Proposal Power: What Publishers Desire in a Proposal

As resume writing is a path to a successful career, the publishing proposal is a gateway for being published, especially for fiction. Unfortunately, very few neophyte authors are experienced in publishing proposal writing. Novice authors are rarely considered by publishers. Why should a publisher spend several thousand dollars on an unknown, unproven author? Since very few rookie authors have a literary agent, it’s up to the author to design a proposal that not only meets their expectations, but sweeps editors off their feet. Non-fiction authors who are known subject matter experts should still design a proposal. But it is vastly more critical for unfamiliar fiction authors.

Before we go any farther, if you think that this article will enable your book to be published by HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House or any other major publisher – STOP READING. Only trusted, well-connected literary agents deliver author proposals into the hands of major publishers. If you don’t have such a literary agent, or a close friend or relative in the industry, you will NOT have a proposal read by a major publisher – PERIOD.

Many small independent publishers around the world specialize in one or two genres. However, you can have a proposal read by one of the many thousands of small independent publishers around the world; and that’s a good way to start an author platform and propel your nascent writing career.

Publishing proposal writing is a science and an art form. Your proposal must not only explain very succinctly the synopsis of your book, but also how it compares to similar successful books in the same genre. It must contain, at a minimum, one section each on: the author, a concise synopsis, a market analysis, a competitive analysis, promotional and marketing concepts, a chapter outline; and sample chapters. This cannot be thrown together and submitted carte blanche to any and every publisher. It should be re-worked and customized for each publisher. You must explain why you and your manuscript are a good fit with each publisher, based upon the publisher’s past experience, areas of success, author and genre predilections. You accomplish this by analyzing each small publisher and demonstrating why your manuscript will make sense given the publisher’s preferences.

The author is the easiest section to complete. Expand upon all of your accomplishments as a writer or as an author of fiction. This can go back as far as your high school newspaper. Include all writing competition awards, published articles, prior published books, media outlets that have accepted your work, positive reviews from persuasive review organizations, etc. Include all major media interviews via radio, television, cable, Internet and local newspapers, journals and magazines. This section tells the publisher that you have had successful writing responsibilities and that you have been rewarded and recognized for your talent. It explains what makes your writing and literary experience relevant to this topic and to the specific publisher.

The synopsis sounds easier than it is. In about 500 words or less, you must describe your target audience, why your book is exceptional and why it is a worthy expenditure for the publisher. Concisely describe the most compelling and persuasive aspects of your book. Lead with a powerful description. You must grab the editor’s attention immediately. Here is one example that led to a publishing contract for one of my novels about young Jewish lovers during the Holocaust:

“How would you feel if, at age seventeen, the government removed you from school, evicted you from your home, looted your bank account and took all of your family’s possessions, prevented your parents from working and then deported you and your loved ones to a prison camp run by brutal taskmasters? How would you feel if you suddenly lost contact with everyone that you know and love? How would you feel if you were sent to the most frightening place in history and then forced to perform unspeakable acts of horror in order to remain alive?”

If that doesn’t grab your heart, maybe you don’t have a pulse. It makes everything that follows easier from the publisher’s perspective. No, the paragraph above does not constitute the synopsis. It says nothing about the protagonists, the story line, scenery, character development, dialog or the ending. But, it’s a start that may be sufficiently emotional to grab the editor’s attention. Avoid creating a long-winded, detailed synopsis, which is a very common mistake. Your synopsis should be about one page. Keep editing it until it describes everything relevant in your manuscript within a page. You do not need to explain the ending. But you definitely must hook the publisher’s editor.

The market analysis is relevant and essential. It tells the publisher that you comprehend the market for such books and how your manuscript is consistent with market needs. In describing the potential for your book, you must compellingly submit how expansive that market is today and where your book fits into it. Describe which authors are doing well with which similar books within this genre and why. This is where you’ll explain who will purchase and read your book, how many readers enjoy such books, where they are and why they will pay for it. You’ll need to perform enough research to cite specific examples and statistics to back up your claims.

The competitive analysis is perhaps the most critical portion of the publishing proposal. Here you contrast and compare your book with at least three similar books that have achieved prodigious public success. Select these three similar books carefully. They certainly do not need to be contemporary. Feel free to select a book from the Eighteenth Century, if it is relevant. Explain why people by the millions purchased that book, which is very similar to yours. Then explain why your book adds to the success of that genre.

