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If you’ve made it to this page you likely have a big dream of writing and publishing a bestselling book. You may already have plans to sit down every morning and start writing. But as you contemplate creating your masterpiece, you find yourself asking—do I need to write a book proposal? Before diving into this ultimate guide on book proposals, you must first answer a few simple questions:
- Are you writing a non-fiction or a fiction book?
- Do you want to self-publish or traditionally publish your book?
- Do you have a clear idea of what books in your niche are already out there and how you’ll break through the noise to reach your target reader?
Traditionally book proposals are only for non-fiction books. Why? The nonfiction category is about the hook, the writing and the author’s platform — all of which can be highlighted via the shorter-format book proposal. Given how much they have to read every day, agents and editors prefer getting the highlights when possible.
With fiction, editors need to know the book will hang together start to finish, so they need to assess a completed manuscript. They aren’t as interested in the author’s marketing efforts, since novels are typically sold through word of mouth. While great writing is important for nonfiction books, too, a book’s sales potential is linked more closely to the author’s platform and ability to hook the book’s target audience.
If you’re writing a non-fiction book and want a traditional book deal, then writing a book proposal is in your future. While you don’t need to write a book proposal if you’re self-publishing your non-fiction book, you may still choose to do so.
Book proposals can help you get clear on how you’ll differentiate your book from the competition and put it into the hands of the people you want to read it most. Plus, writing a proposal teaches you how to talk about your book so that you can clearly articulate what your book is about and why people need to read it.
What Is A Book Proposal?
A book proposal is a hybrid of a book sample and a book business plan. It’s a 40 to 60 page document that explains who you are, what your book is about, how you’re going to promote it, and shows an agent and book publisher if you have the skills to create a book that will sell.
Book proposals come before you write your book and provide an opportunity for you to pitch your book idea and show “why it matters,” and that you are the best person to write the book.
What Goes Into A Book Proposal?
While the preference for book proposal structure may vary slightly from one literary agent to another, most agree that a complete proposal should have the following five components:
- Book overview
- Author bio
- Marketing sections (Audience, Promotion and Competitive Titles)
- Chapter summaries
- 1 – 2 sample chapters
Your book proposal is a tool that your agent will use to secure a book deal. It should help a book publisher decide if they want to publish your book or not. Even if the structure of your book proposal is slightly different from the industry standard, it should always make a strong case for why a book publisher should give you an advance to write this book.
3 Steps Before Writing A Book Proposal
Writing a book proposal may seem as easy as following a template and filling out the different sections. But before you even think about jumping into the proposal template, you need to do some critical homework. These next three steps will make or break your proposal. Done well, you’ll capture the attention of an agent and book publisher.
Step 1: Conduct Market Research
One of the most overlooked steps authors make when it comes to writing their book is R&D, aka Research and Development. Conducting research will ensure that the content you put into your book will help people in a meaningful way.
You want to make sure that the solution or wisdom you are providing people in a book is tested and proven to solve a specific problem. There are many ways to test your content before it’s codified in book form. Here are a few ideas:
- Invite people in your network to a beta version of a course where you teach the content you plan to write in your book and record the results people get;
- Write blog posts or an email newsletter where you share your ideas with readers and get feedback on their results;
- Create a YouTube channel or a podcast where you teach people concepts that will be in your book and ask for feedback from your audience;
- Work with clients privately and have them implement the lessons or training that you will share in your book.
The goal is to ensure that your book will help people solve the problem it is set out to solve. You can’t really know if your content works until you’ve tested it out on real people!
Step 2: Build Your Author Platform
Agents and book publishers will not only want to know that your methodology works, but also that you have enough people in your network for your solution to reach its target audience.
In the publishing world, your following, fans, and superfans are called your “author platform.” These are the people who are ready, waiting, and primed to buy your book.
Having an author platform is a must for book publishers. They want to know that you have enough of a fanbase for them to make back their investment with book sales. The idea is that if a percentage of your fanbase buys your book, they can cover the cost they invested in paying your advance, cover design, editing, printing, and all of the other components of publishing a book.
