August 27, 2010

Van der Leun's 330 Word Guide to Writing Book Proposals


Once upon a time in a land far, far away, I was a book editor (200 titles), a magazine editor (1,000 + articles) and, briefly, a literary agent. During that time I saw proposals and manuscripts without number. Most failed to even engage my attention because they failed to tell me what I, as an editor, really needed to know.

When I became an agent I developed the following document for my clients who were having trouble writing a simple proposal. Typically, they'd get bogged down in creating a long, drawn out monster that was too turgid and too worked over to be of use.

A writer new to the game of publishing (and it is a game and a clumsy and ugly one) would always spend far too much time getting to yes or no. My writers would have a lot to say about their subjects and they seemed to feel that by saying a lot in the proposal they were improving their odds. Wrong. Less is more in this game, trust me.

And besides, a proposal is just that. A proposal. There's no sense in investing a huge amount of time in something that isn't going to be published and for which a writer is not going to be paid.

Contract first. Book second. Hear me now or hear me later after you've wasted a year or more of your life.

At any rate, I had an email exchange today with a writer who is struggling with the proposal. I sent that writer this document I dredged up from the depths of my back-up hard drive. It struck me that it might be of use to other suffering writers. And so, here it is.

Some may scoff and say that "books are over," but don't you believe it. The plain fact is that even now, in the ever so advanced 21st century, if the human race really values knowledge, books are where we put it.

The 330 Word Book Proposal Schematic in 5 Parts

1) What the Book is About (1 -2 Pages)

Start with the title and subtitle. Make these two elements as attention grabbing as possible. They will be the "handle" the editor uses for pitching the book to the acquisition committee.

Single-spaced, this section sets out the condensed form of the book. Think of it as expanded jacket copy.

What's it about? What's its point of view. What is the arc and shape of the book? What patterns will it reveal? How will it educate, illuminate, amuse or inspire? Why is the book important now?

Function: This section gives the acquiring editor reasons for recommending the book for publication.

2) Chapter by Chapter Outline of the Book

Each chapter is given a title and then one or two paragraphs that set out what will be covered in the chapter when written.

Function: The allows the editor understand the structure of the book.

3) Sample Chapter

Pick one chapter from the outline and write it start to finish.

Function: This allows the editor to know how the author will write the book and, indeed, if the author can in fact write.

4) Core Market for the Book (1 Page)

Who is going to buy the book?

Who are the people who will be interested in the book?

Be fairly specific here. It's not a "There are 300 million people in the United States and they all eat, therefore my cook book...." argument. Editors want to have some idea of the "hard-core" market of buyers' the people who have to have it.

Indicate other similar and/or complimentary books and influential magazine / web articles on the subject.

Function: Helps the editor identify and quantify the possible market for the book.

5) Why the Author is Qualified to Write This Book. (1 Page)

Why you? What are the author's particular qualifications for writing this book? Include degrees, writing experience, web credentials, background.

Function: Allows the editor to know that the author has the expertise to write the book.

Posted by Vanderleun at August 27, 2010 12:39 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

That is very good. I am a lawyer, and I have to write briefs. I have written briefs for the Michigan Court of Appeals arguing why the order of the Michigan Public Service Commission ought to be upheld. In my office we use the system that the Appellate Division has set for us, utilizing Brian Garner's ideas on how to write persuasively. Your proposal outline seems to follow a lot of what we have to do in brief writing, framing the issue and writing the argument to tell the court why we should win before they even read the supporting argument.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at August 26, 2010 8:54 PM

This is a good balance to the blithering idiocy of Academentia in the side lines. Too bad that nothing you say here could ever apply to the tenured numbskulls who have no language to edit.

Posted by: Jewel at August 27, 2010 2:15 AM

Yup. That's what Jane Dystel told me except not nearly as condensed.

As a former tradpubbed writer and current Kindling authopreneur, I believe the future is digital. Books are lovely but the business isn't. It's broken for midlist authors. Because of the self-inflicted damage done by publishers and agents, the door was flung open for Amazon to step in. The Big Six still don't get what's happening.

Posted by: Kate Rafferty at August 27, 2010 4:30 AM

John Grisham and Joanne K. Rowling approve... NOT!

One of the basics of engineering is to avoid having a single point of failure. A single editor acting as a gateway between the book and the outside world is bad design. OK, maybe there was no choice in the past, but now we don't have to suffer it. Now, don't get the wrong ideas here: Book publishers are a good thing. What I'm saying is, if an author is fated to fail, let it be because the public doesn't like his stuff, not because one single, solitary editor didn't. Self-publish your first and second book, and then, if you strike online fame, get it published the old, hardcopy way.

Posted by: Ferenc D at August 27, 2010 6:14 AM

I got a compliment from my daughter, after she read 'Boy', by Roald Dahl.

"It was good. Funny, too. But not as interesting as your life, mom."

I should be as Dull as Dahl and lucky to be published.

Posted by: Jewel at August 27, 2010 7:29 AM

Bless you.

Posted by: Irish Cicero at August 27, 2010 8:19 AM

Jewel, I hope that your daughter can use Dahl as a mentor and mine your stories for raw material.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at August 28, 2010 8:38 PM

As long as she isn't tempted to outdo her mother, or reenacted scenes from my life, I'm okay with that.

Posted by: Jewel at August 29, 2010 11:08 PM