How to generate your own Sample Book Proposal
For any subject you like, in any genre you like
So, we’ve dealt with the preamble-type material.
We’ve written a short covering letter for your agent or publisher. We’ve given them a professional bio of some kind. We’ve given them an overview of the market and a good understanding of why a book like the one we want to write is needed and interesting.
But . . .
All that material is fine and dandy in its way, but it doesn’t actually answer one rather important question. Namely:
Can you actually write?
Or, to put the same question a little more specifically:
Can you actually write in a way that ordinary readers will find interesting and compelling?
It is here where the vast majority of otherwise perfectly acceptable book proposals come unstuck.
The problem is that people who are expert in their areas, and passionate about their expertise, feel that they can simply talk about all the wonderful things they know and other people will just share the joy.
And no. It doesn’t work like that.
I’ll talk about the single commonest make we see in book proposals. (And we see it so frequently, that it’s actually quite rare we don’t have to do some work in this area.) But first we should just finish building our list of the documents needed to round out your proposal.
- The introduction for your book, as it would actually appear in your final book. In other words, this is where you are explaining your book to your eventual reader – writing a manifesto for it, in effect.
- The first three chapters of your book. Or, in fact, if your book can happily be read out of sequence, then any three chapters you care to offer. When I put together my proposal for This Little Britain, I just write five or six random chapters and picked the three or four I liked the best. They weren’t in sequence, and nobody cared.
- An outline of everything else. You can go detailed with the outline, or you can be quite light of touch.
Because I’m lazy, I tend to go for a fairly slimline outline. With This Little Britain, I hadn’t in fact done much of the research that the whole book would need, so my outline was really quite sketchy. When I was having a celebration lunch with the team from HarperCollins that went on to buy the book, I brought up the subject of my very sketchy outline. “Do you actually want to know what the book is about?” I asked “Because my outline didn’t really tell you very much.” Publishers are very polite, as a rule, so they said, yes, please, they would very much like to know a little more about the book they had just bought for almost £100,000. So (being polite myself) I told them.
Now one implicaton of all this is simple.
If you want to see a sample book proposal for a book in your exact subject area, you can just wander down to your local good-sized bookstore and buy a couple of recent titles in your genre.
Here’s what you need to do next:
- Take one of the books (just make sure you have completed your purchase before you proceed to the next step.)
- Tear off the front cover.
- Tear off any publisher’s yidda-yadda and any dedication page or the like.
- Then flip forward to the end of chapter three, and rip off the entire back part of the book.
The stuff that remains in your hands – the table of contents, the introduction, the first three chapters – that right there IS the book proposal.
Yes, the covering material we talked about earlier in this post, that matters too. But it’s not the heart of it. The heart of any book proposal is the stuff you have in your hands right now.
If you get that material right – if it’s entertaining, compelling, urgent, repeatable – then you will sell your book.
So we’re good, right? You now know everything you need to put your book proposal together?
Well, no, not quite.
Because we haven’t yet addressed the hideous error that defaces almost every book proposal that ever comes our way.
Hold your hats on, my non-fictioneer buddies. We’re about to reveal all.
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.