can read more about my writing & teaching at www.patriciajparsons.com.