You want to get your book picked up by a traditional publisher? Let me be very clear about this:
Most authors should skip traditional publishing and self-publish instead.
This is for many reasons; it’s nearly impossible for most authors to get a deal, and if you get one, you won’t own the rights to your book, you won’t have creative control over your book, it’ll take forever to publish, and you can’t market it in ways that benefit you (these reasons are explored in depth here if you want to really dive in).
All that being said…there are some authors who can—and should—still get big deals from a traditional publisher. We even work with some of those authors here at Scribe (Todd Herman, Joey Coleman, Steve Sims, etc).
For those authors who can get a traditionally published deal, they still need to write what’s called a “book proposal” before they can take their book to a traditional publisher to try for a deal.
If you’re one of those authors who can still get a deal and wants to pursue it, then this blog post is for you. What I’ll do here is walk you through what a book proposal is, the purpose they serve, and how to structure them.
I just want to warn you:
Book proposals are a very unusual form of writing, unlike anything else you’ll ever do in your life.
They are counterintuitive. They are illogical. And they are, quite honestly, a pain in the ass to write.
I know this because I’ve written more than 20 book proposals that have sold to publishers at prices ranging from $150k on the low end to $2 million on the high end—and this blog post walks you exactly how to write your own (if it makes sense for you).
What Is a Book Proposal?
Think of a book proposal as a business plan for your book. It has one purpose: to convince a traditional publisher to give you money to write the book.
When you self-publish, you don’t need to write a book proposal. To work with a traditional publisher, you are in effect asking them to invest a lot of money into your book, and a book proposal is the document that will convince them to do that.
If you write a great proposal—one that convinces the publisher that your book idea, content, and marketing plan has a serious chance of commercial success—the publisher will make a monetary offer to you as an advance against royalties, and buy the rights to publish the book (and own the book and profits as well).
[For a deeper explanation of the differences between traditional and self-publishing, read this.]
Why Do Publishers Want Book Proposals?
The most common question I get from new authors is something along the lines of, “Can’t I just write it first? Don’t they just want to see the book?”
That’s a very logical question. In theory, it would make total sense to do that.
But in practice, it doesn’t work like that. Submitting an already written non-fiction book as a proposal is a great way to almost guarantee you will not get a book deal.
That is absolutely how the system works. Don’t try to use reason or logic to argue that it would be better a different way. Logic doesn’t matter when talking about how people actually do things—though, in this case, there IS a logic to it, most people just can’t see it from the outside.
Why is it this way? If you understand these two things, the book proposal format makes perfect sense:
1. Reducing publishers’ risk by showing you will sell copies
This is the #1 thing that all traditional publishers want to see in a proposal—proof that you have a clear and definitive plan to move a lot of copies of your book.
Please don’t fall victim to thinking that publishers can sell books. They can’t. For real, traditional publishers are very bad at selling books. I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true. Traditional publishers are very good at selling books to bookstores, not to readers.
They want a proposal because they want to know that YOU can do the job they can’t (I discuss this in more depth later on when we talk about marketing plans).
2. Signaling you understand traditional publishing and media
The irrationality of a book proposal is actually a feature, not a bug. You see, by having such an unusual process, one that requires a person understand all the intricate unspoken rules of an “irrational” system, it acts as a filtering mechanism.
Traditional publishers can look at a proposal and know—in an instant—if the “right” format was followed. If it’s not, they know they can probably disregard the proposal, because the author doesn’t have the right socal connections to have someone “in the know” teach them the “right” way to submit.
In effect, if the author can’t figure out their process—in their logic—they aren’t the right person to work with a traditional publisher.
Notice what isn’t in either of those headings?
The quality of the book idea.
I’m not saying the book idea doesn’t matter. At some houses, book ideas still matter a lot. At others, not so much.
The thing that does matter to all editors at traditional houses is sales. They are under intense pressure to produce results—which for them, is book sales. This means they need to know you and your book can sell copies (so they don’t lose their job).
