I just finished and sent to my agent a book proposal. So now I have book proposals on my mind.
How fascinating, I know.
Actually, because I am a very famous writer known far and wide throughout my apartment complex, people very often ask me why I’m staring into their window how to do a book proposal. And when they do I’m always kind of surprised, because wanting to get a book published and not knowing anything about book proposals is like wanting to be a dentist and not knowing anything about making people cry by drilling directly into their central nervous system.
So herewith is however much I’ll be able to cram in here about book proposals before my beautiful wife wakes up from her nap so that we can go food shopping so that we can wail and cry aloud in the dairy section over the fact that a gallon of milk now costs more than a whole live cow.
If you’re wanting a publisher to buy a non-fiction book you wrote, you have to write a book proposal for that book. You have absolutely no choice about that. None. Zero. Trying to sell a book without a book proposal is like trying to stage Hamlet without actors. You can try it, but people will first ridicule, then pity, then sic their dogs on you.
Important note: Book proposals are only for non-fiction books. If you want to write a book of fiction, you’re going to have to finish that whole book and then submit it for publication, unless you’re already such a famous fiction writer that there’s no way you’d be reading this. If you’re not sure about the difference between fiction and non-fiction, then you are James Frey, and I want to tell you that, honestly, I only read three pages of your book A Million Little Pieces before I literally threw it away, because it was that obvious you were lying. How it took Oprah and so many other people so long to discover that is yet another reason I despair for the entire human race.
Anyway, a book proposal is a document that, though Mondo Hefto indeed, is still a lot smaller than a whole book, which no one in publishing is going to want to take the time to read. It’s a blueprint of your book, a comprehensive overview of it. It’s everything a publisher would need to know about your book in order to decide if they want to risk their money publishing it.
It really is a book proposal. It’s something you (through your agent) give to a publisher, by way of saying, “Will you marry this book?”
Generally speaking, there are three Major Reasons for which you have to write and submit to your literary agent or publisher a book proposal instead of a finished manuscript. (And remember, we’re only talking about nonfiction books here, not fiction.) First, publishers don’t have time to read a 40,000-plus word manuscript. They don’t even have time to read anywhere near all the proposals that every agent in the world is sending them. (Which is why, as you climb up the publishing ladder, you want representing you an agent with whom publishers know, respect, and have previously worked, since a submission from such an agent automatically goes atop publishers’ Must Read stack.)
Proposal? 15,000 words. Whole manuscript? 45,000 words. Publishers’ time? Priceless.
A proposal it is, then.
Secondly, the quality of your book idea and the facility with which you write is one thing. But what really matters to a publisher — who after all has to make a living selling books — is how sellable your book is. Before a publisher commits the kind of money it takes to bring a book to market, it has to be as sure as it possibly can be that that book will sell. Determining that — figuring out how many people can reasonably be expected to buy your book, and why — entails considerable thought. That’s where you come in. That’s largely what a proposal is: It’s your summation of all the reasons the publisher reading it can be safe betting that once your book is published the world will flock to it, and he or she will be rich and get a promotion and get to take the spouse and kids to Paris the following spring.
A proposal is a sales document. It’s a pitch. It’s everything an editor would need to know in order to boldly throw your proposal down on the table before the collected editorial, sales, and marketing people at his publishing house, and say with ringing confidence, “Here. I’ve got a winner. Praise me, ye underlings! Marvel yet again at my awesome perspicacity!”
Or, you know, whatever they might say.
Point is: Books are art. Art isn’t quantifiable. Money is. Publishers want to make money. A proposal is your best effort to show publishers that, artistic wonder or not, your book will result in Mucho Incoming Cash.
Thirdly, publishers don’t want you to have already finished your book before they get it. You know why? Because if there’s one thing of which publishers are confident, it’s that they know what makes for a good, sellable book. They want to participate with you in the writing of your book. They want to help you make it the best book it can be.
You are, after all, just a writer. What in the world can you be expected to know about writing a book?
It’s easy enough to be offended and/or disparaging about the degree to which publishers tend to assume a real kind of ownership of the text of the books they publish. And a lot of what they do in that regard is grounded in nothing more interesting than grunt arrogance: Editors and publishers are, after all, the gatekeepers to fame and fortune, and they know it, and … well, you know how people are. But it’s also more than fair to say that through long and hard experience, editors and publishers have learned that the most efficient way to create the best possible books is by working hand-in-hand with their authors. Especially given that most nonfiction authors aren’t primarily writers; they’re primarily experts in whatever it is they’re writing about. Most often nonfiction authors are glad to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of their editor; they understand the value of that kind of input. So it’s all good. It’s just that if you’re new, you want to know, going in, that you’d do well to hold lightly the sense of proprietorship that most authors naturally feel toward their work. It’s your book until you sell it; after that, it belongs to you and the publisher, and no two ways about it.