Book Proposals: 5 Whys for Bothering
Updated: Sep 3
Wondering whether your book needs a formal proposal instead of submitting the whole thing? Or perhaps you’ve chosen self-publishing partly to avoid writing out how you’ll approach the marketing side as part of wondering if you can impress an agent or publisher to take your work on.
Although it’s often true that poetry and novels (and occasional memoirs) get published without authors developing a formal recap to share first, even some literary agents prefer a book proposal. Developing the dozens of pages in a book proposal that are required to pitch most works of non-fiction also helps oil your mental “wheels” by deepening your understanding of your work early on, which can help in crafting the best content possible.
Here are five reasons book proposals can up the chance of your book’s success–often without the need for you to share the document with anyone.
Helping define the book’s audience
Say, you have the general idea that your book audience is primarily women in their 40s to 60s who want to feel more connected to their life. Sounds pretty clear-cut as an audience, right? But this group includes women who believe strongly in a God and atheists, those who are solopreneurs and full-time, stay-at-home moms, those who fly by the seat of their pants in life and those who’re busy refining their next speech two months in advance.
By unearthing your top audiences, you stand a better chance of writing on-point to those who most want to hear what you have to say and are likeliest to respond to the content. Taking the time to consider broad details such as a books’ audiences relates to what American futurist and author Alvin Toffler once noted: “You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.” Knowing the big pieces, such as your primary and secondary audiences, helps in considering factors such as the best word choices and tone for the book, and the likeliest platforms to use to promote your work. Check out this IngramSpark post for more on defining your audience.
Helping nail the book’s genre and subgenres
Perhaps you’re not planning to even pursue getting a small publisher who’d cover the expenses and help with marketing a book. If you believe your book will sell well and plan to print in bulk and have your baby in bookstores, that means working with some level of book distributor; like most book industry professionals, these folks who pitch books are busy, and will want to understand where on a bookstore’s shelves your work should be housed (genre and subgenre), as well as how to sell it to bookstores and other outlets. So, the fact that a book proposal will allow them to more quickly understand what your book’s niche and its audiences are would be a huge plus.
Say you’ve written a self-help book. Is it motivational or inspirational, about creativity, or focused on how to deepen your experiences through journaling? Narrowing the book’s niche down helps even if an e-book publisher is your planned publication route. The more you can clarify what categories your book fits into, the smaller the pool of competitive books there will be in each category — and the more likely your book will rise to the top in that category if the content engages readers. With a behemoth like Amazon’s e-book site, for example, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) will start marketing your book for free after it becomes a top one in the category or categories you’ve chosen for it.
Providing something beyond your writing for agents, others to latch onto
Successful books aren’t just about what’s behind the cover. Book proposals allow you to think beyond the content to consider what makes you a compelling author whose words readers should seek out, as well as highlighting your marketing capabilities.
Perhaps an agent has been looking to pitch a book about musical history and you’ve unearthed a rare personal photo to go along with your unique take on a jazz great who died young, and who influenced Miles Davis and other legends. Or you’re among the top bloggers or presenters nationally on how someone can optimize their LinkedIn presence. Book proposals allow you to pique publishing-related professionals' interest in multiple ways. So, having a book proposal that highlights the book’s hook and factors such as your audience appeal can be the difference between being picked up or not.
Revealing what makes your book unique
One section of book proposals typically focuses on what similar books have been published in the last three to five years. As you develop recaps of selected examples of competitors to your book, you’ll get to survey how other authors have approached the same topic. Did they fail to capture a key aspect of the best ways to make businesses innovative, which your book will cover? Did they write for an audience of expert colleagues rather than for the average Jane and Joe you plan to focus on? Is the content depth much shallower than yours, and your book would offer interactive elements such as quizzes, plus sidebars that deepen readers’ understanding of major messages?
It’s a no-lose proposition to consider your book’s competitors—especially since readers will often do the same before deciding whether to purchase yours.
Knowing these things helps you understand what you could play up even further to make your work stand out from the crowded book market. For instance, a review of self-help books sold in the U.S. found that the numbers had jumped roughly three-fold in just six years (30,897 unique ISBN’s in 2013 versus 85,253 in 2019). It’s a no-lose proposition to consider your book’s competitors—especially since readers will often do the same before deciding whether to purchase yours.
Helping define the book’s structure
Besides requiring you to craft a compelling book overview, book proposals typically include a recap of each chapter. You’re not wedded in stone to that fleshed-out outline if things move forward with an agent or publisher. But developing chapter-by-chapter recaps provides the added bonus of getting you to consider early on what organizational structure makes the most sense for your work.
If you will share insights related to a particular moment in history, a chronological structure may work best. Covering the top ways for someone to improve their tennis game instead? Perhaps the chapters would be about steps to doing so, such as one chapter on basic training options, and others on equipment, how to avoid common injuries and so on.
To dig deeper into such structural possibilities and learn the nuts and bolts of book proposals, I recommend Eric Maisel’s The Art of the Book Proposal as a start. Besides including multiple examples of alternative book structures, Maisel touches on finding a metaphorical touchstone for your work, which can greatly enhance readers’ emotional connection to your work. Throughout the guide book, he also leads potential authors through lists of questions that allow you to flesh out every aspect of a book proposal.
The more you work through the book proposal steps, the better you’ll be able to help everything—from the book cover image to the title, to the focus of chapters, and word choices—be in lock step with the message you want to get across. Ultimately, the deeper questioning that developing a book proposal entails may also help you unearth the gold that drew you to the book’s subject in the first place.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez