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A good proposal is the DNA of your book: it captures the essence of the story, and depicts who will buy it – and why.
Listen to the audio for this section below, or download the PDF transcript so you can easily find that golden bit of information.
This week, the focus is on writing a fully fleshed-out proposal. This is typically something that only non-fiction writers will need to send to agents and publishers. But fiction writers, this is a really valuable exercise for you too! Even if you never send a full proposal out to a publisher, the process of writing it will be a huge boost to your understanding of your own project and where it sits in the marketplace. Writing up a detailed analysis of your competition will help you appreciate the business side of things, and tackling the marketing and audience for your book will put you in a great position to discuss all these things with agents and publishers.
In this week’s session we will pull apart the components of a book proposal and review examples of how they are written.
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Topic 1: Elements Of A Proposal
Writing a proposal is a lot of work, but it is probably the most important part of the pitching process. In the case of non-fiction, a proposal is typically written before undertaking the full manuscript, and the likelihood of receiving an offer to publish depends entirely on the strength of your proposal. Although the process may seem demanding, ultimately you will be glad you created such a detailed work, as it will help enormously once you start writing the book: you will find that you have a very strong skeleton on which to put the meat and flesh of your book. For fiction, you may not need to submit a fully detailed proposal to agents and publishers, but writing one will set you on a good course when pitching your manuscript, and help you get a clear sense of who will buy your book and how it fits in the market.
Typically a book proposal may be up to 5,000 words, in addition to sample chapters of 5,000 to 10,000 words.
All proposals should be written in full-length sentences, not in short-hand style or bullet points, to give a literary agent or publisher the best indication of your writing abilities.
Use your best judgement in deciding the order of the elements in your proposal. An author with an extremely strong profile might choose to follow their overview with their biography. If your story is the standout element, lead with your chapter outline.
Proposals should have justified margins and be double-spaced – though check the guidelines for the literary agent or publisher to whom you are submitting for their format requirements.
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Topic 2: Putting The Pieces Together
If a proposal were a jigsaw puzzle, it would have seven pieces:
- Format and delivery
- Competitive and comparative titles analysis
- Author biography
- Chapter outline
- Sample chapters
Let’s take a look at them one by one.
The introduction to a non-fiction book proposal may be similar to the introduction to your book. It explains in general terms what the book is about and why there is a need for this book in the marketplace. It should be well thought out, upbeat, informative and written in the style in which the book is to be written. Around 500 words in length, it can be written in either the first person or the third person.
Your overview may start out something like this one (written for a memoir submission):
You’re sixteen, a softball ace, straight-A student, from a stable and loving family. Then the one thing happens to you that you never planned for.
Boyfriend problems? You’ll get over them. The school bully? You can handle that with a little help.
How about pregnant? That’s a curveball to beat all curveballs.
“I suddenly felt that maybe I was not the good person I had always thought I was…”
Tina Banks was in her junior year of high school in Omaha, Nebraska. Well-behaved and highly motivated, she was a model student. Plenty of other kids went with the wrong crowd and got into drugs and other trouble, but not Tina. Hers was the kind of family that ate dinner together every night, and her friends envied her that. She was deep in “teen love” with her first boyfriend, Josh, a thoughtful and caring young guy (seriously cute, too). The future looked bright: ahead lay graduation and college, then after a few years maybe a family of her own.
Then one morning Tina woke up and knew something was wrong: her stomach was churning, her breasts were tender. Could she really be pregnant just weeks after she and Josh first had sex?
Yes, she could. She was.
So far, this isn’t exactly a front-page story. Teenage girl gets pregnant. It happens all the time. Especially in the United States, which has the highest rate of teen pregnancy and teen birth in the developed world.
Tina isn’t your standard teenager, though. She took an event that would shake or break most other girls, and used it to make a difference in other people’s lives. Seeing a call-out for pregnant teenagers to audition for a new television series/show, she put together a tape and sent it off. Months later, she was one of four young women chosen to appear on “16 and Pregnant”.
