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Credibility, Value and Marketability: The Art and Craft of the Book Proposal

So–the publisher or agent you’ve written to has responded favorably to your query letter, and now asks to see a book proposal. Attention spans aren’t long at the submissions coalface and if you miss your moment, it may not come again. It’s important that your proposal is not only ready to go, but leaves a positive impression. Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, the aim of the book proposal is the same: to convince your first readers of the credibility, value, and marketability of your book. Publishing is a collaborative business: decisions made at acquisition meetings are group decisions, and include not only editorial staff, but marketing, publicity, finance, and accounting, as well as specialist departments such as rights, educational, etc. The editor might love your proposal but she has to convince everyone else of its merits, so you need to help that process along by including the ‘meat’ of your proposal, i.e. a summary of the content of your book, plus either a story arc and character description (for fiction) or a list of chapters which indicate clearly what is in each one (for non-fiction). You also need to show you understand the market you are writing for. When you propose a book outside of your normal genre—say, like me, a fiction writer proposing a non-fiction project—this is especially important. It can be embedded within the body of the summary of the project, as well as flagged at the end. For instance when I was pitching my non-fiction book, The Adaptable Author: Coping with Change in the Digital Age, (Keesing Press, 2014) here’s how my book proposal summary began:

Getting published is every aspiring author’s dream, the focus of enormous energy, hopes and fears. The statistics quoted in articles and books on the subject can be dispiriting, so if that dream comes true, then as a newly-anointed published author, you can feel as though all your struggles are now over and you can relax into the life of the professional author. But getting published is only the start, and in retrospect, it can seem a good deal simpler than what follows: staying published, and maintaining a career as a professional author. That’s never been easy, but in a modern publishing industry in the middle of rapid and turbulent transformation, it has become even more difficult.

From the beginning, I wanted to flag both the issue at stake here: how does one maintain successfully a professional writing career within the context of the contemporary industry—and the likely major market for the book: that is, authors and publishing professionals. The summary then briefly expanded on how the book explored these issues through interviews with dozens of established and less experienced authors, as well as publishers, agents and rights managers. I also mentioned that full permission had been granted in the interviews, with no cost involved, thus answering upfront questions that would certainly have been asked later. At the end of the summary section, before going on to the list of chapters, I zeroed in on what made the book valuable and marketable:

This is the first book-length study of its kind, and will be of great interest to anyone involved in the publishing industry, whether author, publisher, agent, bookseller, or reviewer, but it will also be of general appeal to readers interested in how authors work, and what motivates them. Written in a clear, accessible style, backed up by extensive research, it will find a place both in the specialised and more general markets.

This was a fairly general summation of the book’s qualities, of course—I didn’t put facts and figures into it but indicated these were in the early, overview chapters. It helped to sell the book because the publisher knew there wasn’t anything like it on the market. It can be a formidable business getting a book through an acquisitions meeting; every little bit of ammunition helps.

I remember once being asked by an editor to come into just such a meeting, for an anthology of short stories I was compiling and editing, to help convince the team that the anthology was absolutely necessary. I had collected lots of surprising and interesting facts and figures around the particular theme of the anthology—which was based on Arthurian mythology—because I knew that just telling the hard-heads around the table that the book, with its well-known author contributors, had high literary value wouldn’t be enough. But I also knew that I couldn’t be seen attempting to teach marketing and finance to suck eggs, as it were; I had to choose my facts carefully, and present them with a light, disarming touch. And so it proved. The team were already convinced of the book’s literary value; they just needed that extra little bit of justification that came from knowing not only how well books around that theme actually performed in the marketplace, but also that I did not imagine I was an instant expert, and that I deferred to their experience. For me, indeed, it was a very useful experience even if intimidating at first!

It’s important, incidentally, to remember that the proposal you present doesn’t have to be set in stone. The finished book usually diverges from the original plan: publishers are used to books changing over the course of their writing, editing and proofing. What the proposal does is to give you, and the publisher, a solid plan that can be altered and improved as it evolves. And especially if you are working with a publisher you haven’t worked with before, you need something solid as a starting base, not just a great idea. (Though you need the great idea at the core of the plan, of course).

Over to you: what qualities do you think makes a great book proposal?

About Sophie Masson [1]

Sophie Masson [2] has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors [3].