Book Proposal: How to Write a Book Proposal in 7 Simple Steps

P.J McNulty
December 08, 2020 | 10 mins

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Learning how to write a book proposal is an exciting step on the journey to getting your book out into the world. 

This is the time to stop thinking about your book as a private project and start seeing it as something the outside world will be interested in. This requires you to take a methodical look at what your book contains and the commercial potential it might have. 

Even if you intend to self-publish your book (and we think you should!) there is still value in taking the time to go through the book proposal process.

If you’re not sure what your book proposal should contain, or even what it is, we’ve got you covered!

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This guide to writing a book proposal covers:

  1. What is a book proposal?
  2. Step 1 – Write an overview
  3. Step 2 – Define your target audience
  4. Step 3 – Share your author information
  5. Step 4 – Plan your marketing
  6. Step 5 – Define the competition
  7. Step 6 – Outline your chapters
  8. Step 7 – Include a sample chapter
  9. What should you avoid in a book proposal?

What is a book proposal?

A book proposal is a document that authors use to pitch their book, usually to a publisher. It run betweens 20 and 50 pages in length and makes the case for why a book is a good idea and how it is likely to succeed.

Good book proposals are detailed, focused, and backed up with as much data as possible to advocate for a book’s commercial potential. 

How do you propose a book to a publisher?

If you are looking to release your book on a traditionally-published, rather than self-published basis, you will need to either pitch it to a publisher directly, or have an agent do that for you.

In either instance, a book proposal will be an effective tool in your arsenal. It’s a lot easier to get an agent or publisher’s attention if you have a well-produced document that clearly states exactly what your book is about, why you are the right person to write it, and how you plan to market it. 

Even if you are leaning towards self-publishing your book, you should still take the time to write a proposal. Why? As you will be the publisher for your own book, you still need a clear idea of all the same information as a traditional publisher. 

Step 1 – Write an overview

The first section your book proposal must include is the overview. Think of the overview section as being like an elevator pitch. It’s a succinct and persuasive summary of why your book matters and is deserving of further attention.

The key is to write your overview section in the most gripping way possible. This isn’t the time to be boring or dry. By the same token, it’s also not the time to be over the top or use too much hype or extravagant claims. 

Instead, take a middleground. Clearly and succinctly state exactly what your book is about and why it matters. Try and touch on the emotional experience that a reader is in for should they choose your book. 

Imagine being at a dinner party and having about half a minute to respond to someone asking ‘so what’s your book about?’. You want them to have a very clear idea of what your book covers but you also want them to feel excited and intrigued to learn more. If you cover both objectives in your overview, you have the start of an excellent book proposal. 

Step 2 – Define your target audience 

It’s now time to clearly make the case for who your book is intended for. 

Every book needs a defined readership. You might already have a clear idea of who your book is intended for, or you might need to explore this a bit further.

If you’re not exactly sure how to define your audience, think about the following points:

  • Is there a particular age group your book is intended for?
  • Does your book speak to a particular gender?
  • What about location? Would readers in a particular country or even city get more from your book, or could readers from around the world enjoy it?
  • What are the pain points your book seeks to solve?
  • Can you explain your target readership in terms of other books? For example, could you say ‘fans of X book would enjoy my book because…’. 

No matter what you do, avoid stating that your book is intended for everyone. When you try to please too many people, you often end up pleasing none!

When you are writing information on your target audience, use numbers wherever possible. For example, don’t write something like ‘young people with anxiety’. Instead, state exactly how many young people have anxiety. Always use numbers, and make sure these numbers are reliably sourced. 

Step 3 – Share your author information

An effective book proposal isn’t just about selling your book and the information it contains. It’s also about selling you as the author.

In this section of your book proposal, you need to be as self-promotional as possible without being over the top or making claims you can’t back up. 

By all means, use this section to cover basic information about who you are as a writer and your background. However, it’s important to keep this tight and relevant. You want to think in terms of only what would make a publisher more interested in investing money into a book from you. 

Some of the best and most useful things to share here include:

  • Details of your author platform. What kind of following do you have? On which platforms? Make sure to include numbers here such as X followers on Y platform.
  • Awards. Have you won any awards or prizes? Have you been recognized in some other way?
  • Body of work. Have you published before? Do you have other relevant experience, such as contributing to publications?
  • Media. Have you appeared in any media publications, either online or in real life? 
  • Speaking. Have you given talks anywhere? Are you a member of any speaking organizations?
  • Author photo. Include a professional picture here that you feel is a good fit for who you are and the type of book you are pitching. 

In a nutshell, the author info section of your proposal should convince a publisher of two things. First, that you are the right person to write this particular book. Second, that you are in a position to make it a success. 

