How To Write A Book Proposal
Each year thousands of book proposals are rejected by agents and publishers.
The sad truth is that many of these ideas are never turned into books because the book proposal (query letter, synopsis, and sample chapter) were not strong enough to be worthy of further consideration by a commissioning agent.
Authors often create a book proposal that fails to give the literary agent everything they need to make a fair decision about the book.
In this article, you will discover a book proposal template that will show you how to produce a professional book proposal. In addition, it will show you how to turn a book idea into a winning manuscript and provide all the guidance you need to approach agents and traditional publishing companies with confidence.
Table of Contents
- Why Your Book Proposal is Important
- What Makes up a Book Proposal
- How to Write a Query Letter
- How to Write a Synopsis
- The Start, the Middle, and the End
- Think in Acts
- Think in Scenes
- Summarize Your Plot
- How to Prepare Your Sample Chapters
- You Only Have to be Good Enough
- The Structure of Your Extract
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Final Thoughts
Why Your Book Proposal is Important
When writing a book proposal, it is easy to get overwhelmed, but the reality is that knowing how to write a book proposal is an essential skill for any author.
Even if you are planning on self-publishing, understanding how a book proposal works will help you understand more about your target audience, your marketing plan, and how publishing houses work.
The goal of the book proposal is straightforward.
Its job is to convince literary agents and traditional publishing companies that your book has the potential to be a commercial success.
In this context, 'commercial success' does not mean bestseller. Instead, commercial success means a book that the publisher can successfully sell to enough readers for them to make an overall profit.
With big publishers (such as HarperCollins), 'commercial success' is measured in the tens of thousands of sales, while for smaller niche publishers, such as the military history publisher Osprey, 'commercial success' is measured in the thousands, if not hundreds.
To understand what a publisher is looking for in a potential 'commercial success,' we must first understand how their business model works.
Though the publishing industry has changed in recent years, its approach to publishing is still primarily based on the concept of selling books to actual brick-and-mortar book shops.
The sales process begins when a potential reader walks into a book shop.
Rather than wandering up and down the aisles, most readers head for the section of the book shop that contains the books they like to read.
If the reader is a science fiction fan, they head for the science fiction shelves. They will go to the cookery section if they are looking for cookbooks, and if they're looking for a book for their kids, it's off to the children's aisle.
This makes sense, and we have all done it.
As a writer, it is essential to understand that at the very granular level, book shops are segregated by GENRE.
When looking to stock their shelves book shop buyers are also genre-focused.
They will buy books based on genre from representatives of publishers who publish books in that genre.
When the book buyer needs a science fiction novel, they will go to a science fiction publisher; they get cookbooks from cookbook publishers and children's books from children's book publishers.
These publishers are experts in producing genre-specific books that sell well in bookshops. The publishers have teams of people (writers, editors, marketers, and salespeople) all specialized in that one genre.
This brings us full circle.
When you approach a publisher (or literary agent), they are looking for books that fit their genre model and will sell well in bookshops — simple.
This is essential to understand.
When assessing a new book, the agent or publisher is simply trying to determine if the book proposal fits the correct genre.
So, in short, bookshops and publishers segregate the world into book genres. Your book must, therefore, also fit snugly into one of these recognized genres.
If you want our professional help in preparing your book proposal, check out our bespoke book Book Proposal Service.
What Makes up a Book Proposal
The book proposal is split into three sections:
- Query letter.
- Sample chapters.
The role of a query letter, sometimes called a cover letter, is to provide information about you and your book. After reading your query letter, a literary agent should know your book's genre, target audience, a brief plot outline, and critical information about you, the author.
The synopsis will provide the agent with a broader overview of your book. At first, it will help them to decide if they should read your extract. However, should an agent offer representation, the synopsis may form part of the pitch to the publisher.
The role of the sample chapter is to give the agent a feel for your writing, show them the story, your style as a writer, and allow them to assess your suitability for any potential publisher.
One essential thing to understand is that the BEST possible outcome from pitching a book proposal to an agent is for them to ask for your entire manuscript.