It is not appropriate to suggest that your book is the same or better than the best-selling books in your sample group. Nor is it a place to suggest that your writing is better than that of Edgar Allen Poe (it is not). It’s a place to analyze why those similar books were a best-seller and how your book has the same potential. Heavy use of statistics is appropriate here. When you compare your book with a famous best-seller in the same genre, use research to produce valid positive statistics. For example, what is the best-selling book’s current Amazon sales ranking? How many editions were created? Was it popular globally? How many copies have been sold? How many positive reviews from famous review organizations did it receive? What did some of them say? How many awards did it receive? Was it made into a screenplay? If so, how much did the film gross? What awards did it garner? You’ll need to do this at least three times with the most successful books in your genre.

At the same time, discuss how your book treats similar situations differently and why. NEVER try to convince a publisher that your book is “exactly like…” the famous book. It isn’t and you will be perceived as insincere or not to be trusted. As you compare and contrast your book with the big-time, well-known successful books, cite similarities and differences in plot, location, dialog, protagonists, narrative, descriptive scenery, etc. Your book can belong to the same genre, but it should always be sufficiently different and for good reasons. Compare your book to the best-selling books in its genre by listing the potential for millions of sales, Amazon sales rankings, number of customer reviews, academic credentials, reviews from the most compelling sources, etc. Facts and figures belong here, as well as why that book sold so many millions of copies and how your book has similar potential. Many editors and publishers view this section as the most critical part of the publishing proposal.

Promotional and marketing concepts is an equally critical section. Here you’ll demonstrate two things: 1) that you are willing to carry forward the bulk of responsibility for marketing and promotion, and 2) that you comprehend the various tasks, requirements, efforts and skills required to make promotion successful.

Today, even large well-known publishers require authors with a platform to take on much of the responsibility for marketing. Unless your name is King or Clancy, it will up to you to market your book. The days of an author delivering a manuscript to a publisher and then doing nothing are long gone. No matter who you are as an author, regardless of your platform success, marketing and promotion are YOUR job now. Show that you understand how to do this. If you are not willing to engage in repeated public speaking, bookstore signings and book tours, if you’re not willing to produce media interviews, if you won’t land newspaper, magazine and journal articles about your book, if you will not create and daily add to a Facebook fan page and a web landing page, if you won’t blog, write on others’ blogs and disseminate an excellent book video trailer, then no publisher, other than a subsidy publisher, will have an interest in your manuscript.

The chapter outline is extremely important. Here, the publisher anticipates that you will deliver a description of each chapter in several sentences (not paragraphs). The publisher wants to digest the content of each chapter within a few seconds. If your chapter descriptions are several paragraphs each, the proposal will go into the e-junk pile. I have worked very hard to reduce my chapter outlines and my agent continues to demand even more brevity. This is an exercise in being extremely concise.

The publisher will want to read a few sample chapters. This is often the first three chapters, because that’s where character development is born. But it need not be. If you believe that three later chapters will better sell the book, use them. However, be advised that if you use later chapters, and the publisher has no way to relate to your protagonist, the quality of your manuscript will be lost. If you decide that the first three chapters are too boring to use, consider that those first three chapters may need rewriting to incorporate more anticipation, expectation, character development and conflict.

Finally, when all is written, edited and re-written, create a table of contents and use page numbers to identify each section’s location. All publishers expect this.

You’ll never attract a publisher by suggesting that you’re a talented author. If you are a novice and have yet to win writing awards or obtain positive reviews from compelling review organizations, don’t worry. We all start in the same place. Instead, show that you understand the publishing industry and your marketing and promotion responsibilities. Explain how you are creating an author platform that will be increasingly valuable to that particular small publisher. If the publisher has some interest in your book, they will be more willing to finance its publication. And if the publisher believes that more of those high quality books in the same genre are on the way, they will be more likely to donate several thousand dollars to print your first book.

Charles S. Weinblatt is the author of published fiction and non-fiction, including the popular Holocaust novel, Jacob’s Courage. His recent published books can be observed at