Your author platform includes but is not limited to the following:
- Email subscribers (this is by far the most important to publishers)
- Social media followers
- A column you write for a newspaper or magazine
- A regular appearance or show on television or radio
- Your speaking schedule
- Podcast listeners and/or appearances
- YouTube subscribers
- Your relationship with big organizations
When you have an established following, an agent has more confidence that they can get you a book deal and a book publisher has more confidence in your ability to sell books.
Step 3: Identify Your Hook
Your book hook is the elevator pitch for your book. It’s the key to getting the attention of a literary agent or publisher.
When you’re writing a transformational nonfiction book, the primary reason a reader buys your book is to answer a need. For example, if a person has a relationship challenge, they’ll find a relationship book that can help them with that challenge.
Your hook should say to the person who has the problem that you can solve, “This book is the book you want! It will provide precisely the relief you need!”
Your entire book proposal should be written with your hook in mind. Your book overview should make it clear to the reader what problem your book will solve and who it is for. Your chapter summaries should be a roadmap to solving the problem. And your marketing plan should show how you will identify the people with the problem and get your book into their hands.
How To Write Your Book Proposal
Once you’ve tested that your book idea will help solve a problem, have built your author platform (and have a plan to continue to build your platform even after the book comes out), and are clear on your hook, it’s time to start writing your book proposal.
Most large book publishers receive hundreds of proposals from agents each week. By completing steps 1 – 3 before you start writing yours, you’re giving your book a better chance of being well-received by both an agent and a publisher.
You will likely write, revise, and edit your book proposal multiple times before you have a final product. As you write and edit your proposal, ask yourself, did I create a compelling case for investing in this book idea? In me as the author? When you can confidently answer “yes,” it’s time to get your book proposal into the hands of an agent.
Nonfiction Book Proposal Template
Earlier we shared that there are five components of a book proposal that most agents align on:
- Book overview
- Author bio
- Marketing sections (Audience, Promotion and Competitive Titles)
- Chapter summaries
- 1 – 2 sample chapters
While these components are the bare minimum of a book proposal, to make the strongest case for why a book publisher should pick up your book, we recommend four additional components:
- A book proposal cover letter
- Book Table of Contents
Below you’ll find additional information on the seven components of a book proposal that we recommend.
Book Proposal Cover Letter
Before an agent or book publisher dives into your proposal, they’ll read your book proposal cover letter. This one-page letter gives a brief introduction to the book you’re pitching, you as an author, and why this book will do well in the marketplace. Your cover letter should include:
- A salutation addressed to the agent using their name;
- A hook to keep them reading
- This is an opportunity to use statistics or anything that will make a case for why your book needs to be published;
- Information positioning you as the best author for this book
- What you do for a living
- If you’ve written a book before, information about its sales history highlighting any bestseller milestones;
- What media outlets you’ve been featured in, if any.
The goal of the book proposal cover letter is to prepare the agent for what they’re about to read and to pique their interest so that they keep reviewing your book proposal.
Book Proposal Title Page & Table of Contents
Think of your title page as a contact sheet that includes the title and subtitle of your book as well as your name, email address, phone number, and website URL. It says to the agent and book publisher, here is the title of the book I’m pitching you and how to get in contact with me once you’ve made a decision.
Right after the Title page comes your Table of Contents. This page is the directory for each section of your book proposal. It should include the contents of the proposal as well as the starting page for each section.
The overview section is your chance to tell why your book should be considered. In approximately 2500-3000 words, you’ll capture the agent or publisher’s attention and show them why they should keep reading. The book overview should tell the agent or book publisher the following:
- What pain point the reader is struggling with that will be answered by this book;
- The solution you’re proposing;
- The benefits the reader will receive;
- What makes you an authority on this subject (credentials, life experience, platform numbers if you have them);
- Why now is the right time for this book to come out.
The Overview is arguably the most important section of the proposal. If the agent or publisher gets bored reading the overview, they will not keep going. This is your chance to highlight the most unique and interesting content you have to offer.
