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How much ego is too much in your book proposal?

Getting the balance between humility and hubris in your nonfiction book proposal is hard. Many authors are naturally self-effacing people, happy to let their stories or ideas speak for themselves.

The exceptions tend to be authors with an entrepreneurial or marketing background, and they aggressively blow their own trumpet until everyone within hearing range is blocking their ears.

Most authors are not the best people to write their own cover copy—self-promotion may not come naturally to them, or they may go overboard with the hype. Writing a book proposal is a similar exercise to writing cover copy; you need to step outside your own story or ideas to describe them from a somewhat external point of view. It’s just as difficult as being your own publicist.

In a recent post, I talked about “showing off” with your sample chapters. To be clear, I’m really talking about showcasing yourself and your work.

Whatever else you do in your book proposal, keep it upbeat, confident, and professional. This is not the time to be apologetic, self-critical, or pleading.

Watch your tone in your comparative titles section (learn more about that here). “My book is so good it will knock Malcolm Gladwell off his pedestal” is not a great approach. “Readers of Malcolm Gladwell will welcome this fresh new take on the social life of armadillos” is closer to the mark.

Watch your tone, too, in your author bio (learn more about that here). As literary agent Steve Laube puts it,

“This is not the time for humility. I know there needs to be a balance. Sounding arrogant can be a huge turn-off. I recently received a proposal where the writer all but claimed that everyone else in the world was wrong about his topic. It set my teeth on edge.”

And whatever you do, don’t exaggerate, misrepresent, or outright lie about yourself in your book proposal. I worked with a client recently who listed among her achievements “Pulitzer Prize nominee.” Sounds impressive, but it means nothing: anyone (including the author themselves) can submit their book online and pay a $75 fee. Agents and editors know this, so it’s a fast track to discrediting yourself.

Think of the publishing world as being like a tribe of baboons. Authors, agents, and editors alike are all looking for attention, to get a mate, to ensure our future, even our immortality. So we’re all flashing our butts at each other, and the baboon with the biggest, brightest butt wins the prize.

That’s what book proposals are all about: an industry-wide butt-flashing competition. The authors are looking to catch an agent or editor’s attention, and the world-weary agents and editors have seen way too many butts in their lives—but they’re hoping that a real standout one will show up in their inbox today.

Tick the boxes:

  • Does your book proposal demonstrate clearly why you are the ideal author for this book, AND a great author for a publisher to take on?

  • Is the tone confident yet not arrogant?


If you need more help with writing your non-fiction book proposal or if you’re interested in my other services, please check out the “Services” tab on my website.

Coming in 2022: my new online course on writing book proposals! In the meantime, check out my course (with co-presenter Lari Bishop) How to Write a Successful Nonfiction Book:


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