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Your Book Proposal: Land a Publisher in 5 Steps

Book proposals are hard work. You have a limited number of pages to make a stellar case. Here are five things you’ll need to sell your proposal.

Your Book Proposal: Land a Publisher in 5 Steps

book proposal

If you have no book proposal, you have no book.

Here’s a common scenario for aspiring nonfiction authors: You toil away at your 200-page book manuscript through six months of long nights, early mornings, and too much coffee—all with the hope that your book will reach the world one day.

You send off your book manuscript to literary agents who are on the hunt for their next bestseller. You wait months to hear back. Then you open your email to devastating news:

“You wrote the entire manuscript, but I don’t have time to read it. We’ll need to see your book proposal first. Then we’ll consider selling your idea to the publishers.”

All those months of work, and you’re being asked to send something else entirely. This is a frustrating experience for authors writing their first book.

For nonfiction, you’re not supposed to write the entire, 200-page manuscript up front. (Novels are a different story.)

See: Ghostwriter Secrets That Could Make or Break Your Book:

Agents and publishers usually want you to submit your proposal first—a 15-40 page document that has to make a slam-dunk case by showing your vision, chapter outline, competitive marketplace, biography, and sample chapter.

From there, your agent and publisher will give you editorial feedback.

You might need to expand your vision to appeal to a book-buying audience (a common shortfall). Your outline might not have enough detail. Your biography might be misaligned—you’re not the right person to write the book.

Book proposals are hard work. You have a limited number of pages to make a stellar case. Here are five things you’ll need to sell your proposal:

1. Your book proposal needs a compelling and straightforward introduction that will grab your agent and publisher

The first section of your proposal introduces your big idea. You must waste no time drawing in your readers, and in this case it’s not the public. It’s an audience of two: your agent and publisher.

Don’t aim for clever hooks or genius thoughts. You need to state, in a clear and simple way, what your book is about and why it matters.

Your job is to convince the editor to keep turning the pages to the next section.

2. Your author biography must show you are the one to write the book

Are you a history teacher writing a book about the future of biotechnology? A scientist writing a presidential biography?

Fairly or not, editors will turn down your idea if your background doesn’t fit your book idea.

Your biography should be short, to the point, and list any relevant accolades and experiences you have, including evidence that you can connect with a large audience. A social media following, TV appearances, and articles in respected publications all establish your authority.

3. Your market research must show how you will differentiate your book among comparative and competitive titles

Here’s the truth that no one wants to tell you: Book publishing is a business, not a salon of coffeehouse intellectuals and poets. Publishers need to turn a profit to keep the lights on.

Figure out the names of the top-selling books in your genre and list them as comparative titles. That will show your book has sales potential.

But also explain how your book will be different. That will show your idea can break through the competitive marketplace with something that hasn’t been done to death.

4. Your chapter outline must show how your storytelling will move from start to finish

Think of your chapter outline as a detailed map of your book. How will your book—in specific, sequential order—guide the reader from beginning to end?

You must prove that you have more than a great idea and a strong platform. Your outline shows that the foundations, scaffolding, and plumbing of your book will come together into a coherent structure.

You don’t need beautiful writing in this section. Just proof that you know exactly where your storyline is headed before you write a single word.

5. Your sample chapter must prove to the agent and publisher that you can really write the book.

You’ve convinced your editor to read your entire proposal; most proposals don’t get that far.

Now for the hard part. Most publishers want to see one or two sample chapters. This is evidence that you can actually write the book.

Thesis, story development, scenery, pacing, evidence, chronology—all the complicated factors of book authorship should shine in these chapters.

Writing a successful proposal is tricky for anyone who isn’t an experienced writer. Your agent and publisher might read dozens of proposals a day and only consider a handful. That’s where the professionals come in.

If you found this helpful, and want to learn more, feel free to reach out to say hello or to share a project idea.

At Alembic Partners, we offer strategy and writing to execute great books and thought leadership campaigns. We work with C-suite executives, founders, and former senior government officials.

Feel free to be in touch at [email protected]. If we feel we’re the right match, we’ll write back within 24 hours.

Picture of Geoffrey Cain

Geoffrey Cain

Geoffrey Cain is a bestselling business author and managing partner at Alembic Partners

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