Friday, March 9, 2012

Do I Need a Book Proposal? (Part 2)

In my last post, I promised to give an overview of the elements in a book proposal. Different sources list variations on what should be included, but here’s a basic outline.

  • Overview and Audience
  • Marketing Plan
  • Competing Titles
  • About the Author
  • Table of Contents (annotated)
  • Synopsis
  • Sample Chapter

Overview and Audience 
(sometimes separated out into two sections)
Here’s where you tell what the book is about, what felt needs it meets, who will read it. In my proposal for The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving, I use this first section to reenact a conversation with my friend Karen, whose mother was recovering after another in a long sequence of emergency hospitalizations due to lung disease. I spoke with Karen of my mother-in-law’s death under hospice care in our home and how relieved I felt to see the end to Jeanne’s misery and invasive treatments and false hopes. I urged Karen not to make the same mistakes Jeanne and I had, and we discussed how Karen could recognize the signs and empower her mother to escape painful treatments when she neared the end of life.

“Hurry up and write your book,” Karen said. “There are a whole bunch of us who need this—and we need to know we’re not alone.”

My Overview and Audience section goes on to discuss the large demographic involved in caregiving, the lack of guidance out there for making compassionate medical decisions as our loved ones near end-of-life, and the pressures and loneliness a caregiver experiences. I assert that my memoir offers gentle guidance and honest fellowship, something the “how-to” books don’t provide.

Marketing Plan
This one can be hairy and scary, especially for those of us doing literary writing. In my initial proposal draft, I wrote my marketing plan desperately, listing all the small and kind of lame things I could do to sell the book—like continuing to publish my work in literary journals, where I would mention the book in my bio. I could put up an ad on my blog. Oh, and I have a few editor friends who might be willing to review the book.  When my snarky friend Gretchen read my draft of the marketing plan, she suggested, “Maybe you should also promise to wash and wax the agent’s car. Daily.” I really did sound desperate in that first draft.

I’d read somewhere that for literary publishing you can just omit the marketing section, so I tried that the next time I had a request for the proposal. Not three minutes after I pressed send, I had a reply email asking why the marketing section was missing. In the space of one weekend, I reworked the section, adding some very ambitious (and somewhat less lame) possibilities. It helped when I renamed the section “promotion” which sounds softer to me. Long story short, I now have a promotion section that feels really solid, though modest, to me. I now know how to sell the book. And believe me, as much as you might wish you could just go back into your writer’s den and just write after your book is published, that’s not really what you want. You want people to read your book. You want it to stay in print. You might even want a royalty check now and then, so you can keep yourself in coffee.

Competing Titles
This section is made up of several titles and authors of recent books similar to yours (published in the last year or two). Include a 1-2 sentence summary of each title and then another 1-2 sentences on what your book offers that this particular competing title does not.

I started out at a Barnes & Noble, where to my surprise, I found that memoir is shelved with biography and none of the books on the medical and aging shelves are at all personal in content. I did lots of Internet research and assembled a list of titles, which grew over time. What I couldn’t get via library loan, I purchased.

As new books are published in your subject area, review them and get them onto your competing titles list. I even included one yet-to-be published memoir with my competing titles (my information came from an advance review). Knowing the competition demonstrates that you’re an expert in your subject area.

After I’d read some recent memoirs of caregiving, I changed Competing Titles to Complementary Titles, because I realized how different my book is from what’s already out there—the books dealing with similar material can easily be read alongside mine, not instead of. This section, along with the marketing/promotion section, provides a huge opportunity to give the publisher strong reasons to choose your book. Don’t shirk from this one. And don’t guess based on the sell copy of the book. I guessed on one title in my initial proposal, and when I actually read the book some months later, I realized that the sell copy was misleading and the book really didn’t do what the copy said it would. It happens that one of the publishers on my list (the one that asked for the missing marketing section) had published this very book. I was so relieved I’d amended that book’s summary before sending the proposal. I already looked like enough of a flake not having a complete proposal. Don’t be lazy! You’ve already written a book! You can write the book proposal.

About the Author
Here's where you put your bio. Mine is only about half a page, double spaced, listing my background and publishing credits.

Table of Contents (annotated) 
I think this is the coolest part of the proposal. Your annotated Table of Contents (TOC) is a one- or two-sentence summary of each chapter in the book, and although it is hard to distill your wonderful nuanced and layered writing down to a brief summary, once you do it’s really exciting to read through basically the entire jist of the book in two or three pages. And you can use this annotated TOC to write the last piece, your synopsis.

