Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing a FICTION Book Proposal

Once my agent and I finished line-editing my book she said, "Okay, next we do the book proposal." I said, "HUH?" I had figured that at this point she would just send it off, or better yet, walk it into the offices of our selected publishers and say, "HEY everybody, check THIS out!" Apparently not.

It seems kind of weird doesn't it, the idea of a book proposal for a work of fiction? With non-fiction it makes more sense, because you can pitch your idea along with an outline before you have finished writing the book. But with fiction, the book must be done, complete, fini! before you approach anyone - agent or publisher. So when does a fiction book proposal come into play and what's in it? It comes into play when you and your agent think the book is ready to go to a publisher. If you write for children, as I do, there are publishers you can approach without an agent, so the time would be when you are sure beyond a doubt that your book is ready.

Here's what's in my book proposal:
*Marketing plan
*Author's Bio
*Comparable and complementary books

Overview: This is a summary of the story that is a cross between a query and a synopsis. Mine is just shy of two pages for a manuscript of 160 pages. It is written like the query, with a strong opening to grab the attention, and staying with your voice. And, it's like a synopsis, in that it is written in present tense: "When 12-year-old Jamie Reynold's world falls apart ...." But unlike a synopsis, in which you tell pretty much the whole story, including giving away the twists, turns, surprises AND the ending, in the overview, you leave enough unanswered questions and suspense to get the publisher to say, "I need to know what happens and I want to read it now!" So, think of it like the query you wanted to write - the one that was a few pages long!

Marketing plan: This is where you tell the publisher the things YOU will proactively do to help sell your book. It's not where you tell them how THEY should market it.  The idea really, is to show publishers your willingness to participate in promoting your book, that you have thought about it, and that you have creative ideas about it.

Nowadays, it's pretty much a given that you will establish a website, so you will want to tell them that, and you will probably want to reserve an appropriate URL. You can also mention if you have a blog or plan to start one, and any other social networking you do or plan to do.

It's a given that you'll be willing to do book readings and signings, so indicate that willingness, but add any ideas of your own for giving talks or workshops. Again, since my book is for kids, and a large portion of the story takes place during the Depression, we honed in on ideas for fun classroom discussions. One example is showing kids how to find the stories in the local history of their own town. Another is talking about what things have changed since the 1930's, and what things have remained unchanged (or have come around again).

You'll want to talk about your ideas for contacting media, especially in any locations where you have a personal history or presence. If you are lucky enough to have personal contacts in any media - TV, radio, or print - name names.

Let them know your history and comfort with talking to and in front of groups. If you don't have experience with this and it scares you, start now to get some, in whatever ways you can.

And, anything else you can think of that is specific to you or your book that will offer visibility.

Author's Bio: All About You, but short :-)

Comparable and Complementary Books:  This is really important, because publishers will look at books that are similar (in whatever way) to yours to see how they sold. Fortunately, my agent had some ideas about comparable books.

What makes a book comparable? In my case, we picked up on these key aspects: Christmas as a backdrop, an historical element,a fantasy component, and similar themes (like overcoming fears and helping others becoming its own reward). We picked three books that all used Christmas. One had the historical aspect, one had the fantasy component, and the other had similar themes. One was for the same targeted age-group as my book, but the other two were for younger readers.

We are putting the finishing touches on the proposal, and my hope is that my agent will be off presenting it to publishers by the end of this month. I really like the way this process was a collaboration between my agent and me. She gave the proposal its overall format and shape, and identified the essential components. But then she allowed me to be an active participant in creating this incredibly important document that will have my name on it. I don't know if all agents will handle it that way, but I feel the end product presents my book the way I would want it presented. And, being involved was a great learning experience. As writers, we really need to understand what matters to publishers so that we can make the best possible impression, and so that we understand what will be asked of us when our books make their way into the world.

If anyone else has tips for people about doing their proposals, please comment. And if you have any questions, please ask!


  1. Hi Melissa,

    This is a timely topic because I'm attending a conference next month and plan to meet with an agent.

    While I am primarily a short story and non-fiction writer, several of my friends have published novels and I have attended a fair amount of conferences where book proposals are discussed.

    I've heard authors are expected to write book proposals for their non-fiction works, but I thought the agent was responsible for putting together inquiries to send to publishers.

    Guess anything is possible, and as I said my knowledge on this topic isn't expert.

    I'm curious to know how much of the work on the proposal you did versus what your agent did.

    When she told you "next WE do the book proposal," did she do most of the work, or did you?


  2. Hi Donna, that is a really good question! I guess I kind of thought the agent would do it too, but I think it depends on the agent and their approach, as well as how much help they have (interns and such). In my case, my agent has worked more with nonfiction, so this is somewhat newer to her too. She got it started, but honestly I didn't feel as though her overview/story summary reflected the way I would write it - meaning it didn't have my voice. So I really re-wrote that part so it sounded like my story with a consistent voice. She did the bio and started the marketing plan, identifying the components, and asked me to come up with the classroom workshop/discussion ideas, since those should be things I would actually want to do. And, she came up with the comparable books but asked me to take a look at them and work on the compare/contrast. It ended up being a nice collaboration, where we went back and forth with ideas and edits - similar to finalizing the book itself. Honestly, I preferred this approach because the proposal goes out under MY NAME, represented by my agent, and I really appreciated having quality control over what a product that has my name on it looks like and ensuring it reflects my book as I would want it too. I'm sure it's different with every agent, but mine has a small boutique agency, and works in a highly collaborative way.


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