How to write a book proposal

When you can get away with a book proposal

You can’t sell fiction using a book proposal.

Even experienced authors generally must write a complete novel before they can be sure of selling it. And literary agents will accept nothing less.

You can, however, sell certain sorts of non-fiction on the back of a proposal. Not a book, but a blueprint for a book. General non-fiction that outlines an idea or argument is suitable for this kind of treatment. More narrative-driven types of non-fiction (travel books, memoirs, etc.) will need you to write the whole thing.

If your book is suitable for a proposal, then this guide tells you what to do next and where to come for advice.

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A perfect book proposal

A good book proposal should comprise:

  • An introduction to your book, which should get the reader interested in the subject, telling them why that subject is important for them to know about.
  • The first 2-3 chapters, at least. Ideally, 10,000 words or more.
  • An outline of the rest of the book.
  • A covering letter introducing you, your idea, and any relevant material on where you think the potential market lies.

Founder Harry Bingham sold his This Little Britain off the back of a proposal exactly like this. His academic qualifications to write the book in question? None. The quality of the material is what sells the book, not any number of letters after your name.

Easy mistakes

Compare these two texts:

Back in ancient Egypt the image of the rising sun was of huge sacred and symbolic significance. What’s less well recognised now is how widespread those traditions still are today, and how multifarious are their roots. The purpose of this book is to explore some of the principal traditions of what I refer to here as sacred symbolism …

Bored yet?

Reading between the lines, though, this book may well have unique, fascinating things to share.

Here’s another go:

I had just run from the British Museum. I had been at work preparing a major new exhibition on Ancient Egypt, doing everything from preparing mummies for display to checking there were no spiders in the sarcophagi (well, someone has to). I reached the station with a few minutes to spare. I grabbed a coffee from a stall and leaped on the train, just as it was about to pull out. As I reached for my coffee, I suddenly noticed the shop’s logo: a highly simplified depiction of the rising sun …

That opens with a more personal, immediate style of writing. The first book proposal is unlikely to attract a literary agent. The second one just might.

Wonderful ideas are needed, for sure, but you need to put those ideas down in an interesting way.

Write with clarity and immediacy, concisely, without veering into abstract prose.

And if you want all our tips for making your proposal stand out from the crowd, we’d suggest you send it to us for one of our non-fiction professional editors to read and assess.

We’re here to help, so just get in touch.

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Real agents, real writers, real decisions