Ask Tania: How do I write a book proposal?

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Dear Tania,
My manuscript is being taken to an acquisitions meeting! It's very exciting, however, the publisher wants me to write a proposal rather than just the cover letter I sent with the manuscript. What is the best format for the proposal?

Hi, Kirsty,

Congratulations! That's wonderful news and one step closer to holding your precious book in your hands!

Writing a solid book proposal is important. You are effectively selling your book to a team. You want them to want it! Some publishers have a set format they require for book proposals, but if you are just asked to write one without guidance, here are my tips.

The publisher already likes your work, so their interest is a given. But an acquisitions team's main focus is:

a) does the work suit their ethos?
b) is it marketable/sellable?
c) is this author proactive, dynamic and able to help market their work?

Check the publisher's ethos or mission statement. Many have it on their websites and if they don't, you can get a solid understanding of what it might be from their current book list. Or ask the publisher directly.

For marketability and sales potential, you'll need to make your book sound 'needed' on the market. Does it align with current trends or current affairs? Is it unique in some way? Does it fill a market gap? Essentially, you need to ensure the book fits a spot in the market and an audience. Don't expect a publisher to find your audience for you. Think about where this book fits in the current market and who it would sell to. Research this well.

For proactivity, be sure to make it clear that you are active and willing to help market your book. More on this below.

Proposals vary enormously, depending on the book type in question, but in general, a proposal can include the following (if it's a long proposal, it should include a table of contents, but a short one doesn't need that):

  • A short overview of your proposal.
  • A clear and direct synopsis of your book. Make it relatively detailed but not too long. Like all elements of your proposal, it should be well-edited. Don't waffle and don't include too many personal elements. 'I wrote this book because...' is okay, but one or two sentences is enough--not an essay.
  • A idea of your target market--who they are, and why they will relate to or buy this book. Including some kind of stats or facts will help.
  • A short competitive analysis on books, websites or products that are similar to yours and compete with yours. Most importantly, state why your book stands out and/or how it is better/will attract more sales. Be factual and don't use hyperbole.
  • If you say your book is completely unique and has no competition, you will need to then prove it's not so specialised or whackadoodle that your buying market proves too small.
  • Provide an author biography with what you have already achieved and what you're working on. Are you a specialist in your field? What makes you stand out? List any other book titles here. Be sure to list memberships and affiliations (member of CBCA, SCBWI, etc). The more industry-involved you are, the better.
  • Show how present you will be if this book goes to print, and suggest ways you can market and promote it. Be sure to state your online presence, website links, social networking capabilities,  and other platforms or achievements, eg: I am a reviewer for BookBlogs, I already have experience with speaking to children, I have set up a blog for my work, I have media contacts, etc, etc. Be confident and firm about what you WILL do, not what you COULD do.
  • Provide three sample chapters for fiction and the entire manuscript for a picture book. Yes, provide the work again, even if it's already with the publisher. You may have made some fresh edits between now and then, so provide your best work (though not a complete redraft!).

When you're done preparing your proposal, go over it and ensure you've met the following:

  • The reason this book should be on the market and what its unique selling points are.
  • Who will buy this book? What will they love about it/get from it?
  • Why YOU? In what way would you make a valuable asset to this publisher's stable? Are you consistently writing new material? Are you target market savvy? Do you already have an audience or web-presence? Do you understand the importance of proactivity?
  • Can you be easy to work with? Show this by being well-researched, confident, warm, professional, direct and succinct. If you are faffing or asking a billion questions that you can easily find with a Google search, publishers may baulk no matter how much they love your proposal.

Good luck!

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