What to include in a book proposal

For the last several weeks, we’ve focused on getting ready for a conference. So you go to a conference, pitch your book, and the editor says, “That sounds like it has potential. Send me a proposal with your first 50 pages.”

And your stomach caves in, because you don’t have a proposal.

Agents and editors often say that many of the people they make this kind of offer to don’t respond. I believe that’s because writers are paralyzed by fear and therefore don’t move.

Hear me: It’s better to send a bad proposal than none.

Be courageous. Stand out from the crowd.
Illustration by Gabriella Fabbri

I give you permission to write a bad proposal. Because here’s the thing. If your manuscript is good, it can win over the editor despite a bad proposal.

You may wonder why the proposal is necessary, then. Simple. The proposal contains information the editor needs to make his decision. But it is secondary. The primary thing he bases his decision on is the manuscript. So get that in shape before you pitch.

Actually, your proposal should be ready to go also, so that when you get home from the conference, you can e-mail it right away, and be ahead of all the writers who will drag their feet or never move at all.

The minimum contents of a book proposal are actually pretty simple:

  • Overview
  • Synopsis
  • Author Bio

We’ll cover the synopsis and the author bio in weeks ahead.

You won’t really have a cover letter, as such. The thing we would have called a cover letter back in the day will now be your e-mail message to the editor. It will have a subject line that says something like “Conference follow-up — requested proposal.”

In the e-mail, you will spell the editor’s name correctly and remind him which conference you met at and that he asked for your proposal.

Use a paragraph to recap the first part of your pitch, but don’t bother telling the whole story. Just enough to jog the memory.

Thank him for his consideration, and sign off. Attach the proposal as a Word document unless you’ve been instructed otherwise.

The overview page of the proposal will contain the following:

  • Title
  • Genre: If you don’t know your genre, get help figuring it out. It’s critical.
  • Logline: One-sentence description of the story or concept.
  • Introductory paragraph: Briefly outline the setup of the book. Just the setup.
  • Overview: For fiction, the theme and primary conflict. For nonfiction, the purpose and benefit to the reader.
  • Word count: Note also whether you have any sequels planned.
  • Comparables: Books or other media that appeal to the same audience as your novel. For example, if you were writing a medical drama, you could say it will appeal to the kind of people who enjoy Gray’s Anatomy.
  • Platform

That last one scares people. If you don’t have a platform, omit that paragraph. But consider that all your writers’ groups memberships count, especially critique groups, because it shows dedication to the craft. Mention them. If you’re active on any social media platform but don’t have large numbers of followers, just say you’re active on Facebook and Pinterest and leave it at that. Mention your own blog, if you have one, and any group blogs you contribute to. If your profession relates to the topic or setting of your book, mention it here.

Don’t let fear hold you back from submitting your proposal. You can do this. I know what rocket science looks like, and this ain’t it. You’re a writer. Writing a proposal is just a different kind of writing.

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  1. […] What to include in a book proposal How to write your author bio How to write a synopsis of your novel How to write a synopsis of your nonfiction book […]

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