Last week, we discussed what a fiction book proposal is, and why you need one. This week, we’ll look at the form and function of a standard fiction book proposal in more detail.
In this post, I’ll cover the critical elements of an average but thorough proposal. But keep in mind that each agent and publisher is a special snowflake, and may have variations from the norm in their own requirements. Once you’ve selected the agents/publishers you’ll approach, research that agent’s/publisher’s requirements, standards and procedures.
Industry Standard Fiction Book Proposal Format
While individual agents or publishers might have their own specific requirements, 99.9% of US agents and publishers follow this industry-wide standard for fiction book proposals. These standards have been hallowed by time and consecrated by tradition. Ignore them at your own peril.
- 12 point Times New Roman font on standard white 8-1/2 x 11 inch, 20-pound bond copy paper.
- Single-space the entire proposal EXCEPT the sample chapters which need to be double-spaced.
- Number ALL pages sequentially, including your sample chapters; e.g., if the first page of your sample chapter is the 5th page of your proposal, then number it as “Page 5,” not “Page 1”.
- Footer: include your name, title, and page number on the footer of every page
- NEVER BIND, HOLE-PUNCH, OR STAPLE PAGES!
“But Mike! My fiction is all about kittens that smell like lavender! Wouldn’t it be awesome if the pages were lavender-colored and -scented, with a cute kitty watermark on each page?”
No. Just… Ye Gods. No.
The reasons for these standards are simple: readability and professionalism. Agents and editors read A LOT of proposals. If yours isn’t easy to read, and doesn’t follow the barest minimum of standard industry protocol? “Pink paper, with kitties… And is that lavender I smell? Gee, this one’s easy.” ThUnK! Waste bin. “On to the next…”
This is basically a re-hash of the fiction query letter. Follow the Four C’s of business communication: be Courteous, Compelling, Concise, and provide your Contact info. Be professional and business-like rather than casual or quirky. Use no more than 2/3 of a page, single-spaced. Include, at the most, four brief paragraphs.
If your proposal has been solicited in response to a query letter, make note of that fact in the first paragraph, and thank the reader for inviting the proposal.
Capture immediate attention by explaining why your novel will grab the reader when they see it on the shelf and compel them to pick it up and buy it. Be specific. Is it because you already have a following, perhaps because of a blog or previous publications? Is it the timely nature or powerful impact of the plot?
Your double task is to communicate the unique aspects of characterization and plot that make this novel compelling and unlike any other, but also to flag those aspects that will appeal to someone who enjoyed some similar, already successful novel.
Thank the agent/editor for their time and considerations and offer complete contact information.
State whether this is a multiple submission. “Multiple submission” means that you’re sending the same proposal to multiple agents/publishers at that same time. Some agents/publishers won’t consider your proposal if it’s multiple submitted. They want to be the only special snowflake considering it, because if they put the work into a P&L and then make you an offer, they don’t want to be surprised to learn that it’s already been accepted elsewhere. It helps to know in advance, so do your research, but fewer and fewer agents/publishers are requiring exclusive submissions these days.
If the agent/publisher requires a physical copy of the proposal, include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) for response. FYI: Paper and postage are part of a writer’s cost of doing business, so get a receipt from your post-office and stationary store, then consult with your accountant. You can probably list these as deductions on your taxes if you itemize.
Elements of a Fiction Book Proposal
A great fiction book proposal essentially breaks down into 5 parts:
- About the Book and the Target Market (What can you do for us?).
- Your “Comparables” (What’s your niche?).
- Your Biography (Who are you and why should we care?).
- Marketing and Publicity (How can you help me to help you?)
- Sample Pages
This checklist breaks it all down for you:
- Cover Letter: see above.
- Title Page: The title of your book, the authors’ names, phone numbers, and email addresses
- One Sentence Hook: This is more of a tag line, one sentence that builds interest in the book.
- Brief Overview: This should read similarly to back-cover copy. It should be exciting and make someone want to read your book. It tells the publisher in a succinct form what book is about. Two to four paragraphs.
- The Market: Who is going to read this book? Why will they buy this book? How can these readers be reached? Do you have any special relationships to this market? What books and magazines does this audience already read? What radio and TV programs do they tune into? Demonstrate an understanding of exactly who will buy your book and why.
- About the Author(s): Write a half page to a full page about yourself. Why are you qualified to write this book? List any previously published books or articles along with sales figures. Any awards or special degrees or certificates in creative writing? Anything that helps establish you as a novelist goes in this section.
- Author Marketing: This is where you’ll talk about your platform. How are you able to reach your target audience to market your book? This is not the place to express your “willingness” to participate in marketing, or your “great ideas” for marketing. This is the place to tell what you’ve already done. What contacts do you already have? What plans have you already made to help market your book? A list of speaking engagements already booked; radio or TV shows you’re scheduled to appear on or have worked with in the past; a newsletter you’re already sending out regularly; a blog that gets an impressive number of hits per day. These are all great to include here. But don’t claim that your book is just the thing Oprah is looking for, unless Oprah’s people have already contacted you (and you can prove it).
- Comparable books: Instead of a “competition” section, you’ll want to include four to six novels that you see as similar to your own in some way. It helps the editor/agent develop a big-picture understanding of your book and where it fits into the marketplace. It’s best not to include blockbuster bestsellers (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, etc.). Despite what a lot of people will tell you, no one really knows the sure-fire formula for blockbuster success, and chances are the market is already saturated with imitators of those books. But you do want to include well-known books with solid sales figures. Include title, author, release year, and a couple of sentences about the book and how yours is similar and would appeal to the same audience.
- Details: How many words will your book be? (Words, not pages.) How many chapters? Have you included book club discussion questions? Is your manuscript complete? (Note: unless you’re a multi-published novelist, you must have a completed manuscript before approaching agents/editors. Too many “one day” novelists with an idea and a dream can’t actually complete a novel.)
- Longer Synopsis: In several pages (2-6 is a good guideline), describe your story. In this part, don’t worry about preserving the surprise factor. This is where you have to explain the story, start to finish.
- Sample Chapters: Include the first 40-50 manuscript pages (ending at a natural chapter break). Don’t include random chapters—you need the first few chapters. Make sure they’re polished and perfect! This is what will determine whether they request the full manuscript or not.
“But Mike, this seems like a lot of work! My manuscript is already done! Can’t I just send the manuscript?”
It’s possible, but unlikely. Most literary agencies and publishers will require you to submit a fiction book proposal, even if your book is already written. Remember (or reread the last section above), a fiction book proposal does more than just explain what your novel is about.
A well-written fiction book proposal helps agents and publishers understand why you’re qualified to write your book, through your Biography section. The Comparables section reveals the uniqueness and value of your book within a competitive marketplace. And the Marketing & Publicity section highlights what you’re willing and able to do, to help sell your books. And the whole thing is a lot shorter than your full manuscript. Armed with the above and your writing sample, the agent/publisher can get a healthy idea of whether or not you can make them (and by extension, yourself) some money.
Next week, we’ll start a more detailed look at each of the five individual aspects of the fiction book proposal. Thanks for reading!