How do I put together a proposal?

To aid us in our presentation of a book project to publishers, we ask our authors to submit a carefully detailed publishing proposal. This proposal is a selling tool. It will maximize our ability to place your work for the best possible terms because it will enable the publishers to evaluate your project and determine their ability to market and publicize your finished book successfully.

There are five important questions that every editor wants to see answered in a book proposal:

  • What is the book about?
  • What is the book’s thesis or argument, and what’s new about it?
  • Why are you the right person to write the book?
  • Why is now the right time to publish the book?
  • Who is the core audience for the book, and why will they find it appealing?

The ideal submission package should therefore contain the following sections:

1. Introductory pitch. A narrative or description of 10–20 double-spaced pages explaining: (a) what your proposed book is about and why what you have to say is important, original or controversial; (b) why the book is needed – i.e. the problems, reasons or situations that prompted you to want to write it; (c) what makes it distinctive or unique; (d) any fresh approach or perspectives you will offer, in for example style or content. A useful strategy is to focus on the central question you’re asking, why it’s an important question that previous authors either haven’t understood properly or haven’t addressed at all, what your approach is and where it leads you. In addressing these questions you should strive to show rather than just tell: support any generalizations with memorable examples, quotations, anecdotes and facts and figures. You can consider this introductory pitch as a draft preface, except you should avoid taking the reader through a chapter-by-chapter description. So rather than summarize what you’ll say later, write what you'd want to read about your book in the New York Times Book Review  – that is, tell readers where you stand.

2. Market and competition. Who is the intended audience for the book? Is the audience local or international? What benefits will your book bring to this audience? Why should they buy, read and talk about your book? Why might it be important or influential? Are there any circumstances we should bear in mind from the point of view of timing? In short, why should people care about your book? This is where you should also discuss how your book stands out from competing books on the same or a similar topic as well as mention comparable books – books that are not directly competitive but whose readers you wish to reach.  'This book will appeal to readers of…' – and say why.  

3. Publication details. Please outline: (a) the proposed book length (an average general nonfiction book contains 70,000–90,000 words, which makes a 250–320-page book); (b) the number and type of display items, if any (tables, graphs, charts; line drawings; photographs; plate sections – colour or black-and-white); (c) how long you realistically need to complete the finished manuscript – i.e. delivery date.

4. Biographical sketch. This should be written in the third person and stress your background, training and experience and point to your authority to write the book. Include the following information if pertinent: (a) a list and description of books you have published (title, publisher, year; sales figures; reprint, book-club and foreign deals if possible); (b) details of your activities to promote previous books, including author tours and public talks; (c) a selection of book reviews; (d) a selection of articles written by you or about you and your work, particularly if aimed at a general audience; (e) a list of academic publications and current research interests; (f) details of your lecture activities and media appearances; (g) any blogs or websites devoted to you or your work. If you have a robust social media presence, e.g. on Twitter or on Facebook, please include relevant details.

5. Table of contents. A single page containing a list of chapter titles – and subtitles or one-line summaries if necessary.

6. Chapter summaries. These should run to two or three single-spaced pages. Each chapter heading should be followed by two or three paragraphs (but no more) presenting brief capsule versions of the planned content and main arguments or objectives of that particular chapter. The summaries should be written in full continuous prose. Avoid jargon and textbook language, as well as repetitive phrases (such as ‘In this chapter…’, ‘This chapter looks at…’). A sound plan might be for the first paragraph to identify the point of the chapter and for the second to highlight materials or devices that the chapter will use to support the point. Focus on how each chapter will function within the logic of the whole book. If your introductory pitch was equivalent to an architectural elevation ('Look at the beautiful building I’m proposing to put up'), the outline is the floor plan:  it tells how the parts will be organized into a coherent whole.   

7. Sample chapter. Editors and publishers will need to know how your book is going to turn out in the telling (in fact this is often the decisive factor). So a sample chapter showcasing your writing is invaluable if not essential. It should provide an example of your prose style and the level and content of the proposed book. To what extent, for example, will your own voice appear? What literary devices do you intend to use to sustain the narrative – e.g. literary, historical or philosophical references, comic asides, personal anecdotes, imaginative metaphors? The chapter doesn’t have to restrict itself to the stuff of one particular chapter in the finished book: it can cannibalize material from other chapters if need be. And if you’ve written long articles on the topic of the book, then those can be submitted in its place – as long as they look enough like the stuff of book writing and not too much like journalism.