How to write a book proposal


When you can get away with a book proposal

You cannot sell fiction using a book proposal. Even experienced authors generally have to write a complete novel before they can be sure of selling it. And literary agents will accept nothing less.

But you can sell certain sorts of non-fiction of the back of a proposal. Not a book, but a blueprint for a book.

General non-fiction that outlines an idea, an argument, a historical story etc. is suitable for this kind of treatment. The more narrative-driven types of non-fiction (travel books, memoirs, etc.) will, sorry to say, need you to write the whole darn thing.

If your book is suitable for a proposal, then this Quick Guide tells you what to do next - and where to come for serious advice.


The perfect book proposal

A good book proposal should comprise:

  • The introduction to your book, which should get the reader interested in the subject and tell them why that subject is important for them to know about.
  • The first 2-3 chapters, at least. Ideally 10,000 words or more.
  • An outline of the rest of the book.
  • A covering letter introducing you, your idea, and any relevant material on where you think the potential market lies.

Done well, such a proposal can sell and sell well. Workshop founder Harry Bingham sold his This Little Britain off the back of a proposal exactly like this. His academic qualifications to write the book in question? Precisely nil. The quality of the material is what sells the book, not any number of letters after your name.


The commonest mistake

Compare these two bits of text:

Back in ancient Egypt the image of the rising (or, just possibly, setting) sun was of huge sacred and symbolic significance. What's less well recognised now is how widepsread those traditions still are today, and how multifarious are their roots. The purpose of this book is to explore some of the principal traditions of what I refer to here as sacred symbolism ...

Bored? Of course you are. Yet a book on this topic might well have some extraordinary & fascinating things to say. But just because you've got interesting things to say doesn't mean you can get away with saying them in a boring way. Here's the same thing again, but with a totally different approach:

I had just run from the British Museum. I had been at work preparing a major new exhibition on Ancient Egypt - doing everything from preparing mummies for display to checking there were no spiders in the sarcophagi (well, someone has to). I reached the station with a few minutes to spare. I grabbed a coffee from a stall and leaped on the train, just as it was about to pull out. As I reached for my coffee, I suddenly noticed the shop's logo: a highly simplified depiction of the rising sun ...

That paragraph says the same thing. Or is about to, anyway. But it is going to say it from an angle personal, immediate, physical, non-abstract, intriguing, humorous.

The first book proposal will never attract a literary agent. The second one just might. Wonderful ideas are needed for sure, but if you want a broad, mainstream, non-academic audience then you just have to put those ideas down in an interesting way. We've worked with some wonderfully intelligent non-fiction writers over the years. Nearly all of them have failed to present their work in a way which would intrigue a reader, a publisher or a literary agent.

If you want our single top tip for avoiding disappointment, it's to write like the second bit of text above, not the first. And if you want all our tips for making your proposal stand out from the crowd, then we'd suggest you send it to us for one of our non-fiction pros to read, assess and advise on. It may be the best investment you could possibly make.