How to write a terrible book proposal
And also: how to write quite a good one!
This entire post was in fact prompted by a sample book proposal I saw recently. The writer was a proper expert in his field. He was passionate about his knowledge. He could write decently. He felt that his material was incredibly important, and that sense of passion communicated itself freely and authentically in his writing.
What’s more, his book had a clear and sizeable natural market. There was a real dearth of books offering the slant and angle that he could bring to bear.
All good, right? Green lights all the way.
Except . . .
He wrote things like this:
In 2015 I spent three months in the Himalayas investigating how young Tibetan monks and nuns were trained from the age of eight. The purpose of their curriculum is … [then got into some detail on how those monks and nuns were trained.]
And that’s good. (Because – wow! – this guy learned about the way Tibetan monks and nuns are trained. I want to know about that!)
But it’s also terrible.
Because the information is delivered in a way that drains all the exoticism, all the human interest, out of the anecdote. There wasn’t in fact even an anecdote. Just a piece of information offered without any human colour.
Worse still, the proposed book was all about bringing higher human values into education. This drily delivered, almost ignored anecdote could actually work as a touchstone for the entire book.
So if I had been writing that proposal, I’d have actually opened my introduction for readers with something like this:
It’s not quite dawn. A rose light is creeping up the flank of Mount Yabbedeedoodha across the valley. Down in the still twilit valley, I can see water buffalo and yak drowsily munching.
This is a time when all humans should still be in bed or, at best, brewing the first cup of coffee to get ready for the day ahead. Except that I’m not in bed and I’m not alone.
I’m here in a hall of forty shaven-headed novice monks and nuns. The youngest of them is only eight. The oldest is sixteen. I’ve come here as a specialist in education, but I don’t feel very specialist in this crowd.
I’m not here to teach anything. I’m here to learn.
Now, OK, deathless prose that is not. But You get the point.
It places the author and the reader in some very special place. Human. Specific. Exotic. Located in a precise place and time.
The reader’s response is rather as it would be at the start of a novel. Why are we here? What’s going to happen next? What are these child-monks about to teach this Westerner?
It’s those questions that compel attention. It’s that human anecdote which seduces the reader into the author’s project, and the author’s passion.
If you can get your actual writing to strike the right seductive tone, you will succeed. And if not? Well, you will probably fail, because in the end readers will read your book for pleasure and interest. You need to deliver those things, or die.
Want more help with your book proposal?
If you want more help with your proposal, we’ve got plenty of help to supply:
Get feedback on your proposal
Get one of our professional editors to review your book proposal and give you detailed advice on what to fix and how to fix it. Our full range of editorial services is here. You probably want the agent submission pack service, but if that isn’t quite sufficient for your needs, just tell the office what you’re after and they’ll be able to sort you out.
Learn in detail how to get published
We have a fantastic video course on how to get published – it just tells you everything you could possibly want to know about how to find agents, how to choose agents, how to write query letters, and much more besides. The course is relatively expensive to purchase outright, so most users will want simply to take out a Jericho Writers membership (details here). Members of Jericho Writers get access to all our video courses for free. And all our filmed masterclasses. And our proprietary and world-leading agent database. And a whole heap more as well. So why wait? You know we’re good. Come join us.
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).