How to write a book proposal
I have always loved books. When I was a child, our big weekly outing was a visit to the library where my sisters and I were allowed three books each. My mother, an avid reader, kept the house stocked with paperbacks sourced from a local thrift store, so growing up we had at our disposal everything from Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. For fun, my sister Donna and I even wrote back-cover copy for books of our own invention. When we grew up, we planned to team up to write and illustrate books of our own.
Of course, that is not exactly how things worked out. But I did go on to work in the publishing world as a book designer, editor, and publisher. And, I also did end up writing my own back-cover copy, and later, my own books.
I learned to write book proposals directly from the editors to whom I pitched my first ideas. The first proposal I wrote was for a book about my favorite museum in San Francisco, Musée Mechanique, for Chronicle Books. It was not accepted—the sales team thought the project was too local-interest—but writing that proposal gave me the template and approach that I went on to utilize again and again, ultimately with much success.
What writing book proposals taught me is how to effectively communicate a book idea to a publisher. I came to realize that a book proposal is not a lofty, idealistic presentation of one’s brilliant idea, but rather a persuasive document meant to convince a publisher to spend their time—and, more to the point, their money—on your idea. As publishing becomes increasingly competitive and publishers less willing to take risks, a good, persuasive proposal is more important than ever before.
In the following guide, I will lay out what I have learned from both my personal experiences and through years of conversations with friends who have either published books or worked as literary agents. This guide is intended to help people at any stage of developing a book they would like to see in the world.
A book proposal is a document intended to convince a publisher that your project is economically viable for their publishing house. It needs to persuade its reader that your idea has enough commercial potential that the publisher should take the risk of putting money and resources into your book.
Beyond that, book proposals are also wonderful developmental tools. The act of writing one will help you clarify your thoughts and find a way to express your book idea clearly and succinctly. It will also help you understand the essence of your project so that you can communicate it with more ease.
When writing your proposal it is important to think about your audience. It is very likely that your proposal will be read by someone who does not know you or anything about your subject. With this in mind, how can you describe your project in such a way that it sounds interesting and compelling, and above all, economically viable? And remember, convincing this reader is only the first step. If they get behind your project, they will then have to convince the publisher’s sales team and/or finance department that it is worth the risk.
I have personally found it very valuable—before sitting down to write the proposal—to talk to friends about my book idea. I observe what I end up saying again and again, or how the story unconsciously changes over time in response to their questions and feedback. When do their eyes light up? When do they get excited? Pay attention, and note the way that even without consciously intending it, you are crafting a stronger, more rousing pitch. Really seek out the parts of your pitch that illicit passion, conviction, and persuasion. Once you have fine-tuned your argument in this way, it’s time to sit down to write your proposal.
Before I begin, please note: The following guidelines are just that—guidelines. These are the contents of a sort of platonic ideal of a proposal, but in my experience, actual proposals can vary widely. So approach this as a set of suggestions, adding or removing elements as you see fit to make this the most persuasive document it can be for your project. If you know who will be reading your proposal, craft it with them in mind. If not, simply try to make it as clear and compelling as you possibly can.
As an example, I include here one of my own proposals, for my book The Anatomical Venus (click here to download the PDF). In this case, I had a relationship with the editor and they had solicited the proposal, so I was able to be a bit more casual and allusive than I generally would be. No sample chapter was necessary and, since an important part of the project was the visual aspect, I included lots of strong and enticing imagery to demonstrate the commercial appeal of the project.
What a book proposal should contain
Start with the working title of the project along with your name, email, and phone number.
2) A brief synopsis of the book
Some people suggest a one-sentence synopsis; I have always used a one-to five-paragraph description of the project. This should essentially be your elevator pitch, so be sure to describe your book in a succinct and compelling way.
3) Longer synopsis of the book, if you feel it is necessary
This is a longer narrative description of the project. It should clearly answer the following questions:
- What is the project?
- Why are you the right person to write this book?
- Do you have any special connections or access that is worth mentioning—for example, if this is a book about a museum, do you have a contact there? Have they agreed to work with you?
- And, again, stress why this project is commercially viable. What is the audience for this book, and how can you reach them?
4) Chapter breakdown
Create a list of chapters with a few sentences describing what you will cover in each. If this will be an art book, you might also include a few images here; see my sample proposal for an example of how to include images. If you have an idea for a well-known person who might be a good fit for writing a foreword, include that, too. It helps sales to have a famous name attached to any book. And, you need not know the person—it can just be an idea for an appropriate person.
Note: Don’t worry about getting it all perfect at this stage. In my experience, the chapter breakdown often changes significantly between the proposal stage and the final book.
5) Sample chapter (some editors will not require this)
For non-fiction, include the text you would use as your introduction along with one or two sample chapters. If your project is fiction, instead of sample chapters, you should submit the first 40 to 50 pages of your manuscript, or, if applicable, the entire manuscript. In either case, the quality of the writing is important, but much more so in fiction. Also in the case of fiction, be sure to craft your early pages well to grab the reader and make them want more.
6) Book details
Here is a place to describe the details of the project. You might include approximately how many words you imagine the final book will be. If you are in including images, you might include a list of how many images you envision, whether the book will be color or black and white, and whether the images will be free to use or require a budget (for acquiring the rights to use them). If an art book, include some of the strongest images up front in the proposal, and perhaps a few pages of small images at the end of the document; you might also want to pepper a few images throughout the proposal to illustrate the text (see sample proposal).
7) About the author/biography
This should explain who you are, and make an argument for why you are the right person to do this project. Again, demonstrate that you can reach a buying audience with this book idea. This section should list any relevant articles or books you’ve already published, preferably with view counts and/or sales figures; a list of the magazines and other press outlets that have reported on your work; lectures you have given—basically anything that supports your argument that this book should exist and you are the right person to write it.
