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8 secrets of a great book proposal

Introduction to a Book Proposal

As every person trying to make a living by writing knows, writing is only half the battle. When it comes to getting a book published, selling it becomes just as important. The publishing world can be a confusing place, with so many different protocols. One of the things that new authors can trip over is book proposals. Nonfiction writers will almost certainly need to submit book proposals to publishers. Even if you are a novelist, there are chances you may be asked for a book proposal. Because submission guidelines vary, it can be difficult to know where to start. If you’re confused about a book proposal and how to write one, you’ve come to the right place!

What is Book Proposal?

Essentially, a book proposal is a comprehensive pitch to the publisher. It contains a brief summary of the central idea of your book. It also has sample chapters, a targeted audience, and other information. It should, in short, convince the publisher that your book is a worthy investment. Publishers ask for different things in the proposal, but there are general features.

Book Proposals for Non-fiction

Non-fiction is itself a huge category of literature. Whether you’ve written a cookbook or travelogue, you are going to need to pitch it to publishers. And pitch it in a way that convinces them to commit to the project. When it comes to nonfiction, the book proposal is often sent out before the actual manuscript is ready. So non-fiction writers, often, actually have to sell their books before they’ve written them.

This also depends on the author’s experience. A publisher might ask for a full manuscript as well as the book proposal if you are an unpublished author. The following are tips to keep in mind if you are trying to write a book proposal for your non-fiction project.

What to include in your book proposal

In a standard book proposal, there are several key elements that are important. It should have a title page, with the full name of the author and the full title of the book. The book proposal must also have an overview, which captures the central message of your book. It should be a brief summary of your book, its content, and the intention behind it. A table of contents with chapter outlines gives the publisher a roadmap to your work. Also, include a brief bio of yourself- your background and any relevant experience.

Not every publisher asks for sample chapters, but they are generally preferred. Your plan for marketing the book is a crucial part of the book proposal. The publisher must feel like you have a concrete plan for getting readers to buy your book.  A related question that your proposal should answer is- who is your target audience? And why should they buy your book over competing titles in the market? Information and insights about your audience and about comparable books are essential.

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Length and Formatting

While many technicalities depend on individual guidelines, there are some general standards. Jane Friedman, who runs a popular blog for writers, estimates the general length. 10-25 pages, double spaced is the standard length for a book proposal.

This is excluding sample chapters. If your premise is complicated, more than 50 pages are acceptable with sample chapters. Check the requirements of every publisher, and make sure you follow the guidelines. 

Your area of focus depends on your genre

If your book is something like a cookbook or a self-help book, marketability is more important than writing. Of course, a basic standard of acceptable writing must be met for a publisher to even consider you. However, in books that are aimed at impacting the life of the reader in a direct way- clarity is important, not lyricism.

As long as your communication is clear, it is not the writing itself that you should be focusing on, but the saleability of your book in the current market.

What can you offer that a reader cannot get from a ‘how to-’ article or vlogger or even a competing book? Your pitch should answer this crucial question. It should communicate the unique properties of your idea, and how it compares to competing books in the market.

As Friedman suggests, it is also important to make your own expertise in the field clear, so readers are able to trust your advice.

If, on the other hand, you are writing narrative fiction, then your voice and writing style matter. Narrative nonfiction includes categories like travel writing and memoirs. In these cases, you must do more than simply communicate ideas clearly.

If storytelling skills and writing style are integral to your book, you must prove them in the book proposal. This will instill confidence in the publisher.

Emphasize what is unique

A given publisher goes through a large number of book proposals before deciding on an investment. While it can be tempting to simplify your premise and try to make it sound as relatable and simple as possible, this is not always a good strategy.

Instead, be specific about your subject matter and your own expertise. Your angle and your unique perspective on the topic should come across clearly.

Be the right level of confident

Being either underconfident or overconfident could compromise your chances. You are trying to convince a publisher to invest in your work, so self-depreciation is unlikely to make them trust your abilities. Make sure your expertise and your background are clearly and boldly stated.

At the same time, comparing yourself to classical writers and bestsellers is also not a good idea. Don’t make claims so tall that the publisher doesn’t take your proposal seriously at all.

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Your marketing plan is crucial

It is natural to assume that if you sign a deal with a publisher, they must be in charge of selling your book. The catch is, that many traditional publishers may be good at selling books to booksellers and book stores, but rely on you to know how to appeal to the readers.

Since the readers are the most important people for the publisher, your proposal should include your plan on how to sell the book to readers. What are insights you can offer to your target audience? Do you have a concrete plan for selling your book?

Since the proposal is all about the saleability of your book, it is important for the publisher to know that you have thought about that. The publisher should feel that you have an audience eagerly awaiting your book.

Build a reader network

Convincing the publisher that you have a receptive audience becomes easier when you actually have one. For first-time authors, this can seem like a daunting task, but there are many ways to put yourself out there and build a network of readers.

A social media presence that is well managed can go a long way towards connecting you with interested readers. Guest blogging is also an option, as is building your own author website.

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Make it relevant

Potential publishers don’t just want to know about the content of your book. They want to know why it matters. Why should readers care about your book at this moment in time? What are you saying that hasn’t been said before, and that can’t be said by anyone else but you?

Book Proposals for Fiction

Unlike nonfiction, it is rare to be asked for a book proposal if you are writing fiction. This is partly because nonfiction writers have to pitch their book before they have the manuscript ready, hence the book proposal. This almost never happens with novels, and a finished manuscript is generally a prerequisite.

A book proposal is a comprehensive pitch of your project and contains an overview, which can be quite helpful to publishers with a lot to read. In certain cases, you may be asked to submit both the proposal and the manuscript. As blogger and editor, Jillian Bergsma Manning says,

‘Writing a proposal can be helpful whether you’ve been asked for it or not. It helps you understand your book not just from the point of the writer but as the marketer, reader, and publisher as well.’

Jillian Bergsma Manning – Book Blogger & Editor

In terms of what goes into the book proposal, the guidelines are similar for fiction and nonfiction. For novelists too, the key characteristics of the book proposal remain the same. You must have an author bio with information about yourself.

You must also have a quantified target audience, and a marketing plan to reach it effectively. Competing titles and their details are helpful. Your similarities and differences with them are appreciated. Sample chapters and a brief summary of the manuscript are also standard.


All in all, book proposals can be the difference between getting published and remaining unpublished. A well-written book proposal is essential, especially for authors of nonfiction. So if you have an idea to pitch, or even a complete manuscript waiting to find a home, start writing your proposal. Best of luck!

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