They will not be offering you representation without reading your complete book.
Also, note that agent representation is different from a book deal. Once an agent has agreed to represent you and your book, they then need to find a publisher.
How to Write a Query Letter
The query letter is an agent's, or publisher's, first contact with your book and provides you with a chance to 'frame' your book proposal in a way that impresses them from the first word.
The goal of a query letter is as follows:
- Provide a clear outline of your book's content.
- Define your book's genre.
- Define your book's place in the market.
- Define your book's potential readership.
- Provide information about your book's status.
- Outline your marketing plans.
- Sell you as the writer (author bio).
No query letter has ever sealed a book deal.
The quality of your book (or, more accurately, its commercial potential) will sway the agent/publisher.
On the first reading of your query letter, the agent/publisher is only asking two questions:
- Will this book fit into the genre I represent/publish?
- Does this book have the commercial potential to make a profit?
Notice that there is no question about the quality of writing, complexity of the narrative, or the realism of your characters; at this earliest stage, it's commercial considerations, not plot considerations, that are uppermost in the agent/publisher's mind.
This means that your query letter MUST address these two questions.
If you fail to answer the questions, you leave the agent/publisher the easy option of simply rejecting your book.
Over the years, I have experimented with and refined my query letter style, finally developing the Four Paragraph Method.
This technique has proved to be a powerful and effective way to write query letters that provide agents/publishers with all the information they require to make a considered decision.
These four simple paragraphs will not only answer the two questions highlighted above but also give the agent/publisher an insight into your book's content and your role as the writer.
The structure of the four paragraphs is as follows:
- First Paragraph: This paragraph starts with your book's tag line and gives your book's elevator pitch.
- Second Paragraph: This section contains marketing and readership information, including word count, genre, and an indication of competition.
- Third Paragraph: This is where you include a very brief synopsis.
- Fourth Paragraph: The final paragraph is where you will include your author bio and any relevant writing experience.
In our free course called, How to Write a Fiction Book Proposal, you will find multiple lessons on how to create each paragraph.
You can discover more about our free course, and how to write a fiction book proposal.
How to Write a Synopsis
A synopsis is an outline of your novel in its most simple form.
It introduces all the key characters and events whilst outlining the narrative arc from the start to the end.
Perhaps the best way to understand a synopsis is to see why agents and publishers insist that you include one in your book proposal.
The role of the synopsis is as follows:
- To provide a complete summary of your book's narrative arc.
- To reassure the agent/publisher that your book fits within their publishing portfolio.
- To provide a document that can be used to secure a commission for your novel.
The key to writing a great synopsis is your ability to answer the following questions.
These questions were inspired by Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. You can learn more about using the Snowflake Method here.
This approach will see you asking five questions, which, when answered, will help you to define the essential aspects of a novel clearly.
The questions are as follows:
- Who's the main character?
- What is the situation that is forcing the main character to take action?
- What is the main character's aim?
- What is stopping the character from achieving their goal?
- What is the pinnacle of the story, the moment at which the character's goal may be lost forever?
The Start, the Middle, and the End
Most successful novels, and almost all successful films, operate using a variant of a classic three-act structure.
In its most simple terms, this is the concept of the start, the middle, and the end. Here is a very rough (and I mean very rough) outline of a typical three-act structure:
- START: The inciting incident occurs; this is an event in which the protagonist is forced to act.
- MIDDLE: The protagonist attempts to resolve the inciting incident but faces ever-increasing difficulties.
- END: The inciting incident is resolved by the protagonist.
The five key questions approach is designed to allow you to clearly define your novel's start, middle, and end. This is useful for creating an engaging synopsis, even if you are not using a strict three-act structure in your novel.
We can combine the five key questions and the three-act structure we get the following:
- START: The inciting incident (Question 2) occurs; this is an event in which the protagonist (Question 1) is forced to act.
- MIDDLE: The protagonist attempts to resolve the inciting incident but faces ever-increasing difficulties (Questions 3 and 4).
