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The Value of a Book Proposal (Even for Authors Planning to Self-Publish)

book publishing Apr 22, 2024
notebook with words

Most writers think they should only go through the trouble of crafting a solid book proposal if they plan to pitch their idea to an agent or editor. If they’re self-publishing, why bother? In fact, it’s an essential thing to do, and in my experience in both worlds – publishing through traditional publishing houses as well as self-pubbing – writing out a comprehensive book proposal is key.

Even if you don’t plan to send a proposal to an agent, the simple act of writing it will boost your ability to sell your book yourself. A proposal is a completely different beast from your manuscript. While you’ve been writing your book, you’ve been in creative-mode, crafting and designing and editing and hopefully having fun. Your proposal, on the other hand, is a selling tool. It crystalizes the facts about your book in ways that will convince potential readers to pick it up and read it. 

The Components of a Book Proposal

In my Selle Your Book course, I teach about the components of a solid book proposal, especially one that will be sent to an agent. These pieces include an author bio, a hook, a summary, a competitive book analysis, and other sections that come together to create a marketing tool for your manuscript. If sending to an agent, they’ll tell you what to include.

If you’re self-publishing, you’ll want to develop these sections, too, because being able to write and speak ABOUT your book (rather than THROUGH your book) is key to making sales. You’ll need to develop a short hook—a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs that capture the essence of your book in a compelling way. Your summary needs to be factual and descriptive without falling back into the narrative itself. It must be objective as if you are a reviewer summarizing a book you’ve just read for the first time.

Even the competitive title analysis is extremely helpful. You’ll inevitably be asked by potential readers if your book resembles those by their favorite author, or how it is different from another book on the shelf next to it. How do you describe yours? Crafting a competitive title analysis is a fantastic exercise to do before you publish so that you can answer these questions and sell your book.

Selling Versus Getting Feedback

Many authors utilize beta readers, people who agree to read their book prior to publication to look for errors and generally ensure the flow is correct and appealing. This is great and very helpful for your manuscript. But writing a book proposal is very different—instead of asking for feedback on your manuscript, the proposal is the selling tool that describes, summarizes, compares, and sells.

It can help to get others to read your proposal just as much as it helps for beta readers to sit down with your manuscript. Even better, I encourage my students to read parts of their proposal aloud to someone who evaluates what they’re heading subjectively and alert you to phrases that seem trite, repetitive, or not helpful. Because your proposal will become a boilerplate with language that helps you sell your book, you’ll use the words and phrases from it continuously on your website, at conferences, in emails, and in ads. Perfecting your book proposal especially with the help of “read aloud” partners will make it stronger.

What’s Obvious To You Isn’t Obvious To Everyone Else

When you’re immersed in writing your manuscript, you live and breathe your book. But when you go to describe it to someone else who hasn’t been immersed in it, you can come up short. What do you say?

I realized when I wrote my book proposal for my upcoming book Once Upon a Place: Forests, Caverns, and Other Places of Transformation in Myth, Fairy Tale and Film, that my early proposal draft didn’t do an adequate job of setting the stage or preparing a reader for why they’d want to read the book. I had to go back and edit it to compare what my book was saying to what a typical person thought or understood about a topic. In other words, my early draft assumed people “got it” or knew why they should be interested. After I edited it, my proposal was much clearer and more straightforward about what my manuscript was trying to accomplish.

Be sure to write a proposal as if the reader has never even thought about your topic, much less read your manuscript. Go back to basics and be as clear as possible.

And then put your proposal away for a week and come back to it. This is my favorite method for ensuring I’m looking at it with fresh eyes. Enjoy the process and don’t skimp on the proposal, even if you’re self-publishing! You’ll be glad you took the time to create a marketing document that you can refer to again and again.

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