Friday, October 30, 2009

The Who, What, When, & Why of Book Proposals

When I teach classes in how to write a nonfiction book I always stress the importance of developing a book proposal first. I usually get the same reaction: “Is that really necessary?” The answer is an unequivocal, “Yes.” And here are all the reasons why.

What is it?
A book proposal is the most important and most difficult step in the book-writing process. It is your road map on what can be a long and complicated journey. A book proposal is a work in progress. It grows and changes until the moment you send it off to an agent or publisher or you decide it is as good as you can make it.

Why is it important?
If you are interested in conventional publishing or are looking for an agent to represent you, you must have a book proposal. It may range in length from a tight cover letter to a 25-page document, but it will contain the same information and is a nonnegotiable step in the process. A proposal answers the most important question: Do you really have a book, or should you just write an article and let it go at that? A proposal organizes your thoughts, helps you think through every aspect of your book, and provides the foundation for everything else you will write.

When should you write it?
Since this is a planning document, the proposal should be written, at least in part, before you write a word of the book. But there are authors who insist on constructing it after the book is finished, when they realize they are going to need the information it will contain. So, whether you write it first or last, eventually, you will have to write some version of a proposal.

Who should you send it to?
If you are planning to self-publish, you won’t send to anyone, though you will keep it and refer to it many, many times. If you want your book published by a conventional publisher of any size, you will send the proposal to a literary agent, an acquisition editor, or directly to the potential publisher. To find an agent or publisher who is interested in your subject matter or genre requires research. Sending it out to “the world” is a waste of time, energy, and postage.

What should it contain?
The form of your proposal may vary; sections may be in a different order; but no matter what its length or organization, an effective book proposal must answer these questions:
  1. Why are you writing this book? What do you hope to achieve?
  2. What is your book about (in one or two sentences)?
  3. What are your qualifications for writing this book? What is your specific knowledge, experience, or expertise in relation to your subject?
  4. Why is this an appropriate and timely topic? What’s the big picture, the context? The political or social environment? In other words, why this book, now?
  5. Who are your target readers? What do you know about them? What do they read, do, watch on TV? Where do they surf on the Web?
  6. How will your audience benefit? What problem will your book solve or questions will it answer? What will readers learn?
  7. How will you reach them? Where are they likely to buy this book?
  8. How big is the market? How many potential readers are there? How many books can you sell? How do you know?
  9. What else is out there on this subject? How is this book unique/special/important?
  10. How will you help to promote your book? Publishers need to know; you need a plan. What connections in the world will help you get the word out?
Those are the reasons you should think through and write a book proposal, no matter how you are planning to publish and promote your book. Everything you write will be used in the book. Nothing will be wasted. Nothing is more worth the effort.


Kim said...

Amen! Write a book proposal even if you KNOW you are going to self-publish. You will use the information as you write and promote your book.

wizardofwords said...

Great post, Bobbi. I've just finished the 3rd draft of the proposal for my upcoming book. Thankfully, I have an interested agent who has helped me work the proposal from the first draft to what I've got now. Everyone of the posts you have raised is spot on.