How to write a book proposal

I’ve been asked more times than I care to remember how I approach writing a book. I thought it would be useful to write down a summary of my answers. There are two main questions I’m usually asked. One is how to write a book proposal, the other is what happens when I’ve done all the work and sit in front of a computer screen (I still remember sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter, but that’s another post) and want to start writing. In this post I write about my answers to the first question – how to write a book proposal. After all, this is the bit of writing that will get you a contract or not.

Before I offer some specifics, it’s good to realise that publishers publish books to make money, and book proposals must be a sensible assessment of whether they can achieve it. In other words, book proposals are not really a genre where the author shows intellectual prowess. Rather, s/he describes a book which the publisher will want to sell. This point is more important than it might appear. Also, in contrast to when I started writing, many publishers now have templates for book proposals, so it seems easier to write one (I am not entirely certain it is). But in case they don’t here is a rough guide to writing a book proposal. Also, always write a book proposal before you write a book. Your book might not be what publishers want, you might need to change its focus, length, whatever. It’s always better to have an understanding the book is publishable.

A book proposal should have at least the following sections (if you want to call them something different – it doesn’t matter).

1. Background/rationale – this is where you say why what you are about to write is actually important at all. You propose there is need for your book, a gap in the market (yes, market). That gap in the market doesn’t have to be topical – it might be the approach you take. In any case, that’s the section where you convince the publisher that for one reason or another your book is novel, important, needed, necessary. But be realistic, no one will believe that the world will collapse, if you don’t write your book. And, to be honest, it won’t.

2. Aims and assumptions. Here you tell the publisher what the book is all about. In other words, you will answer the question: why on earth should I, the reader, bother to read the thing. Even more importantly, why should I spend my hard-earned money and buy it? You will also tell the publisher about your data, methodology and these kind of things. So, basically, this is where you present your book.

3. Competition and market. This is a very important section, perhaps even the most important. Perhaps. You must offer an honest account of the market. Of course, every publisher wants to read the following: ‘This book faces no (direct) competition.’ And they want to hear it because they want to sell the book. If there are another three on the market with the same or similar approach, you less likely to be successful.

It’s also important to understand that books have audiences and not every book is for everybody. Who the book is for is an important part of pitching the book. Understanding your audience, incidentally, is also important for you, yourself. You write a textbook differently from a research monograph. But be realistic – your grandiose claims that the book will be snapped up like hot cakes and every supermarket chain will want a piece of the market will be seen through immediately.

4. Outline. Well, here you tell them what will be in the book. Be realistic, but I am yet to be told that what I have written in the book doesn’t match the proposal (it happens often that I would wish).

5. Deadline, length. Think carefully. When can you realistically deliver the manuscript?

So, that’s the book proposal. It is fairly simple, perhaps deceptively simple. Your book proposal should be a polished document. But before you send it, there are a few other things to consider. Over the years I have come to appreciate commissioning editors as intelligent people who not only know what they are doing, but also know the market in which they operate. They are more than likely to see all your attempts at exaggerations, fibbing etc. I would advise against it.  It’s much better to be honest about your book.

I have also come to understand that publishers want to publish good books. They do not want to make you write something you don’t want to write. They are happy to negotiate and work with you to achieve the book you both will be happy with. Editors are also intelligent enough to understand very well that the reviewers they commission to comment on your proposal are not omniscient. Quite often I have negotiated myself out of comments which I found unhelpful.

Well, having said this, there is one thing publishers do not negotiate. You are unlikely to have your title. In fact, I am yet to have the title I proposed retained. No matter how wonderful, cool, intelligent the title you come up with is, the title your publisher will want is one which will be easily searchable on the Internet. And you will need to live with it.

Finally, do remember, it is your book. If you are unhappy with the publisher’s vision, take it somewhere else. If the idea is good, someone is likely to  publish it (but it’s never certain, so you write your proposal). The only thing you cannot expect is to make money on academic books, particularly on research monographs. On others? Well, a good friend of mine published a book last July. By the end of the year he sold 20 thousand copies. Yes, 20 thousand. I am so envious!

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