How Do You Write a Book Proposal?

How Do You Write a Book Proposal?

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Over the course of this season, we’ve been talking about what it means to be organized across various dimensions. As a writer, my favorite episode was the one about organizing ideas. As a follow-up to that conversation, I thought it would be interesting to focus on one of the most challenging ways we organize and share our ideas: publishing books. Nonfiction books, in particular, are truly a team effort, starting with the book proposal.

Our guest, Vanessa Soto, is a book coach who specializes in giving nonfiction authors all of the necessary guidance and feedback they need to make their dream a reality and land a book deal. We take “all the jumble of ideas and kinds of visions and things they’re excited about,” she says, “ and then drill it down into a mixture of” what they feel most passionate about and what there is also some sort of a market for.

Creating a Marketing Plan for Your Book Proposal

A great book proposal in traditional publishing is more than just a pitch for the idea behind your book. It also contains your pitch for how you’re going to sell it. “I mean, you literally have to tell them how you will market your own book,” Vanessa says.

A marketing plan shows agents and editors that you understand your target audience, the competitive titles and why yours is special. The author platform “is all the ways that you currently and in the future will communicate with people who will buy your book. So that tends to come down to things like your social media reach, how many followers you have on Instagram and Twitter, and all the different places. But it’s also things like, let’s say, you’re a speaker, You’re a motivational speaker, and in the non-COVID years, you’ll go out and do speaking engagements all the time.”

Vanessa sums it up nicely: “You're painting a picture of how you're going to be out in the world with your book.”

Providing a Great Writing Sample for Your Book Proposal

While you aren’t writing a whole book in the beginning stages, you will write a couple of chapters to inform your agent or editor and to show them your voice. “So the writing samples are like the first couple chapters of your book, and they need to be like your best writing. They need to be like fully, fully, fully polished chapters.”

Fully polished chapters for nonfiction book proposals don’t happen overnight. Vanessa explains what happens before she even sends out proposals: “I usually go through five to 12 rounds of revisions on first chapters before we might send out proposals.”

It is not about perfection. It is about hearing your ideas in your best, authentic voice. “ I was just emailing with someone the other day who has been in touch with an agent in London, and some feedback that she got was, they love the idea, but the proposal itself was falling a little flat compared to the writing sample. So they could see she’s a writer, but they wanted to see the proposal come to life a little bit more.”

Organizing a Strong Table of Contents

In addition to showing off your best writing through a few sample chapters, you’ll need to share how you’ll structure the rest of the book. To do that, you’ll need a table of contents. “It gives the whole arc of the book. So it shows what is everything that’s going to be covered.”

“The table of contents tells you what is the way the book is put together, what’s the story, what’s the arc, as well as what’s the meat, right? What's the specific pieces that this book is really going to tell me?”

Also, the table of contents shows how the book is going to come together cohesively. “If it’s a self-help book, is this book light-hearted and kind of full of anecdotes from the writer’s life? Or is it more of a workbook that has lots of exercises, and every chapter has multiple examples of exercises?”

Writing a great table of contents is more of an art than a science, she says. “What would happen if you moved it around this way? What does that open up for you versus there being like only one way to do it? So, yeah, there’s lots of ways to tell the same story.”

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Full Transcript

Mary Ellen Slayter:

This season of Margins from Managing Editor is brought to you by Showcase Workshop, which helps your team deliver outstanding sales presentations wherever you go. Marketers, see how your content performs in real time and plant thousands of native trees in the process. Learn more at showcaseworkshop.com/margins.

Over the course of this season, we've been talking about what it means to be organized across a variety of dimensions. As a writer, my favorite episode was the one about organizing ideas. I thought it would be interesting to focus on one of the most challenging ways we do that, publishing books. Not-fiction books in particular are truly a team effort, starting with the book proposal.

To learn more about that process, I reached out to Vanessa Soto. She's a book coach who specializes in giving nonfiction authors all of the necessary guidance and feedback they need to make their dream a reality.

We began our conversation by talking about how she helps her clients get stuff out of their head and turn it into a working proposal.

Vanessa Soto:

The first thing is that I help people a little less write the book as to figure out what the book is they're going to write. It's a lot like taking all the jumble of ideas and kind of visions and, like, things they're excited about, and then drill it down into a mixture of, what is the idea that, A) they feel most passionately about? Because it has to be something that you really want to spend like the better part of a number of years writing about and just spending time on. But also, that there frankly is going to be some sort of a market for.

So whether they're really going to write a book proposal and pitch it to New York agents, how are they going to package that? How are they going to sell it? So there has to actually be an audience out there who wants to buy it.

So a lot of what I do is kind of digging into, who is this person who would want to buy that book? And that can be a sensitive area for somebody who has a book idea, right? Because it's this, like, baby, it's this, like, idea that's really, really special, and then I can be that person that's like, OK, it's also something that you need to sell and there's a business person on the other end.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

And if you've never written a nonfiction book before, or know someone who has, you may be completely unaware of what goes into this process.

Vanessa Soto:

A lot of people don't know that you don't write the book first for nonfiction. It's all proposal-based now with the exception of memoir. So memoir kind of is in the middle. It's like creative nonfiction. So when we're thinking about things like self-help, or business book, or a cookbook, this is what we're talking about where you're writing the proposal first and not the manuscript. So what you're really putting together to send out to agents — which is who you're putting the proposal together for, who then send it to acquisitions editors at publishing houses — is a business plan for your book.