About the Author
This is where you can brag about all that makes you magical—as long as it’s relevant to your book. In a 250-500 word blurb, the About the Author page reinforces why you should be writing this book instead of someone else. In this section you’ll start with whichever credentials explain most clearly why you are qualified to speak on the topic of your book:
- What makes you an expert in the book’s topic
- What you do for a living (assuming it’s relevant to your book topic)
- Any other credentials of note
- A mention of any relevant books you’ve already published
When it comes to your author page, focus on the qualifications that are relevant to your book topic. For example, if you are writing a book about energy work, but you have been a CPA for 30 years, don’t focus on the latter! Instead, focus on what makes you an authority in energy healing. It is also recommended that you include a photo in this section so that the agent or editor can picture who would be writing the book.
Pro tip: Be sure to include a professional color as part of your Author bio section!
As mentioned earlier, there are three main parts to the Marketing section of a book proposal: Audience, Promotion and Competitive Titles.
By this point, you’ve shared that there’s a problem in the world and you’re just the person to solve it. But are there enough people with this problem to warrant a book? That’s what you’ll have to prove in the market analysis section of your book proposal. This is where you show that there is a large and hungry audience waiting for your book. How do you do this? Here are some suggestions:
- Quote statistics found in articles, journals, or relevant websites;
- Show the population of people ready to pick up your book;
- Identify how many people are searching online about this topic.
You have about 1 to 1 ½ pages to make the case that there is an audience for your book. Contrary to popular belief, the narrower your audience, the better. Book publishers do not want to hear that your book is for everyone. They want to see that there is a very specific audience for your book and that this audience is big enough to sell. How many books will you need to sell? That varies, but a good rule of thumb is the larger the advance, the bigger the book sales expectation.
Once you’ve made the case that people will want to buy your book, it’s time to convince agents and publishers that you can make it happen. Book publishers will help you get your book in print and onto bookstore shelves. But the heavy lifting of getting those books off the shelf and into a reader’s hands is primarily the job of the author. What is your plan to promote the book?
In this section, you’re going to talk about the audience you already have, what you’re doing to continue to build and grow your platform, and how you plan to get the word out far and wide. This is not about telling the publisher that you’ll be available for any media opportunities that they may arrange—that should go without saying—it’s about the efforts you will be extending toward promotion. Here are some things you can include in your promotional plan:
- What kind of audience you have
- Past speaking engagements
- Any media, celebrity, or other influential connections you have that will help you spread the word;
- Any organizations you have connections with that will agree to buy your book or help promote it;
- Places where you have spoken that will gladly bring you back for another speaking engagement;
- Podcasts you will target to be on;
- Any PR or marketing agencies you will hire to help you promote the book;
- Magazines you have written for that will agree to promote your book;
- The size of your platform and how you will leverage it to sell books.
Marketing your book is like marketing any other product. Take the time to think about how you will reach your target reader and inspire them to purchase your book. Then detail your plan in 1 to 1 ½ pages.
Are there books already on this topic? Don’t be alarmed if there are books on your topic already. It’s an indicator that there’s interest in the topic. The key is to identify how your book will be different.
In this section create a list of five books that are similar to yours. Try to avoid explaining all the reasons your book is better than these other books; instead, give the other books praise where due while at the same time pointing out how your proposed book would be different or come from a different angle.
If there are mega-bestsellers in your category, try to avoid including them in your competitive analysis. Books that hit that level of sales are few and far between, and publishers know that lightning only strikes so often. Give more reasonable examples, published by houses of a similar size to the one you are pitching.
For each book, provide 1 – 2 sentences describing the book and why you’re including it. Then add a brief explanation of how your book complements this book or adds to the success of the category. Make sure for each book you include the title, author, publisher, and year of publication.
Before diving into the five competitors, take time to explain which shelf your book belongs on in the bookstore. This will help an agent and an editor picture the specific category your book falls into. When they know the category, it will be easier for them to picture selling it into bookstores. While you may feel your book should be everywhere, focus on the single best placement for your book.
