How to Write a Book Proposal, Part V: The rest of it

Here at last is the final segment of my ongoing series on how to avoid the most common pitfalls menacing the first-time NF book proposer. I have just spent the weekend running a garage sale, which is an apt metaphor for today’s set of advice: it is well worth the effort to take the time to set out your book’s wares thoughtfully and attractively. If you don’t set the sweaters and old plates out where prospective buyers can see them, but instead leave them in poorly-marked crates, buyers will have to expend a lot of energy to dig through the dross and packing material to get to your treasures.

If, however, you polish your silver vases and arrange Great-Aunt Matilda’s rhinestone jewelry where it can glint in the sun, even a prospective buyer casing your wares at a dead run will notice them. Heck, once we had our goodies displayed beautifully, one sharp-eyed woman bought our chest of drawers by the simple method of slamming on her SUV’s breaks and shouting a bid for it out the driver’s side window. Marketing is marketing.

Agents and editors, alas, tend not to have the time to dig through the boxes at the back of your garage, intellectually speaking — you need to make sure your book’s top selling points are not buried in the middle of 27 pages of exposition. Even if your book is the best marketing idea since THE PETER PRINCIPLE, if the presentation is not competent and professional (not synonyms, in this instance), chances are the ultra-fast skim most proposals are given will not make the market potential so obvious to you leap out at an editor.

I bring this up now, because by the time most newbie proposers reach table of contents section of the book proposal, they are so exhausted that they put the barest minimum effort into it. Please don’t make the pervasive mistake of simply reproducing the table of contents you expect to see in the finished book, where only the titles of each chapter are listed, with perhaps some impression of corresponding page numbers. All such a submission tells an agent or an editor is whether you are talented at coming up with chapter titles, which misses the point of this section: your goal here is to give a chapter-by-chapter overview of what will be in the finished book.

The key phrase to keep in mind here is ANNOTATED table of contents. Each chapter heading should be accompanied by a 2 – 3 sentence description of what will be in that chapter. Keep it concise, but do provide enough detail that a reader can see how one chapter’s argument leads naturally to the next. Yes, you will have already presented the overall argument in the overview section, but here you are showing what plank of your platform, so to speak, falls in each chapter.

In accordance with the advice of my marvelous agent, I am honor-bound to add here: don’t go to town. Limit yourself to a couple of sentences per chapter, and try not to have the whole table of contents run longer than two pages.

The next piece of the book proposal is the sample chapter (s). The rule here is simple: it should be absolutely your best writing, polished to the nines. If the chapter is less than about 20 pages, consider submitting a second sample chapter as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the chapter submitted need not be Chapter 1 – and that should come as a relief to you. In most NF books, the first chapter carries the heavy burden of summarizing the rest of the book, and thus is often the most difficult to write. If you have an interior chapter that is already in apple-pie order, include that instead. Don’t bother to provide an explanation for why you chose that chapter – everyone concerned will understand that you felt it was your best work.

In selecting your sample chapter, bear in mind that the object here is to show that you can execute in elegant, readable prose the promises you made in the overview and annotated table of contents – and do so in a style that will appeal to the target market you have identified. If your favorite chapter does not meet ALL of these criteria, consider choosing another that does.

And please, please promise me that the chapter will be in standard manuscript format, in the same typeface as the rest of the book proposal. No fancy fonts, no funky spacing, nothing that will make your work seem anything but rock-solid professional. (For those of you not familiar with precisely how standard manuscript format differs from the format one sees printed in books, hang onto your proposal for a few more days. I’ll do a write-up on standard format later.)

After your chapter, include an author bio. Basically, this is a slightly longer version of the biographical blurb we’ve all seen on the back inside dust jacket of hardcover books. No need to start with your birth or go into superlative detail — your bio should be 250 words, max, so you will only have room for the high points.

I know that it may seem a trifle redundant to include in the book proposal, given that you will have just written extensively in the overview about who you are and why you should be hired to write this book, but you need to include a one-page summary of your life. This isn’t like P.E., where you could fake massive cramps to get out of playing volleyball — yes, this is an annoying requirement, but there’s no getting out of it. Sorry.

If you prefer, you may write a single-spaced half-page, and include an author photo on the top third of the page. (The expense of this is less massive than it sounds: a good color copier will enable you to reproduce the photo page en masse for the 20 or so copies of your book proposal that your agent will eventually want you to produce.) I would highly recommend this route if you have a nifty recent photo of yourself engaged in an activity related to the topic of the book: if you are writing about firefighting, by all means let the photo show you in a firefighter’s uniform or surrounded by flames.

The tone of the bio should echo the tone of the book, if possible – not all bios are deadly serious. Mention in the last sentence what your next project is (you should ALWAYS say you are working on your next book; it brands you as a professional writer, not a one-shot author.)

