May 2012


Well, we’ve finally arrived at our final post. I truly hope these past articles on “How to Write a Book Proposal” has been helpful in some way. If so, I’d really like to hear from you to see how they’ve helped and what you may still be struggling with.

For my final post on this topic, I want to discuss how to make your proposal as visually appealing as possible and how to put your whole package together in a professional manner. I will also touch on the benefits of writing your manuscript before diving into your proposal.

To make your proposal visually appealing:

1. Keep it simple! Use simple, easily readable fonts, such as Times New Roman or Arial. I know these aren’t the most exciting, but it really is what editors want to see. Use a 12-point font, double space, keep bolding and italics to a minimum (it’s good to use these techniques to separate text or bring out important phrases or subheads, but don’t overdo it), and set your margins at 1″ or 1.25″ all around. Readability and lack of clutter should be your goal.

2. Create an uncluttered title page. The title page should contain the lines: “A Proposal for…”; title of book; your name. These lines should be centered about 1/3 of the way down the page. Then, with all lines flush left at the bottom, include all of your contact information: mailing address, email address, phone number, web or blog site address. No more or less than this on the cover.

3. Begin a new page for each section. Starting with the title page, be sure that each section begins on its own page: Table of Contents, About the Authors, Competitive Books, Marketing Plan, Sample Chapters, and so forth. Then when you’ve finished, make sure the Table of Contents pages match up with each of your sections.

4. Include headers. Add your last name, book title (shorten it if it’s lengthy), and page number to each header.

Submitting a professional package:

1. Include published clips. If you’re writing a nonfiction book and you have published clips, especially relevant articles on your book’s topic, including them would give the editor an opportunity to review some of your already published work. Don’t overdo it though; 2-3 is usually plenty.

2. Write a strong cover letter. Your cover letter to a proposal is like a resume to an interview: one will typically invite–or deter–the other. Make your cover letter engaging, opening with a great hook, and closing with the reasons why the editor absolutely has to read your proposal–NOW! If your cover letter is really good, the editor won’t be able to wait to read your proposal. If it’s not so good, it may end up back in the slush pile.

3. Do not bind the proposal. If you’re sending your proposal snail mail, do not staple, paper clip, or in any other way bind the proposal. The only exception to this is if you want to place it inside a portfolio folder. Otherwise, simply put it in a sturdy envelope in loose sheets and send it registered mail.

4. Don’t get cute with your proposal! Having worked with many editors, I’ve heard dozens of stories about proposals that have arrived in cute or unusual packaging, or have included some gimmick inside the package. As a rule, editors really are not impressed with this. There may be exceptions depending on the type of book you’re writing, but my guess is that these exceptions are few and far between. When in doubt, always choose professional over cutesy! Much of this is moot anyway, since most publishers prefer email over snail mail nowadays, but just in case…

5. Proofread thoroughly. Proofread your proposal at least twice then have someone else proof it. Trust me, you’ll never catch all of your own mistakes yourself. Read through slowly and carefully, reviewing formatting, consistency in headings and subheads, checking for redundancies and “pet” words, as well as general spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. Click here for a guide to proofing your own work.

6. Follow guidelines precisely. Sometimes I think editors ask to have proposals submitted a particular way just so they can see who follow directions! Every publisher will ask for something different when sending a proposal. Take their requests seriously, and follow every guideline and direction they give. Don’t give them any reason to say no before they even read your proposal.

Reasons to write your manuscript first:

Let me clarify that when I talk about writing your manuscript, I’m referring to having it in a completed draft format, not necessarily having every word proofread and all formatting to perfection. I will also say that some writers, such as those who already have books published and those who are writing a more reference-based nonfiction book, will not need to write their manuscript first.

For novelists and children’s book writers in particular, but also for nonfiction writers who might be a new name to publishers, writing your manuscript first affords you many advantages.

1. If the editor is interested in seeing more, all you’ll need to do is minor revisions and proofing, and the completed manuscript is in her hands. This could mean the difference between sending it within a month or sending it in another six months. It’s always good to strike while the iron of interest is hot.

2. It will help you in constructing your proposal’s outline and sample chapters. By having a full draft of your manuscript, you’ll be able to send a more complete outline and the best chapters you have.