For more information on what to put in the overview/synopsis download the QWC synopsis guide here.
Any publisher will want to know who the audience is for the book that you are proposing. The more detailed your audience analysis, and the more statistics you give, the better it will serve the publisher in their decision-making process. Be specific: if your book is for divorced women with children, give some statistics on how large that audience is, and whether it has grown signifcantly in recent years. This section may be up to 300 words long. Write it in third person.
Here’s what your audience analysis may look like:
The readers of The Ex Factor will include the following.
- Blended Families As the definition of “family” gets more elastic – goodbye, “Leave it to Beaver,” hello, “Modern Family” – readers want stories that mirror the complexities of their own situations. The blended family demographic will connect with Cameron’s attempts to keep the peace with her husband’s ex-partner, a reflection of current cultural zeitgeist that emphasizes compromise and compassion after a relationship’s dissolution (see “co-parenting” and the Gwyneth Paltrow-popularized “conscious uncoupling”).
- Disillusioned Professionals. Visitors flock to blogs like Tim Ferris’ “The Four Hour Work-Week” (http://fourhourworkweek.com/blog/) and Chris Guillebeau’s “The Art of Non-Conformity” (http://chrisguillebeau.com), in search of ideas on how to escape the soul-numbing career paths many bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young professionals put themselves into straight out of college. Cameron’s honest recounting of her lack of fulfilment through a traditional career path will be welcome by these disillusioned professionals.
- Divorcées. There are around fifty thousand divorces in Australia every year (http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Products/3310.0~2012~Chapter~Divorces?OpenDocument). This demographic is feeling lost and eager for advice and the slew of media available to them – divorce memoirs, divorce self-help books, divorce television shows, online divorce forums and a legion of counsellors and therapists specializing in divorce – attests to their willingness to pay for help. Cameron’s memoir will work as a balm for divorcees – they’ll love that this divorce story has a happy ending.
- Solo Female Travellers. With the rise of women’s salaries and decline of birth rates, there are more solo female travellers than ever. It’s a demographic that has a lot of spending power and leisure time. So much so that travel companies and hotels are putting together packages squarely aimed at them, according to a recent New York Times article (“Zeroing in on the Female Traveler,” 7/21/14). Solo female travellers will be attracted to Cameron’s recounting of her own solo travels, as well as her struggle to reconcile her desire for independence and excitement with security and domesticity. They’ll also relate to Cameron’s dissatisfaction with her career, and her longings for an adventurous partnership.
Format and delivery
This is where you give the word count, approximate number of illustrations and/or photographs, and time you will require to write the book. (In the case of fiction authors, your manuscript should be completed before you start the submission process.) You might also describe the ultimate format in which you see the book (hardcover, trade paperback or mass market, digital and/or print format), remembering that the publisher has the final decision on these matters. This is your shortest section, usually consisting of only 50 to 100 words.
Here’s an example:
The complete manuscript will be an estimated 65,000 words, and can be delivered three months after a publishing contract is signed. There is also good visual material available for photographic sections as required.
I envisage this title being released as a hardcover edition in the first instance, with trade paperback and ebook editions to follow.
Competitive and Comparative Titles Analysis
Because there are so many books in the marketplace, it is impossible for any one publisher or agent to be aware of every single book that is out there. It is the author’s responsibility to make sure that the book he or she is writing is different to anything else in the marketplace and to give a reasoned snapshot of that information to agents and publishers.
In order to do this successfully, review the key titles that fall in the same interest range as your book. Only look at titles put out by the major publishing houses: self-published titles or books published by small, independent houses, which usually have very little distribution clout, do not need to be included in this analysis (unless they have proven a large and previously unknown audience, like 50 Shades of Grey). Focus on books published within the last few years; it is particularly important to examine any bestselling titles. Examine six or so of your main competitors by writing a brief description (around 75 words) of each one, and explaining how and why your book is different (and better!). I like to include a visual thumbnail of the book. Write this in third person.