The synopsis is a very tight summary of the entire book, distilled down to one to two pages of single-spaced text. My first step was to use the descriptive text from my annotated TOC as a rough draft for the synopsis and to edit from there, adding a zingy line of dialog here and a one-word transition there. My synopsis reads a lot like one of those LOST season summaries: Six Years of LOST Summarized in eight minutes and fifteen seconds.

Sample Chapter
If you’re writing the proposal before you’ve finished your full manuscript, this is the chapter you’ve written to demonstrate your writing chops. In my case, I had a completed manuscript and twenty-some chapters to choose from. Agents and editors often want to see the first or first three chapters, and if that’s what they asked for, that’s what I included. But for Texas Tech University Press, the publisher who bought the book, I included the chapter with a strongest sense of place in Fort Worth, Texas. You can tailor the proposal in small ways for each agent or publisher.

Super helpful books to beg, borrow, or buy
Internet resources just won’t guide you through the full proposal-writing process. I was able to write a good query letter after doing Internet research, but for the proposal writing I purchased two books. Both are geared toward commercial publishing/prescriptive nonfiction, but so long as you don't let yourself off the hook because our work is "literary," you’ll find these books super helpful.

Larsen's book has chapters on each component of the proposal, and one of his examples is a memoir (with a commercial angle, but it's still very helpful).

After reading Rabiner's book, I no longer resented the book proposal: I became a huge fan. I even gave a talk at a conference last spring about how writing a proposal helps an author understand her book so much better. If an editor can understand your passion and key focus in 200 words, why would you prefer that he read all 50,000? The proposal can prime the agent/editor/reader to come to the reading with your presuppositions along with his own.

In Summary
I landed my first book contract without having written a full proposal. In retrospect, I wish I’d written a proposal for Through the Veil. With a proposal I would have known what to do once the book was published—just turn to the Marketing section and start in on the list! 

Now I’m busy with revisions for The Fifth Season, but once I turn in the manuscript on June 1, I’ll have about a year before the book is in print. I’ll be able to work through my publicity/marketing section as a checklist without taking away too much energy from my current writing project. I can’t imagine writing another book and not writing a proposal. I wouldn’t want to cheat myself (and my press!) of understanding the book and its audience and purpose. I might even venture to write the next proposal before the manuscript is complete!

You may have to drag yourself into proposal writing kicking and screaming, but it’s good medicine to think through the issues a proposal will force you to consider. Who knows, you might even find, as I did, that the process is energizing and fun!


  1. Hi, Lisa. Even though I'm not even close to finishing a book, I'm still thankful that you would take the time to provide this kind of information to other writers. I was wondering if it was the plan or the wording of the promotion section that seemed desperate. Could you provide a specific example of something that seems less desperate?

    1. Hi, L.D. -- glad to see you here!

      The content was what sounded desperate. I was willing to do many little things, even if each effort might only sell one book (and most of my efforts won't sell hundreds or even tens of copies, I'm sure). Why even mention those small things? Because I didn't feel I had anything big to offer. But once I went back and looked at what resources are already available for caregivers, I was able to build up that promotion section with stuff that didn't seem desperate at all. Modest, yes, but not desperate. Specifically, I added a short list of trade journals or caregiving magazines where I could likely publish articles and possibly be featured/interviewed. I made a list of caregiver support groups in various locales accessible to me and suggested a speaking or book tour targeted toward those groups. I listed specific conferences I could speak at and specific contacts I have in hospice and caregiving networks. All these efforts are small potatoes compared to those of an author who is already a well-known public speaker with a platform, but listing specific ways you might expose your work to a larger audience (via conferences, articles, public speaking) is a way to show you're not just going to sit home and hope the publisher does all the work to sell the book. That initial proposal was really my brainstorming document, I think. Anyone's brainstorm list might sound desperate!

      Now, full disclosure: I omitted the marketing section from the proposal I sent to the publisher who ended up offering me a contract! I have no idea what their expectations will be of me on the marketing end of things, but I'm glad to have that section in my proposal for my own reference (and possibly to share with the marketing dept in the future). But I did sell my book without it (to a university press and not a huge New York publisher).

      Thanks so much for popping in!