Book Proposal Secrets

In earlier posts we talked about how to get published, but in general terms. The goal of this entry is to get more specific—to help you to cast your potential project in the best possible light and to put together a package that can capture both the attention and imagination of a book editor at a top tier publisher.

Potential authors often come to me and ask: “I have an idea for a busines book but I don’t know the first thing about how to get started.”  Your chances of getting a book contract lives or dies—not only by the quality of the idea, and yes, your platform—but also by the quality of your book proposal. The proposal is what editors and publishers review to make a “yea” or “nay” publishing decision.  I have seen well-executed proposals make fair ideas seem like great ideas, and I have seen the opposite happen as well. A poorly executed proposal can make a potentially great idea seem dull and commonplace.   

So what are the elements of a great business book proposal?  

* Title and subtitle: The title indicated by the author on the proposal seldom ends up being the actual final title of the book. But, and this is key, publishers take note of the title and subtititle (if there is  a subtitle). It’s the first thing we see. A great title can garner attention right up front (and the opposite can happen with an awful title). Spend time coming up with something that shows you have imagination.   

* Preface or book description: This is the key piece that could make or break the project. In this frontpiece explain exactly what the book is, who it is for, why it is needed, and what makes it unique. Why will a business person spend $25 on it and choose it over proven best-sellers on a crowded bookshelf? If you don’t grab the editor’s attention right away the project will almost assuredly be rejected.

* The book specifications: How big is the book? Is it a short, 175-page book (which are increasingly popular) or a 300-page book? Express the length in number of words as well, if you can (figure about 300-350 words to an actual, typeset book page). Also, how long will it take for you to complete the manuscript?  

* The outline or table of contents: Even if the book is just an idea, you should be able to put together a rough outline. Each and every chapter title is an opportunity to make the book sound compelling. If you are having problems here (or with the preface or description above) go directly to and search “Inside the Book” of business bestsellers such as Good to Great (Collins/Collins), Now Discover Your Strenths (Buckingham & Clifton/S&S), or Free Lunch (Johnston/Portfolio). All of these have cool chapter titles and intros that could inspire you to come up with some great ones on your own.

* A brief analysis of the audience: Even though this is mentioned in the description, it pays to break it out and show that you have a firm grip on who the book is for. For instance, if it is an investing book of some sophistication, it might be for investors who have more than $100,000 in investable income and make their own investing decisions in an on-line account like E*TRADE or Ameritrade.     

* A thorough analysis of the competition: Don’t tell us there is nothing at all like your book. There has got to be something in the same arena, that would be housed on the same shelf as your book (e.g. investing, marketing, management). Tell us why your book is different and better than the rival books. Be specific. Show editors that you know the market and you know the best-selling books in your market.  Again, if you need help, spend time at the biggest bookstore in your neighborhood as well as on-line stores like and 

* One to three sample chapters: they do not need to be the first two. It is more important that they are among the most compelling and informative. One idea might be to send the intro or chapter one (so we get more specific about what the book is), plus one or two of your favorite chapter(s) in the book.  

* Great press items/clippings: When trying to get published, think of yourself as an attorney making your best case to a judge and jury. Exhibits help. Press about you and your company, especially in national magazines, newspapers, etc. can be a huge help. These could be articles or op ed pieces by you or articles in which you are widely quoted. These give you and the project credibility. The same is true for endorsements, but they need to be from people good enough to go on the back of the book jacket.   

* What not to include: Blurbs (endorsements) from middle managers no one ever heard of. That works against you, since it makes it appear that top notch endorsers are beyond your reach. Press pieces from newspapers with tiny subscriber levels (the same is not true for specialty magazines in your field of expertise, those could help). Bad photos of yourself (you would be surprised how many of those we get).

How do you send it? Electronically, via email, is now the most common way to submit a proposal. It allows us to read or skim the proposal whenever and wherever we want, and share more easily with colleages in marketing, publicity and sales. Be sure to include a compelling cover letter in addition to the attachments. Everyone in publishing has a blackberry, so even if traveling or on the move, they will get a sense of your project without having to open an attached file.

If you have any questions about any of this, don’t be afraid to fire off a question to me.   


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