The critical thing to understand about writing a book proposal is that it’s not actually a proposal and it doesn’t have much to do with books.
A good book proposal is a good business plan. You create it to entice an investor (the publisher) to go into partnership with you to produce a product. The product just happens to be a book.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that publishers are in business to make money. When a publisher considers a proposal, it’s trying to forecast the chance of turning a profit after all its costs – your advance; the price of paper, printing, and binding; the fees paid to the designers and distributors; the retailer’s slice and the cash for promotion and marketing – are totaled.
When you are writing your proposal, your job is to help the publisher make that decision by arguing that there will be a nice return on its investment in you. How do you do that?
You begin, on Page One, with the absolute best you got. You begin by illustrating your idea with an example and then explaining it in 400 words or less. Ideally less. Don’t waste time developing or leading up to it and don’t save it for a surprise ending. Remember: In most cases your proposal first will be read by a bored editor sitting in a cheap apartment in Brooklyn or, post-Covid, just about anywhere. Her stomach is churning from too many cups of coffee. Also, given the parlous state of the publishing industry, and her general disaffection with life, she’s probably worried that she’ll be out of a job in a few months and what happens then? Accordingly, she doesn’t have a lot of patience. If you don’t grab her on Page One, she’ll never get to Page Two. And note that I said “illustrate” your idea, not “tell.” Nobody wants to hear somebody boast about how great their idea is; people want action; they want examples.
After you’ve sold the editor on the strength of your idea through the strength of your example, after you’ve convinced her that the whole world is pining for this book and, most importantly, will pay for it, you’re on to Page Two in which you name the books that are like yours (only different and not as good) and already have made a lot of money. Just as Hollywood loves sequels, the publishing world likes to put the books they publish into categories and niches because the audience for them has already been established and identified and that makes marketing so much easier and cheaper.
Those are the first two pages of your proposal. What comes next?
Just as in any business plan, the investor (the publisher) needs to believe in the strength of its potential partner’s management (that’s you.) The publisher has to believe you’re competent and can do what you say you’ll do: i.e., write the darn thing. The publisher also wants to know that you’ll be a good partner who will bust his butt helping to sell the book.
How do you convince the editor you can do all that? That’s Part 2.