Book Proposals Aren’t Just For How-To Books Anymore By Patricia Fry

I hear it all the time, “I don’t need a book proposal because I’m writing a novel.” One woman told me, “My book simply defies the need to write a book proposal first. I’ll pitch it to publishers as already written.” Or the classic, “Sure, you might write a book proposal for a how-to book, but not a memoir.”

Excuse me, but I beg to differ. Every book should start with a book proposal. The only exceptions are books for personal distribution to family members and friends and, perhaps, instructional or educational books with limited distribution to a specific company, organization or industry. Books written with a national, international or even regional audience in mind, in order to be successful, require tremendous forethought. And this means, write a book proposal first.

You wouldn’t invent and manufacture an odorless perfume or a new type of screwdriver without first exploring the success potential. You would determine, is there a need for this product, what is the competition, who would use it, what steps are necessary in order to produce it, how much would it cost to produce it and how would you market it? Well, HELLOOOOO. A book is a product, too.

In order to determine the potential for a product, you develop a business plan. When that product is a book, you write a book proposal.

Even before writing a book, there are certain things that you need to know. And this is true whether you’re writing a memoir, novel, children’s storybook, chapbook, historical, how-to, self-help or coffee table book. If you are seeking some measure of success with your book project, you must find out:

+ Is there a market for this book?
+ What titles compete with yours?
+ How does your book differ from others on this topic?
+ Who is your target audience and how can you reach them?
+ What are your publishing options?
+ What are the possible consequences of your publishing choices?
+ What are your responsibilities as a published author?
+ How will you promote your book once it is published?

A well designed book proposal will answer these important questions. It will also help you to determine:

+ How realistic is your vision for this book?
+ What is the best way to organize your book?
+ How can you make it more salable?

I’m one of many professionals who recommend writing a book proposal even before writing the book. You might argue (and believe me, many new authors do), “But, I’m in creative mode – I need to write this book now.” Sure, go ahead and write a book on a whim. I’ve done it. It’s great fun – an enjoyable exercise. But should you decide that this book must be published, be aware that you might need to do some rewriting. Sure, it’s possible that you can find a publisher for your book, as is. Kudos to you. However, many countless disillusioned authors tell me, “I was rejected by every publisher I approached so I paid to have my book published. I should have listened to those publishers and editors who suggested changes to my manuscript.” Or “If only I’d taken the time to learn more about my options.”

Memoir authors seem especially reluctant to let anything outside of them influence their book. I was told recently, “This is my memoir and it must be told my way.” Okay, but if you write a book proposal first, you might discover even subtle ways to make your memoir more desirable to a publisher.

Let’s say that you plan to write a chronological account of your life. Unless you have celebrity status, you probably don’t have even a slight chance of finding a traditional royalty publisher. Weave some fascinating bits of historical information throughout the book, play up your involvement in a major national organization or give your memoir a self-help or how-to flavor and you just might have something worth pitching. What difference would these ideas make toward the success of your memoir?

These added dimensions give you a wider range of publishers to choose from. For example, there are over twice as many publishers of history than of memoirs, and over three times more publishers of how-to books. Your book would be easier to promote. The historical aspect might make it suitable for inclusion in public school curriculum, for example, and that’s a large audience. If you involve a national organization in a positive way in your memoir, they might help to promote your book. And self-help and how-to books generally come with an audience and have a longer shelf life. Here are a few examples of memoirs that could transition into self-help books:

+ You have overcome a lifelong fear such as agoraphobia, ailurophobia or caligynephobia.
+ You traveled the world with a cat.
+ You endured childhood abuse.
+ You are a triplet.
+ You care for a loved one who suffered brain damage in an accident.
+ You were mauled by a dog (bear, ostrich or lion).
+ You are an amputee who participates in sports.
+ You’ve traveled to many exotic places practically free.

If you are serious about getting published, do not write your book on a whim. Start with a book proposal and this is true for nonfiction, memoirs and fiction.

Another reason for writing a book proposal is for the advance. Many publishers of all sizes offer an advance against royalties. Now wouldn’t it be nice to have the money to sustain you while you work on the manuscript?

Write a Book Proposal for the Publisher

Most publishers today want to see a book proposal before they will even look at a manuscript. They want to know that you have a viable product, of course, that you can write and that there is an audience for your book. But they’re also interested in your platform. In fact, I just completed a survey wherein I asked publishers of all sizes and from all genres, “How important is an author’s platform?” Every one of them said, “Very important.”

Your platform, by the way, is your publicity angle – your level of prominence or respect in your field, as a writer or in general. One publisher said, “Platform is an author’s reach.” Another one told me, “Platform is your audience – your visibility.” The publisher wants to know that you have a following, a network or important connections. He’ll be interested in the fact that you are a skilled promoter or public speaker and that you have access to large audiences on a regular basis. It will impress him if you can honestly say that you are a columnist for a magazine or newspaper in the area of your book topic, for example. The publishers I surveyed all confirmed that an author today needs a platform. They typically reject manuscripts by authors who haven’t established a platform.

Establish Your Platform Before Writing the Book

I once worked with a client who was writing a marvelous self-help book for women. She was using a fresh angle based on her expertise as an artist. I was sure that she could land a major publisher for her project, except for one thing. She did not have a platform. She wrote in her book proposal that she would present seminars based on the concept of her book to large groups of women in major cities and invite high profile speakers to participate. I was impressed until I found out that she was blowing in the wind. She had no organizational experience and no public speaking or teaching experience. Nor did she have a following.

I suggested that she put her book on hold for a year and go out and present at least one seminar – in other words, begin to establish a platform. Then, instead of telling the publisher what she plans to do, she can give him the details of her successful promotional experience.

You, too, can take steps toward establishing your platform. Here are a few ideas:

+ Become a better public speaker. Join a Toastmasters club. Seek opportunities to practice your speaking skills. Go out and speak on your topic, if applicable. If you’re writing a historical novel, establish a connection with local, regional and state historical societies, clubs and associations where you might give talks, etc. + Prepare to give readings. This is a popular method of promoting fiction books or memoirs. Do you have a good reading voice? If you need voice work, get help. And then go out and practice. + Write articles for national magazines. + Become columnist or regular contributor to a Web site, newsletter or magazine related to your topic. + Seek an endorsement for your book or support for your project from a well-known national organization. + Establish and nurture connections with high profile people in your field. + Borrow, buy and/or build a mailing list. + Build a Web site and start a blog related to your book. Offer something of value and promote, promote, promote. + Take a class or read several good books about promotion in general and book promotion in particular. + Become familiar with appropriate talk TV and radio shows nationwide and how to land interviews. + Do something newsworthy.

I met a man years ago who wrote a novel featuring a homeless family and the homeless way of life. He wanted help promoting his book. I suggested that he get national coverage for his book by starting a project to help the homeless – make sandwiches and serve them to the homeless in the park each Sunday; offer an informal, outdoor church service for those who want it; sponsor one homeless family each year, for example. How would he get publicity for his efforts? He would write news releases telling about his project and his book and send them to newspapers throughout the U.S. He may even land a few radio, TV and magazine interviews.

What Are the Parts of a Book Proposal?

The flip answer is, “Whatever the publisher requests.” Not every publisher wants the same thing when it comes to a book proposal. I cannot stress enough the importance of studying each publisher’s Submission Guidelines. You’ll learn what kind of manuscripts that publisher is looking for and how he wants your project presented. Find Submission Guidelines at the publisher’s Web site or request a copy by email or mail.

A Nonfiction Book Proposal should include:

Cover letter
Title page
Table of contents
Synopsis or overview
Marketing section (Who is your target audience?)
Promotional ideas (Include your platform.)
Market Analysis or comparison of competitive works.
About the author (What makes you the best person to write this book?)
Chapter outline
Sample chapters
Samples of illustrations, photographs, etc.

A Fiction Book Proposal should include?

Cover letter
Synopsis or overview
Promotional plan
About the author

One hopeful author said to me recently, “I’m not going to bother with a book proposal. I’m going to send the publisher a pitch kit.”
Huh? And there is a difference between a book proposal and a pitch kit? Maybe it is the term book proposal that turns off so many
authors. Shall we start calling it a pitch kit?

How Important is a Book Proposal, Really???

Even in today’s competitive publishing climate and even with experts and professionals hammering away about the importance of the book proposal, some authors still refuse to take the book proposal seriously. Many hopeful authors just want to find a publisher through some miraculous shortcut even if they have to pay someone to publish their books. They care little, in the beginning, about their target audience or the market for their book. Many of them believe that if they write it, readers will come. Eventually, they learn that this is not a very smart way to approach publishing. Some authors will reluctantly agree to write an abbreviated version of a book proposal and they’ll ask me, “What is the most important part of a book proposal?” They want to know, “Should I send the publisher a sample chapter or a synopsis? How about my table of contents?” These questions started me wondering: Do publishers consider one aspect of the book proposal more essential than others? And I decided to launch a survey. About a dozen publishers of various types and sizes responded to my question: “What is the most important part of a book proposal?” Here are the results of my informal survey. Target Audience Roughly one-quarter of the publishers said they want to know, “Who is the target audience and where will you find them?” One publisher said, “I need to know, what is the market for this book? Who will buy it and how can these people be reached?” Another one advised, “Get down to reality and think, who will buy your book?” Yet, another publisher said, “Who is going to buy this book, and why from this author?”

Author’s Platform

Several publishers responded that the author’s platform was most important. Here are their comments: “I want to know, how is the author qualified to be invited on radio and TV shows to discuss his or her book?” Another one stated, “The author’s understanding about the future life of the book is paramount for acceptance of the proposal.” And I was told, “I want to see a marketing plan that demonstrates viability.” Yet, another publisher stated, “We need to know if an author is marketable, especially as we publish how-to books in business and real estate.”

Is the Proposal Well-Written?

Two publishers said that they want to see well-written proposals. “It must have as much voice as the actual manuscript,” states one publisher. He explains, “Too often proposals are sloppily done. There are grammar and usage mistakes.” Another publisher pointed out that, “A concept can be tweaked, but a great idea in the hands of an incompetent or mediocre writer won’t fly.”

What’s the Competition?

A few of the publishers surveyed want to know, first, how this book is different. One said, “I want to see a well-structured, short, solid book proposal that consists of how is the proposed work different than anything else?”

The Cover Letter

Surprisingly, one publisher said that the cover letter is the most important part of a book proposal. She explains, “I can often tell if the book is unique and compelling, if the author has a solid marketing platform, what the book is about, who the book is for and how it stands out from the competition from a simple one-page cover letter. I often accept or reject proposals based on the information I can gather from the cover letter.”

The Sample Chapter

And one lone publisher said that the sample chapter is the most important part of a book proposal as far as he’s concerned.

Isn’t it odd that not one publisher even mentioned the Synopsis?

Well, what did we learn from this little survey? For me, it just drives home the point I keep trying to make through my consultations, my workshops and my writing, that all parts of a book proposal are equally essential and that every hopeful author needs to write one.

Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and editorial consultant. She is the author of 24 books, including The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book.