When I completed my debut novel, having just one trade-published non-fiction book to my name, I thought that I knew how to write a good proposal. After all, I wrote many winning business proposals when I led a university division. How hard could it be? Boy was I wrong.
I understood that there are major differences between writing a fiction proposal from a non-fiction proposal. Many acquisition editors for fiction at major publishers have mandated certain sections in the proposal. By doing this, it’s easy for them to compare apples to apples. And while it’s true that some acquisition editors at a major publishing house will accept an unsolicited proposal from an unknown author, most will only accept a proposal from a trusted literary agent. Even if you don’t have an agent yet, you can learn how to write the best possible submission proposal.
Most importantly, by reading this article, you’ll be able to wow small, independent publishers. Unless you’ve been trade-published several times or you have a very significant author platform, you will be considered a novice (unknown) author. Small publishing houses are inundated daily with proposals from unknown or never-before published authors. They are used to receiving terrible proposals from those who have never learned how to craft one. To get your proposal moved to the top of the stack, please pay attention.
Most novice and unrepresented authors are unaware of the many unique requirements for author proposal submissions. These go way beyond the meager “submission requirements” listed on the publisher’s web site. A winning fiction proposal can easily be 40-50 pages. Why? Because the publisher wants you, the author, to compare and contrast your book with the best ever written in your genre and to convince the publisher why they should invest several thousand dollars on your book’s future. The best book ever written will never be printed unless the author comprehends how to write a proposal that meets the publisher’s expectations. It took about twelve years of research, trial and error and coaching by my agent to produce what you are about to read.
A book publishing proposal is NOT a synopsis. A synopsis is one small part of a winning proposal. There are nine other recommended parts. But first, let’s start with who will receive your proposal. This target is called an acquisition editor. If she or he loves your proposal, they will take up to the next level – the acquisition team.
For now, let’s focus on the acquisition editor. If you cannot satisfy her or his very specific needs, you’ll be rejected. This editor’s job is to reject virtually all of the proposals received. This includes poorly written proposals, proposals for books outside of their needs or genre, almost all unsolicited proposals and entire manuscripts sent without a good proposal.
A precious few proposals are kept and all the others go in the virtual garbage can (picture a toilet somewhere in the virtual cloud). The purpose of this article is to make sure that your proposal reaches the right editor and remains among those precious few that move to the next stage – the “acquisition team.” It takes just about a miracle to get there. But since it happened to me, I’m reassessing that “miracle” moniker.
My agent loved my first novel, Jacob’s Courage: A Holocaust Love Story. In a matter of months, she had it republished by Texas Tech University Press! After that, I produced four new books in just about three years. Then, my agent and I wrestled with proposal details. I stopped resisting when I realized that my agent knew everything about the publishing industry and I knew less than nothing. She, by being utterly, completely and absolutely demanding and detail-oriented, forced me to comprehend the miniscule details of each section of the proposal. She forced me to write, rewrite, alter, change and fabricate proposals, which turned out to be the best way to learn and guarantee that my future proposals would be much improved.
So, let’s begin.
Use 16-point font for headings and use 12 pt. font for everything else. Use one of the most common fonts. Never use a font that you believe is cute, inspiring, creative, unique or expresses your personality. How would you feel if an acquisition editor at a major publisher stopped reading your proposal because she or he had a mental breakdown after the army of emojis around your page gave her a conniption? That’s not how to get published. It’s how to get your proposal dumped.
Use line spacing at 1.5 with no extra paragraph spacing; but you may use a paragraph indent. Never use shading, highlighting, strikethrough or any color other than black. Links may be blue, or identified plainly by color and underline. On sample chapters, resort to formatting from the manuscript (for publishing).
By the time we’re done here, you’ll understand that the average winning book publishing proposal is around 35 to 45 PAGES. That’s correct. It’s not a typo. And that’s only the average.
I recently submitted a proposal for a 27-page children’s book. The proposal was 52 pages. Again, no typo. That should tell you how complex the winning proposal is.
The cover page should only contain the title of your book, your name, your editor’s name and the copyright. If you have a literary agent, that person’s name, plus the name and address of the agency should appear near the bottom of the cover page. Format “center” for all cover page lines.
