You’ve got a matter of seconds to engage an agent or editor with your “big story” before they flip on to the next book proposal in the pile. Book proposals are not psychological thrillers that delight readers with a twist in the tail at the very end. I shouldn’t have to wait until the last page to find out the most critical piece of information.
My high school literature teacher delighted in nudging students with “So what?” In her margin notes on our essays, she constantly urged us to explain not just what happened, but why it matters. Sure, it drove us all crazy at the time, but it was a great lesson in digging beyond facts and plotlines to find points of connection between author and reader.
When I edit a book proposal I often write in the margins, “Why should your readers care?” any place the author hasn’t made it obvious. It’s a gentler version of “So what?” (hey, I’m a gentle person, what can I say?) but it makes the same point.
“So what?” is one of four tests that agents and editors will apply to your book proposal. They want to know—and fast—why this book is unique, and why readers would be motivated to buy it. A good book proposal answers the “So what?” question. It doesn’t just set up a series of interesting facts and leave the reader hanging.
After “So what?” agents and editors have three other questions they want answered.
Demonstrate to agents and editors why you are the best author for this book—someone readers will respect and pay attention to.
Explain how you know readers will listen to you. What are your credentials and your track record of acquiring audiences (through any channel, whether it’s a blog, public speaking, articles, workshops, or podcasts)?
Do you have a unique ability to convey your message in a voice, style, structure, or context that makes it particularly appealing or easier to understand?
What is your competitive edge, and how do you plan to sustain and even grow it?
Timing is everything in publishing. Convince agents and editors that your book is needed in the current marketplace (and more importantly, the marketplace that will unfold over the next few years).
Why does what you have to say matter right now? What’s timely about it?
How is it relevant, given everything else that’s happening in the world now? (And what we anticipate happening.)
Do you have a "burning platform": a particular kind of message that relays a sense of serious urgency?
This question is not meant sardonically, but literally.
What is the identifiable group of readers who will spend $20 on this book?
Even if your book is interesting and timely, you need to ensure that the message is being delivered to the right people—the ones who would stand up and say, “Yes, I care!”
Why is this message specifically relevant to its intended audience? How do you know?
When you write a book proposal, you are writing it for agents and editors in the first instance, not the eventual book buyer. The same principle applies, though: have you made the agent understand why a vast number of people will buy this book? Have you made the editor see why people will care, and who these people are?
So what? Why you? Why now? Who cares? On the surface, these four questions may look simplistic. Don’t underestimate them, though. Too many book proposals fail to engage agents and editors because they don’t bring a central idea to life, and show the hunger for that idea that exists in the world today.
Run your book proposal through the “So what?” machine to make sure it satisfies its readers: first, agents and editors; and later, the wider audience for your book.
If you're ready to find out more about working with me, email me today at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coming in 2022: my new online course on writing book proposals! In the meantime, check out my course on building your author platform:
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