“What’s the best formula for a book proposal?” an emailer asked me today.
“What’s the right way to open a book proposal?”a writing workshop attendee asked me yesterday.
We all want rules to govern our lives, guidelines to make the creative process somehow manageable. In the uncertain world of book publishing, of course aspiring writers hope that if they follow the proper 10-step outline, publication will follow. It won’t. Book proposals that are too formulaic can set off negative bells in an acquiring editor’s mind. I propose (heh heh) thinking about a proposal’s magic formula in terms of key ingredients, not rote structure.
Ingredient #One: Integrity
What? Since when did writing a book proposal have a moral component? It doesn’t–I’m not talking about “integrity” as in “being honest,” but as in “being unified, and sound in construction” (cribbing from my handy dandy online dictionary.) Internally consistent. If you’re writing a humor book, your proposal should be funny. If you’re writing a how-to book, your tone will be instructive and engaging. The writing in your proposal for a work of narrative nonfiction must be intelligent and compelling, demonstrating a fresh voice and perspective.
Ingredient #Two: Answers to Key Questions
The structure of your book proposal doesn’t matter. (Egad!) The content does matter. Your proposal must answer these common sense questions:
- What’s the book about?
- Who is going to buy it?
- How do you know someone is going to buy it?
- Why are you the right person to write it?
- How are you going to help promote it?
- How will the book be structured?
- What books are comparable, and how do they prove the market for your book?
- What’s in the book? (Detailed table of contents, sample writing)
The Book Dictates the Proposal
I have acquired, represented–and sold–vastly different book proposals. Proposals from my company have opened with fun facts about camels, an essay about Beethoven, writing from the book (placed before anything else), old photos, art and quotations–as well as straightforward “Overview” sections. How do we choose? We think about the book, and we think about the editor’s needs.
Ingredient #Three: Clarity
Proposals aren’t read the way books are read. There is no forgiveness; there is no leisure. There is no room for confusion.
This is why, when you have answered all the questions listed above, and written the answers in a voice that is topically consistent, you will work very hard to add logical clear headings. From this organic need was born a world of instructional books that tell you to write “Author Bio” and “The Market” and “My Platform” sections in every single book proposal.
Your proposal may have those headings, or it may have other headings that conform to the logic of the proposal as a whole. But without headings and structure that makes sense and grounds the editor in the proposal, your editor will give up and move on to the next proposal.
\p>Every sentence you write creates an expectation in the reader. (For example, the sentence I just wrote created the expectation that you will soon read something about what that expectation is, exactly. And, by now, you may be getting a little frustrated as I still haven’t addressed that expectation. If I move on to the next topic without saying more about that expectation, you will be left a little uneasy. You won’t quite know why, but you’ll start to feel that there’s something off in the writing; something missing, something wrong. That’s not good. Oh wait–I have just explained it, haven’t I? Yes!)
If you write, “The parenting field is very crowded,” early in your proposal, editors will expect you to drop the other shoe. To explain why your book will stand out from the crowd. If you let such expectations hang around too long, you lose the editor.
Ingredient #Too Super Important to Have a Number (or “Four” if You Must): Interest
There is no room for boredom.
There is no room for boredom.
Yes, I said that twice on purpose.
You do not want an acquiring editor’s attention to wander as she reads your proposal. Once your proposal is written, re-read it ruthlessly. Or get your friend Ruth to read it. She’ll still have to be ruthless, though, which is a conundrum I’ll address no further.
Where was I? Oh, yes, in your proposal, delete any sentences like the one I just wrote up there. No tangents. No unanswered questions. Be an observant reader of your own work–note whenever your own attention wanders. Read digitally and read in print. Mark any spot your attention lags, and cut. Pacing, in proposals, is everything.
Magic Book Proposal Formula: Integrity + Content + Clarity – Boredom = Excellence
I know, I know. Sounds much easier to just write a proposal that has seven sections, four subsections, a pithy mission statement at the beginning and a series of one-paragraph chapter descriptions at the end. And of course you can still do that.
But it might not be magic.