Ten Factors to Consider When Writing Book Proposals

By Dennis E. Hensley

My friend Virginia Muir, former managing editor at Tyndale House Publishers, was once accosted by an irate writer whose proposal had been rejected by Tyndale.

"All right, so maybe my proposal had a few rough edges," barked the young writer. "But couldn't you have fixed it up a little bit for me?"

Virginia shook her head. "We are hired to heal the sick," she said, "not raise the dead."

According to most acquisition editors at publishing houses, the knack for writing contract-winning book proposals is seldom mastered by freelance writers. This is unfortunate. Most houses today insist on reading proposals only, particularly when dealing with previously unpublished authors. If you are trying to market a novel or nonfiction book, you would do well to consider the ten factors editors find most important about book proposals:

#1 Proper Elements. "The standard package has not changed much over the years regarding book proposals," says Peter Rubie of the Perkins-Rubie and Associates Literary Agency of New York. "A cover letter should include the author's qualifications for writing this particular book, a brief description of what the book is about, a projection of when the manuscript will be completed, some discussion of who the target readers will be, and an explanation of whatever the need is that the book will meet. Some companies also like a one or two page synopsis of the plot to be included."

Rubie adds, "Send along an annotated table of contents which lists the title of each chapter and then provides a one or two paragraph summary of what will transpire in that chapter. Editors expect also to receive at least two completed chapters so that they can judge the writer's ability to write dialogue, handle leads and closings, develop characters, and create plot (or provide support data for nonfiction books)."

#2 Neatness. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, so it had better be your best effort. Dog-eared pages, erasure smudges, strike-overs, faded ribbons and correction fluid smears are sure indications that the manuscript has been passed around. Make sure that the manuscript smacks of professionalism. Use #16 or #20 weight Bond white paper, and be sure to have an ink cartridge in your computer printer that is full and dark.

#3 Reader Sensitivity. "To me," says John R. Ingrisano, president of Poetic Press, "a book proposal needs the smell of gunpowder. Readers need to feel an author has been in the battle, that he knows first-hand what he's talking about. It's easy to see through a fraud. He'll say things about a topic that no one who's been involved in it would ever say. Readers want sensitivity and identity from authors, not aloof judgments or unbending mandates."

#4 Good Writing. Most writers will make an effort to have exact spelling, proper punctuation and correct grammar in their book proposals. Unfortunately, that doesn't guarantee that their writing will be clear. Former acquisition editor Steve Laube of Bethany House Publishers notes, "When book proposals come in, the sample chapters often have redundancies, fluff and padding. I like to see clear messages, straight-forward writing, and well organized structuring. Prose that needs paring isn't going to impress me."

#5 Organization. "Book proposals need a clear sense of organization," says Rich Willowby of Warner Press. "There needs to be a logical progression from one event to the next. I often make my authors ask of themselves, ‘What is it I'm trying to accomplish in this book?' I then make them summarize the whole book in one paragraph. After that, if there is anything in the book that doesn't fall in line with those early-established guidelines, it gets cut. This keeps the book on target and organized."

Mr. Willowby suggests that writers should prepare a solid blueprint for a book via the annotated table of contents. This will map the book's direction and pace and will organize the information or plot.

#6 Publisher Familiarity. The author should be familiar with the kinds of books each publishing house specializes in. If a house specializes on a particular market (children's books, college textbooks) or has a particular theological bent (Baptist, Catholic) or specializes in a distinctive line of books (romances, mysteries), the author should be well aware of this prior to sending in a book proposal.

"It's easy to gather a lot of information about a publishing house," says Pamela G. Ahearn, director of the Ahearn Literary Agency of New Orleans. "Write for the publisher's Guidelines for Writers. Study the company's catalog of current and back listed books. Go to the library and check out books published by that company and read them for style and content and market focus. Go to writers' conferences and meet one on one with editors from that company and discuss the company's current and future manuscript needs. Be informed."

#7 Market Positioning. In a cover letter of a book proposal the author will need to show that he or she has a thorough knowledge of the market the book will be competing in. The publisher will be interested in knowing what similar books are already on the market, who wrote them, who published them, and how well they have been selling. The publisher will also want to know how this new book will stack up against the competition and in what ways it will offer any new material or fresh ideas.

#8 Professional Development. Publishers want to know specific facts about where an author is in his or her career – novice or seasoned professional. The cover letter should include pertinent information such as where or when the author's other books (if any) have been published, which magazines he or she has written articles for, how much byline visibility the author has had in recent years, and what sort of educational training or on-the-job experience the writer has had to enhance his or her writing (and marketing) skills.

"One of the biggest advantages for a would-be writer is to have a built-in forum," asserts Linda Konner, former editor of Weight Watcher's Magazine. "When I wrote my first book about diet and exercise, I mentioned in my cover letter that I travel around the country to speak to various organizations about health matters and that I could sell my books at these meetings. I also said that my contact with a leading diet magazine would enable me to have excerpts from my book printed in that periodical. This convinced the publisher that I would be a big help at marketing the new book. I got the contract."

This same principle applies to people who do evangelism crusades, lead sales seminars, have their own radio or TV show or serve as lecturers at conventions. Public visibility is important.

#9 Legal Concerns. If the author's manuscript will contain photographs, illustrations, maps, cartoons, historical documents, direct quotations from interviews or material from other printed sources, the publisher will want to know if appropriate model release forms and permission-to-quote releases have been secured. We are a litigation crazy society these days, so it pays to secure all the right paperwork.

#10 Business Negotiations. A cover letter should mention whether or not a writer will be acting on his or her own behalf or will be later represented by a literary agent or attorney when contract negotiations begin. It's also proper to mention whether the book proposal is being multiple-marketed or just being sent to one publisher at a time.

A book proposal is similar to a job interview. If the appearance is neat, the information is interesting and accurate, and the necessary preparation has been done, there's a good chance that the deal will be closed.

Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is director of the professional writing major at Taylor University Fort Wayne (IN). He is the co-author of the Leslie Holden mystery-romance novel series released by Harvest House and also the author of such writing books as How to Write What You Love and Make a Living at It (Random House) and Alpha Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in 24 Hours (Macmillan).