3. You can use your manuscript draft to shop around for endorsements, marketing partners, and general feedback. You can’t successfully receive any of these without a near-complete manuscript (unless you are a known author).

4. By telling the editor in your proposal that you already have a completed manuscript, you’ll be able to prove that you have enough material for a full-length book and that you are actually able to write the book you are proposing.

The opposing argument to writing your manuscript first, of course, is “Why spend all the time writing it if it may never sell?” But in my experience, you will have a better chance of selling it if it’s already complete. Not only are there benefits to you as you try to write your proposal, but there are benefits when the proposal gets into the editor’s hands.

Thank you for bearing with me throughout all 11 posts on the “How to Write a Book Proposal” topic. I hope you’ve found this information beneficial, and I wish you all the best with your proposal writing!

As I close in on my final post in this series of how to write a book proposal (next week), I’d like to focus on what will be the main event of your proposal: the sample chapters. Thus far I’ve talked about some very important pieces to the proposal–from your book hook to your marketing plan to your outline and more.

The sample chapters, however, are what constitute the bulk of your proposal, both in scope and in content. This is the place where you can really allow the editor to see how good of a writer you are and how interesting your book is. Let’s talk about 5 different aspects of sample chapters.

1. The goal of the sample chapters: The main goal for your sample chapters is really two-fold: to highlight your writing skill and to prove to the editor that you have a book that readers will not be able to put down.  Your sample chapters need to convey as complete a picture of your finished manuscript as possible, proving to the editor that your ideas are able to be totally flushed out into an enjoyable piece of  reading, and that you are able to deliver on all the promises you just made in the rest of your proposal. If your proposal promises humor, make sure your sample chapters are funny. If you promise suspense, your chapters need to leave the editor hanging in anticipation.

2. How many sample chapters to include: This answer will vary depending on how long your chapters are. Most publishers will want to see approximately 25-30 pages of sample chapter writing, so you can work from there based on the length of your chapters to determine how many to include. Some publishers will specify how many to include, but not all do. If a publisher does specify, that number is usually 2-3.

Be sure to include entire chapters in your proposal. So, if 2 chapters causes your total page count to fall under 25, but 3 chapters pushes it over 30, include 3 (unless the publisher states an absolute maximum page count). With sample chapters, more is usually better than less in order to showcase your writing, unless it’s a lot more or it’s too much of the same thing. For example, if your book has similarly organized and structured chapters that also include the same type of information, just different versions of it, you can probably get by with just one chapter–just make sure it’s your strongest.

3. Which sample chapters to include: You’ll want to include those chapters that do the best job in accomplishing your goals from point #1.  Choose those samples that demonstrate your writing skills and provide the best sample of what your overall book will be like. Your chapters don’t have to be in the same order they will appear in your book, unless your book is organized chronologically, or you’re sending fiction chapters, then it may be beneficial to keep your samples in order. Otherwise, put your best foot forward, and make sure you lead off your samples with your absolute best work.  If you have a nonfiction book, it’s sometimes a good idea to include chapters from the beginning, the middle, and the end of your book if you can stay under the 25-30 page maximum.

4. When to include the entire manuscript instead of chapters:  There will be times when a publisher will ask to see the finished manuscript instead of sample chapters. (In my next and final post, I will discuss reasons why you should go ahead and finish your manuscript before your proposal, regardless.) Some of these situations include:

–when writing a picture book or early reader book

–if your book includes numerous illustrations integral to your book

–any kind of fiction book (YA, adult, or children’s). The exception here is if you are a known published author who has already proven that you can develop characters, conflict, plot line, etc. In this case, you can typically get away with a solid outline and a couple of sample chapters.

–a memoir or similar book

–any kind of book that will rely on suspense or emotional impact, in which case sample chapters won’t be enough for an editor to attain the full impact of your book

5. Where the sample chapters appear in the proposal: The sample chapter section is the very final section of your book proposal. Everything you have included in your proposal thus far is intended to get the editor excited about actually reading your work. Think of your samples as the grand finale to your story with all preceding paths of your proposal pointing toward them. This is why they have to represent your absolute best work. The last thing you want to do is let down the editor with sub-par sample chapters!

Next time, I’ll conclude this series on writing book proposals by looking at how to format, package, and submit the proposal for maximum impact.