By Kate Willoughby
You’ve written your book. You’ve sent it out to dozens of test readers. You’ve revised it what seems like a thousand times. For all intents and purposes, it’s finished. You’re ready to see your title splashed across the most popular websites and your book stacked on store shelves.
So now what?
It’s time to find an agent who will recognize your genius and who will work tirelessly to find you the perfect publisher—you know, the one who will actually get your title on the leading websites and the best store shelves. And believe it or not, what you do next will make all the difference in how that turns out.
So before you make a list of potential agents or start drooling over a potential six-figure advance, sharpen your wit (not to mention your pencil) and get to work on a proposal that no agent will be able to resist!
What’s a proposal? Simply put, it’s what sells the agent on your book. Look at it as the song, dance, and commercial for your book, created as only you can do it. Who knows your book better than you do? Who is more committed to it? Time to develop a sales pitch that will make that agent breathless with anticipation to hold your book in her hot little hands—before she reads a single word of that book! Such is the power of a proposal.
Before we go on, let’s make an important distinction: proposals are almost exclusively done for nonfiction books. Agents generally take on a fiction manuscript only after reading the entire thing—but nonfiction is often bought on the power of the proposal alone. If an agent or publisher wants a proposal for your fiction piece, he or she will ask—but consider it standard operating procedure for nonfiction.
Each agent will have a specific thing or two he wants to see in your proposal—but for the most part, the basic elements of all proposals are the same. You can do the fine-tuning later (it’s a cinch), so for now, get familiar with what every solid proposal needs to contain:
No yawning allowed. This might sound like a major snooze, but it’s the most important part of your proposal. This is where you hook ’em. Right up front. In the first few sentences. Because if you don’t do it then, chances are good that your proposal will earn a one-way trip to the nearest recycle bin. Sure, a cover letter needs to include some less-than-salacious details, including your name, your contact information, the title of your book, its genre, its word count, and mention of any previous stuff you’ve had published. But wait! That comes later in your letter.
Your cover letter needs to bolt right out of the gate with what is known as a hook—those precious few sentences that grab the agent’s attention like few things ever have and that leave him yearning desperately for more. You’re not just showing what your book is about: you’re telling the agent in a brilliantly crafted paragraph—not in so many words, but by the way you capture his attention—why he absolutely has to have your book. Why it’s more important to get his hands on it than to do almost anything else. Make it intriguing. Make it compelling. Tell just enough, but not too much—you want the agent dying to read more.
Okay, you have the agent hooked … now you’re going to give just a little more. Keep this to one page. Your goal is to pique interest or stimulate curiosity, not to provide crib notes or a Reader’s Digest condensed version of your book. Prove that you can deliver on the hook. Let’s say you hooked your agent or publisher on the skyrocketing popularity of barbecue. Load the synopsis for your barbecue-techniques book with mouthwatering teasers about brown sugar rubs, little-known ways to achieve perfect tenderness, and the secret recipe for Aunt Millie’s famous coleslaw.
If you’re writing a proposal for fiction, tell a little about your main character and what makes that character so rich; reveal a few flaws. What major conflict or crisis does the character face? What makes the stakes so high? What happens to complicate things even more? Remember, you don’t want to spell out (or even hint at) how things get resolved. Your goal here is to engage the agent—just like the agent will want to engage potential publishers.
A note before moving on: some agents will request a chapter outline. The same principles apply here—keep it short and sweet and keep your descriptions to things that will draw the agent in.
For this section (and the next) you’ll be providing a business case for why someone should risk their investment dollars on publishing your book. You’re going to have to do some research here, and it’s a critical piece of the proposal. The agent wants to make sure the market needs a book like yours. Did you write a do-it-yourself guide to plumbing repairs? Provide hard numbers about how many people try to fix their own leaky pipes each year. Have you cranked out the most thrilling suspense imaginable? Remind the agent how many suspense books fly off the shelves each year, and find a few quotes about the popularity of the genre from folks who know.
You’ll also need to show why your material will sell in a printed-book form, given that so much information is available online for free. Is your material easily updated or based on classic information and principles that won’t be outdated soon? Is it organized in a way that one can’t easily find online, or more in depth than other resources, or does it provide more of a reader breakthrough than anything online (or in print) could dream of boasting?
Now take it a step further: tell why your book is different, better, or more marketable than what’s already out there. Sum up—with specifics—how your do-it-yourself guide to plumbing repairs outdoes the three bestsellers in the market. That means you need to find out what’s already out there and that you need to make a compelling case for how your book will reach the market in a different way. Can you show that you have a large platform of readers and fans who follow all your social sharing and blog posts on your topic? An agent will want the numbers. Do you have a promotional tie-in with a product, company, movement, or group? Can you prove your ability to garner publicity of some kind (or the likelihood of your being able to do so)? In short, you need to show your agent and publisher that you won’t be a big risk.
Okay, you can write a convincing proposal—the agent wants proof that you can also write a great book. Include a sample chapter or two. Polish them. Make sure they represent your very best work; if you’re trying to sell fiction, make sure the chapters you provide include some conflict. Get the agent invested. As always, leave her chomping at the bit for more.
Do This Now
- This is a smart thing to do before you ever start writing your book, but if you haven’t done it yet, do it now: Find out how many similar books are already on the market and how broad their scope is. Look for a sweet spot that only your book can fill. You can’t afford to be vague here; capture the actual numbers.
- Get at least two books similar to yours—nonfiction books on the same topic or fiction books in the same genre. Be bold. Examine bestsellers. Then identify ways in which your book is unique, reasons why your book should be out there. This can’t be because your mom thinks it’s the best thing she’s read. Be objective, difficult though it is.
- Read a good book or two on how to write proposals. One of my favorites is Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write by Elizabeth Lyon. Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman contains ten real-life proposals that sold. Another good one is How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen.
- Check out blogs, websites, and other information by or about your favorite authors. Actively look for their hooks. The more hooks you read, the better able you’ll be to figure out what you want yours to say.
- Practice! Write three different one-paragraph hooks that will sell your book.
We want to hear from you! What single tip above has given you the most insight in your quest to sell your book?
Kate Willoughby has worked in the publishing industry for forty years and sees hundreds—sometimes thousands—of proposals every year. She’s on the receiving end, and knows exactly what it takes to sell a publisher or agent on a book.