Writing a Book Proposal


Writing the perfect non-fiction book proposal.

PLEASE NOTE: The information below is offered purely as a service to the writing community. The Agency is no longer accepting new work.

This information is provided as a service for authors who may wish to submit proposals to other agencies. Be sure to check each agency’s submission guidelines, however, since every agent has a different set of preferences.

Every non-fiction book started out in life as a proposal, even if that proposal was simply a whispered aside between a famous author and her favorite editor. But many authors are surprised to learn that they don't have to write an entire manuscript before shopping around a book idea. Agents and editors usually buy non-fiction works based on proposals. To be read and considered, of course, your proposal must be superbly written, organized, and edited and absolutely complete. Never has this been truer than it is today, since competition for agents' and editors' time is tremendous. Here are some suggestions for getting in contact with agents.

Getting a Foot in the Door

You should always send agents a brief "query letter" before sending a full proposal. Every agency has a different set of specialties (which may change from time to time), and an agent can determine from your query letter whether your book is one he or she would be likely to represent. Send your query letter to agents either by email or regular mail, according to their guidelines. Never fax. If you use regular mail, be sure to enclose a postage-paid return envelope, without which agents won’t respond. If you send your query by email, try to keep your message to the equivalent of a page, and never attach documents without being asked (they will usually be deleted unread, for security reasons). Tailor your query for each agent - not the entire universe. No matter which format you use, your query should describe you and your credentials, your subject, your book's intended audience, and why the book will be interesting to editors, agents, and the reading public. You should emphasize what's new and different about your work, your approach, or both (more on this below). Remember: Your writing is of paramount importance to recipients of your query letter (which is one reason why agents frown on queries by telephone). Your query letter should be informative, interesting, succinct, and perfectly edited.

If an agent is interested in your work, he or she will respond to your query letter within a few weeks' time (usually faster if you query by email, although some seasons are exceptionally busy at every agency). The agent will advise you to send a more complete proposal if your work is appropriate for that particular agency and the agency is accepting new projects. For more information on different agencies' subject areas of interest, we highly recommend a paperback book called Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. Issued annually, it also provides additional useful background about writing book proposals, the processes of publishing, and more.

Preparing a Proposal

Many agents look for the following in a non-fiction proposal:

  1. one or two sample chapters

  2. a table of contents

  3. an overview of the work in essay form

  4. your short biography statement or c.v.

  5. any useful background clips (reviews of your other work, articles about you, articles on the subject from prominent publications, links to audio or video websites where you’ve been interviewed, etc.)

  6. a cover letter

  7. a postage-paid return envelope large enough to enclose the proposal, in case your material is not accepted. Agents will not respond to mailed proposals or return your material otherwise.

But there's much more to it than that, and what's in the back of your mind as you create your proposal is at least as important as the structure. Let's think about what a proposal has to do. . .

The Proposal's Mission

Proposal content will vary from project to project and author to author. What's consistent is the proposal's mission: It not only has to represent the work with some degree of accuracy, it also has to sell the work to agents and acquisitions editors. Editors are usually intellectually curious people, but they can't be experts on everything. So your proposal must not only explain its subject succinctly and well, it must also put your work in context--and be very convincing! An editor will ask herself questions like these, which means you should ask them of yourself first:

  1. How is this author's approach different from that of another author?

  2. Why will the subject matter be of interest to a wide audience, and not just to other experts?

  3. Does the author seem prepared to dig into his subject, raising and answering some surprising questions?

  4. Is the author someone with proven ability to reach the media and promote his or her work?

  5. Should this really be a book at all, or does this proposal seem to describe a long magazine article instead?

Acquisitions editors also try to put themselves in the shoes of the reading public. They will ask themselves whether they'd buy your book if they were an average consumer shopping in a bookstore or online. And the selling doesn't stop there: since most publishers make their acquisitions choices at least partly by committee, a sponsoring editor must often "sell" projects she likes to her own colleagues, competing with other editors for a limited supply of acquisition money. Your proposal must therefore supply the editor with marketing "handles." Proposed works are regularly declined, with regret, by editors who really wanted to acquire them. Why? Because the proposal didn't give the editor enough ammunition to sell the book to her colleagues.

Proposal Elements: Sample Chapters

Choose the chapter(s) you submit as part of the proposal carefully. They must not only be well written, but also intriguing and fresh. Choosing the right chapters sometimes means choosing chapters that don't seem, at first glance, to reflect all of the book's content. Rather, they're the chapters that are going to "grab" editors who are considering the work and get them interested in reading more. Usually, it's wise to submit the introductory chapter--the one that sets up the subject, parameters, and "agenda" of the book--but it must not duplicate the material in your overview. If you submit a second chapter, it should be one that comes from the heart of the book. The two chapters should answer different questions an editor might have. For instance, if one chapter deals with your personal experiences in an anecdotal way, the other should be more straightforward and instructive. If one deals with a very specific subtopic, the other should be more general in outlook. The two chapters should give an idea not only of the range of the subject, but also the range of the your "voice."

