Book Proposal Basics

Published on December 23rd

Recently, a good friend of my husband's received an email out of the blue from a publisher of software books--they wanted him to write a book on a new platform he specializes in working with. He was a little surprised, and more than a little daunted. He'd never written a book before, and as much as he was excited by the prospect, he wasn't sure what it would mean. He definitely wasn't sure what the publisher was looking for out of the document they asked him to put together: a book proposal. Fortunately, nonfiction book proposals really aren't as daunting as they may appear to the first-timer, and a lot of what they're about transfers to fiction as well.

A book proposal of any genre is a publisher's way of finding out whether or not your book would be a good investment. You can think of it as a business plan that would go out to potential investors, if that helps you--you want to tell them why this book would be a good idea for them to sell, and why you're the author they should get to write it. Particularly for nonfiction the publisher is looking for marketability more than writing skill at this point in the conversation. Beautiful prose isn't necessary, but selling yourself as an expert in the field and a good investment as an author is.

A nonfiction book proposal should provide the publisher with the answer to three major questions:

  • So What?
  • Who Cares?
  • Why You?

So What? This question is all about the subject of the book. Why will people want to read this book? Why does the subject matter? Is it timely, trendy, applicable to current events? What makes this book different from other books in the field?

In the case of my husband's friend, the book the publisher was soliciting a proposal for was about a relatively niche software API, and when we searched online we found (to my husband's surprise) that there were hardly any books on this API. From a proposal standpoint, that was great--it meant that we didn't have a lot of other titles competing with our theoretical book, and since the API was something of a rising star in coding circles, we'd have no trouble at all pitching to the publisher on this subject.

Who Cares? With this question, the publisher is trying to get at whether there's an audience for your book. Of course we all hope that our book will be the next thing that everybody has to read regardless of whether or not they had an prior interest in the history of hairstyling, or Chinese cuisine, or the printing press... but the publisher can't bank on your book being so ingenious and well-written that it'll soar onto every shelf on its own merits. They want to know for certain that there are people out there who want to hear about this subject, and they want to know that you know who you're talking to. Your book about the history of hairstyling is probably going to be very different if you're writing it for cosmetology students than if you're writing it for history buffs.

For my husband's friend, this was another easy answer--we knew that his book would be targeted at software engineers. No need to worry about explaining the API to web dilettantes like me, or to folks who don't know HTML from CSS. And since this is a new and growing API, again, we had a pretty good argument for there being a lot of developers who would want to learn about it.

Why You? The last question is all about you, the potential author, and why you're the perfect person to bring the fascinating subject of Icelandic knitting techniques (or beer-brewing, or the history of fish sauce) to that wide and clamoring audience we discussed above. What are your qualifications to write about this subject? What gives you credibility to your chosen audience? And do you have a platform to market the book once it's published?

That last question may seem unimportant, or even unfair. The publisher is the one who's going to market your book, right? They're going to schedule cross-country book tours for you and get you on the morning shows, and put up big flashy displays at all the bookstores... aren't they? Sadly, that's not really the case anymore. Publishers are looking for authors who already have a platform--authors who have a huge following on Twitter, or a blog with tons of folks commenting on every entry. That's not necessarily a requirement, but it's the best-case scenario that they dream of, because it means all those Twitter followers and blog readers are going to rush out to buy this book as soon as it's published, and those purchase numbers will mean the bookstores and online retailers will push the book harder, and the publisher will be in the green.

So what about if you don't have thousands of Twitter followers? What if your blog doesn't have a fiercely loyal audience that hangs on your every word, and you're not a minor celebrity in your field? Well... would you be willing to work on any of that? This is the question I asked my husband's friend, because you don't necessarily have to have these things in advance. What you really need to have is a plan, and concrete steps on how you're going to market your book yourself. Maybe you spend more time on your social media presence, or post more regularly to your blog. Spruce up your website ahead of time and get some traffic going to it. Put yourself forward at professional conferences, give talks, call in some favors with that cousin or that sister's friend who works for the local radio or TV station, or who teaches a class at a community college that's tangential to your own field. Network, and try to expand the ways you can reach likely readers of your book, and plan to do all of this in advance of your book coming out. The publisher doesn't necessarily need you to be Oprah, but they do want to know that you'll put in the effort to market yourself and the book they'll hopefully be paying you to write, because the era of the publisher doing all the work is gone (if it was ever really there for the majority of writers).

In the end, this was where my husband's friend realized that he really didn't have the drive. He's got a young child and another on the way, his wife works in a very high-pressure field, they just moved... it's not a good time for him to be trying to reinvent himself as a high-power marketing machine, or, realistically, to write a book. Maybe someday in the future. But if he gets there, now he'll at least know what it takes to write a good book proposal.

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