The point of a proposal is to show them you can sell copies, and show them that you understand how the traditional book publishing processes work so that you are a “safe” author for them to publish.
Like I said—there’s a logic to it. It’s just not a logic that is apparent at first glance.
How to Structure a Book Proposal
Every proposal has to have a standard set of sections, and then there are some that are optional. I’ll start with the “must haves” and then explain the “optionals.”
The Must Haves:
For most acquisition editors, this is a very important part of the proposal. This is the section where you lay out the basic idea of the book and discuss why people will want to buy it.
The biggest mistake that authors make in this section is talking a lot about the book idea, why they want to write it, or why they think people should want to read it. Again, that seems like the logical thing to do here, but it’s not the ideal approach.
The overview should only focus on the content of the book enough so that the editor understands what the book will say.
If you want to talk about the content a lot, that’s fine, but you must talk about it only in relation to the needs, problems and desires of your audience.
In short—the editor does not care about your idea, or even your book. They only care about you, your idea, or your book in relation to the problem it solves for readers, and thus its commercial potential.
In effect, your book needs to answer the questions in the editor’s mind:
Why do people care what you have to say?
Why will anyone care about this book?
What need does it fulfill?
What problem does it solve?
Ultimately, why will people want to buy it?
In effect, think of the Overview as a sales letter. You are selling the editor on the idea that there are a lot of people who have an urgent problem your book will solve, and that they will see your book as the solution to that problem.
2. About the Author
The mistake authors make here is bragging or talking about themselves too much. Again, it seems natural to talk about yourself in the About the Author section, but again—that is wrong.
Everything you say about yourself should be framed from the perspective of why you’re the perfect person to write this book for your audience.
So yeah, you will talk a lot about yourself, but only in the context of the book. You can probably skip over the things you’ve done in your life that have nothing to do with the book, (unless they are really impressive, like winning an Olympic medal).
This is not a place to brag or carry on needlessly about yourself. That sends a negative signal to the editor that you aren’t spending enough time worrying about the reader and their needs.
3. Marketing Plan
This is it, the section that makes or breaks almost all book proposals. Lemme explain the dirty little secret about why this section—that didn’t used to be very important as recently as 30 or 40 years ago—has become so utterly crucial to book proposals:
Traditional publishing companies do not know how to sell books to readers, and they now rely on the author to do that crucial task.
This is why the marketing plan is so important.
The problem is that traditional publishing companies spent 100 years with one customer: bookstores. But the world changed, and they did not change with it.
No traditional publisher (with a few notable exceptions, like Hay House and Rodale and a few others) has any ability to sell directly to their readers. They don’t have meaningful email lists, engaged social followings, or any set group of people waiting to buy books they publish.
Because of this, the editors that work at traditional publishing houses are in a tough spot. They have to rely on the author to have an audience waiting to buy their book.
You see, the editor is putting their reputation and their job at stake every time they make an offer to an author. If they sign a lot of authors whose books sell well, they will be respected and secure in their job. If they don’t, they won’t.
Before the internet and Amazon, editors used to be able to invest smaller amounts of money in a lot of authors, and see who could develop an audience organically. This is because there was little competition in book publishing, so it was easy to make money.
But once anyone could self-publish and everyone had access to every book ever published, the game changed. Traditional publishers saw most of their easy profits siphoned away, and they were forced to scale down their publishing and focus only on the “big hit” books.
What this means for you is one thing:
Your book proposal must convince the editor and publisher that you have tens of thousands of people waiting to buy your book.
Many authors make the mistake of trying to argue that the potential market for the book is huge. That may even be true, but that’s not how editors look at it. Without an established platform, without a confirmed set of readers ready to buy the book, the risk for a traditional publisher is usually too high.
I’m not just saying this. Book agent Byrd Leavell says this (he’s repped several #1 New York Times bestselling authors who have sold tens of millions of books):
“Publishers aren’t buying anything that doesn’t come with a built in audience that is waiting to buy it. They don’t take risks anymore, they don’t gamble on authors, they only want sure things. I won’t even take an author out unless they have an audience that can guarantee 20k pre-sales to them.”
