By Wendy Keller, Literary Agent and Nonfiction Book Proposal Expert
A book proposal consists of 5 crucial parts, as well as a few sample chapters. The finished document is typically between 25 and 60 pages long, depending on the length of the sample chapters.
A publishing decision is made by committee representing several departments, all with individual points of view. Those departments are usually editorial, sales, marketing and corporate (the view of the publisher – “Will this book make money for the house?”) The only section that will certainly be read by every committee member is the Overview, which makes it the most important. Pay special attention to crafting a nearly-perfect Overview!
The purpose of the overview is to pique the editor’s interest sufficiently to get them to read the balance of the proposal and buy the book. Your goal is to answer these three questions:
- Who is going to buy this book and why?
- How do you know?
- Why are YOU the right person to write it?
That’s it. It should not exceed 3-5 pages in length. The last paragraph should be what I call the “save the whales” paragraph. This is where you get all misty-eyed and talk about how your book is part of your mission to save the whales/children/grow companies/help people find true love – whatever you’re doing. We want the editor to know you are emotionally and mentally committed to the book.
Modesty will cost you a book deal. This is no place for humility. Tell us what your credentials are related to the topic, but more importantly, every shred of media you have done on this subject, media training you have, articles you write, your social media presence, the size of your mailing list, etc.
Editors are looking for how you will help them promote the book FIRST, and secondarily what the book is about. We can sell a cookbook by George Clooney faster and for a lot more money than a cookbook by the guy who owns the best restaurant in Los Angeles. (P.S. – If you know George Clooney, please tell him we’re available to represent him on any book topic he’d like!) A bio is typically 1-1.5 pages.
The point of the Chapter Summary is two-fold: to give the editor an idea of the breadth of your content and your fresh, interesting way of treating that information; and second, to make sure YOU know what you are promising to write about.
Most books are around 60,000 words, have twelve chapters and each chapter is about 5,000 words long including up to 2,000 words in stories/anecdotes/case studies/interviews.
To organize your book most easily, realize that Chapter One is almost always a general overview for the reader of what’s to follow, a description of your view of the topic, and the implicit promise to the reader of what they will get/learn when buying your book. You introduce yourself to the reader in Chapter One. You make it clear you’ve had the same challenge they’re having and can fix it for them, or that you’ve fixed it for many other people. You make ‘em love you and know that you care about their dilemma.
Chapter Two in most non-fiction books helps the reader identify him or herself as a person desperately needing the solution you’re about to offer. Chapters Three through Eleven are where the author expounds her/his ideas of how to create a resolution of the problem for which the reader bought the book. This is where you show off your solution in logical, concise, understandable steps. Chapter Twelve is typically the “go forth and conquer” chapter. It sums up the book, encourages and inspires the reader to go out and DO whatever prescription you’ve just written about. It’s got lots of pathos.
**IF YOU ARE WRITING A PROPOSAL TO TEST AN IDEA’S SALABILITY, this is the section with which to start!!!!***
The competitive analysis proves you are not working in a vacuum, unrealistic, unaware or plain stupid. I once got a query during John Gray’s heyday. The author wrote to say he was writing a relationship book called “Men are from Uranus, Women are from Pluto.” (No joke!) He swore to me he’d never read any other relationship book (including the most famous one by a similar title) and that this idea had been given to him in a personal visit with an archangel. (We get a lot of archangel-transmitted books offered to muse…)
PLEASE show you are savvy! Go to Amazon.com and select the top 6-8 books with the most similar content and which are selling well. Scroll down the AMAZON page to where it says “Product Details” like cut size, page count, weight, etc. Look at the Sales Ranking listed there. Only select books whose sales ranking is above 150,000 (for most topics.)
Read the whole page – description, sample pages and especially comments by readers. Look at the books Amazon recommends to people who buy that one. BUY and actually skim-read those that are quite similar to your own intended work.
TAKE NOTES ON THOSE BOOKS! The format in which you need to write up your notes (after the header above, and for each of the 6-8 books) is Positive, Negative, Positive.
This is a list of everything you have done in media in the past and everything you will do to promote this book. This is the single most important factor in determining the size of your advance and thus whether or not we will represent you. Together with the Overview, this is where our attentions as agents will be focused. Your marketing plan is most easily prepared if you think of it in six sections. They are:
Just do the best you can on this. If you’ve been on lots of shows, just list the national ones and for radio, just list by call letter or in the case of major host syndication (e.g., Dr. Phil or Leno) then by host name.
Need some extra help getting your book proposal in order? Check out our home study course here: How to Write and Sell an Excellent Book Proposal
Do you think your book proposal is ready to pitch to us? If so, please visit www.kellermedia.com/query.