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  • Mike Martinez

The Writing Process, Part III: Preparing a Book Proposal

This is my third post on the writing process. In the first posting, I discussed how to select a book topic. In the second posting, I covered the search for a publisher. Here I will discuss how to write a book proposal.

For someone working on a novel, a book proposal is not necessary. Prospective publishers want to see a completed work. For an author who is laboring on a nonfiction book, however, a book proposal is crucial. The proposal is first and foremost a marketing plan. Publishers want to see an outline for the project before they decide to acquire and publish the manuscript.

It is always wise to write a proposal before the author completes the manuscript. A proposal allows a publisher to see and comment on the plan ahead of time. Far better to revise a short proposal than to rewrite portions of a long book.

As one might imagine from the title, a proposal explains the “who, what, where, when, and how” of a book project. Although there is not one specific format that every publisher uses, all book proposals have common elements. Some presses provide a template on their websites. In those instances, the author is well advised to follow the template as closely as possible.

For everyone else, here is a sample format:

The topic and the thesis: A book proposal begins with a clear, succinct statement of the topic and the author’s thesis. In a page or less, the author must explain why this is an important subject and what he or she will say about it. If the book is argumentative, the author must state the argument. If the book is a narrative, the narrative arc should be stated. In short, the opening of the proposal “sets up the problem" and explains how the author will address that problem.

The chapter outline: Although there is no standard order in which the elements of a book proposal must be presented, a chapter outline should appear somewhere near the beginning. Publishers want to see details. How many chapters will be in the book? What will each chapter say? The chapter outline need not be exhaustive, but it should include enough detail so that the publisher can understand the conclusions in each chapter. One summary paragraph per chapter should suffice. Some book proposals include a word count for each chapter, although such information is not necessary.

Manuscript length and timeline for delivery: The proposal should cover practical issues such as how long the book will be and when it will be delivered. It can be difficult to project these things. The author is tempted to say, “it will be as long as necessary, and it will take whatever time it takes.” In my experience, most academic books are between 70,000 and 120,00 words. I usually aim for 100,000 words, plus or minus 5,000 words. I also promise delivery in 18 months. I can usually crank out a manuscript in 12-15 months, but it never hurts to under-promise and over-deliver.

As an aside, the question may arise: what if I exceed the word count or take longer than the allotted time to deliver the manuscript? It depends, of course, on the publisher and the contract terms. In my experience, an editor wants to work with an author. Unless the manuscript greatly exceeds the word count or drags on for years past the deadline, the editor will work with the author to resolve these issues.

I once delivered a manuscript 10 months after the deadline. I had promised to produce 90,000 words, and the book came in at a whopping 136,500 words. Under the terms of the contract, the publisher could have cancelled the project. Instead, he agreed to divide the book into two volumes. He did not chastise me for the late delivery. I was fortunate to have such an understanding editor in my corner.

The target audience and competing works: The proposal should identify the book's target audience--undergraduate college students, graduate students, professors, or the general public, for example. Most publishers also want to know if there are any works that will compete with the work being proposed. In most cases, the author will have conducted a literature review, so the competition should be obvious. The author will need to explain how his or her work differs from the competition.

The author’s credentials: The author will need to explain why he or she is the person to write this work. Some book proposals include this information up front, immediately following the thesis statement. Others include it near the end of the proposal. It is often a matter of taste. If the author has a background that makes him or her especially qualified, it would be helpful to summarize that information near the beginning of the proposal. For example, if the book is about, say, the life of a staffer serving in a congressman’s office and the author is a former or current staffer, those experiences are integral to the book. That information should be presented sooner rather than later.

In most instances, the author should provide a one-paragraph “about the author” statement and attach a current curriculum vitae (CV) to the proposal. My mama taught me not to brag, but a book proposal is not the place to follow her advice. That is not to say that the author should exaggerate his or her credentials or become a bloviating bore, but neither should he or she be a self-effacing wallflower. The author’s credentials can be a big selling point.

What makes the author well qualified to write this book? Is this project the result of the author’s dissertation research? Does the author have first-hand knowledge of the events portrayed in the book? Is the book based on new archival research or an original thesis? In short, why is the author the right person for this book?

I often develop a book based on ideas that occurred to me during my teaching. For example, I have taught a class on American government at several Georgia universities for more than a quarter century. I have always been amazed at how little my students know about Congress and the members who served there. As a result of my teaching, I developed a proposal to write a book on famous members of Congress. The project grew so big that it eventually became a trilogy for Lexington Books: Congressional Lions: Trailblazing Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History, October 2019; Congressional Giants: Influential Leaders of Congress and How They Shaped American History, May 2020; and Congressional Pathfinders: “First” Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History, February 2021.

Possible elements: Sometimes a book proposal will include a list of references, although this element is not always required. If the book is based on archival research or primary sources, it is helpful to include a preliminary list of these resources to demonstrate that sufficient research material exists to allow the author to complete the book.

It may be helpful to include a list of illustrations, especially if the illustrations are critical to the book. A project on art history or the design of the World’s Fair would need to include photographs and/or schematics. Publishers no doubt will want to know how the author plans to handle these features of the book.

Endorsements can be helpful. If the author knows one or more potential endorsers, that can be a valuable addition to the proposal, especially if the endorsers are big names in their fields. Publishers frequently ask authors to provide testimonials for the book jacket. It’s not essential that an author include a list of endorsers at the outset, but it doesn’t hurt to include them.

Anything that an author can provide in the proposal to show how the book will be marketed is also a plus, albeit not required information. If the author has a strong presence on social media, or a network of professors, or a leadership position in a professional association that can assist in promoting the book, the author should include this information in the proposal.

A book proposal is an author’s sales pitch to a publisher. Anything that is truthful and tasteful should be included in the proposal. The goal is conceptually simple. The author wants the editor to read the proposal and not think, “I should acquire this book.” Rather, the editor should think, “how could I not acquire this book? It's too good to pass up!”

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