Book proposals are simple to write. But never, ever easy.
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
I’m not really a step-by-step kinda person. I’m suspicious of any book, course, guru, or product that promises me any of the following:
“Transform your life in 6 easy steps!”
“In just 7 steps you can learn to split the atom!”
“Is your cat aloof and surly? Turn her into a love-kitty in 5 quick steps!”
(Actually, I probably would give that last one a go.)
Same deal with book proposals. I’ve written dozens of non-fiction proposals, but I never approach it the exact same way twice. It depends on the topic, where I have the strongest material, who I’m working with and how evolved they are in their thinking.
Even so, I have come to realize that there are specific stages that I go through in every book proposal I write (or edit). It must be working: just this year, three of the proposals I’ve written have sold to leading agents and publishers. That’s pretty good news in 2020, which in every other respect seems like the Ultimate Vortex of Doom.
The best book proposals are created through a solid, thoughtful process consisting of six stages: concept, testing, competitive analysis, platform, path, and plan.
This process is simple—but it’s never easy (SiBINE, if you’d like an acronym to go with that). Let’s walk through it in brief.
Stage 1. Develop your book concept.
If you are at the initial ideas stage, still figuring out what your book should be about, you need to create a vision and outline for your book.
What is your message, argument, or proposition?
What will your book do for its readers—what benefits, what problems solved, what changes in thinking or behavior?
This book concept will align with who you are, and what you are inspired to accomplish.
You know you’ve clinched this when you can describe the unique features or the offering of your book in one or two clear, explanatory sentences.
Stage 2. Test your concept.
Before you venture into the high-energy, high-risk arena of writing a book, test out your concept with the people who will become the audience for your book. The benefits are many: you get to build your fan base; find out which parts of your book really appeal, and which need honing; and craft a “proof of concept” for agents and editors, if you decide to pursue a book publishing contract.
Test it by writing articles; blogging; podcasting; running a course or workshop. Gather feedback meticulously. If you get good responses, and you’re able to report on your findings in detail (either anecdotal feedback or data on comments/reads for online content), you know you’ve nailed this part of the process.
Stage 3. Know your competition.
What other books do your readers have on their shelves?
How do those books achieve their aims—through case studies, a sustained narrative, executable advice?
What else influences your readers: what magazines, thought leaders, social movements?
Read everything you can lay your hands on that is in your subject area. Read the reviews of the books, too, and find out what people like and dislike.
Absorb it all. Then write up your findings: list 5-10 comparative titles and describe their strengths, weaknesses, and how they demonstrate the need for your book.
By knowing your competition, you can be confident that you have something unique to offer that your readers are not getting from any other author.
Stage 4. Build your platform.
Once you have distilled your message, tested it, and assessed what else is on offer, it’s time to double down on connecting with your readers. You can do it in real life (speaking, workshops); online (blogging, podcasts, social media forums, and communities); and through media, both old and new (TV/radio/press interviews and guest appearances).
This is about boosting your credentials as an author. You want to reach a point where complete strangers (not best friends or blood relatives!) ask, “Are you writing a book? When can I buy it?”
For this stage, the proof is in the data: having strong numbers or a marked increase in your blog followers, social media engagement, articles published, or workshops booked.
Stage 5. Choose your publishing path.
Many authors hanker after a book deal with one of the Big Five publishing houses (HarperCollins, Penguin Random House etc.). But it’s not the only solution, or necessarily the best one for every author.
Weigh up the pros and cons of the Big Five and their mid-level brethren; small presses; assisted and hybrid publishers; and independent or self-publishing.
You know you’ve got this covered when you can explain clearly which publishing path is right for you, how you will go about achieving it, and why it’s the best choice for you and your book.
Stage 6. Write your book proposal or book “blueprint.”
If you’ve decided to pursue a traditional publishing deal, you need to write a book proposal. It combines all your findings and achievements from the previous stages (your business case, including your concept, your audience, your competition, and your profile as an author) with a chapter outline and sample chapters from your book. This is the persuasive document you will submit to agents and editors.
To have the weight, depth, and professionalism agents and editors expect, your book proposal will run to at least 60 pages, often more, and be as strong and fine-tuned as the calf muscles on an Olympic gymnast.
If self-publishing or assisted publishing is your choice, you need a book “blueprint.” This is similar to a book proposal but designed as a summary of your book’s concept and purpose and how you will execute that vision, rather than a persuasive document.
What I can do for you.
I work with authors on their book proposals in three specific ways.
1. I write the entire book proposal: the business case as well as the chapter outline and sample text. I work from the best material you have—usually a combination of interviews that I conduct with you, along with existing articles, blog posts, or recorded lectures.
2. I contribute to your book proposal, writing only specific sections as required. You may write the chapter outline and sample chapters and I may write the “business case,” for example. At the end, I weave the whole document together with a final edit so it is coherent and consistent.
3. I can be your editor-coach, guiding you to write the book proposal in full yourself.
To get a feel for how I think and work, sign up for my free email course What Drives Your Story? It will give you the rocket fuel you need for that first stage of developing your concept. Or join me for my free email course Make Your Book Stand Out to get a clear view of your readers and your competition.
Or if you’re ready to find out more about working with me right now, email me today at firstname.lastname@example.org.