In our bio, make sure to include your educational background, any awards won (ever, for anything), what you do for a living, etc., even if you think these aspects are neither representative of who you are as a writer or even remotely relevant to your topic. Don’t be afraid you will sound pompous if you list your credentials at length here — potentially, they are all selling points. Personally, like many graduates of Ivy League colleges, I tend not to mention in casual conversation where I went to school: as the old Radcliffe joke goes, the fastest way to get rid of a lecherous man in a bar is to tell him you went to Harvard. But is it prominent in my bio? You bet.

Also prominent in my bio is the fact that I grew up on the top floor of a Napa Valley winery, literally in the middle of a vineyard. Zinfandel, to be precise. Is that relevant to my book? Only marginally, but it is undeniably memorable — and part of the object of the bio game is to make darned sure that some aspect of your personality sticks firmly in the mind of everyone who reads it. I’m pragmatic: I don’t mind editors referring to me as the winery girl, as long as they are passing my proposal from hand to hand while they are doing it.

Make yourself sound interesting; you wouldn’t believe how dull and businesslike most bios are. If you have a wacky hobby, definitely mention it. Part of the point of the bio is let agents and editors know that you are a fascinating person with whom they might like to have a conversation in future. Remember, you are not just marketing the book you are proposing; you are marketing yourself as a contract employee of the publishing house.

“Yeah, right,” I can hear you scoffing. “Like they’re interested in me as a human being.

Bite your tongue, oh ye of little faith, for I have an anecdote to share. The bio in my book proposal presented me, if I do say so myself, as a pretty darned interesting human being. I am one of the world’s leading authorities on a minor political theorist, for instance, a fact appreciated by about five worthy souls scattered around the planet, and I once spent a summer running away from wild animals whilst researching for an impecunious travel guide. Oh, and I mentioned that I was working on my next book, a humorous novel about the adult lives of kids who had grown up on a hippie commune, because I went through grammar school with quite a few commune kids.

None of this had even the vaguest relationship with my memoir, which is about my relationship with a science fiction writer in my youth. Scarcely a grapevine mentioned. Yet when my agent was shopping my proposal around, an editor who passed on my memoir called her up and asked to see my novel. Why? Because, the editor said, she had liked the voice in my sample chapter –and my bio had intrigued her.

I just mention.

At the end of your proposal, include a sampling of your clippings, if you have any. If you have ever written anything for a magazine, especially a nationally-distributed one, photocopy it and include it here, even if the topic and tone have absolutely nothing to do with the proposed book. Ditto with any credited newspaper articles, short stories, and book excerpts.

This is a stumbling block for a lot of new authors, and rightly so. If your book is about thermonuclear war and your most recent clipping is about rose husbandry, it may seem disproportionate. After all, having written a few newspaper or magazine articles doesn’t necessarily mean that you can write a book, any more than having written a good short story means that you can instantly write the Great American Novel. However, including clippings tells an editor two things: you can meet a deadline, and someone else has taken a chance on you before (if you have been trying to find an agent for any length of time, you may already have noticed that nobody in the publishing industry likes to be the first person to recognize a new author’s work — but they love being the second).

If you don’t have any clippings, don’t worry about it. A good proposal will speak for itself. But you might want to consider, for the sake of your future projects, volunteering to write a book review or two for your community paper, or offering to write an article gratis on some item of local interest, so you have clippings later on. Even a small venue is worthwhile, and it doesn’t matter a particle whether you were paid to write the piece in question: what matters is that it saw print.

Are you rolling with laughter yet at the picture of me trying to scrabble all of this together in under three weeks? I believe I speak for my family, my friends, my neighbors, and my pets when I say: for everybody’s sake, take a little more time.

One last thing: proposals are not bound in any way, so do not stick yours in the kind of three-hole punched folder you used for reports in high school. Use a folder with pockets, and nestle your work inside. And make sure the folder is either black (the safest) or dark blue.

Yes, your work will stand out more on a cluttered desk if it is in a tiger-striped magenta and silver folder. But in the conservative publishing industry, which equates standardized presentation with professionalism, standing out in that way is a drawback. Believe it or not, a non-standard proposal folder will seldom even get opened.

Please feel free to ask me follow-up questions about any of this, via the COMMENTS feature. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

12 Replies to “How to Write a Book Proposal, Part V: The rest of it”

  1. I am submitting my first query letter and finalizing the proposal for my book. Could you please tell me what is common formatting for these documents. Also, are the page counts calculated for standard letter size pages?
    Thank you for your time
    Sheryl Malin

    1. Thank you for asking so politely, Sheryl! As you’ve probably already realized, there’s a ton of information on this site, so one does need to do a bit of digging to find precisely what one wants. The category list on the lower right-hand side of this page is usually the best place to start.

