The dos and don'ts in writing a book proposal

A man leaning back in a chair and typing a book proposal; the table is covered with books.
Do you want to get your manuscript
published? Follow these helpful tips
to learn how to write a book
proposal for fiction.

How does one go about writing a book proposal? Well, like all of the answers to life's big questions, this one can be found in the lyrics of The Beatles. If you want to know how to write a book proposal, simply turn on "Paperback Writer," sit back, and enjoy the wisdom of John, Paul, George, and Ringo (okay, mostly just John and Paul). The song is an excellent guide for those who want to get published. In fact, there's only one problem.

It is written from the point of view of an aspiring author to a publisher, so let's correct something right away. Publishers rarely accept what they call "unsolicited manuscripts." Reviewing these can potentially land a publishing house in a heap of trouble, so unless your manuscript is brilliant (like On the Road or The Catcher in the Rye brilliant), you're likely going to need an agent. You will be submitting the book proposal to this person, but only after you've sent them a query letter. If your query letter is good, the agent may contact you and ask for a book proposal. When he/she does, be prepared to get your book proposal out as quickly as possible.

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

Your book proposal should contain a letter similar to the query letter you sent out. You can even use your query letter as a template—just don't send an exact copy. Remember to change some things around and point out that your book proposal is requested material. This is very important, so actually use those words. Agents deal with hundreds of authors each year—they don't know you from the person who's trying to sell the latest and greatest Twilight-meets-Harry-Potter mash-up. They need to be reminded about who you are, what your book is about, and why it's special. Make sure that your letter is only one page long and that it follows the standard format used in business communications.

It took me years to write, will you take a look?

Next you will want to include a sample of your actual writing. The general rule for this portion of the book proposal is to submit the first three chapters or the first fifty pages, whichever comes first. For example, if chapter three ends on page 58, you should probably send all 58 pages; however, if you’re just beginning chapter two on page 58, it’s best just to stop there. Use your judgment. Agents like two things—good judgment and good writing.  Make sure your sample chapters are free from typographical/grammatical errors and make sure you are presenting yourself as the most professional and creative writer that you can possibly be.

It's based on a novel by a man named Lear

The last thing you will want to include is a synopsis. The synopsis is a tricky piece of writing because it should be professional and at the same time be able to communicate the tone of your book. If you're writing a mystery, suspense should be communicated. If you're writing a historical romance, the agent should get a sense of love, as well as a strong sense of place. Your synopsis should also communicate the general themes and ideas of your book. A book proposal shows the agent that you have completed the book, or at least have a very firm grasp of where it's going. Save the surprises for your readers. Your agent wants to know where this book is going to end up. If there are problems with the general storyline that will affect the marketability of your book, your agent will be able to isolate them here, and you'll be able to make the appropriate changes.

And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer

The order of the document should follow the order that they appear in this article: 1) Your letter should remind your agent who you are; 2) The next thing you want your agent to read is the actual book; and 3) Your synopsis should be the last thing your agent reads. By then, he or she has remembered who you are, is excited about your project, and will want to know how it ends.

If writing a book proposal for fiction sounds cumbersome, that’s because it is. We understand that your book has taken you years to write and all you want, more than anything in the world, is for someone to take a look. You need a break because you want to be a paperback writer, but before you send your book proposal to an agent, send it to our book editors for a preliminary review?

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