How to Win a Book Publisher: The Book Proposal

Written by on January 10, 2013 in How To - Leave a Comment

If your goal is to sign a book deal with a mainstream publisher, you’ve got to start by catching the publisher’s attention from the thousands of other proposals out there.

A professional book proposal—put forth with a big idea and credible authors—forms the cornerstone of any strong pitch to win a book deal. Even in today’s tightening publishing marketplace, we’ve seen lots of positive outcomes for authors who manage to strike those notes.

When getting started on your book proposal, plan to focus on the following key elements:

  • About the Book
  • About the Author
  • Target Market
  • Competing Titles
  • Promotional Plan
  • Marketing Plan
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter Summaries

The proposal should open with a bang, by featuring a key idea or hook that will wake readers up and get them clamoring for more on the subject. Maybe you introduce a sexy leadership paradigm that challenges old thinking or you detail a high-tech toolset for increasing workplace productivity that has shown proven results at Fortune 500s. Plan to feature your big idea at the start of your book proposal.

Author Don Maruska said what ultimately helped he and coauthor Jay Perry sign a book contract with Berrett-Koehler was their book’s fresh idea: the talent catalyst and talent catalyst conversation.

“The talent catalyst was something no one had heard of yet,” said Maruska, a StyleMatters client in a recent conversation. “It was a great ‘meme,’ something that would stick in people’s heads and be easy to remember.”

Berrett-Koehler was enamored with the fresh (and field-tested) idea and will be releasing Take Charge of Your Talent in January 2013.

After you pitch your big, must-publish idea, your book proposal should pitch you as the author. For example, what kind of gigs do you now hold that help you interface with potential book buyers—public speaking engagements, regular clients, a monthly column in the magazine of your professional association, or something else? Plan to highlight your past track record of connecting with the very groups you expect to buy your book in the future. The goal is to show publishers that you are positioned to be a key sales agent for your own book.

If you struggle to pitch and promote yourself, find a partner or a trusted colleague who specializes in marketing, coaching, writing, or publishing. He or she can help you brainstorm the many ways you’ve already connected with your potential readers and then frame it in a way that grabs the attention of agents and publishers.

When University of Wisconsin researcher and physician Megan Moreno, MD, came to StyleMatters last Spring with a book idea, we were able to help her convert her strong research bio and a few mentions on the New York Times front page into a glossy pitch for her as a trusted persona on adolescent Internet safety. In August, Hunter House signed her project.

Your book proposal should also reveal that there is a clear need for your book in the marketplace. Let’s say you are a yoga guru and want to get a book published on the topic. While listing out books similar to yours in the “Competitive Titles” section of your proposal, you will have to ask yourself whether the world really needs another book on yoga. You want to look at what books are already out there and whether your book will approach things differently than those in publication.

You may need to get a little more creative and gain some traction by tailoring a book to a very clear group of readers, as Demos Health did when they published Marcia Monroe’s Yoga and Scoliosis.

If you find during your analysis of competitive titles that your book appears too similar to what’s already in print, think about how you can expand on some unique angle of your idea or shift your focus in a new direction.

The very act of putting a book proposal together can be a great exercise in refining and strengthening your book project. During the proposal-writing process, you are likely to become ever clearer on the content, organization, focus, and readership for your book. That’s not just good for your book-writing process, that’s good for your book’s prospects with a publisher.

Photo creditSeth Sawyers


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