Tough Love and the Art of the Book Proposal

I got my start in publishing at Ross Yoon Literary Agency, a place known throughout the industry for its stellar nonfiction book proposals. The agents at the Washington, DC–based firm spend a great deal of time and effort shaping and perfecting their book proposals. And guess what? It pays off. The following are tips I learned not only from my first employers, but from proposals I've edited and ghostwritten for them and for other clients in the thirteen years since I left DC (calculating that just now has made me feel very old). My advice may sound a little harsh at times, but I believe in tough love at the beginning of a proposal process—there's plenty of time for cheerleading later in the game if you make it past the first kickoff. (And yes, I’m excited that football season is here.)

1. Have a kick-ass hook. What do you have to say? Has it been said before? Has it been said in this way before? Do you have a finely honed two-sentence pitch that will stick with people? Remember that agents and publishers see dozens of proposals a week. What makes yours memorable? What may seem like a unique experience to you and your peers could be old hat to editors.

Let’s say you biked to South America to raise awareness for muscular dystrophy and now you want to write a book about it. Guess what? Acquisitions editors have seen dozens just like it. If you think you've found the key to dieting, or happiness, or financial success, how will your book proposal be different from the hundreds upon hundreds of similar proposals they've already seen? This may seem harsh, but it’s better to ask yourself the tough questions now than down the road when you’ve put countless hours into a proposal that hangs on a not-so-great premise.

2. Believe in the power of the platform. Yes, I know you're tired of hearing about this. "Why do publishers only care about my platform and not the substance and quality of my book?" the would-be author asks bitterly. The answer is that they do care about the substance and quality of your book (see below), but they also care about your platform. Remember, their job security frequently depends on the books they acquire and how well these books sell. And no matter how much an editor might love the quality of your writing, she still has to go in and convince a sales team that a healthy readership already exists. Don't skimp on building your platform, on pushing your ideas, and on developing your social media savvy (in a natural, non-obnoxious way—see Andrea Dunlop for how).

3. Use the proposal format to highlight what's best about your book. There are certain pieces you really must have in every proposal: an overview, about the author, and marketing section. But beyond that, I like a freestyle approach. You need to give editors a sense of the book's structure and arc, and a strong handle on the quality of the writing. Those are the only absolutes. So if you have fantastic nuggets of wisdom to dole out in every single chapter, do so in extended chapter summaries. If the chapter-by-chapter progression is solid, but it's really the full chapters that have the meat, then include one or two completely fleshed-out sample chapters, and keep the chapter summaries short.

Memoir is perhaps the trickiest genre to represent in the proposal format. A memoir needs to have the same appeal as a novel, but you wouldn’t be able to sell a novel based on a proposal. My approach to memoir is usually to opt out of sample chapters in favor of longer narrative chapter summaries. Think of it as the abridged version of your book. And if it sounds like this—writing the whole book in miniature—takes a long time, you're right. It does.

4. Quality writing still matters—and it always will. A proposal is a sales document, yes, but you are essentially proving to publishers that you have the chops to write a great book. Whether your writing talent comes through in the chapter summaries or the sample chapter doesn't matter, so long as it comes through. Don't assume an editor is going to go bananas about your platform or your hook and neglect to pay attention to the writing. Many have been in the position where they convinced their bosses to buy a book based on its great idea, only to find that the author couldn’t pull it off, meaning they’re faced with a potentially ugly contract termination, a hole on their spring list, or both.  Editors need to know that you have the chops to pull off a book, and this is your chance to show them.

5. Substance is as important as flash. Your book needs enough new, fresh material to not only get a reader’s attention, but to sustain it through eighty thousand words. If it doesn’t, then what you have is a magazine article, not a book—and that's one of editors' most common reasons for sending a rejection letter.

6. Don't forget to shine, buff, and polish. This is the easy part if you're detail oriented. I don't recommend authors have their proposals copyedited—if you miss an obscure nuance from The Chicago Manual of Style, it's not going to make or break your chances. But it should be clean. The spacing and fonts should be consistent. The grammar should be impeccable. It's just annoying to read a proposal that looks messy, and it suggests that the author doesn't care enough to get it right. The last thing you want to do in a market this competitive is annoy the person you’re trying to sell on your greatness.

 

I can't promise that if you nail all six of these points, then you'll land a six-figure book deal. I've had disappointments—everyone in the business has. But in a tough game, it only makes sense to go big or go home. On that note, have I mentioned football season starts this week? GO SEAHAWKS!