This is why, in my breakdown of who can get a traditional publishing deal, I am very clear they usually only go to a select group of people:
- Famous people like celebrities/athletes/musicians
- Well-known business people and politicians (sometimes)
- People with built-in audiences waiting to buy their book
- Topical books that hit on a specific subject at a specific moment in time (like books about Trump during his presidency)
So what, exactly, should you put in the marketing section? Here is what the editor is looking for and what you’ll see in the examples I provide later on:
- All the metrics about your audience. How big is your email list, how many social media followers do you have, how big is your YouTube channel, what other forms of owned media do you have, etc.
- Your earned media presence. Where do you write or get regular coverage, how will this interact with the book, what your plan is to use traditional media, etc.
- Public appearances and speaking, including your upcoming speaking schedule, how many copies you plan to sell through speaking or appearances, anything like that.
- Organizations and memberships you belong to, and how they intend to help.
- Your network, and how you plan to use it. Who are you friends with, how have they committed to help you, what organizations are backing you, what will they do with the book, etc.
- Optional, but huge: If you have published a book in the past and it sold well, put those numbers here. If you had a book that did not sell well, then explain why it didn’t.
4. Chapter Description/Outline
This is pretty simple. You want to create a Table of Contents for your book, with a quick description of what will be in each chapter.
The important thing here is that you can show how your book idea flows from beginning to end.
The big mistake most authors make here is taking a deep dive into an explanation about what is in each chapter. Don’t do that. Remember, this is NOT an informational document, it’s a sales document.
You want each chapter description to be interesting and engaging on its own. This is not the Table of Contents that will go in your book. The chapter descriptions should be fun to read, full of open loops, engaging questions, interesting tidbits and assertions.
5. Sample Chapter
This is a pretty important part of most book proposals, but the importance varies. The better your marketing plan, the less this matters.
That being said, always give yourself the best shot by writing up the most engaging chapter. The one that you think the editor and readers will be most interested in? Put that in here.
Media links should also go here: a list of any significant media hits you have received. Don’t include lesser hits (blog posts, unknown publications, etc.), which can actually work against you by making your platform look unimpressive—only the significant ones.
Not all editors consider this optional, but I’ve sold many deals without this section. This is a section that can help a lot if your book has an unusual angle or different positioning. Editors are like sheep—they all want to follow a leader. So if your book isn’t falling into an obvious positioning slot, then give them a bunch of examples of books just like it that have succeeded.
Advance Praise/Influencer Quotes
Only use this if you have some really good quotes here. This section is perfect if you’re one of those people who have a ton of famous and noteworthy friends ready to go to bat for you, but no one in the general public knows who you are. Otherwise, you can skip this.
The best way to talk about target audiences is in the narrative of the Overview, or in the marketing plan.
That being said, I see lots of book proposals with this in there. I don’t think it matters, but obviously some agents do. Put it in if you want, but I’ve never used it.
Examples of Successful Book Proposals
If you look on the internet, you will have a very hard time finding actual book proposals. I don’t know why people won’t post these, but it gets back to what I was talking about with elitism in publishing.
Below are some examples of real book proposals that have actually sold to publishers. As you can see, not all of them are the same, and some even violate the rules I am giving you. Like I told you, this is a fluid thing with many “unwritten” rules, and in spaces like that, you can break those rules at times and in certain cases, but usually that doesn’t work well.
Six Figure Proposal:
Steve Sims Proposal: This is the proposal for author Steve Sims that became the book that became Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen. We helped Steve write this proposal, and he got a low six-figure advance for it from an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Seven Figure Proposal:
Mate Proposal (Tucker Max/Geoffrey Miller): I wrote this proposal with Nils Parker, and it sold for low seven figures to Little, Brown. This book started off being called Mate: Become The Man Women Want, and the publisher changed the name to What Women Want for the paperback.
I am going to go the extra mile here and actually give you a template to use for your book proposal. This is a very basic template because most of the value in a book proposal comes in the copywriting and sales of the actual proposal.