A Checklist of Book Proposal Essentials to Go Through Before You Start Schmoozing Agents

In my wildest fantasies, an editor from Seal Press stumbles upon that personal essay I wrote about the awkwardness of babymaking sex—or the blog post I wrote about landing a husband despite being a crazy cat lady, or that other piece I wrote about my shifting body image—and feels compelled to email me, begging me to write a book for them about being a sex writer with low libido; or about yoga and body image; or about how adorable my cats are.

And p.s. They find me totally charming.

Then they attach a book contract to the email and I live happily ever after.

However, I’ve come to grips with the fact that this will likely not happen, and as such I actually worked my ass off to put together a solid book proposal. And then I went through the process of querying agents.

I landed one, too.

And though this is no guarantee that my book (or any book I conceive of) will ever see the light of day, it’s still a huge step in the right direction.

So I thought I’d share with you the essentials worth including in your own book proposal—just in case you were also sick of waiting around for that dream email.

1. Compelling Title and Subtitle. Most publishers brainstorm new title options for every book they buy. But it’s still a good idea to name your book from the outset. If it’s compelling or clever enough, it will entice an agent into reading more. It will also help them envision your book as a finished product.

2. Book Description. Please. Don’t half-ass this. Aside from your initial query letter and book title, this will be the first thing an agent sees. If you don’t grab an agent’s attention from the very beginning, they may never continue on past the first paragraph, let alone the first page.

3. About You. As in your typical magazine query letter, this is the part of the proposal where you drive home why you’re the best person to write this book. This paragraph may include info on your writing background, any unique experiences or connections you have, the lowdown on your very special area of expertise, links to previously published clips, details on your already-existing platform, etc.

4. Manuscript Details. Don’t make an agent work too hard to imagine your book as a finished product. Give a projected word count. Mention which publishing categories it might fall under in your local bookstore. Give an idea of how long it will take you to complete a first draft of the manuscript.

5. Target Audience. Once your agent starts sending your proposal around, publishers will want to know—more than anything else—how easily they’ll be able to sell your book. Because of this, you need to convey that there is a large enough audience out there for the book you’re proposing. Write about the people who will be dying to purchase your book. Write about what benefits the reader will derive from your book. This is the type of information that can be used later on within your book’s marketing copy.

And while a publisher will want to see proof that there is, indeed, an audience for your book, make sure you’re not attempting to sell to everyone. When you try to make everyone happy with your work, you end up writing for no one.

6. Competitive Analysis. You really need to do your homework here. This is the section of your proposal where you mention the existence of other, similar books on the market… And then explain what sets your book apart from them.

This does two things:

1. It shows the publisher that there is an existing market for the type of book you’re proposing.

2. It presents your book’s unique selling proposition (or why a reader would still want to buy your book even after they’ve already read competing books).

7. Marketing/Publicity Ideas. We live in an age where the book publisher can’t afford to do it all. Because of this, you now have to show agents and publishers that you have a strong platform, and that you can leverage your platform to promote your book both before and after it’s published. In addition to mentioning your blog/vlog/podcast/social media presence, this section should include suggestions for media outlets that may want to review your book or conduct an interview with you, reading series you could conceivably participate in, other outlets where you could do readings or other types of events, details of the blog tour you will be more than willing to organize yourself, articles you’re willing to write, alternative sales channels, etc.

8. Annotated TOC. This is where you lay out the contents of your book. It’s an outline that includes a one-paragraph description of each chapter.

9. Book Excerpt. Wait! You’re not out of the woods yet. In addition to all of this information you so painstakingly pulled together, an agent will want to see some proof that you can actually execute what you’ve promised. Fiction writers typically have to submit a full manuscript along with their book proposal, while nonfiction writers can oftentimes get away with an intro and first chapter.

After you’ve pulled all of this information together, resist swamping agents’ inboxes with the whole damn thing. Most agents prefer to receive a brief query letter first, inviting them to check out / request your proposal. Agent preferences vary, so be sure to do due diligence before sending things out, checking out the instructions on their agency websites.

And then distract yourself with the next writing project, because the waiting game can be brutal.

Good luck out there.