      You’ll find examples of what your query letter should look like under the QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED category. The book proposal should be in standard manuscript format — the best places to find guidance on what this means is in the posts listed under MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED. You might also want to check out the examples under TITLE PAGE.

      If you find that these posts don’t cover what you want to know, please leave a comment asking for more specific information — actually, please leave a comment even if they do, so I won’t worry whether I have covered the topic enough. Offhand, I don’t recall if I’ve ever done any posts specifically on NF proposal formatting, as opposed to content, but the formatting is basically the same.

      Page counts assume standard manuscript format, which is always printed on letter-sized paper. For a discussion of how page and word counts work that’s probably far more exhaustive than you want, please see the WORD COUNT category.

      Best of luck querying and proposing, and welcome to the Author! Author! community!

  2. Have spent hours reading through your web site – something I never do! Great site – what an absolute mine of information and delivered with great humour. Big thank you as I have found lots of info which will be of use to me irrespective of the fact that I am in England.

  3. Anne — Thank you for this glorious blog. It is a wealth of information. I am putting together a submissions package (requested materials, yea!), which includes a book proposal. After searching through your site, I still can’t find a specific format for the thing. For example, should the chapter summaries be outlined? double-spaced? Should I start a new page for each subheading? Also, my book has several very short chapters (80 in total). Should I group some of them together in the summaries, lest it run too long? Or is it better to give a one sentence description of each? Thanks again.

  4. You’re welcome, Kim — and congratulations on the request for materials!

    I have indeed written here about the format for a book proposal, but I suspect that you’d have to comb the BOOK PROPOSALS category to find those posts, and perhaps the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category as well. The HOW TO… categories are only intended to provide the quickest possible overview, not all of the relevant details. (Also, I suspect that part of the problem if you’re using the site’s search engine is that you’re using the wrong term: the section of the proposal that contains the chapter summaries is called the annotated table of contents.)

    As it happens, though, your timing is good: I’m about to revisit manuscript formatting, and I can certainly add a post that specifically deals with formatting a book proposal. I always include examples from book proposals — there are quite a few posts on how to do section headings, for instance — but I’m not averse to devoting an entire post to it. So keep your eyes on the new posts in the weeks to come.

    Here are a couple of quick answers to help you in the meantime, however: everything in a book proposal, like everything in a manuscript, should be double-spaced. (The only regular exception: the author bio IF it includes a photo.) Do not add a page break after every section; it would extend the length of the proposal unmercifully.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by should the chapter summaries be outlined, though — do you mean in outline form or bulleted? That would just look like lazy writing to anyone accustomed to reading professional book proposals. The annotated table of contents has a specific structure, which I’m quite positive I covered in at least one of the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL posts. So what precisely are you asking?

    If you have 80 distinct chapters in your book, I suspect that you’re not defining chapter in the same way that an agent or editor would. In an annotated table of contents, each listed chapter is assumed to be somewhere between 15 and 35 pages — which would mean that when they saw your 80, they would say, “oh, my God, how long is this book? At minimum, it’s 1200 pages!”

    To avoid that reaction, I’d advise sitting down with your list of 80, grouping the conceptually-similar topics into AT MOST 20 bunches, and writing about each bunch as if it were a cohesive chapter. Once you start this process, you may even find that in your current running order, the micro-chapters are already more or less grouped by topic.

    1. After I posted my reply, the question of when I’d last shown how to format an annotated table of contents kept bugging me, so I did a search. The most recent practical example may be found in the post for March 4, 2010. I also turned up a post on why you should not single-space a submission that you might find interesting —- it’s the post for December 21, 2010.

      Best of luck!

  5. Anne — Thanks for you reply. A little change in search terms and voila! all is revealed–at least how to format the annotated table of contents anyways. My “chapters” could possibly be grouped together. I am writing a memoir that contains two distinct strands (one begins the day of my husband’s cancer diagnosis, and the other draws on our experiences in the outdoors–we are in the ski industry–that teach me how to deal with disaster). As it stands these chapters are quite short, but perhaps need to be longer, or at least grouped together, as you say. In fact, there has been a little voice in the back of my head telling me this all along, and maybe I have been ignoring her. So, thanks for shaking her loose.

    I am fast becoming an Author!Author! devotee, and recommending this blog to my writing group. Thanks for making all this available.


  6. My pleasure, Kim! And thanks for the recommendations — there’s no higher compliment than that.

    Something to keep in mind while blocking the short chapters into longer ones: you’re not necessarily locked into whatever structure you select; the proposal just shows the preliminary marketing version. Agents and editors are quite, quite aware that the finished book, and even the submitted manuscript, are likely to differ from what’s described in the proposal. ln fact, it’s normal for the acquiring editor to make requests for alterations, new chapters, a slightly different voice, etc.

    Knowing that can make the proposal process less stressful, I find!

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