How to Make Your Book Proposal Rise to the Top

How to Write a Book Proposal to Get a Publisher (long)

But first, the publishing stories worth reading this week:

The Elements of Style (Stefan Beck for The Wall Street Journal): Hat tip to Jarrett for telling me about How to Write Like Tolstoy, a new craft-of-writing book coming out. As the WSJ puts it: “Part of the value of a college education is that it alerts the autodidact to his embarrassing blind spots. This book is a decent substitute.” Well, that sounds essential, doesn’t it?

How to Read Critically and Become a Better Author (Kristen Kieffer of She’s Novel): “Just as writers create books, books are integral to the creation of writers. Think about it: would you be a writer today if you hadn’t first fallen in love with reading? Books can make an incredible impact on writers. And this impact? It thrives when you read critically.”

The Rise of Plagiarism in the Age of Self-Publishing (Joy Lanzendorfer for The Atlantic): A fascinating look at how and why plagiarism happens: “Some observers believed Harner resorted to plagiarism to keep her rankings up, Carew said. Before she was caught, Harner was considered unusually prolific, producing 75 novels in five years. Amazon rewards writers who come out with new books quickly by putting them higher in the rankings, which in turn means more sales. This policy also puts pressure on authors to write more to maintain visibility and to offset the dropping price of ebooks. ‘This may sound crazy, but I have 18 releases planned for this year,’ Carew said. ‘In order to survive, I have to put out as many books as I can … If you’re living on your writing like I am, the stress can get to you.'”

Traveling Salesman (Roy Blount, Jr. in Garden & Gun): If you want to have a good giggle about the very ridiculousness that is selling books for a living, take a minute with this Roy Blount, Jr. piece.


A Behind-the-Scenes Look at What Makes Proposals Rise to the Top of the Stack

How to Write a Book Proposal to Get a Publisher

I’m very happy to have Chad Allen on the blog today to talk to us about how he reviews proposals and acquires books. He’s also going to give us an inside look at how editors pitch books to their own teams (because yes, every editor has to learn the art of the pitch, too!). 

Chad is a writer, editor, and creativity coach. He’s also the creator of Book Proposal Academy, an online course that helps nonfiction writers craft winning book proposals. He serves as an editorial director for Baker Publishing Group, an independently owned faith-based publisher in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You’ll find him blogging at

Over to you, Chad!

This year I will review well over a hundred book proposals, and my personal goal is to acquire at least fifteen high-quality original books within the year.

Just because I present a book in pub board does not mean I’ll acquire it because other publishers will also be pursuing it. Assuming a 50 percent success rate, I need to pick about 30 books to bring to pub board. Other editors may review hundreds of book proposals and have a goal of acquiring more or fewer books, but at least in trade publishing I doubt the math I’ve laid out here changes much from house to house or editor to editor.

We review a humongous number of book proposals and try to acquire a fraction of them.

So how can a writer make sure their book proposal rises to the top of the stack? In this article I’m going to share exactly how I review a book proposal and how you the writer can make sure I keep reading. That should be the goal, by the way: keep us reading. Here we go:

1. Cover Page

The first thing I look at is the cover page, which typically includes the title, subtitle, and author’s name. I look quickly at the author’s name just in case I might know him or her. Then I take in the title and sub. Normally I have an immediate impression of how saleable the concept is just from the title and sub.

This underscores the importance of developing a great concept. It is the first thing acquisitions editors review, so it’s important to get it right. To download an infographic and four-minute video on how to come up with a compelling concept, click here.

2. Bio

If the title and sub intrigue me, I read the author’s bio. I want to know who the author is, whether they’re credible to write on this topic, what their platform is like, and what they might be like to work with. To read more about writing a solid bio, click here.

3. Brief Description

If the bio keeps me going, I go to the brief description of the book, which hopefully will flesh out the impression I got from reviewing the title and subtitle. Hopefully the brief description is written in a way that hooks me, that keeps me interested. Here’s a post I did on writing a compelling brief description.

4. Marketing Section

Then I go to the marketing section, which tells me more about the author. The marketing section tells me more about the author and how much work she is willing to invest in promoting her book. Here’s a post I wrote on marketing.

Notice that up to this point I’m bouncing back and forth between concept and author. It’s not until the last step that I look at structure and the writing sample.

5. Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis and Writing Sample

Then I look at the structure of the book and how well the writer can write, although what I’ve read so far will give me some indication of the latter. If I’ve read your proposal up to this point, I really hope you don’t stumble here. And if you’ve done your homework—if you’ve had other talented people look at your structure and read your sample, and you’ve implemented their input—chances are you’ll be fine.

I review the elements of a book proposal in the above order because these are the things I value most. First and foremost is concept. If you don’t have a good concept, you’re done. “You might as well stay in bed,” as William Zinsser says. Then your bio. I want to know who you are, and would I like to work with you? Finally, the structure and writing. Does the structure make sense and suggest a good experience for the reader? Does the writing draw me in and make me want to stay in the book for a while?

What Happens in Pub Board

If I like your proposal, I first talk about it with my editorial colleagues to see if they have any push-back or ways to make your proposal better. If I come back to you and ask for you to, say, flesh out your marketing plan, work hard! I’m asking because I think this is the one weak link between you and a book contract.

Then I bring your project to our pub board, a group of about fifteen people from editorial, marketing/publicity, and sales. We distribute book proposals to pub board members about a week before we get together.

Each editor has their own style of presenting. We like to keep our presentations to five minutes or less because the point in pub board is not presenting but dialogue. We want to engage with each other about the project, tell each other what we think, why we like it or why we don’t.

After touching on how the proposal came to me, I typically introduce the author—who he or she is and what their platform is. Then I talk about the concept, how the book is constructed, and what I thought of the writing.

Like I said, my shtick is less than five minutes, and in most cases we come fairly quickly to a consensus one way or the other on a proposed book. The three possible outcomes are “Yes, let’s publish it,” “No, let’s don’t,” or “Let’s ask for this first.”

I hope this article has been helpful to you. If you have any questions, fire away, and I’ll check in throughout the day to respond.

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How to Write a Book Proposal to Get a Publisher (long)

5 thoughts on “How to Make Your Book Proposal Rise to the Top

  1. This is a fabulous post and one I will be referring to often. It is concise, explains why each point is important and provides me with a step by step framework. I may actually have the confidence to compose my own proposal now. Thank you. I also really enjoyed your guest post on Chad’s site. Point #3 hit home!!

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