Remember, the reader of this document probably does not know you, and you want to make sure they can see that you are capable of doing this project and of effectively getting it out into the world. For this reason, you’ll need to be a bit braggy. I personally find it very hard to write such self-aggrandizing text; my solution has been to show a first draft to a friend who knows me and my work well, and ask them for suggestions of how to make it more convincing.
Publishers are also interested to know if you’ll be willing and able to do public speaking or television appearances to promote your book. This will inevitably come up later, so make sure to mention your experience here if applicable.
Increasingly, publishers want to know that their authors will be able to reach an audience who will buy the book. This section should demonstrate your reach. List here your stats for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, a website or blog if you have one, etc. Also include the number of people on your mailing list, if applicable, and detail any other way you have of engaging with an audience.
9) Market profile
Begin with a narrative: What is the market for this book? Establish that this particular book does not already exist, but similar books do. Now make a list of similar books and note the date of publication. For each book, write a brief synopsis, and what makes it similar or different from yours. The goal here is to demonstrate that your book is filling a gap in a viable market.
10) Format (if an art book)
Describe how you imagine the book will look. What size is it? What is the design like? You might use an existing book, preferably by that publisher, as a starting point. Do you see the book as full color or black and white? If you have design skills, you might also include a few sample spreads (a spread is two pages of a book side by side) showing how you imagine the general layout will look. If a photo book, be sure to include images as well, and detail if you have permission to use them, what kind of camera you used, and what resolution/quality the images are.
11) Selling venues outside of traditional bookstores
Do you know of specialty shops that would be likely to stock this book? Eg. Museum shops, or other specialty shops of various sorts? If so, list them here.
12) People who might provide a blurb
Do you have any ideas for well-known, influential, or famous people who might provide a blurb? If so, include a list of your ideas.
13) Preliminary schedule
How long after signing the contract would you need to deliver the final manuscript and, if applicable, all of the images?
Now that you have finished a first draft of your proposal, your book idea is solidified and clarified. So what’s next?
The next step I have always taken is to think about the right publisher. To come up with some publishers that might be a good fit for your project, you will need to do some brainstorming and research. Ask yourself: Are there similar books to yours out there? If so, who publishes them? Or perhaps you are already a fan of a publisher who you think would be perfect for your book?
Either way, once you determine an idea for an appropriate publisher (or two or three), try to find a way to connect 1:1 with someone who works there. I have always done this through friends-of-friends or colleagues, but many people use LinkedIn or other social media for this purpose. This outreach is worth the effort, as it helps immensely to have a human who you know will actually read your proposal. If this fails, you can always send the proposal by mail or email via the publisher’s website. But again, always strive to make a personal connection at any publisher over cold-emailing your proposal over.
You could also consider working with an agent to help you find a publisher. I work with an agent on some but not all projects. I found her through a good friend who worked as a literary agent. You can also find an agent by pinpointing similar books and skimming the acknowledgements for mention of an agent.
Having an agent has many advantages: they have personal contacts at publishing houses, ensuring your proposal will be seen and read. They can also help you craft a more convincing (and commercially appealing) proposal, negotiate a better deal for you (more money, better terms), and act as a middleman/buffer in interactions with the press. The disadvantage is, of course, they will take part of your earnings.
You might also consider self-publishing. The quality of self-published books has gotten very good, and online platforms like Amazon (love it or hate it) make it easy to get your book out into the world.
Another option is crowdfunding platforms. We used Kickstarter to fund our self-published Morbid Anatomy Anthology to great success, but this works best if you or your collaborators have solid design, production, and editing expertise, as you’ll be responsible for creating and distributing the book all on your own.
For those with no publishing knowhow, there is also UnBound, which is a crowdfunding platform that, if you raise the money, will design, produce, and distribute the book for you. Both Kickstarter and UnBound work on the subscription/pre-order model, in which you pre-sell copies of the book to fund the production and printing.
One final option is to use a service like Lulu to create and print one copy of your book exactly as you envision it. You can then present this beautiful, professionally printed piece to publishers in lieu of your proposal. I was hired to do this for a photographer friend, and it totally worked.
To recap: A book proposal is a persuasive document created with the intent of convincing a publisher to take a chance on your book. It is also a wonderful tool for clarifying your project’s vision. In order to craft the most effective pitch possible, talk to people. Notice how you tell the story, and what people respond to. Lastly, the list of things I’ve noted a proposal should contain is not inflexible—rather, it’s totally up to you to be creative with it.
Before I sign off, here’s one final piece of advice: don’t give up! I wrote about five proposals before I published a book. Keep trying, and keep thinking and fine tuning your ideas. Be alert and responsive to what is around you, and if your proposals don’t get accepted right away, try to use each rejection as a learning opportunity.
Good luck! And thanks for reading.
Joanna Ebenstein is a Brooklyn-based writer, curator, photographer, and graphic designer. She is the creator of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library, and event series, and was cofounder (with Tracy Hurley Martin) and creative director of the recently shuttered Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Her books include Death: A Graveside Companion, The Anatomical Venus, The Morbid Anatomy Anthology (with Colin Dickey), and Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy (with Dr Pat Morris). She is currently working on a book about Dutch “artist of death” Frederik Ruysch for MIT Press, and a coffee table book about art and anatomy for Laurence King. She worked as an art director and editor for Alta Mira Press, and as a designer and production artist for Scholastic Publishing. She works regularly with such institutions as The Wellcome Collection and Amsterdam’s Vrolik Museum, and her writing and photography have been published and exhibited internationally.
Today Morbid Anatomy can be visited seasonally in a 1870s former gatehouse at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. You can find out about upcoming events and happenings here.