Here’s one way to present comparative titles:
WITHOUT RESERVATIONS by Alice Steinbach (Random House 2009) Steinbach leaves her professional job and chronicles her year whirling through Europe. However, Steinbach plays it safe, sticking mostly to tourist destinations and always intending to return home. Cameron does not – she risks everything after her near-death encounter in Costa Rica to find meaning for herself and succeeds, building an entirely new life. Hence, The Ex Factor has an urgency and depth missing in Steinbach’s book.
Biographical details are of huge interest to any publisher, particularly details on your professional and/or writing track record, media appearances, seminars conducted, etc. Be as specific as possible. It is also helpful, when a book is being written by a professional such as a doctor or therapist, to enclose a CV or resume. The length of this section can vary a great deal, from 100 words to 500 words.
Either here or in a separate Marketing Activity section (note this is different from Audience and Market) describe any means you have of marketing your book yourself, for example:
- Selling books if you frequently speak at meetings and conventions (give specifics on audience size, frequency of engagements etc)
- Website or blog activity (give specific traffic data points)
- Any previous, or on-going, key media connections
- Connections with organizations who might be an avenue for bulk purchases.
The more you can help a publisher sell your book, the more appealing you and your book will become to them. Write this in third person.
Your biography could look something like this:
Christina Ivers has one of the most impressive resumes of any woman in corporate Australia. In 2012 she was appointed as CEO of Myer. Former head of Woolworths, Christina is also past MD of Dick Smith Electronics, the home electronics retailer in Australia, and in 2009 was named Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year. She is on the board of directors for the Commonwealth Bank, Australia’s largest bank.
Christina’s activities and memberships include:
o Member of World Retail Congress Advisory Board and Congress panelist
o Member of the Board of Directors for Melbourne Fashion Week
o Member of the Board of Directors for The Alannah and Madeline Foundation (not-for-profit organisation)
o Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors
Born in Norway, Christina relocated to Australia in 1997. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and two Yorkshire terriers.
For non-fiction authors, in order to give a publisher a preview of your book’s contents, you need to write a detailed chapter breakdown. For fiction authors, this is the job of your overview/synopsis. However, fiction writers will find a chapter breakdown a useful thing to write first to help them create a condensed version of the story in their overview. Write at least 75 words per chapter, describing the main points the chapter will deal with. Feel free to use quotes or anecdotes in the chapter outline – it’s a great way to open each chapter description – as well as examples of how key issues will be dealt with, and any other information you think is relevant. This can be written in first person or third person.
Here’s an example of a chapter description:
Chapter 4: Staffing Up
Through 1932, Masterson assembles the team that will launch his new magazine. Sheldon Blackley, the “ideal editor”, agrees to become the first editor of This Week. Falling into the classic entrepreneurial trap of hubris combined with parsimony, Masterson takes on the job of business manager himself, a decision that will prove catastrophic as the business grows. Another poor choice is hiring Harold Jardine as advertising director: Masterson discovers that a great salesman does not necessarily make a great director.
Other mistakes are made through folly, inexperience, and Masterson by his own admission being “too outspoken, caustic, and bad-tempered”.
Always written in the first person or in the author’s voice. It is always best to have your sample chapters be the “grabbiest” chapters of the book. Most often that is your first chapter or two – and if you don’t think those first chapters are compelling enough, you might want to revise them! The sample text should be at least 10 percent of the finished word count (but always check your publisher/agent guidelines for specific directions on samples).
Writing a proposal is a hard slog and sometimes you need support to get through the sections you’re not too good at (whether that be marketing, or distilling your idea into a couple of paragraphs). In this activity, we’ll be getting you to attempt to fill out two parts of a proposal that is the hardest for you and use the support of your peers to power through it.
