If you have a salable idea, prepare a proposal, and sell it, you
will no longer be just a writer with an idea. You will be an author,
as in authority, with a book to your credit.
~Michael Larsen, from How To Write A Book Proposal
According to most publishing experts, approximately 90 percent of
all non-fiction books are sold to publishers, prior to the
manuscript being finished, on the basis of a selling proposal. On
the basis of a good proposal, a publisher will offer you not only a
contract to publish your book but, if youíre lucky, an advance
against your future royalty earnings to write it. For a first time
author of a spiritual book, those advances are usually not large.
But it can mean having at least a few weeks of freedom to put the
finishing touches on your book without having to worry about paying
for groceries and the rent. If youíve got a book that a mainstream
publisher canít resist, and they see you as being able to promote
and sell your book, the advance can be much more than that....MUCH
Many authors find that writing a proposal is as much work as
writing the whole book. On the plus side, proposal writing forces
you to think through every aspect of your book and to write at least
two sample chapters to give yourself and an agent or publisher a
good taste of what your book will be about. From that perspective,
writing a book proposal can be highly creative because youíll be
involved with imagining how all the pieces will go together, and
along the way you may even think of better way to write your book.
There are two books on writing book proposals which have become
standards in the publishing world. They are Michael Larsenís How
To Write A Book Proposal, published by Writers Digest Books, and
Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Hermanís Write The Perfect Book
Proposal, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Larsenís
book is now in a third edition (2004), which I recommend since it
contains important updated material. These two books not only go
into extensive detail about writing proposals (with samples enclosed
in both books), but because they also have excellent information
about the inner workings of the publishing business. All three
authors are literary agents, the Hermans on the east coast, Larsen
on the west.
If you plan to write a proposal, I recommend that you get both
these books and use them as reference material. If you use even a
tenth of what these authors say in these books, youíll be able to
write a successful proposal and be perceived by agents and
publishers as an author who knows what youíre doing.
Because the above two books are easily available, I wonít go
into great detail here but will describe the core elements that you
will need for putting together a selling proposal. The Hermansí
and Michael Larsenís books will give you the finer details.
Here are the elements of a standard book proposal:
- Title Page. Centered on a single page of its own, your
title page should contain the title and subtitle and the
- Table of Contents for the Proposal. This is the table of
contents, with proper numbers, telling the reader on which page
to find the following: The Introduction to the proposal,
including the Overview and About the Author. It
should also tell where to find the Chapter Outline of the book.
And finally, it should tell where to find your two sample
Now letís look more closely at the details of what the proposal
itself consists of.
The introduction consists of somewhere between 8 and 15 pages of
material that gives the publisher a clear picture of what the book
contains and who the author is. Hereís how that works:
This section needs to sell the publisher on the idea for the book
and why you think that it has a potential readership. The first
paragraph needs to grab the readerís attention so that they will
want to read the rest of the proposal. You might start with an
anecdote that captures the essence of the book. For example, the
author of a sample proposal in Michael Larsenís book tells the
story of the fifteen-year-old daughter whose father contracts
cancer. She is not told that he is ill and lives with a mystery of
why he slowly withdrew from her life. The story is emotional and
enigmatic, a perfect lead-in for a book to help friends and family
members about how to best relate to a critically ill friend or
You might also start the overview with a more objective statement
that describes the need for the book. For example, the opening
paragraph in a proposal for a book about the retirement years simply
tells how many people will be retiring in the next ten years,
presumably forming a coterie of seventy five million potential
What then follows in the overview is further discussion of the
proposed book and why you believe it will make a successful book.
Markets for the Book
In this section you think of all the potential niches that might
constitute buyers of the book. For example, in their book The
Cultural Creatives (Harmony Books, 2000), authors Paul H. Ray
and Sherry Ruth Anderson, present data showing there are 50 million
Americans who hold strong spiritual values that are not necessarily
associated with any religious organizations. Sometimes there are
several niches of readers to whom you can anticipate selling your
book. For example, a spiritual book on relationships might be aimed
at marriage and family counselors in addition to regular bookstore
Here you will describe to the publisher what you can do to sell
the book. What will you do to promote it? Be specific. DO NOT say,
"I will do whatever the publisher asks me to do to promote the
book." Rather, describe an actual promotional campaign that you
might put together. If it looks good to the publisher, they will
work with you to develop it in most cases.