Book Table of Contents
Now it’s time to give a sneak peek of what will be in your book. This starts with your book’s table of contents. If you wonder what this should look like, just crack open any book on your shelf and find its Table of Contents. Then make your own, including all the chapters, as well as the part titles, if you’re breaking the book into parts. Start with the foreword and introduction (if either is applicable), and finish with appendices, resource sections, and acknowledgments.
If you intend to have a foreword written by another author or public figure, include this person’s name only if you have already received confirmation in writing that they will be writing the foreword. This is not a place for “wishful thinking”!
After your outline, it’s time to share a little bit more detail about the content found within each chapter. Think of your chapter summaries as abstracts for each chapter you plan to include. They should talk about the content of the chapter, rather than providing a sample of the chapter content.
Each chapter summary should be between 200-350 words in length. Consider starting each summary with “In this chapter, I will show the reader…” or “This chapter will reveal…” The goal is to give an idea of what the takeaway of the chapter is in a few paragraphs. Be sure to include mention of any illustrative stories, exercises, recipes or other content you intend to include.
This section is critical to the agent and editor’s understanding of the scope of the material. As they read your proposal they will be asking themselves, “Do we really need a whole book on this subject? Could it be an article instead?” So it’s your job to sufficiently represent the breadth of the content in these summaries.
Two Sample Chapters
If an editor or an agent has gotten all the way to this section of your book proposal, there’s a good chance that you’ve kept their attention. This is an opportunity for you to bring it home by showing a sample of your writing style. Most industry professionals will expect to see two full chapters in this section. However, if your chapters are on the shorter side, you may want to include three. Aim for approximately 7500-10,000 words of sample content.
Note that you do not need to begin with chapter one. Instead, choose the most compelling chapters you can. If your book will include recipes, exercises, charts, or poems, make sure you include samples in this section. Remember, this is your opportunity to showcase your most exciting information and your voice—make sure it’s as compelling as it can be!
Formatting Your Book Proposal
Before you print and send off your book proposal, you’ll want to make sure it’s formatted properly. Proposals are most commonly formatted in Microsoft Word or PDF. We recommend 1.5 spacing throughout the proposal, with the exception of the cover letter (single-spaced) and the sample chapters (double spaced). Here are some pro tips:
- Use a common font, such as Times New Roman 12-point font;
- Use standard margins. With this formatting, you’re looking at 300-350 words per page;
- Do not get fancy with the design unless you’re proposing a highly designed interior for your book—easy-to-read words on a page are all an editor or agent cares about at this point;
- Number your pages;
- Include a header and a footer throughout with your name and the title of the book.
Once you’ve edited and formatted your book proposal, it’s time to get it into the hands of a literary agent—and ultimately a publisher!
You Have Your Book Proposal, Now What?
With your book proposal written, the final step is to sign with a literary agent and have them pitch your book and negotiate a book deal. But how do you find a literary agent? And what is it that they do anyway?
Literary agents are the liaisons between authors and publishers that may want their book. They are part salesperson, part editor, part legal consultant, and even part counselor. They are the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing world. Most traditional book publishers will only accept submissions from an agent and will not even review your book proposal unless it comes from an agent they trust.
If you’re looking for an agent, the Publishers Marketplace Membership is an excellent resource. There is a small membership fee, but it will allow you to find agents that represent the type of book that you’re writing.
Another excellent resource, which is free, is the Agent Query website. This will also help you identify potential agents.
And if neither of those sites work for you, try looking in the acknowledgments section of authors in your category. If they had a positive experience, they will likely thank their agent in this section of the book.
The key is to find an agent that has connections with a book publisher that wants your book.
Now that you have an idea of what it takes to get your book proposal into the world, it’s time to get started. You may be excited and ready to start—or you may be a bit overwhelmed.
Wherever you are, we’d love to provide you with the support you need to write and publish your book with a complimentary consultation.
In this call, we’d identify where you are right now in your book writing journey, discuss what you would need to get your book proposal and ultimately your book ready for its debut and discuss if working together is right for you. To get started, schedule a call with one of our editorial matchmakers and we’ll discuss the right next steps for you.
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.