Writing a successful book proposal

One of the hard truths about becoming a book author is that you must also become a sort of marketer. Unfortunately, it’s not enough merely to write the book, you must sell it – long before it finds its way to a bookstore. The book proposal is your chief marketing tool for reaching an editor who will publish your book.

To this end, a proposal must serve two functions. It must present your ideas in a way that captivates and captures your book’s style, while also convince editors that those ideas are new and necessary – that is, marketable. While it is important not to overpromise or state unrealistic expectations for how the book might sell, do not be afraid to present your ideas boldly and with confidence. If you sound like an amateur, chances are you will be considered one. But if you talk about your book as if it’s already a book, communicating with other books – editors will listen.

Here are three tips for a successful book proposal

1.   Know your audience.

Before you write the proposal, decide who your readers will be. If it is for a general audience, make sure the language reflects that. When converting a dissertation into a book, this might mean leaving behind some of those pedagogical trappings such as complex syntax, Latinate terminology, and overwrought outlines. If your book, however, is meant mostly for specialists, do not be afraid to say so. Many nonprofit and academic presses welcome niche books so long as you clearly and specifically name your field or your target audience. Far from being turned off, editors will appreciate your understanding of this basic rule of marketing.

2.   Avoid jargon and repetition.

In that all-important opening summary, do not feel you need to belabor every point – a common mistake in book proposals. In these first pages, it is acceptable to speak generally, to paint a broad picture. Do away with over-complicated vocabulary and dense sentences that you think might impress an editor. They are far more likely to create redundancy and prohibit flow. Also resist using programmatic language. Avoid sentences like: “In this book, I argue that Rousseau was three things. . . .” Instead, you can say, “Rousseau was a lunatic, an outcast, and a genius.”  In other words, do not point out what you are doing at every step. Just do it. This will help create an authorial and authoritative tone, which is particularly important if you are turning a dissertation into a book. Finally, make sure your language is clear and that each sentence builds off the previous one, moving the story along in an informative, engaging way. Remember, you can elaborate in the chapter-by-chapter section later.

3.   Make it relevant.

In a proposal, it is vital to place your book within a larger context. So, if there are comparable books out there, describe them. Then proceed to explain why your book is different and relevant. What does it say that we haven’t heard before? Why do we need to read this now? Publishers and editors love the new, but at the same time they want books that contribute to a larger “conversation” (particularly if those conversations have sold well in the past). Doing this extra research will let editors know that you are an authority in an entire field – not only this particular topic – and that your book is needed.


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