It’s easy to think of a book proposal as entirely separate from your book manuscript. Truth is, your book proposal must include a solid chunk of your manuscript—in the form of sample chapters.
Agents and editors want to see sample chapters that demonstrate your ability to write a compelling, commercially successful book. Even if you have a popular podcast, or you write regularly on a specific topic for a respected media outlet, they need to see you can sustain your story, argument, or perspective for around 70,000 words, and do so in a way that makes readers want to pay money to take the ride with you.
Your sample chapters should total around 10,000 words. Depending on how your book is structured, that might represent two long chapters, or three short ones.
The debate runs hot on whether they should be the first chapters of the book, or selected from throughout the book. Some writers argue that your first chapters must be highly compelling to draw in your readers, and if they’re not strong enough to be samples in a book proposal, they may not be strong enough to kick off your book. That’s a good lens to critique your writing. On the other hand, if your book has a significant build or narrative arc, you might want to show different aspects that emerge.
If I wrote the proposal for Sophia Amoruso’s #GirlBoss, I would include a scattered selection to show her trajectory from dumpster-diving to founding a retail juggernaut. I’d also be sure to include enough sample material to show how Amoruso’s book would blend personal narrative with rule-breaking advice.
Make it clear in your chapter outline which chapters the agent or editor will see in full. Include a note like this: “See sample chapter included in this book proposal.”
To include the introduction, or not? If your introduction will cover a lot of the same territory as your overview (the first section of your book proposal that presents your argument, story, or process) then I would say not. If your introduction is something different—perhaps your own personal perspective on your topic, revealing why you came to write this book—then include it as one of your sample chapters. Just be sure to include plenty of meat alongside the introduction: maybe two additional chapters rather than just one.
If I wrote the proposal for Amy Cuddy’s Presence, I would probably include the introduction—or at least an extract from it. (That’s an option if your chapters are long). It’s a great example of the “how I came to write this book” style of introduction, with standout storytelling. If I were an editor reading it for consideration, I’d have no doubt that Cuddy could spin a great story and back it up with science.
Showcase your best material: if your book will rely on interviews with industry experts, say, make sure to use the strong material you already have. A book on the subject of the fast-food industry where you’ve conducted a strong interview with Head of Digital Strategy for In-n-Out? One of your sample chapters should be on digitization.
Exception #1: If you’ve successfully self-published on this subject before, you might include a chapter from your previous book as a partial sample. Let’s say your previous book is on artificial intelligence. Take the chapter on AI and talent management to demonstrate your capability to write your next book, which is about business strategy and AI.
Exception #2: If you have had a long-form article on the same topic published in a high-profile outlet (New York Times, Washington Post, Psychology Today), include it in your samples. If you have written an article on how to stop being a narcissist, it would be an excellent demonstration of your ability to write a book on Narcissism from the Inside.
Do they have to be “final,” or can they change? Every element of your book proposal must be honed as close to perfect as a mortal can manage, but agents and editors know that everything is subject to change. Sample chapters included. Inevitably when you write the full manuscript, new material will come to light, or you will find that an anecdote sits better in a later chapter. Focus on getting the tone, the language, and the content to be a stellar demonstration of your book. Don’t worry that sentences, paragraphs, or even the entire chapter order may shift some time in the future.
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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