What’s a Fiction Book Proposal?

So, you’ve written a novel. And then you’ve rewritten it. And rewritten it again. Beta-readers and editors have been through it with a fine-toothed comb, and it’s as ready for publication as it will ever be. So you’ve sent out query letters to agents, hoping to find one to represent you to the publishing houses. Now what? You write a fiction book proposal.

fiction-book-proposalBecause agents and publishers are busy important people with busy important things to do, and they’re not going to read your complete, unsolicited, over-the-transom manuscript just because you asked them nicely.

Honestly, they don’t care about you and your literary aspirations. They have car payments and mortgages and kids and spouses, same as other people. They have things to do. So unless they want to do you a favor, they’re going to toss your complete manuscript onto the slush pile to be read “someday” when they have time.

And as I’ve said before on this blog, “someday” is the day after “one day” and the day before “never.”

So what you need to do next is prepare a book proposal.

What’s a fiction book proposal and how do I prepare one?

This one just turned 13! Happy Birthday, Kid!

Glad you asked. Otherwise I’d have nothing better to do this week than share pictures of my kids with you.

A book proposal argues why your book (idea) is a salable, marketable product. It acts as a business case or business plan for your book that persuades a publisher to make an investment in you and your project. If properly developed and researched, a proposal can take weeks, even months, to write. While proposal length varies tremendously, most are somewhere around 10–25 pages double-spaced, not including sample chapters. It’s not out of the question for a proposal to reach 50 pages or more for complex projects once sample materials are included.

Order of Operations

First things first: You normally send a full proposal only when an agent or editor has requested one, based on your written query or a face-to-face meeting at a conference. Sending a full proposal without so much as a howdy-do is about as verboten as walking into an agent’s office unannounced and kissing him full on the mouth.

fiction book proposalBut, to be honest, you don’t need to have a finished manuscript to write a fiction book proposal. In fact, most multi-published professional authors write the book proposal first and shop it around until they find someone interested in paying them to write the manuscript.

And this is actually what I would suggest you do as well. Writing a novel is a time-consuming process, considering all the hours and drafts and editorial costs involved. If you’re not getting paid for it in the first place, you might be throwing your time/energy/money away.

Of course, if you’ve never written a novel before, you might want to know for sure that you can actually write one before you commit to doing it for someone else’s money. Certainly any agent/editor you approach will want to know you can before they commit time and money to you.

But if you’ve never written a novel before, I still recommend going through the process of preparing a book proposal, even if only for yourself. The insights it gives you into the future of the manuscript can help clarify your ideas about the story. And once you have it done, it doesn’t necessarily hurt to send it out to agents/publishers while you’re writing the manuscript. The worst they can say is, “No.”

The Most Important Thing about a Fiction Book Proposal

The most important thing about a fiction book proposal is the writing itself. Your sample chapters have to shine before you’ll capture an agent’s or editor’s attention. So, in a fiction book proposal, you’ll be most successful at catching attention if your first page includes a killer “hook” and a concise synopsis that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, but intrigues the reader enough to feel they must read your book.

But nearly as important is the marketing aspect. Much of your proposal isn’t about the book at all, but about you and how you can help market your own book.

But Mike! Isn’t marketing the publisher’s job?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that they’re going to invest money in the production and design, distribution and sales of your book, so it’s in their own best interest to also invest in the marketing of your book. But no, in the sense that they haven’t made that investment yet, and they might not unless you can show them that a market already exists, who they are, and why they’ll be interested in buying your book.

Here’s an example of a P&L from Berret-Koehler, an outside-of-New-York publisher. It was distributed as a handout at the IBPA Publishing University Conference in San Francisco on 3-10-12 and was found here (http://www.slideshare.net/davidpaulmarshall/berrettkoehler-publishers-new-book-pl)

Also, keep in mind that, as an author, you work for a company called “Me.” Even if a publisher picks up your title, they’ll expect you to be available for book signings, public appearances, and other marketing functions. And it behooves you to make those appearances, because the more connected the reader feels to you as a person, the more likely they are to buy your book. And the next one. And the one after that. If you think you’re “too good” for this sort of marketing, keep in mind that J.K. Rowling still shows up for movie premieres and book signings for her Harry Potter books, as well as her other projects.

And while we’re on the subject, do you remember when I talked about “the dreaded P&L,” the profit-and-loss statement that publishers will prepare to determine whether or not to offer you a contract for your book?

Well, guess what? If you really hope to impress an agent with your business-savvy and professional demeanor, you’ll jump the shark and prepare a P&L statement of your own to include with your fiction book proposal.

Why? Because an agent wants to know that you understand that this is a business. There are lots of airy-fairy, hippie-dippie, wanna-be-published writers out there who can maybe sorta string words together, whenever they feel the gossamer fire of inspiration descend upon them from the Muses in the heavens…

Those are not the writers that agents want to work with. They want to work with the writers who get things done, understand the consumer market for what they’ve done, and have a thought in their head for how to sell it, and (most importantly) how to make a profit.

So now that you’ve decided to write a book proposal, what next?

Glad you asked. My next post will be all about it.

So tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!


Adam West (1954–2017)
RIP Batman











Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in The Business of Writing, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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