In a pursuit—and an industry—that can be incredibly inefficient, book proposals cut to the proverbial chase. They’re tidy and focused. They get straight to the point—with millions of books competing for a reader’s attention, is your project strong enough to stand out?
In traditional publishing, book proposals are how you pitch your nonfiction projects to agents and editors. But parts of the proposal process can be incredibly helpful to authors of fiction as well, and they can also be helpful to authors who publish on their own.
A proposal forces you to think about how your book fits in the marketplace. You shouldn’t do this sort of thinking too early in your project—it can potentially stifle your best creative impulses. But at some point, the market will bring itself to bear on the success of your book. A proposal is a vehicle that allows you to successfully navigate the market.
Even if developed strictly for your own purposes, a proposal makes you see your book as readers will see it. It’s your game plan for wooing your readers, for courting them, for convincing them t how beautiful their lives would be if only they gave themselves over to you and your book.
If you’re writing to submit to an agent or editor, there are lots of resources to guide you through drafting the components of a convincing proposal. Here, I’ll focus the three aspects of a proposal that every writer would benefit from addressing. Much of this information comes from literary agent Jeff Kleinman, who’s one of the best in the business.
Positioning: In a book proposal, Kleinman suggests devoting one or two pages to showing how your book fits in the big world of publishing. Search for hugely successful books by authors whose credentials, marketing reach, and style/angle/worldview are similar to yours. When positioning your book, don’t concern yourself with the subject matter. Positioning is about the ways in which authors like you connect with their readers, regardless of topic. If you’re unknown, if you’re up and coming, seek out authors whose careers have been catapulted by breakout books and discuss (briefly) the ways in which you and your work are similar to them and their (incredibly successful) work.
Market: This section of the proposal (2-8 pages if you’re actually writing a proposal) is where you prove that you know the audience for your book—and you know how to reach them. You might think of this as the Research and Development (R & D) phase, not for the book itself but for the book as a project. Your goal is to prove that you're the best person to write this book, not so much from the standpoint of knowledge or craft but because you'll be its strongest advocate. Maybe you have a blog following, or you give lectures, or your cousin who writes for a Big Name Newspaper likes to consult you for articles that relate to the book you’re writing. This is not the place to be modest. If you have no connections, no platform, then think of your readership in terms of an author whose work is similar to yours. Hoping to reach readers who love Jane Bestseller’s books? Figure out who those readers are and how Jane reaches them, then lay out a marketing plan in which you’ll do the same.
Competing Works: Where will your book be shelved in a bookstore? On those shelves, which titles will be its closest competitors? You want to show how the book fits and, at the same time, how it stands out from the rest. Without disparaging another author or book, explain why a reader would buy your book instead of a similar title. Kleinman suggests completing this sentence: “My book is the first book that…”