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What is a book proposal?

If you ever thought about writing and traditionally publishing a nonfiction book, someone may have told you that you first need to write a book proposal. What?

Well, a book proposal is a document that nonfiction authors put together to secure traditional publishing deals for their books.

Another way to put it is that a book proposal is a sales document whose job is to convince agents to represent the book and publishers to publish the book (after it’s been sent to them by an agent).

In short, to be published traditionally (versus being self-published or published by a hybrid or a vanity press), all nonfiction books, including memoirs, need a book proposal to secure an agent and then a publisher.

I used the word nonfiction above because, as a general rule, fiction books do not require a formal book proposal. Again, book proposals are what nonfiction books need in order to be sold.

What is included in a book proposal?

Though the exact name used may vary, book proposals generally include the following sections and content:

  • Title page
  • Table of contents
  • Overview
  • About the Author
  • Target Audience
  • Marketing strategy and social media platforms
  • Competitive analysis
  • Chapter summaries
  • Sample chapters

I will briefly explain each section below.

Title page

Keep the title page simple. List the working title of your book (your publisher will likely change it later, sorry), your byline, and your contact info on the bottom. Once you land an agent, they will replace your contact info with theirs.

Table of contents

If you use Microsoft Word and apply built-in headings to the headings of the various sections (About the author, etc.), auto-generating a table of contents should be easy. Agents and publishers will expect one, so put it in there, and it’s better if you auto-generate it than try to hard code it (in case pages shift a little when you edit content).


Think of your overview as sort of your book proposal’s executive summary. In the overview you want to give some background to your book/story, some background to how and why you wrote your book, and most importantly who and what market your book will serve. You will go deeper on all of these in other sections, so write this section using material you wrote for other sections, meaning you should write this section last. But give enough detail in the overview to sell the book, or at least sell the reader on reading further. Busy agents and publishers may only have time to read the overview only, and they will only read more if they’re really interested, so highlight why your book will both save the world and sell well here.

About the author

Like this title says, write about yourself (in the third person; in fact, write all of your proposal in the third person) and why you are the author to write this book. This section need not be overly long, but long enough to list relevant accomplishments, especially prior published books of yours that sold well. Do not write your life’s story here. Instead, focus on what you have done that helps make this book and you marketable.

Target audience

Your book will likely have more than one target audience, so list them all, starting with the biggest and most interested audiences first. Never ever say that your book is for everyone. No agent or publisher wants to hear that. Be specific when you talk about your markets, which means that you will need to do research and use as many numbers as you can (i.e., this book’s main audience is firefighters who work for inner city fire departments, a group of people approximately 800,000 to 1,000,000 in size across the US).

In general, use numbers, facts, and figures as often as you can to prove your claims throughout your proposal.

Marketing strategy and social media platforms

Not only do you need to convince agents and publishers that yours is a book people will buy, but you also need to convince publishers that you will carry your share of the load to market your book. This is because publishers are apparently spending less and less on promoting rank-and-file books, so you need to assure them that you are willing to do your part to help your book sell.

Thus, in this section, which is your proposal’s most important section, talk about your overall marketing strategy as well as the various platforms you will use to promote your book. You can also talk about any kind of promotional efforts you are willing (or have actually scheduled) to do to promote your book, like speaking appearances, TV and radio appearances you have already booked, and so on.

For instance, if you are a successful speaker, mention that. And of course, you should also mention social media platforms where you have a presence and include actual numbers of followers and connections, if they are high enough to bother mentioning (i.e., at least 20,000 followers for an Instagram account).

If your social media numbers are not high or are non-existent, you need to list something that shows how you will connect with your book buyers to promote your book.

Again, be concrete and specific and say what you have done or have already agreed to do to promote your book, rather than what you think you might do.

Competitive analysis

In this section, briefly review, and then skewer, four to seven books still being sold (do not include out-of-print books, self-published books, or books more than four years old) that cover similar ground as your book. List their title and full publishing information when you talk about the book, though you don’t need to list their page count. Always tell why your book is better than theirs and why it better serves your readers than theirs does. These may even be great books, but you need to highlight why yours is better.

