How to Write a Book Proposal, Part 3

Let’s say an editor likes you and your proposal. She’s ready to try to convince her boss that this is a project worth investing in. Let’s say it’s X dollars, a sum arrived at due to factors that you don’t control. (The publisher’s overall budget; the state of the economy; societal trends; whether any other publisher is interested in your book; what you’ve done in the past; what the decision-maker did last night and what they had for breakfast that morning.) That’s your advance.

(Your advance, by the way, is likely to be the only money you’ll ever see. That’s why you’ll want to maximize whatever you can get. Forget royalties. Royalties are paid only after the publisher recoups all its expenses – your advance, printing and distribution, promotional costs, etc. And the publisher does the accounting, not you. So, unless you hit the best-seller list, or Oprah loves you, or your book becomes a text ordered by schools and universities, royalties are something people like Colleen Hoover and Stephen King get, not you. And as for selling movie and television rights . . . well, you can dream, can’t you?)

So, what’s left? Well, it would be nice if the editor had some idea of what the book will look and read like, and believed that you can actually write the thing.

How do you convince her (and, perhaps, yourself) of that?

After your introduction, which should be no more than 10 pages, you break your book into chapters, writing a summary for each chapter of no more than one or two pages. In each chapter summary, say what that chapter will contain and provide at least one good example or anecdote. This will give the editor a preview of the book and demonstrate that you’ve thought it through.

Yes, this is the hard part: thinking about the book as a whole, in detail. You’ve got to go beyond your brilliant notion and wrestle with the book’s architecture and how you’re going to write it. But the effort will be worth it. Not only will these chapter summaries help sell the proposal, they will help you write the book. In essence, this part of the proposal is a rich, comprehensive outline.

And that’s it. You now have a proper book proposal of about 30 pages (depending on how many chapters you’ve got). You’re on your way. All you have to do now is find an agent who can get your proposal to a publisher (or several publishers) and make sure that it gets read.

Make no mistake: You need an agent. Publishers use agents as screeners, people they trust to separate the wheat from the chaff. Unsolicited proposals almost never get read. Or, if they are read, they’re read by some kid fresh out of college who doesn’t have enough juice at the publishing house to power a night light.  He’ll be working remotely, paid by the hour, sitting at his kitchen table with a stack of unsolicited proposals and manuscripts, the vast majority of which are junk written by borderline personalities. If he absolutely adores your proposal, he’ll write a note recommending it to an editor higher (but not that much higher) up the food chain. And if that higher-up does read it (a big if), and if she agrees that it’s the bee’s knees, she’ll eventually have to go to a meeting where she’ll have to make a case for it to people with a lot more clout (and a lot more projects in the pipeline) than she has.

To say the least, that’s a rocky row to hoe. An agent, a good agent, can get your proposal in front of someone who can actually make a call on it. That’s what you want. That’s why you’re paying the agent’s 15 percent. (It used to be 10 percent, but, you know, inflation.)

So how do you find this wunderkind?

Chill, ye hopeful, budding authors. That’s next.

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