ANYONE thinking about writing a book, or in the middle of doing so, will no doubt have had a browse on the websites of publishers and literary agents to see what the process of getting a publisher is all about.

Looking closely at both publishers and agents, it’s easy to see that there are a fair few barriers to simply dropping them a line with your great idea. Many ‘aren’t taking new submissions’. Others only want contact through a reputable agent. Some might want to see three chapters. And if you’re writing non-fiction – a memoir, self-help book, autobiography, biography, etc – it’s highly likely the agent or publisher will ask for a book proposal.

What is a book proposal?

A book proposal is a document of around 10,000 words that tells the agent/publisher what the book is about, how it will be structured, where it will sit in the marketplace and how it will read. The whole book doesn’t need to have been written at this stage; however, it does need to know what it’s about and how it’s expected to fare when it hits the shelves. In essence, it is a sales document and as such, it needs to capture the attention of agent/publisher quickly and effectively. The proposal usually comprises:

  • An introduction to the subject
  • A story outline
  • A short chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the entire book
  • A sample chapter (or two, or three) of about 3,000-4,000 words per chapter
  • An analysis of the market for this type of book, and why it will fit well with current trends

As a ghostwriter I’ve written many such proposals. It’s not an exact art, and a lot depends on what’s trending at that moment, what the agent feels s/he can pitch and what a particular publisher is looking for. Many of my proposals have hit the spot and garnered a deal; others haven’t, including a couple I felt would be dead certs! However, as my hit rate has been far greater than my misses, I thought I’d share some tips about constructing a great proposal.

  1. Make sure your idea is fully thought through.

There is no point in submitting an idea that is half-baked or not fully realised. Agents/publishers can spot these a mile off and they go straight into the trash. You need to make sure they know exactly what your book is about, which means writing a structure that feels fluent and well-considered. So many book ideas fall by the wayside here because agents/publishers are ALWAYS looking for reasons to turn down projects. It’s impossible for every book idea to find a publisher – there just aren’t enough trees in the world! So make sure your idea is fully realised on paper before you even think about making contact.

  • Hit them with a great opening line – but don’t overdo it!

Heard of an ‘elevator pitch’? The idea is that you’re in a lift with a movie mogul or the head of a big publishing house and you have the time it takes the elevator to go from, say, level 6 to the ground floor to pitch your idea to them AND win the deal. In a sentence or a paragraph you need to capture why this story is great and what makes it irresistible. No easy task, which is why many people write something like: “This is the most amazing story you’ll ever have heard and if you don’t publish it you’re an idiot, and someone else will make millions from it.” Agents and publishers (and film producers) have seen variations of this many times and again it’ll inevitably go out with the trash.  Here’s an example of an opening gambit, written for the proposal which became ‘A Belfast Child’…

“My parents committed the greatest sin possible in 1960s Belfast: they belonged to different religions. My father came from a hardcore Loyalist family from Protestant West Belfast and my mother was a Roman Catholic who grew up in the Republican heartlands of Belfast – the Falls Road.

That, in essence, was the theme of the entire book. We secured the deal.

  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them.

This used to be the way that trainee journalists learned to write effective news stories and it still holds good today. After your killer opening paragraph, allow the story to unfold. Don’t splurge, rush, gush or exaggerate…….take your time but be succinct. No-one has the time to read 25 pages of every single detail, so write no more than three A4 pages, making sure you cover all the main points. If the agent/publisher is intrigued and wants to know more about a certain aspect of the story, they’ll ask you. And don’t leave out anything vital – if you’re kidnapped by aliens in chapter 5, it’s probably best to say that!

  • Hone your structure

We call this the ‘chapter breakdown’, an analysis of the story in just a couple of paragraphs for each chapter. The agent/publisher really wants to see if the book ‘flows’ – they’re trained to look out for unnecessary diversions, meanderings, off-the-point asides and anything else that might affect the passage of the book. Of course, your story may go in all sorts of directions – but there has to be a point to this flow, a reason for going where it’s going. A collection of random thoughts or scribblings will just not cut it, so pay attention to getting this element just right.

  • Spend time establishing your ‘voice’ in your sample chapter(s)

Some agents will ask for just one sample chapter, while others will want to see up to three. The sample chapter shows the person reading it how you sound on paper – they’re looking for a strong, individual voice that a reader will engage with, along with storytelling skills that keep the reader reading until the end. Establishing your ‘voice’ isn’t easy, and in future blogs I’ll be exploring this in more depth. Suffice to say that you need to take time to make sure that what you’re saying and how you say it (your ‘tone’) will grab that reader by the throat. Even if it’s a ‘how-to’ book about knitting, a car manual or a guide to simple astrophysics, the aim is to create a page turner that will sell.

To find out more about proposal writing and how I can help you give shape to your book idea, contact me here. I’m always happy to discuss ideas – in whatever form – and offer advice.