- END: The inciting incident is resolved by the protagonist (Question 5).
Let's use a very basic police drama as an example.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Bob Smith is a cop who doesn't play by the rules but gets the job done. He is divorced and likes a drink. When a serial killer strikes for the second time in Bob Smith's city, it is up to the cop to track down the killer.
OK, let's apply the five questions:
- Who's the main character? Bob Smith.
- What is the situation that is forcing the main character to take action? Second murder.
- What is the main character's aim? To capture the killer.
- What is stopping the character from achieving their goal? Don't know who the killer is, must follow the clues.
- What is the pinnacle of the story, the moment at which the character's goal may be lost forever? Meets the killer in a violent showdown.
This may seem like a very simplistic breakdown of the story, but when writing a synopsis it is best to work from the bottom upwards. If you are able to sketch out the start, middle, and end of your novel, it will be far easier to expand this into a three to five-page synopsis.
Think in Acts
Having answered the five key questions and mapped out your novel's start, middle, and end, it is time to look at your plot in detail.
The best way to think about your novel when writing a synopsis is in acts and scenes. If you have followed the start, middle, and end process detailed above, you will have a natural three-act structure, with Act I (the start), Act II (the middle), and Act III (the end).
Let's apply this to our example:
ACT I (start): The serial killer strikes for a second time and it falls to Bob Smith to solve the murder.
ACT II (middle): Bob Smith follows the clues found at the murder scene until slowly uncovering the identity of the murderer.
ACT III (end): The murderer is tracked down to an old deserted warehouse. Bob Smith kills the murderer in a showdown. The motive for the killings is revealed.
I strongly suggest that at this point, you split your novel into acts.
I understand that you may feel your novel doesn't fit the three-act structure, and that's fine. However, it will still naturally split into scenes. There are models for five-act novels or even more. Yet what is essential when writing your synopsis is not the act structure but the fact that you have identified the acts in your book.
Think in Scenes
A scene is a passage of your novel in which the protagonist undergoes some change.
This might be emotional; they may learn something new, or it may simply be a change in circumstances. In their own way, a scene is a story in itself.
A good indication of a scene is that it can be lifted from a book and stand alone. Each scene will have a start, middle, and end. It will also have an element of conflict.
Your next step is to split your acts into scenes.
There is no rule to the number of scenes per act, and each scene can be a different length. In fact, each act can be a different length (in a classic three-act structure Act 1 and 3 tend to be of similar length and both shorter than the longer Act 2). In fact, you will probably find that you have a ready-made scene breakdown in the form of your chapters. There is a strong possibility that you have naturally formed chapters from scenes.
ACT 1 – Scene 1: Bob Smith is woken to be told of a murder. The reader learns that Bob Smith is single and the disorganized nature of his living arrangements points toward a disorganized life. (Change: learns of murder — inciting incident)
ACT 1 – Scene 2: Bob Smith arrives at the murder scene. The victim and the circumstances of the death are similar to a past murder. (Change: learns that a serial killer is active)
ACT 1 – Scene 3: Bob Smith attends the postmortem. He discovers the victim was stabbed with an unusual knife, perhaps ceremonial. He also discovers a note in the victim's mouth with biblical text inscribed. (Change: learns vital clues)
This example gives you an outline you can use to plot out your own novel's scene and act structure. From this outline, you will be able to produce your synopsis.
Summarize Your Plot
Having identified your novel's act structure and then listed the scenes within each act, you are finally in a position to write your synopsis.
There is no easy way to do this and the long and short is that you are going to have to summarize the key events.
To add to the complexity, you don't want to be talking about acts and scenes in the synopsis. Instead, your synopsis needs to reflect your novel with its narrative arc (start, middle, and end).
To help you visualize the kind of document you will produce, I have summarized the example we have used above. One word of warning here. Our example contains just one character and none of the complexity that you will find in a full novel. However, the example below will act as a workable guide.