WHAT TO DO:
Choose two of the sections of a book proposal described in the topic above, and draft them for your own project. Stretch your proposal-writing muscles by picking ones that are particularly difficult for you: this is a great opportunity to overcome obstacles with the help of your fellow students.For example, if you struggle to come up with relevant comparison titles, that would be a great section to draft here.
Post your draft on the Draft Proposal Forum and discuss the problems your are having with your sections with your classmates.
Respond to at least two other classmates, helping them come up with new angles (or perhaps helping them pick the most important parts of their story to include in their overview!)
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Topic 3: Get Some Attitude
In order for your book proposal to be effective (especially for non-fiction authors), it has to speak with a voice, personality and attitude. Merely providing information about your book idea or manuscript will not make a serious and lasting impression. Essentially, your book proposal represents one person talking to another person.
Please make sure that you print out your proposal and read the hard copy before submission. This is the best way to catch grammatical and syntactical errors. Use beta readers if you can: it helps to have extra sets of eyes checking for consistency, accuracy and clarity.
Read the example query letter and then discuss what worked and what didn’t in the Turning The Tables Forum.
I have written a 75,000 word, soft crime novel, Six Minutes which is currently being read by one of the big Australian publishing houses (details upon request). The Commissioning Editor, Books for Adults requested that I send her the novel when finished. Presently, I am seeking the services of an agent. Immediately it would be to assist with any negotiations that might eventuate with this publisher but primarily to represent me in the broader market place. The novel has not been seen by any other house. A synopsis and sample chapter follow.
I write about lawyers … because I am one, or was one, until I turned from the dark side. The characters of Six Minutes were born of extreme boredom, on the back of a never‐ending list of exhibits, during the longest (and possibly, most excruciating) Supreme Court trial in Queensland’s history. Somewhere in between noting details of cheque‐but number 193 and 1500, the whole plot took shape.
Hennessy Clark has just fired three of its best litigators for something they didn’t do. They weren’t friends before; but they are now. Sandra Jeeves, the pug‐like, binge‐drinking, sex-obsessed senior associate had dedicated her life to the Brisbane law firm. She had nothing else – no man, no kids, no pets. What’s a girl to do? And didn’t their night together mean anything? Frances Mackay, employment law expert, is the exact opposite. Secure, restrained, refined, Hepburnesque. But again, the firm was her life. What nasty thing did she do in the middle of a school‐night to warrant this? Andrea Toohey, the managing partner’s former extra‐marital squeeze, started it all by getting pregnant to him.
I’ve been writing for love and laundry money for well over a decade. I am finally completing a PhD in Philosophy (by research, part time, external) on the quest to turn out a believable, authentic novel, beyond what basic advice is available in how‐I and how‐to manuals and writing memoirs. There is a gap in the market for books on advanced writing techniques. I have been a presenter at writing conferences, tutored in writing and been a guest speaker at my local law faculty. I have also written: published book reviews, dental/medical patient education and marketing material, web content, legal briefs, policies, procedures and technical training manuals. In subtle ways, these experiences all flavour my favourite work: novel writing.
Thank you for considering this proposal. I look forward to your feedback.
This activity will take up most of your time this week.
Having read and listened to all of the tips that Sally has shared, together with the research you did last week, write your full proposal and submit it to the tutor by email: [email protected].
Make sure you label your email subject heading as “Pitching To Publisher – [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] – Proposal. Your tutor will read your work and share some specific feedback with you.
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Week 3 Exercise Checklist
Draft Proposal Activity: Fill out two parts of your proposal for your book that are hardest for you. Post your draft in the Draft Proposal Forum and discuss any problems you had with your peers.
Turning The Tables Activity: Critique the sample query letter provided in the Turning The Tables Forum.
Submit Your Proposal Activity: Finish your proposal in full and email it to your tutor for feedback at: [email protected] Please make your subject heading the following: “Pitching To Publishers – [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE]”. If your email is not properly labelled your submission may not receive feedback in time.
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