Table of Contents:
This page must list every chapter title, along with its current page number. You must also format this page electronically so that when an acquisition editor clicks on each chapter title in the Table of Contents, they are automatically transported via bookmark to the matching page in the proposal body. Use the same electronic formatting for the table of contents in the manuscript. This can be found under the “Insert” command line typically at the top of each page in your word processing software. For more information about how to format the table of contents with bookmarks that send each chapter title to the appropriate page in the manuscript and proposal, see https://www.extendoffice.com/documents/word/5432-word-table-of-content-link-to-page.html.
Section 1: Synopsis
The synopsis is a one-page description of your book. This is an exercise in being very, very concise. You may need to rewrite this section a few times. Describe only the protagonists, the plot and skip the ending. With fiction, you want the acquisition editor to become interested in the story, not to know how it ends.
Section 2: Overview
This section should be one to three pages. Here, you delve more deeply into characteristics of the protagonists, plot, background, twists and turns and why readers will enjoy it. This can also be a place to introduce romantic involvements. Once more, don’t give up the end.
Section 3: About the Author
In no more than one page, describe (with links to appropriate web sites) the veracity of your career as an author. This constitutes the sum total of your fiction author platform.
List all published books, including self-published books, non-fiction books, published articles and all writing awards. Do not list vanity-published books. They will degrade your value as an author. This is, arguably, the singular place to brag about yourself, so list your entire author platform, including everything you have published.
You may also list life and career accomplishments, such as having your biography at Wikipedia, or newspaper, magazine and journal articles about you. You may list degrees obtained, educational awards and recognition, appearances on TV, radio, podcasts, blogs, etc. For example, in addition to describing my books, I also listed links about my appearances on local television news as a university expert. It could bear upon my ability to appear on TV or to give speeches about books? This is the only section where it’s appropriate to enhance your character with germane material. But please try to use positive platform material that show you know how to market and promote your books. In this age of austerity, publishers want authors who can increase sales on their own.
Section 4: Praise for Prior Books
This is where you list, in no more than two pages, positive reviews for your prior books, with links to their locations on the Internet. This is a critical section because it allows you to prove your credibility via important people, places and sources. Begin by listing your most critically acclaimed reviews, word for word, from the most compelling sources anywhere around the world. Think of the most persuasive voices in your genre. For example, my debut novel is about young Jewish lovers who find a way to survive the Holocaust. My best reviews come from organizations like The Historical Novel Society, Jewish Book World, the Association of Jewish Libraries, Holocaust Centers and museums around the world, etc. Yes, you may list reviews from readers or other authors. But a positive reviews from major genre organizations, newspapers, magazines and international journals count for much more with major publishers. In fact, they expect it.
Chapter by Chapter Outline:
This is likely the most difficult section to compose. Here, you must list each chapter, followed by a very succinct explanation of the chapter amounting to no more than three or four short paragraphs. This is indeed a challenge for even the best authors. You’ll want to write page after page describing how thrilling, moving and evocative each chapter is. But you have only a few paragraphs – not pages. You also may not skip ANY chapter, even short ones. This is absolutely the worst place to become wordy. Brevity is the operative word here. You’ll write, rewrite and rewrite again. And it still won’t be sufficient. Take your time with this section. It’s very critical.
Section 6: Sample Chapters
Easily the easiest part of writing a book submission proposal is the “Sample Chapters.” For each proposal, research the publisher’s web site to determine how many sample chapters they each prefer. It’s typically two or three chapters. Lacking such individualized information, include your first three chapters. Just cut and paste. If only every section was this easy (sigh)!
Section 7: Market Analysis
This section requires the author to write a very detailed analysis of market conditions for your genre and sub-genre. In two or three pages, describe the current market conditions for your book’s genre. For example, if it’s science fiction, you should do enough research to write several cogent paragraphs about the state of the sci-fi genre, including sales figures, Amazon rankings, best-sellers, trends, which type of sci-fi is expected to increase sales and by how much over a given period, etc.
