These are a few general considerations on book proposals, just to get you oriented. While writing a proposal you should always keep in mind that this document is, first and foremost, a selling document, a “pitch” as they say in Hollywood. As my old friend Susan Rabiner says in her book, THINKING LIKE YOUR EDITOR; HOW TO WRITE GREAT SERIOUS NONFICTION — AND GET IT PUBLISHED, the thing you have to keep in mind as you’re writing a proposal is: audience, audience, audience. (By the way, Susan’s book is, in my opinion, the best single thing ever written about book proposals. If you have time it would be well worth your while to get and read it, especially Chapter 2 on proposal writing. It’s available in most Barnes & Noble stores as a trade paperback.)
An editor’s decision to sign up a book will be based on the answers to four questions:
- Does the book have a self-selecting, book-buying audience?
- If yes, who makes up that audience?
- What does the book say to/give to that audience? Why will it matter to them?
- Will this audience, once aware of the book, go out and buy it?
Of course, this doesn’t mean answering those questions baldly and in a row, just that they must always be kept in mind while writing because this is what an editor will be thinking about and looking for as s/he peruses it.
Above all, a good proposal clearly communicates what the editor (or agent) wants to know, not what the author wants to say. This is important. What the author wants to say is the book itself, which is quite a different matter from the pitch for the book, which is why so many writers have more trouble writing the proposal than the book. This is the decisive point and it probably requires a re-orientation of your thinking. Most authors try to condense the whole book, but that is not what is called for in the proposal; that is handled in the annotated table of contents and in the sample chapter(s). You’re not trying to summarize the book here; you’re making a pitch, trying to get a sale.
Every proposal essay that wants to be successful needs to answer the following five questions:
- What is the book about? What is its subject?
- What is the book’s thesis or argument, that is, what are you saying about that subject? And how is it new, or why will it matter to the reader.
- Why are you the person to write this book?
- Why is now the time to publish it?
- Who is its core audience, why will they find it appealing, what will it do for them?
Again, these questions do not have to be answered in order, but the proposal should answer all of these questions. For some books certain questions are more relevant than others, some are easier to answer than others, but all book proposals should answer these questions somehow (and sometimes the same piece of writing can simultaneously answer more than one question).
And finally, maybe Susan’s best point, a good book proposal tells a story, always the quickest and most reliable way to hook a reader (in this case, an agent or editor). The proposal essay should read like a little narrative of 10 to 20 pages, or at least start out as a little narrative, a story. The main reason I suggest looking at Susan’s book is to get a sense from her examples of how to write these stories, to see how different (and more appealing) material can look when cast in the form of a story.