It is what the book is about. It's who the book is for. It's everything you're going to cover in the book. It is the marketing plan for your book. I mean, you literally have to tell them how you will market your own book. And it's also examples of the writing. You're going to include a couple chapters in there. But the whole package tells them the story of, like, how is this book going to show up in the world and why should I pick this idea up and take it in to the other editors in my publishing company. You really have to tell them what the entire thing is about, and then you write it.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

So what does it take to put together a great marketing plan for a book?

Vanessa Soto:

So, first of all, the idea of platform. So platform, author platform, is all the ways that you currently and in the future will communicate with people who will buy your book. So that tends to come down to things like your social media reach, how many followers you have on Instagram and Twitter and all the different places. But it's also things like, let's say, you're a speaker. Maybe you're a motivational speaker, and in the non-COVID years, you'll go out and do speaking engagements all the time. So that might be like, I'm going to go out and be in front of these audiences every single month over these periods of years.

So you organize for all the people who are going to read your book proposal, so for agents and for editors, all the different ways that you will reach future readers of your book. So you show them this is my social media presence, this is all the speaking engagements I do and will do. We're talking on a podcast right now, podcasts are growing like exponentially. So maybe you're a podcaster and that is a big part of your reach, as well as maybe you're going out and speaking on podcasts all the time.

So the marketing plan section is a combination of how you're going to use your existing platform, how you're going to grow your platform over the time frame of around when you're kind of pitching them and when the book comes out, and then other kind of bigger things that you're going to do with additional partners or events that you might envision. So there might be pieces in there that are a little more pie in the sky, like things that you might talk about — doing a TEDx Talk, or you might talk about big ideas that you might not have maybe secured yet.

So you're painting a picture of how you're going to be out in the world with your book, but it's pretty detailed. Like they really want to see something that they can see happening, so it's very detailed. It should be realistic, but it should also be aspirational and realistic at the same time.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

When you start writing out your ideas for the proposal, you don't hand over completed work. You start with a sample, a great polished sample.

Vanessa Soto:

You're writing a couple of chapters. So what they're looking for is voice. They're looking for, “Can this person write? They want to hear you coming through. I was just emailing with someone the other day who has been in touch with an agent in London, and some feedback that she got was, they love the idea, but the proposal itself was falling a little flat compared to the writing sample. So they could see she's a writer, but they wanted to see the proposal come to life a little bit more.

So the writing samples are like the first couple chapters of your book, and they need to be like your best writing. They need to be like fully, fully, fully polished chapters. Like “these could be published” level, which is a pretty high bar. I usually go through five to 12 rounds of revisions on first chapters before we might send out proposals. Some of those might be just tweaks, copy editing, but it's not just like, throw something together and send it out, because this is your one chance.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

In addition to showing off your best writing through a few sample chapters, you'll need to share how you'll structure the rest of the book. To do that, you'll need a table of contents.

Vanessa Soto:

One of the most important parts actually of the book proposal is the annotated table of contents. So the two things that are important there are, it gives the whole arc of the book. So it shows what is everything that's going to be covered because your overview of your book proposal is the very beginning. And that's kind of like your narrative version, where you help get somebody excited about your idea and you talk about the vision for the book. But the table of contents is the “give me the proof. Like, it's the couple of sentences to a paragraph or two on every single chapter.

And my mentor, Jenny Nash, she is an amazing book coach and she has quite a vision with table of contents. She loves tables of contents. She knows books just by their tables of contents that she's never even read. So I think that for some people, there's different ways you can put a book together. So the table of contents tells you what is the way the book is put together, what's the story, what's the arc, as well as what's the meat, right? What's the specific pieces that this book is really going to tell me and also kind of, how does it come together?

So like, if it's a self-help book, is this book light-hearted and kind of full of anecdotes from the writer's life? Or is it more of a workbook that has lots of exercises and every chapter has multiple examples of exercises? Because if you looked at two different tables of contents that were about the same topic, but were those two different ones, you could start to imagine how they might be different from each other. So that's why that's important.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

It turns out that writing a great table of contents is more of an art than a science.

Vanessa Soto:

Like, I think it really depends on what the topic is. I was working with a writer back in the fall, and she has an idea that actually takes her experiences, like working with a particular group of people over 20 years, so stories from working with people over 20 years, and then takes the learnings from those times, combined with her own life experiences, and then it turns them into how you can take those learnings and use them in your own life.

So we played with lots of different ways. How do you take some of those stories, and do you sprinkle them throughout? Do you start with the 20 years in a part one? Like I think we started out with part one was like her past, part two was like this, and then part three was that. And then we just play with it in different ways. You can do it. Like some people are more visual. Like, do you take Post-Its and stick them on a wall and try moving things around, or do you just need to talk about it? But I think part of the fun of it is just like, what if?

What would happen if you moved it around this way? What does that open up for you versus there being like only one way to do it? So, yeah, there's lots of ways to tell the same story.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

So that's it for this bonus episode of Margins from Managing Editor, you can find us on Apple Music, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Make sure you get organized and subscribe so you don't miss a single episode. And if you like what you hear, share us with your friends and rate us on your favorite podcast platform. If you'd like to hear more from the Managing Editor team, there's an easy way to do that. We send out an email every Friday morning, and you can join the club at managingeditor.com/subscribe.

Thanks again to Showcase Workshop, the exclusive sponsor of this season of Margins. With Showcase Workshop, all of your marketing and sales collateral is organized in one place, ready to present to prospects on your device or by email. And it even helps plant thousands of native trees, making the world a better place too. Learn more at showcaseworkshop.com/margins. We'll see y’all next time.

Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Rep Cap. Before creating her own content marketing firm, she served as director of content development and a senior general business and finance editor at SmartBrief, a leading publisher of e-mail newsletters. Before joining SmartBrief, she spent 8 years at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department. You can find Mary Ellen on Twitter @MESlayter.

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