How to Write a Book Proposal

This article on how to write a book proposal will take you through the steps of conceiving, writing, and pitching a book proposal. Information includes book proposal components, book proposal word count, and even the book proposal query letter. If you’re wondering how to sell a book on proposal, you’ve come to the right place.

How to Write a Book Proposal

Writing a book proposal is great! It means you create a relatively short document and writing sample for a book project, instead of completing the whole thing. You’ll spend weeks on this document instead of, potentially, years. And you can try to sell a book on proposal much more quickly than you’ll be able to if you have to complete the manuscript first. Unfortunately, most things are not sold on proposal, especially by debut authors.

Before you dive into writing a book proposal, determine if you need one. For the most part, nonfiction books and memoirs are sold on proposal, though some publishers will want to see full memoir texts. That leaves largely nonfiction projects in categories like business, diet, finance, reference, parenting, etc. Novels are sold as complete manuscripts, unless you are an established writer. Then your literary agent or publisher may accept a proposal. The vast majority of children’s books are sold as complete manuscripts, rather than proposals. This includes picture books (even nonfiction picture books), early readers, chapter books, middle grade novels, and young adult novels. 

If you’ve determined that you need a book proposal, how to write a book proposal is the next question. Luckily, book proposals are very regimented. All contenders have generally the same book proposal formatting, and the same book proposal content. It will behoove you to follow standard book proposal format. Helpful books like How to Write a Book Proposal by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen (LINK) and The Weekend Book Proposal by Ryan Van Cleave do a great job of summarizing and explaining every facet of writing a book proposal.

Since writing a book proposal is pretty formulaic, the writing sample that most book proposals include is really your chance to shine. For this, you can choose two or three chapters from your book that you feel will best represent the finished work. Complete them as if you’re writing the finished product. Include them at the end of your book proposal. While the proposal is, of course, important, this writing sample is often the make-or-break element.

Book Proposal Word Count

Book proposal word count varies widely. Some book proposals are on the short side, coming in at closer to 5,000 words for every component. Others are more detailed, approaching or exceeding 10,000 words. The real wild card is the book proposal writing sample. Some sample chapters run 2,000 words, others run into the five figures. It all depends on your book, your category, and how long your chapters are. It’s not unusual to see writing samples in the 10,000-20,000-word range, but don’t panic if your chapters are shorter. (If that’s the case, consider including more than two or three.)

Book Proposal Page Count

How long should a book proposal be? Another question with a vague answer. Book proposal length depends on how thorough your proposal is, and how much sample material you include. The average book proposal itself will be between 15 and 30 pages. But book proposal length also includes those sample chapters, and this is where individual projects can land all over the map. If your book proposal is shorter than ten pages without sample material, however, it’s probably too short. Add some comp titles, brainstorm some more potential audiences for the book, and flesh out your marketing section—these are all places where you can do some extra homework and add material.

How to Publish a Book Proposal

The joy of writing a book proposal is that you can potentially sell a book without having to write the whole thing first. This way, if you have a great timely nonfiction idea, you can submit a book proposal and see if it has legs. If a publisher bites, you get yourself a book deal. If nobody’s interested, at least you didn’t invest too much time completing a full manuscript. Publishers accepting book proposals tend to traffic largely in nonfiction, current events books, and concept books. Novel publishers and most children’s book publishers don’t tend to buy books on proposal.

The best way to get your book proposal seen is to write a query letter for a nonfiction book proposal that focuses on market need. Then try sending your book proposal to a literary agent, or publishers accepting book proposals. Your pitch should be focused and quick, because a lot of these points will be covered in the proposal in more detail. Some points to hit: Why the market needs this book, why it’s different from its competitors, and why you’re the person to write it. Why does it matter? Why now? Really pitch heavily with your query letter. The agent route is probably the most direct, as book proposal literary agents will be able to get you into bigger publishing houses. Publishers accepting book proposals directly from writers will tend to be smaller or more specialized.

If you’re writing in a category that sells on proposal, keep generating ideas and fleshing them into pitches. You may end up writing more proposals than full manuscripts, but you’ll get the hang of the book proposal format very quickly with some practice. Going out on submission is a topic in and of itself, and you can read more how to get published here.

hiring a book proposal editor

Now you know more about how to write a book proposal. Sometimes it helps to get a second set of eyes on your nonfiction book proposal. Check out further resources on how to find an editor, and get insight into estimates of editorial service rates.

Please don’t hesitate to check out my writing craft book or reach out for editorial services via the contact form, below.

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