The Overview in Essay Form

Separately, you should draft an overview of the work: ten to fifteen pages in essay form that summarize the subject and answer a few key questions: Why did you decide to write this book? What credentials do you have to do so? Who is in your intended audience? What are the key lessons you want your readers to carry away from reading the book? What tone will you use in writing "to" that audience? Why do you think people will be interested? What kind of experience do you have as an author and with the media, and how might you be able to market the book, recognizing that you, and not your publisher, will be doing most of the work? Why is the book unlike anything other? It is essential for prospective authors to visit a major bookstore to look at the competition. Search online booksellers, as well, and make note of works that might seem to be competitive even if they are not. You can bet that agents and editors will do the same research. It is a cliché ­ and not acceptable ­ for book proposals to contain the words "There is no other book on the market like this one." That is simply never true. Even if no one has written on your particular subject for many years, even if there is no work that's perfectly identical (in which case you'd be guilty of plagiarism), there will always be works to which yours can be compared. A strong proposal will describe perhaps a half dozen other works, pointing out the similarities and differences. In some cases, you'll be able to say that a competing work is "fine as far as it goes, but mine gets into new areas." In other cases, you'll want to debunk a competing work outright, showing how yours is a rebuttal. Perhaps, on the other hand, you especially admire a book whose subject is different from yours, but whose style or structure is similar. In that case, it's very helpful to make the comparison. Editors like to know that their authors are aware of the market, and by citing similar works or authors you help place yourself and your book in context.

Speaking of the market, it's also essential that you describe any prior experience you have in writing and publishing, as well as with the media. Do you appear regularly on television or radio? Make sure to say so. Have you been interviewed on a national program? Have you written op-ed pieces for a major newspaper, or contributed to a magazine? Have you won prizes for your writing? It is more essential than ever for authors to have have a "platform" appropriate to the kinds of books they want to write and publish. Don't be shy about your accomplishments, experience, and awards. And if you haven't been "present" in the media lately, consider calling your local radio station or sending some pieces to newspapers ­ before you query agents. You may find editors and producers receptive to your work, and prior experience marketing yourself and your work will be invaluable as you set about selling your book. As always, other authors will also have loads of advice and contacts. Consider attending writers' conferences and other venues at which you can interact with and learn from people who have already published books.

Annotated Table of Contents (TOC)

You should outline the work by drafting a table of contents. This is not cast in stone; it can change later on, but it's essential to include as representative a TOC as possible with your proposal. It will show us, and editors, that you've thought about what should and shouldn't be included in the book--its "agenda." The outline requires quite a bit of thought, but you may find it an instructive and enjoyable process. Once you've settled on the chapters that will make up the book, you should write a few lines about the contents of each chapter. We usually discuss the proposed contents with the author prior to sending out the proposal, to see if adjustments should be made.

What Else?

It may sound silly, but proposals that are riddled with typos and grammatical errors do not pass "Go!" You owe it to yourself to double-check everything you write. Run a spell- or grammar-checker if you have one on your computer. If not, don't hesitate to consult your dictionary or a good grammar reference. Either way, reread your work and edit it manually at least once (computer spell-checkers make mistakes, too!). It's always a good idea to share your writing with someone you trust--like a close friend or family member. He or she may give you important suggestions for improving your proposal, or catch embarrassing mistakes. Remember: If you don't respect your work enough to edit it carefully, others won't respect it, either!

Many authors are concerned about copyright issues when sending their proposals to agents. In particular, we're sometimes asked whether proposals are at all protected by copyright laws. The answer is yes, to a point. As soon as your work is “fixed” in tangible form, the current copyright law says that you are the copyright holder. Your protections, however, are limited until you register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, whose website contains a wealth of useful information on the subject. The Authors Guild, a national organization, provides its members with excellent legal advice and other information on writing and publishing.

Don't forget to include in your proposal a copy of your resume or c.v., useful links to websites, blogs, audio and video clips about you, photocopies of any relevant articles you've written, and information on previous works you've published, even if they were on other subjects or intended for other audiences. And in your cover letter, be sure to include any facts that may have slipped through the cracks. If you are about to appear on a PBS special or recently won a journalism prize, now is the time to mention it!

Sending the Proposal

If you send your proposal by mail, don't forget to enclose a postage-paid, pre-addressed return envelope large enough to hold your material. Agents won’t return your material without one. Do not send any material as an attachment to email without asking first; if you do send an attachment, you should compress the file or files if possible. Agents can read proposals best if they're sent in MS Word, but can usually open attachments sent in other formats. PLEASE NOTE: The Robert E. Shepard Agency is not accepting submissions.

A Final Note

Writing a successful book proposal can be hard work. So can waiting for responses from agents and (it must be said) dealing with the rejection letters that are nearly inevitable at some point in every writer's career. Most agencies accept fewer than one percent of the book proposals they consider each year. Agents aren’t trying to be callous; rather, they must assess not only their personal enthusiasm for a project but the likely interest of acquisitions editors--whose decisions, of course, hinge in part on the market and in part on their own passion for a subject. The good news is that so much of the book business remains subjective; editors look for books that "feel" right, that are fresh and different, and that can have a profound effect. The bad news is that many authors ruin their books' chances for the wrong reasons: by rushing out poorly edited proposals, or by sending wonderful proposals to agents who don't happen to be interested in their particular subjects.

We encourage you to do your best and to keep at it!


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