Writing a Book Proposal for a Publisher

Recently, having worked on and sent off some proposals for a book, I’ve been thinking about these issues a good deal. So when faced with someone else’s book proposal to review, I definitely had suggestions.

No book, of course, is guaranteed acceptance, especially not at your first-choice publisher or agent. But a better proposal is going to get a better response.  So what makes a “better” proposal?

From a simplistic but pragmatic perspective, a “better” proposal is one that gets accepted, but, of course, you don’t know what will get accepted when you’re writing the proposal. But you can think about why proposals get accepted or rejected. There could be any number of characteristics that shape the decision on whether to accept or reject a proposal. Quality and content are obviously important. But, to be accepted, what matters is not just the proposal itself, but who is evaluating it. Beyond quality and content are specific factors that are important to the reviewer. In particular, people in the publishing industry want to know if a book will sell and to whom it will sell. It’s perfectly possible to have an editor think “This is good work, but I don’t want to try to sell it to my marketing department,” or “This is good work, but it’s not going to sell well.”

Understanding the audience for your proposal makes it easier to understand what they want, and understanding what they want improves your ability to give them what they want.  And that’s of crucial importance when proposing a book.

Writers—whether fiction or non-fiction—have stories that they want to tell and ideas that they want to share. An academic might have a theory to propound; a novelist might want to tell an exciting story, or explore the depths of the human psyche/spirit, but whatever they are trying to convey—whether entertainment or education—is central to what they’re doing, and they implicitly hope to reach readers who are interested in those same things. A scholar concerned with scholarly theory will hope to reach other scholars who are concerned with the same theoretical questions.  A writer who wants to write a vampire adventure will hope to find readers who care about vampire stories.  Reaching those readers and convincing them to read (and buy!) your book depends on describing the content in an enticing way. A scholar looking at a scholarly tome asks whether the content is good (i.e., whether the research and reasoning are sound). A vampire fan looking for entertainment asks whether the story is entertaining and exciting. Potential buyers of your book care about its contents and quality.

But people in the publishing industry will look at things rather differently.  When you send a book proposal to an acquisitions editor at an academic publisher (for academics) or to an agent (for fiction writers), you’re not necessarily sending the book to someone who cares about its content. The acquisitions editor may not be intimately interested in your theory. The agent may not necessarily care about, e.g., vampire stories. But that may not matter. The people in the publishing industry are crucially interested in whether they can sell a book at a profit. They look at a proposal wondering whether it’s worth their time and energy.  Could that book sell? Could it be produced at reasonable cost? Is it worth it to review that proposal and read the excerpts? Is it worth it (for the academic publisher, at least) to send those materials out to some expert reviewers (which costs the publisher money)?

Agents want to sell books, so they have to believe that they can sell the book to a publisher.  An agent may enjoy vampire stories, or whatever you’re writing, but you don’t your proposal to focus solely on how enjoyable it will be to read your vampire book. An agent wants to know why people might buy your book. So it’s useful to compare your book to others, to explain why your might replace or complement others. An acquisitions editor may be interested in your theory and may have the education to evaluate its theoretical importance, but even so, they’re going to have to be able to convince a marketing department that people will buy it. 

What really matters in a book proposal, I think, is talking about who would buy it, and why they would buy it.  If your story is the best story about vampires ever written for five reasons that you can enumerate, still, what really matters to a publisher is the question of whether or not lots of people want to buy vampire books.  If your theory completely revises an area of study and is incredibly powerful and groundbreaking, that’s awesome. But you’ll have to convince the publisher that many people are interested in that area of study.  The quality of your theory may be less important than whether or not a lot of books on the subject are sold and used. Is it better to have the reviewer to say: “Great content! Two people a year will absolutely need this excellent book,” or “I’ve read better, but lots of people will buy it”?  

It’s worth noting that expectations vary widely: publishers of academic monographs will look on sales of a few thousand as a success, while publishers of textbooks will be looking to sell ten times that. Fiction publishers are hoping for million-sellers, though obviously they don’t expect that of every book. (I don’t have a great idea of the volume that small-scale fiction and non-fiction publishers sell or hope to sell.) 

Every publisher is taking a gamble on each book: they hope for a big seller, and endure the duds.  At some level, a book proposal’s purpose is nothing more than to convince the publisher’s representative that there is a decent chance of having a big seller and small chance of having a dud.  Those two conditions are dependent on the size of audience: who is going to buy the book? How likely are they to buy it? If there is a huge potential audience (e.g., fans of vampire fiction), then only a small portion of that audience need buy to justify a book’s costs of production. If there is a small potential audience (e.g., scholars interested in some esoteric theory), then a lot of those people need to buy to justify costs.  These concerns should be central to your book proposal.

I imagine that most writers find it easier to describe the content of their books than to describe the audience who will buy it or the market to which it will be sold. But if you’re writing a proposal for an editor or agent, sales potential for a given audience is what they really want to know.  If your proposal doesn’t tell them that, the chance that they will accept your proposal decreases.