5 Key Questions Every Book Proposal Must Answer

The book proposal may require as much time to prepare as your first draft of your manuscript. Or perhaps your fifth. While there are several schools of thought on what agents specifically look for in an effective book proposal, Gary Smailes, the author of several history books for children including the Brave Scots and Modern Hero series, has identified The 5 Questions Every Book Proposal Must Answer.

Smailes is quick to remind writers that “the agent or publisher will be assessing you, your book and your concept for commercial viability,” in order to determine if it to sell enough copies to actually make a profit.

“The job of a good book proposal,” says Smailes, “is to convince the agent or publisher that your book is a solid business investment, as well as a well written work of literature.” Here are Gary Smailes’ tips for ensuring your book proposal has answered five key questions:

1. What is your book’s genre?

The book industry is divided along the lines of genre. Publishers and imprints collect expertise in editing, production, sales and marketing all based on a particular genre. After all, it takes a completely different skillset to sell cook books, as opposed to romance novels. In turn, agents look to gain knowledge and trust of these publishers. This means agents too become genre experts. An agent with in-depth knowledge of the cook book market, its publishers and internal editors, is very unlikely to have the same insider knowledge of the romance genre.

As a writer looking to have their book published, it is essential that you pin point the correct genre. Only once you know your genre, can you then go on to find a suitable agent or publisher with expertise in that genre.

One good method of identifying your genre is to look at competitor titles. If you look for books that are like your book, there is a pretty good chance that these will be in the same genre. My advice would be to go into your local book shop and find just one book that you are sure readers of your book would also enjoy. Then, identify two or three other titles that are come under the same genre.

The list of competitor titles that you produce will allow you to do two things. The first is to correctly identify the genre of your book. Using Amazon as a guide, you should be able to do this. The second is that the competitor titles will allow you to demonstrate to any potential publisher or agent that you have knowledge of your given genre. When pitching your book, your list of competitor titles will encourage the agent or publisher that they are dealing with a book that they can sell. The agent/publisher will have an intimate knowledge of the genre, if you are listing titles they know well, then there is a pretty good chance that your book will be a fit for their list.

2. Who would read your book?

Readership is an important aspect of your pitch and is closely related to your genre. My suggestion is for writers to develop the concept of the ideal reader. This is a fictional person who represents your target audience. You need to be able to explain the age of your ideal reader, their buying habits, the kinds of books they like, the lifestyle they lead and the reasons they will buy and read your book. Once you have this person in your head, it becomes easier to paint a picture to potential agents and publishers of whom will be your target reader.

3. Is the book written, if so how long is it?

In regard to fiction books, submitting a proposal for a completed book is better than submitting a proposal for a partially written book, or an idea. Think about it, when submitting a partial the best response you will realistically receive is a request for the full book. This will send you into a tail spin of panic as you rush to finish, simply because an agent has shown a glimmer of interest (an agent request for a full manuscript, is a long, long, long, long way from an offer of representation). Before you submit a partial, ask yourself why? Are you simply looking for someone to like your book? Are you looking for validation? If so, then the book submission route is not the best way to discover if your partially written book has commercial potential.

Assuming you have completed your book, the agent/publisher will be interested in knowing the book’s word count. There is no exact science here, but agents and publishers are looking to check whether your work is not too long or short. Look at your competitor list, the word count of these books should be roughly similar to your own. If your book is too short, then consider expanding before submission. If it is too long, then consider removing sections, or even splitting it into two or three separate books. Either way very long or very short books present agents/publishers with a problem.

4. What aspects of your biography may provide an interesting marketing angle?

Your book proposal should establish that your book will fit into the agents/publisher’s area of interest, show that you understand the marketplace and clearly identify the readership of your book. However, there is still one important aspect – YOU. When it comes to marketing your book, the publisher will be looking at you as a writer, and trying to determine if any aspect of your life can be used to leverage the book. If you are a skateboarding granny or a skydiving vicar, then great. But even us mundane, normal people will have an angle to offer. Maybe you have a huge online presence, or an interesting childhood or even a record number of rejections. There will be something hidden away that can be packaged to make you a more interesting prospect as a writer.

The key to understanding what to include in your biography is not to see it as an interview, but an opportunity. The agent/publisher is not looking at your credentials as a writer (though these play a part) they are looking at you as a whole and what you can bring to the marketing party. So when writing your biography, don’t be afraid to share.

5. Are there any unusual issues that are worthy of mention?

Agents and publishers hate surprises! If your book comes with baggage, then it is better to get it out in the open as early as possible. If you need illustrations or photographs, then include this in the pitch. Translations costs money, so do fancy covers. Color photos are more expensive than black and white. Oversized books bring their own problems and if the book has appeared as a self-published project the agent/publisher needs to know. The general rule is that if it is going to cost money then mention it up front.

One aspect that worries writers, agents and publishers alike is copyright. It is essential that you have a clear copyright position established prior to pitching. One special word of advice here comes in regards to songs. The use of song lyrics in a book can be a potential stumbling block for any proposal. Getting permission for using song lyrics can be expensive and time consuming. My advice is to simply avoid using lyrics at all costs.

@RebeccaLacko’s note: This last item causes me tremendous strain. If you’ve read my book pitch, song lyrics play a significant role in my story. I’ve already broken one of Smailes’ rules: I pitched my fiction book idea and received requests for three chapters and a synopsis. It sent me into exactly the tailspin Smailes described, but it also validated to me that I had a commercially viable story. Hmmm.