Book Proposal Basics: Assembling a Winning Presentation

Most books publishers receive are unpublishable, and even of the fraction that are publishable, only a small percentage are profitable. A traditional print publisher needs to sell somewhere on the order of 10,000 to 100,000 copies of a book in order to turn a profit. A winning proposal needs to convince them that your book has this kind of sales potential.

Moreover, it has to make your case quickly. Major publishers receive hundreds and even thousands of proposals annually and are forced to adopt screening policies in order to get through them all. A properly-formatted proposal, especially when submitted by an agent with a good reputation, stands a much better chance of getting read and considered than an unsolicited manuscript.

To boost your odds of getting agents and publishers to look at your book, here are some sections a proposal should generally contain. Some tips on what to do in each section are also included. If you need additional help putting together a proposal, please feel free to contact us about our proposal research and writing services.

The Parts of a Proposal

A book proposal should generally include the following elements:

  1. Header and cover page
  2. Table of contents
  3. Overview
  4. Market and promotion
  5. Benefits
  6. Competition
  7. About the author
  8. Chapter outline
  9. Chapter summaries
  10. Sample chapters

You should also compose a cover letter, called a query letter, to introduce your proposal before sending it to agents or publishers.

Below are some guidelines on what to include in each part of your proposal.

1. Header and Cover Page

The first page of your proposal should start with a header that includes your last name, the title of your book, and the page number of your book proposal. Each page of your book proposal should include this header. This helps your agent and/or publisher keep your book proposal in order in case the pages get shuffled around somehow. It also allows them to reference specific pages when communicating with you.

Below your header, your cover page should include the following information:

  • Your book’s full title, including subtitle. Center the title towards the vertical center of the page in a large-font style. Place any subtitle on the line below your title in a font that is somewhere between the font size of your title and normal font size.
  • A copyright symbol (©), followed by the year and your name. Type this spaced two lines below your title/subtitle and centered in normal font.
  • Your contact information, including mailing address, phone number, and email. Type this starting two lines below your copyright line, centered and in normal font.

2. Table of Contents

Your table of contents should begin (on the first available line under the header) with the caption “Table of Contents”, in Heading 1 paragraph style or the equivalent. Each of the remaining sections of your proposal should similarly have its caption at the top of its first page.

Below the title of your table of contents, each division of your book proposal should be listed. The listings should be left-aligned and followed by a right-aligned page number indicating on which page that division starts.

3. Overview

Your overview serves to grab your reader’s attention and preview your proposal’s main points. It should accomplish this in a page or two.

What you’ll be saying here is a more condensed summary of points you’ll be expanding upon later. Because of this, you may find this section easier to write if you write the later sections first and come back to it.

To grab attention, start with a “lead” sentence or short paragraph that captures your book’s essence. Continue with a sentence that summarizes your book’s content and estimated page length, including estimated pages of back matter (appendices, index, etc.).

Follow this up with a paragraph giving a more detailed summary of your book’s content. Because this is an overview to introduce points you will expand later in your proposal, keep it short. You might devote a single bullet point to summarizing each major section of your book.

After summarizing your contents, write a paragraph summarizing what benefits these contents offer your readers. In the process, identify briefly what type of readers you consider your target market.

Conclude with a paragraph highlighting the key credentials that make you qualified to write this book. Spotlight your most impressive credentials.

4. Market and Promotion

This section should describe your target market, preferably including its approximate size, and how you propose to promote your book to your target market. You can strengthen this section significantly by doing some market research before writing your proposal, or by hiring a researcher to assist you with this.

List what you consider the main sections of your target market, as defined by the readership of other books and magazines covering material similar to your book’s subject matter. Use sales figures for these to give your agent/publisher an estimate of your target market’s size.

Follow this up by describing promotional channels that might be used to boost awareness of your book among potential readers. This can include online and mobile channels such as blogs, social media, and digital magazines as well as traditional channels like book catalogs, book reviews, and magazine ads.

Your agent/publisher will not expect you to be a marketing or sales expert. However, displaying some awareness of what will be involved in selling your book can help convince them that your project is a solid investment for them.

5. Benefits

This section follows up on your marketing and promotion section by giving your publisher some idea how you will persuade your market to buy your book. You should identify the most compelling benefits your book offers potential readers.

You will usually find this easier to do if you start by identifying the needs your market has and how your book helps meet these. Once you’ve identified some needs and benefits, you can compile a list and then pick out the most compelling items from your list to emphasize in this section. A bulleted list preceded by an introduction and followed by a summary is a good format for presentation.

6. Competition

Your competition section should highlight what your book offers that will make readers want to buy it instead of other books on the same subject. Again, prior market research will strengthen this section.

List a few major examples of books that are read by the major segments of your target market. Focus on books that have been in print over the past five years and have sold well. Group these into categories corresponding to the segments of your target market. Identify the unique benefits your book offers that are lacking in the current market.

7. About the Author

This section should convince your publisher that you are qualified to write on the subject of your book. Describe your background in a way that highlights your credentials on your book’s subject matter.

You can include information about your educational background, job experiences, life experiences, awards, and previous writing experience or publications. You may wish to include personal details that flesh out your profile, such as your marital status, children, or hobbies.

8. Chapter Outline

This section presents a table of contents for the book you are proposing. List you chapter titles, left-aligned, with estimated page numbers for the beginning of each chapter on the right margin of each line. Include any headings for sections or subsections.

When selecting chapter titles, the most important consideration is that the title convey the essence of the chapter. However, it is also desirable to make the title sound interesting. To combine these features, you may find it convenient to select a colorful title followed by a less poetic, more informative subtitle.

9. Chapter Summaries

This section expands your chapter outline into a detailed breakdown of what you intend to include in each chapter. List or otherwise describe the main points covered in each chapter. If your chapters are grouped into sections, you can include summaries of these as well.

When listing your main points, you can use regular text, bullet points, or a combination of these as you see fit. Be precise and brief. If possible, include a summary of the leads and hooks you will use to open each chapter and the conclusions you will use to close each chapter, along with a summary of your chapters’ bodies.

10. Sample Chapters

The goal of your sample chapters is to give your agent or publisher a sample of your writing that demonstrates your ability to handle the subject matter of your book. Pick material that demonstrates your stylistic strengths, your ability to convey information effectively, your ability to persuade the reader, or your ability to tap into your reader’s emotions.

Your selection should include your first chapter, which is the most important chapter for grabbing your reader’s attention. Along with your first chapter, you may wish to include a preface or foreword or introduction for context, though this is not strictly necessary.

You should also include a second sample chapter. You can either include your second sequential chapter or else pick another chapter that you feel highlights your best material.

If you have previously published something, you may also wish to include other samples of your writing that convey your strengths as a writer.

Following Up

Many agents and publishers prefer for you to send on a query letter before sending them a full proposal. Even if you’re going to send a full proposal, you will need a cover letter, and a query letter can serve as a good template for one, so it’s a good idea to write one.

Your query letter should be one or two pages long. It should introduce yourself and your book idea, summarize the main reasons people would want to buy your book, give your contact information, and invite a follow-up action such as requesting the complete proposal (for queries sent by themselves) or contacting you after reading the proposal (for queries sent with proposals).

You will need to customize your query letter when you send it out to specific agents and publishers. Use it as a template which you can adjust for individual recipients.

Good luck with your proposal! If you need additional help, please contact us and we’ll be happy to discuss your book project.