Book proposals: the necessary evil | Martin Toseland

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Book proposals: the necessary evil

I’ve been working with an adventurer for the past few months. The book, when it comes out, will be an account of his many expeditions every one of which has provoked observations about the nature of life-changing moments and how to handle them. The author is interesting, the experiences compelling, and the insights he has are challenging and stimulating. It’s a great book to be working on.

Did you pick up on the ‘but’ hanging over that paragraph? As eager as I am to start writing the book, there is the small matter of the book proposal. Or rather, the huge matter of the book proposal.

To be clear, a proposal (or synopsis as it’s sometimes called) is a pitching document to agents and/or publishers. Its aim is to make the case that there is a substantial enough market for your book that a publisher should invest in it and that you (or you with your ghost) are the right person to write it. Think of it as a sales brochure.

The format of the proposal is pretty standard for most non-fiction books (fiction and memoir usually sell on a completed manuscript unless the author is very well known). It will typically include a sentence or two that summarises the book in a punchy, attention-grabbing way (the literary equivalent of the elevator pitch), a longer development  and exploration of the subject and themes of the book, a detailed description of each of the chapters, a CV and author biog (including presence on social media platforms, media connections, and potential for generating publicity) which supports the author’s claim to be the best person to write the book, and some analysis of both the potential market and existing competition. Finally, there will be one or more sample chapters to give a flavour of the writing style and level. Apart from the sample material, the whole document is written from the angle of why the book needs to be published and therefore why it will succeed. Like I said, it’s a sales document.

Given that proposals can easily stretch to 30 pages (c15,000 words), that’s a hell of a lot of sales copy to write. And of course, to be able to write the copy with authority and conviction, the author (and/or ghost) needs to be completely on top of the brief, clear about where and how the book is to be positioned in relation to existing books in the same field, and confident that the different angle of attack is one that its intended readership will respond to. Above all, the premise of the book needs to be able to stand up to a rigorous examination. Often that examination can lead to a reappraisal of the whole project. While this is very good for the final book, it can be very time-consuming. All in all, writing a book proposal is a not as straightforward as it may sound – and remember there are no guarantees at the end that a publishing contract will be offered.

You’ll find people out there who say that writing the proposal is easier than writing the book. That maybe so but my message is never to underestimate the amount of work that writing a good book proposal requires. And if, as an author, you find the whole thing overwhelming, come and talk to someone at United Ghostwriters – we know how much work it is, but thankfully have done it all before.

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