Name any media contacts that you already have, if any.
If you are presently doing seminars, name that as a promotional
If you are planning to write articles, based on the book, or even
excerpted from the book.
If you have a way of selling your books, such as through a
website or back of the room sales in your seminars, mention that and
give them an estimate of how many books a year you can sell. (They
wonít hold you to a specific number but itís good to give them
Publishers like to know about any similar books that are already
out there in the bookstores. The fact that there are a few out there
already help to establish the fact that there is a market for your
subject. Publishers also want some assurance that the market for a
book like yours isnít already saturated. In this section you
should cite (title, author, publisher, date of publication) books
that might be seen as complementing your book. They should be books
that have been published in the last three years. Look for books
that have been quite prominent. I always look for at least one New
York Times bestseller to compare my own books with, to show the
publisher that there is a big market for the subject. There should
be a paragraph or so describing the contents of the competing book
and telling how your book is different, that is, how your book
offers some added value that wasnít in the other book.
About the Author
Beginning writers often make the mistake of being too chatty and
informal in this section. For example, I donít know how many times
Iíve read author bios that begin something like this: "Iím
Mom to a three year old daughter named Shelly May, a 12 year old, 30
pound Tabby cat named Rainbow, a standard poodle named Vanilla, and
a goldfish named Finny. I manage to write a paragraph or two at a
stretch before getting interrupted by one of them..." And so
The author bio needs to be focused and to the point, providing
only information that relates to the book you are writing or your
ability to drum up publicity for your book. I suppose there are
books where a bio like Shellyís mom wrote above, but be certain
that whatever you write is appropriate for your material.
List of Chapters
Here you will simply list your chapters by their numbers and
title, for example, "Chapter 1: A Good Beginning." Ideally
this list will fit on a single page. Make your chapter titles as
descriptive as possible, each one hinting at the contents of its
Working Chapter Outline
The working chapter outline may be the biggest writing challenge
in writing a proposal. For each chapter you should have between 200
and 300 words telling what it will contain. Tell only enough to
paint a picture of what each chapter will contain, without going
into great details.
Two Sample Chapters
Choose your two most exciting or original chapters to include
here. These chapters should be truly representative of your book
both in style and the level of information youíll be giving.
Length should be at least 8 pages and no more than 25 per chapter.
* * *
Take care in writing your chapter. I recommend getting an editor
to go over the final draft, to catch all errors and make certain
theyíre corrected. The proposal is largely informational, but
donít underestimate the importance of details, such as making
certain there are no glaring errors or typos. A polished proposal
tells publishers what they can expect from you. Publishers love it
when they find a writer who has original ideas, writes well, and
pays attention to details. All those qualities mean less work for
them, and with the work loads that most in-house editors are
carrying these days, thatís got to be a high priority.
The proposal serves several functions, not all of which are
obvious to the beginning writer. First, they provide evidence to an
agent or acquisitions editor at a publishing house that youíve
spent considerable time thinking about your project and you know
what you are talking about. Second, if the agent likes the proposal,
he or she will use it to sell the idea to a publisher. The agentís
main contact with most publishers is the acquisitions editor whose
responsibility it is to find books to publish. The proposal builds
on whatever working relationships the agent may have with the
acquisitions editor. Third, if the agent manages to sell the idea
for your book to the acquisitions editor, that person, in turn, will
use your proposal to sell the book idea to an editorial board.
Fourth, after you receive a publishing contract, the selling
proposal provides guidelines for you to follow in writing the book.
While most publishers do not insist that you follow the proposal to
the T, they do want to make sure that youíll cover the main items
that you promised to cover in your book proposal.