BOB SMITH, a middle-aged cop with relationship issues and a problem with drink, is called to the scene of a grisly murder. On arrival, he finds the corpse of a mutilated young girl. After only a brief examination, he recognizes the method of her death. Another girl was killed in a similar manner only weeks before and Bob Smith is sure he has a serial killer in his city. The postmortem confirms Bob's fears, whilst also revealing the killer used a strange ceremonial knife and left a note containing a biblical quote in the mouth of the dead girl.
How to Prepare Your Sample Chapters
If you have managed to get this far then you should have written your query letter and constructed your synopsis. The third and final part of the book proposal is the extract.
The whole point of your book proposal has been to push the agent and publisher to the point at which they are willing to read your extract. Your query letter and synopsis will have demonstrated that you represent a real 'commercial' opportunity. However, it will all be for nothing if your extract is not up to scratch.
If you are serious about presenting the best possible book, then you should consider investing in professional help to prepare your sample chapters. Our book proposal service will help you to create a boo proposal of the highest possible standard.
You Only Have to be Good Enough
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the role of intelligence and ability in the success of any given project.
In essence, his findings are simple.
Gladwell concludes that as long as the individual met a certain 'standard' in their chosen field, then success was dependent on other factors.
In other words, as long as your writing ability and technical ability are 'good enough' then it will be other factors that decide the success of your book.
However, if your writing is not up to the required level, then rejection will follow.
This means that writing Shakespearian-standard prose will not bring certain success, but a mistake-riddled manuscript with poor narrative is bound for rejection.
It is your duty as a writer to ensure that your extract is the best it can possibly be at the time of submission.
No agent or publisher is expecting a manuscript to land on their desk print-ready. Editors are aware that all books need work prior to publication. Every novel will be copy-edited at least once and will also receive a close proofread. However, agents and publishers are cost-sensitive and they are looking for manuscripts that need as little work as possible.
Gone are the days when an agent or publisher would spend years nurturing a writer; today they are looking for a fast turnaround.
The long and short is that no matter how well written your book proposal if your extract is not 'good enough' it will be rejected.
The Structure of Your Extract
Agents and publishers can be difficult beasts at times and each will have their own ideas on what your book proposal should look like.
I would insist that before sending an extract to a publisher or agent you read their submission guidelines carefully. However, as a general rule of thumb, your extract should be:
- A sensible font in 10 or 12 point (I would suggest Arial or Times New Roman).
- Double spaced.
- Three chapters or fifty double-spaced pages.
- The first chapters in your book.
These rules are always overruled by a specific agent or publisher's own guidelines.
Ensuring that your extract is the opening of the book has two distinct advantages.
The first is that the first fifty pages of your novel should contain your inciting incident. This is the event that causes the protagonist to react and sets up the narrative arc.
The second is that including non-sequential chapters just raises too many questions. The agent will wonder why you haven't given them sequential chapters, perhaps even worrying that you are trying to hide a slow or clumsy opening. A third bonus reason is that the opening section of your book is arguably the most important. If you can't hook an agent or publisher with this extract, what hope do you have with your reader?
In the remaining sections, we will look at ways to ensure your book is the best it can possibly be at the time of submission.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some frequently asked questions that will provide you more information.
What makes a good book proposal?
A good book proposal consists of a query letter, synopsis of your book, and sample pages from your novel. The query letter will include your book's genre, competitor titles, your author bio and any useful marketing information. The best book proposals will provide an agent with all the information that need to decide if your book is right for them.
How long are book proposals?
The average book proposal will be between 15 and 50 pages. This will include the sample chapters, which are normally the first three chapters or 50 pages. However, the length of the sample will differ depending on agent's guidelines. Your query letter should be no longer than one page. Your synopsis should also be one or two pagesin length.
If you want our professional help in preparing your book proposal, check out our bespoke book Book Proposal Service.
Once you have finished turning your book idea into a fully-fledged book, the next step for many writers is to produce a book proposal.
In this article, you have seen the outline of the book proposal template we suggest you use when pitching your book to literary agents.
You have learned that a book proposal is so much more than a synopsis of your book and a quick author bio.
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