Chapter summaries

This section lists all of the possible chapters your book will have and includes two- to four-sentence summaries of the main point in that chapter. Give enough sense of what each chapter says without going into too much detail and boring your busy reader.

Sample chapters

Depending on what your agent asks for, paste your book’s strongest chapter or chapters in this section. At least one chapter but no more than three. Again, some agents will ask you to include just one chapter, and some will ask for more, so be ready for all possibilities.

How should I format my book proposal?

Generally, format your book proposal on 8.5 x 11-inch paper with a one-inch margins all around. Use Times New Roman 12-point font and double-space the lines. Don’t use any cute or fancy fonts or flourishes, and don’t send out a copy that is single-spaced. The key is to make your proposal easy to read, easy to search, and professional-looking. And again, write your entire proposal in the third person.

Does my book need a book proposal?

If you are writing a nonfiction book and want to find a literary agent—and eventually a traditional publisher—your book needs a book proposal, which you (or someone you hire to help you) will need to assemble.

How do I write a book proposal?

Nonfiction authors generally write book proposals after they have started writing but before they finish writing their book.

Since book proposals requested by publishers and agents require anywhere from one to three sample chapters (this varies by agent and publisher), most authors write anywhere from one to three of their book’s chapters before finishing their proposal. Before writing their book proposal, authors also need to map out or outline all of their book’s chapters and be able to write a chapter summary for each chapter.

How many pages is a book proposal?

Where there is no exact length of a book proposal, the proposal itself will likely run between 15 and 40 pages. Once you add the sample chapter or chapters, your proposal can go much longer of course.

What do publishers look for in a book proposal?

Like any buyer of media content, publishers look for book proposals that easily communicate the proposed book’s

  • Central topic, theme, and/or message
  • Unique approach or story
  • Competitive advantage (over competing titles)
  • Market and marketability

As a reminder, publishers are in the business to make money selling books. And a book proposal’s job is to convince them that a book (your book!) will sell.

So, like any sales document, because that’s what a book proposal is, a book proposal needs to be well-written, concise, and state the book’s selling points in a clear, logical order. Publishers and agents who read your book proposal should be able to find the info they need quickly, so that they can then use that to decide if your book has potential.

Do you write a book proposal before a book?

You generally write your book proposal as you begin to write your book, especially since your proposal will need to include sample chapters from your book as well as information on each chapter in your book—your book’s outline.

Publishers also want to know that even though you have thought out and planned your book well that your book is not finished yet so that the publisher can influence how the rest of your book is written.

How long should it take to write a book proposal?

The book proposals I’ve written have required a month or two to write. Your mileage may vary of course, but if you’re spending six months to a year or more writing your book proposal, you may be taking too long.

What is the difference between a book proposal and a query letter?

As its name implies, a query letter is an initial query or foray into the market to assess interest amongst publishers and agents regarding a book or book idea. A query letter is a much shorter document than a proposal. Only after an author hears back from an interested agent would they send a book proposal to an agent or publisher if the agent or publisher has shown interest after having read the initial query letter. Naturally, a book proposal is a much longer document because it contains a lot more information.

Who do you send a book proposal to?

Unless you are querying publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts and submissions, you will most likely first send your book proposal to literary agents to find one who is interested in representing you.

Each agency and each agent within that agency will have their own requirements for what they want to see. Many will want you to first send them a query letter. And if the agent is interested in your book after reading your query, then you can send them your proposal. Even then some agents want you to send one sample chapter with your proposal and others will want two or even three. The rule here is to give the agent exactly what they ask for, no more, no less. Your ability to follow directions will endear you to them if nothing else.

How many chapters should a proposal have?

Book proposals don’t have chapters per se, but they do list the chapters that you intend to put in your book, and there is no magical number of chapters for a nonfiction book.

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