You might be amazed to discover how simple this is with something as viable as a detailed Google search. Complete the section by describing how your book is well suited to the portion of the sci-fi market expected by industry experts to have an increased following. Be sure to add any appropriate tables, charts or diagrams to support your conclusions. This will obviously necessitate some significant research on your part. But acquisition editors live within these facts and figures. They will expect you to understand them and precisely demonstrate with culled data how your book’s predicted sales are accounted for. It’s not fun, but if you really, really want to be published, you’ll do this.
Section 8: Competitive Analysis
Here, within about two pages, you compare and contrast your book with some best-selling books in the genre and sub-genre. In this section, you should tell the publisher’s editor what makes the best books in your genre wonderful and how your book has what it takes. Why do people buy these books? What makes them attractive to a percentage of the market? What did the best authors do that made their books more successful? Describe the target audience. What makes these books attractive to them? In what way? What characteristics make these books successful? How do these readers decide what to purchase? How does your book meet these requirements? How can you make your existing readership discover your new book,, develop interest in it and deliver swift sales. It’s akso in part a psychological analysis of the target reader.
Section 9: Comparative Analysis
This section is very crucial to your success with a publisher’s acquisition team. Here, you will compare and contrast your book with the very best books of the same genre throughout history. Once more, you’ll devote critical time to research. Fortunately, most of it can be accomplished on the Internet. Consider the very best books and authors in your genre. Research them. Ascertain their current Amazon sales rankings. What makes these books forever welcomed and positively reviewed by the most compelling sources in the industry? Read reviews by the best of literature, not dime-a-day review organization (even the famous ones) or paid reviews. How did the authors capture their audience? What made the stories haunting and the characters unforgettable? How did the tale capture readers? How did the famous author maintain a balance of action with dialog? In which ways did protagonists interact with other characters to make for a wonderful, penetrating story? Which awards did the books and authors win? Why? Describe the best features of these books. Then describe how your book uses similar techniques for characters, background information, dialog, timelines and outcomes. Describe what you’ve learned and how you used it to make your book better.
Section 10: Promotion/Marketing Strategies
In this deeply critical section, describe exactly how your book will be marketed and promoted. Remember, publishers have recently been ripped financially. These cash-strapped organizations have had to part with many valued staff. The result is this: 1) If you win at this game, you’ll get a book printed. 2) You’ll get no promotional budget or marketing help. You’ll have to wing it on your own! And 3), you might get part or all of your advance, but don’t count on your publisher sending you to Hawaii for a trade conference. Seriously, even big publishers today do little marketing. They’re lucky to make payroll. So, it’s best to learn everything there is to know about how to market and promote your book. You will find some help about that very subject elsewhere in this blog.
Marketing includes things like websites, blogs, teaser ads, catalog marketing, email and fax blasts, press releases, book tours and signings, public speaking, social media marketing, media appearances and interviews, representation at key international book fairs (if you’re rich or require a tax deduction).
Describe how you are willing to attend industry conferences. Tell the publisher that you are willing to market with newspaper ads, journals and magazines, plus radio and television spots and advanced social media marketing (Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Google, etc.). Be sure to add how you, the author, will write and publish articles to promote the book, enhancing an already-established author platform. List any and all of your published author interviews, book video trailers, teaser ads on the Internet, newspaper, magazine or journal articles, bookstore signings, television, podcast or radio presentations and other marketing events created or sponsored by independent Internet professionals and bloggers. List every marketing or promotional activity you’ve established on your own or paid to have created on your behalf. The worst thing you can do here is to let the publisher know that you have no expertise in book marketing. If they get that impression, you’ll be dropped like a hot coal.
Of course, offering to do all of these things doesn’t mean that you can afford to pay for them. Nor should you. But asking them for money up front might not be the best idea either. Based upon the previous paragraphs, at least they’ll know that you understand what needs to be done in terms of marketing and promotion. Many of your competitors won’t or they simply have never done these things before. Stand out from the crowd by making sure that your publisher can see your prior video trailers, local TV and radio presentations and newspaper and journal articles written about you by adding valid Internet links. Feel free to list many different URLs that prove you’ve done it before or that you comprehend the needs of marketing.
I hope that you’ll find this information about creating a successful book publishing proposal for fiction useful. And I sincerely hope that you’ll be able to incorporate some of these concepts into your next submission. If you have any questions or concerns, you can reach me at email@example.com. Good luck!