Why A Book Proposal Is Everything

Why A Book Proposal Is Everything June 30, 2008

If you’re just joining us, see How To Write A Book Proposal, Part 1. Even though this post should be called, “How To Write A Book Proposal, Part 2,” I changed it to, “Why A Book Proposal Is Everything,” because … well, because “why?” most naturally comes before “how”? Sorry for not thinking of that sooner.

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.

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  • Excellent post! Any secrets on how to discover and hit a prospective editor's hot-buttons? My agents are just as baffled as I am about whch parts of the latest nonfiction proposal are on target and which could be jettisoned for a more streamlined pitch.

  • Of course I couldn't say without seeing the proposal, but generally it's very safe to say that all editors have the same hot button: Will This Book Sell?

    But … you knew that.

  • …..a huge thanks for the Three Course . . . (3 reasons) . . 'meal', John!

    I'm anticipating the Dessert . . . (an overview of a sample proposal).

    Thanks heaps for the help you are giving a whole lot of us.

  • Really? I mean, that's nice of you to say. I figured … like, who CARES? It's such a … job-related sort of thing; I thought it was like someone telling you how how they stock stuff in their warehouse, or how they come up with the mold shapes that allow them to pour in wax so they can make angel-shaped candles, or whatever.

    Then again, forget that. I DID used to want to know this stuff, actually, when I was thinking I might go into books.

    Anyway, I'm babbling. Thanks as ever, Greta.

  • Hey John,

    Back from a vacation (of sorts). Mostly reunions. Whatever. I am back.

    I am catching up here and wanted to say thanks for the book proposal tips. I don’t know if I will ever attempt a book but I fantasize about such things. Not while driving and talking on my bluetooth-enabled cell phone. That would be dangerous.

    I see I missed the latest debate club post too. Saddness. Ok, I’m over it.

    My wife (& others) keep encouraging me to assemble a proposal. (In real life, not the fantasy version.) And I may. So keep ’em coming.

  • Publishers don't (that I've ever heard of) buy the rights to a title. If they wanted your title, they'd just change it to "Just Quit Drinking…" or whatever. You could pretty safely not waste your time trying to get a publisher to buy the rights to your title.

    As for your book, it's great you've self-published it. As far as getting a publisher interested in it, all they're going to want to know is: How many did you sell? If it's a pretty big, fat number (2,000 minimum), you'll get their attention. If not, then … not so much.

  • I self-published a book that is a Christian testimony of overcoming alcholism. It’s short story that most people find amazing so far, since I nearly died.

    I was told to send a book proposal to Christain publishers to see if they would pick up the title (buy the rights). I’m not sure that’s likely based on reading what you said, that they would rather I not write the book on my own, but instead with the publisher’s input.

    That said, I will probably still write the proposal. What do you recommend?

    Book “Simply Quit Drinking: An Inspirational Journey From Near Death”.

  • Colleen

    What a blessing! An actual min-writing course I can count toward 150 contact hours for my board certification in nursing. Bet you didn't think anyone would actually list you as a virtual conference speaker. 😉 You can take the girl out NYC but you can't take the NYC outta the girl. I dare them to question this one, when I have written some big articles for work, (for free) over the last 6 years. Go me! (Something our 21 yo likes to say in place of, "you go girl!" Seriously, one suggestion to this blog would be…if I may…I am a fan…oh you want proof…on Thursday Amazon delivered Penguins, Pain and the Whole Shebang. I never finish a book unless it's so worth it…and I breezed through Penguins, pressed on through the Pain and will complete the Whole Shebang before the weekend is over. Which coincidently included a reference to William Hung, (the weekend that is) so I thought that would be worth sharing. She bangs… She bangs… Okay now for an actual valid suggestion for this blog. I attended a "Christian" writing retreat in Gatlinburg, TN almost 2 years that stressed that in order to truly succeed, a writer must practice,"Shameless Self Promotion." Is that a challenge for you? I want your wife to answer this one. LOL! I also learned that many blogs today serve as “webs” on the world wide web for…well you know, folks like me. “Come into my web.” said the spider to the fly. A poem my Irish grandmother used to like to share to warn her young lasses about false motives. No offense intended. Thanks again for your generous heart!

    Sista Col

  • Hey, Colleen. Thanks for writing. Good stuff? But what, exactly, do you mean by I should engage in "Shameless Self Promotion"? What would that actually MEAN?

  • Colleen

    What is shameless self promotion? Good question. For some it means being less than authentic. Those are the ones I would not want to imitate. Such as, having a website promoting a book that doesn’t exist. List credentials as if you’re an expert because in time you will be. Self fulfilling prophecy I suppose . Don’t mind me, like our Lord I like to be a little provocational from time to time just to stimulate thought. Just to make myself clear, I see that you are the real McCoy. You are a fun writer and I suppose I think its fun sticking my proverbial foot out in a playful

    annoying little sister way. Why? The same reason others climb mountains. I really need to grow up. But not too soon I hope…

  • Penlee

    Have just come across all this by accident for I haven’t had any mail from you for a long time say around May. Am I able to get onto any past (and future again) emails? Just love anything on writing plus all of your (sometimes crazy sense of humour) messages. Unforgettable.