Step 4 – Plan your marketing

Any good book proposal needs to cover a brief marketing plan.

On a side note, isn’t it interesting how even in a traditional publishing context authors are still required to think about and participate in book marketing? A lot of the responsibilities that people imagine self-publishers alone have also fall to traditional authors!

So, what should you include in the marketing section of your book proposal?

Like all the other sections, the key here is to be as specific as possible. 

For example, let’s imagine you hope to get relevant bloggers to feature your book. 

Don’t write something like “I want to get my book featured on relevant blogs.” Instead, be as specific as possible. Say something like “I will reach out to my network of 100s of authority bloggers within my niche with the aim of securing at least 10 features on blogs with X amount of monthly traffic.” 

Aside from being as specific as possible, another key tip here is to focus on what’s within your direct power as an author. Don’t tell the publisher what you want them to do. Instead, be very clear about what you can and will do to help your book succeed. 

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Step 5 – Define the competition

Book publishers are aware that the market is a crowded place. For every person that wants to buy a book, there are probably multiple titles that would be a good fit for that readers’s needs.

As part of your book proposal process, you need to take a look at the other books that are out there and make the case for why yours is different and worthwhile.

It’s not enough that your book is excellent in its own right. It also needs to stand out from the competition in a positive way. Here are some ways you might think about selling a publisher on how your book is different from the other options out there:

  • Contemporary. Sometimes, you will notice that the competing books out there contain old information that isn’t the most useful or interesting for today’s readers. If your book contains fresh info that isn’t found elsewhere, that is a major selling point to emphasize to publishers.
  • Other audience. Perhaps your book is the only one to cover the needs of a specific group of readers. For example, if your book covers dating advice for millennial men, and other books do not cover this demographic, that’s something to point out. 
  • Different take. Your book might be offering a solution to readers that isn’t found in other titles. If you have a unique angle then be sure to make this clear in your competitor analysis section. 

No book exists in isolation, so be sure to show publishers that you haven’t just considered your competition, but also why you are ideally placed to offer something different from them.

Step 6 – Outline your chapters 

Your book proposal should provide a full list of the chapters your book will contain.

For each chapter, include around a paragraph explaining exactly what the chapter covers and why it matters. 

You want to keep your chapter summaries short and interesting. They should be written in a way that is understandable by a publisher who might not be an expert in your topic. You should also focus on exploring why the chapters matter and how they benefit the reader. 

If in doubt, have someone with only a general level of understanding of your book topic take a look at your chapter list. Get their feedback on which chapters sounded interesting, which didn’t, and why. 

Step 7 – Include a sample chapter 

The final essential thing to include as part of a book proposal is a sample chapter, or more than one chapter, that really shows exactly what your book is all about.

If a publisher gets as far as wanting to read your sample chapter, you’ve already got further than a lot of authors. So don’t let this be the part of the process that lets you down!

You should choose the chapters of your book that most showcase the ideas and moods you promised in your book overview. You want to convince anyone reading that your book is as you described it to be. 

Ideally, you should choose a chapter that works fairly well on its own. If it relies too heavily on other parts of the book to make sense, it is unlikely to do a great job at winning a publisher over. 

Think of your sample chapter as a representative of your book. Which chapter shows what your work is all about in the best possible light?

Your choice of sample chapter can make or break your book’s success with a publisher, so be sure to choose wisely!

What should you avoid in a book proposal?

Of course, if you’re writing a book proposal for the first time, you also need to know the mistakes to avoid making!

Some of the key errors authors should avoid at all costs when writing a book proposal include:

  1. Making it all about you. Your book proposal isn’t the time for you to say why you think your book is wonderful and deserves attention. You need to step into the shoes of a prospective publisher and view the entire thing from their perspective. 
  1. Being wordy. Book publishers are inundated with proposals. Make sure yours covers everything it needs to in the most succinct and punchy way possible. Ruthlessly trim your text down until it has only the absolute essentials. 
  1. Using too much jargon. Book publishers are almost certainly less familiar with your book topic than you are. Avoid alienating them by writing too much jargon or using technical language that is off putting. 
  1. Not using data. Whenever you make a claim, support it with evidence and data. Don’t just say a niche is popular, for example, Share the facts and figures that prove it is. 
  1. Not getting feedback. After you’ve written a draft of your book proposal, be sure to get feedback from people whose opinion you trust. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in your own perception of your proposal without thinking about how it comes across to others. 

If you’re ready to write your first book proposal, we wish you every success! It’s a useful thing to do even if you end up self-publishing. 

Have you created a book proposal in the past? What part of the process did you find the most challenging and the most enjoyable? What do you wish you knew before you started?

Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts on the book proposal process!

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