As a rule, if there’s one thing most publishers and literary agents really hate to see, it’s a manuscript.
You’re probably surprised by that. Most new authors are. The fact is that agents—and editors—return most manuscripts to the author without ever having read them. They just don’t have the time or staff to wade through the enormous number of manuscripts they receive from hopeful authors. For the big publishing houses, it can number in the thousands each year.
WHAT AGENTS/ AND EDITORS REALLY WANT IS A BOOK PROPOSAL.
In the world of publishing, the proposal is key. (Here I’m talking about nonfiction. Fiction is its own beast, and you really do need to write the whole manuscript.) With a great proposal, a successful author can land an agent who will go in to bat for them when it comes to signing contracts, and win over a major trade publishing house that can bring their expertise to bear in the editorial, marketing, production, publicity, sales, and distribution of that book. All of it starts with the initial proposal. That’s the way to get your foot in the door.
The proposal is designed to hook a literary agent or an editor so that they really want to read your book. It’s a bit like the blurb on the back of a book that entices the reader to buy it. But your pitch is about selling a business idea too, as well as a creative concept. You want the publisher to invest far more than the $30 retail price of someone buying a single book.
Your book proposal comprises the following elements: an overview, author biography, target audience/demographic, marketing & publicity opportunities, chapter summaries, and sample chapters. All up, it will most likely run to 60 pages or more.
In the current publishing environment, publishers want to see extensive sample text to make them confident about the author’s ability to deliver, and some are even looking for complete manuscripts (in defiance of the above rule), so be prepared to write more, quickly, if asked.
Your proposal is like the DNA of your book. If you are successful and land a deal with a publisher, your proposal will be the basis of the company’s understanding of your book. It will help the editor, the publicist, the sales force, and the cover designer to know what your book is, even before they read it (and some of those people will never read the full text of your book). Your book will go through various incarnations and stages of production on the way to reaching the bookstore, but the DNA remains constant.
A dirty secret
Anyone connected with the publishing business will tell you that you need to write a book proposal in order to land a publishing deal. Here’s the dirty secret attached to that truth though:
some editors don’t read book proposals.
It’s true. You’ll slave your guts out writing the sucker, only to have it tossed in the recycling box before anyone lays eyes on it.
I was at a pitching session at a writers’ conference last year and one of the editors presenting said that he doesn’t even read the covering letter. “I don’t want to know what an author says about their work,” he explained. “I just want to get straight into the chapters to see whether they can write. I’ll know within a few pages whether I like what I see.”
That probably applies more to memoir than to other forms of non-fiction (prescriptive, self-help, reportage and so on), where there are other factors at play apart from the quality of the writing, such as the author’s credentials.
Let’s just say that enough agents and editors do read proposals that you would be nuts not to write one.