How To Write A Successful Book Proposal

Book ProposalThough there is no one standard book proposal, there are a number of tricks and tips you can use to produce a book proposal with a great chance of being spotted by an agent or publisher. In this article we give away all the secrets we have learned about writing a good book proposal. If you follow all the steps outlined then you should end up with a commercial standard book proposal that agents and publishers will love.

A good book proposal consists of three key elements:

  • The Query Letter
  • The Synopsis
  • The Extract

How To Write A Successful Book Proposal: THE QUERY LETTER

The query letter is perhaps the most important part of your book proposal. It needs to not only give a snapshot of your book, but also convince your publisher that it is a marketable and profitable product.

The goal of a query letter is to snag the interest of the publisher/agent, encouraging them to read your synopsis. It is your synopsis and (hopefully) your extract that will seal the deal. This means your query letter needs to be concise and to the point. No waffle, no exaggerated claims, just a focussed and honest summary of your book.

I would suggest a four paragraph approach:

Paragraph 1:

The opening paragraph is split into two sections. The first is the elevator pitch, which consists of a couple of lines that capture the essence of the book. This is a concise and targeted summary of the book in just a couple of sentences.

You can’t choose who you fall in love with and that’s especially true with football teams. (The Bromley Boys, Dave Roberts)

Belle de Jour is the nom de plume of a high-class call girl working in London. This is her story. (Belle de Jour, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl)

Grosvenor House: Deep in the City something had been woken, something so old and so ordinary that people had been walking past it for centuries without giving it a second look…(Stone Heart, Charlie Fletcher)

The second part of the opening paragraph is a brief summary containing a few sentences that describe your book in a bit more detail. Include a VERY brief outline of your narrative and the main characters. At this stage you are simply showing the agent/publisher the type of book you have written and giving them a chance to see if it will fit into their current list.

Paragraph 2:

The aim of this paragraph is to present your book as a viable product. Remember that you are trying to sell your book as a tool from which publishers/agents can make a bit of cash. You need to include the following:

  • The book’s genre,
  • The book’s word count,
  • An indication of the market with one or two representative titles,
  • Notes of any images, illustrations or unusual requirements,
  • An Indication of if the book is written and if not when it will be finished.

The representative titles are important and should not be missed. The best way to decide on these is to think what readers of your book may also read. The examples will give the publisher/agent a good indication whether your book is the kind of product they can publish/sell.

It may also be advisable to include statistics of potential markets where possible. If you have access to specialist figures then these certainly should be included. However, do not include figures that are either educated guesses or approximations UNLESS they are specific to your book and something the publisher/agent will not be able to find themselves.

Paragraph 3:

This is a loose outline of your book’s plot – just remember to keep it brief. Do include the key characters, the problem they face and the point of conflict. But do not expand this to a full blown synopsis. Short and sweet is the key.

Paragraph 4:

This is about you as a writer. In the modern world of internet driven marketing the writer is increasingly becoming an important part of the process. Include a brief biography, containing any relevant information such as previously published titles. I would also suggest you add information regarding your web presence.

I absolutely want to know about you. I love pithy bios because it tells me a bit about the person behind the words. I don’t care if you’re the president of your dart club unless your book is about darts.

Behler Publications

The key to remember is that the query letter is just a taste of your book. At this stage it is all about finding the correct agent/publisher and making sure that your book fits their list. If the agent/publisher has no experience of selling the genre in which your book falls, then any potential partnership is doomed to failure.

Before we move on it is important to mention that the following information MUST be included in the query letter: your name, your address, any website details, your email address and your home and mobile numbers.

It is a common myth that book proposals should be one page query letter and one page synopsis. It can be OK to write an extended query letter (in some circumstances). Here’s a list of topics that might be included:

  • Marketing ideas: If have a strong web presence, or if you have a solid vision for the marketing and promotion of your book then this can be included. However, simply saying ‘I will do ten book signings’ is not the kind of thing that will get anyone excited. This said making it clear to the publisher/agent that you firstly, understand that marketing is part of the writer’s job, and secondly that you as a writer are prepared to get your hands dirty is always a positive. This is also where you should include any unique media contacts you may possess.
  • A book series: Another situation that may lead to an expanded book proposal is if you are pitching for a series of books. In this case it may be appropriate for you to include a one page synopsis for each title, plus an expanded description of your series in the query letter. This is especially true for non-fiction works that are more likely to NOT be written at point of proposal.

How To Write A Successful Book Proposal: THE SYNOPSIS

The synopsis is perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood sections of the book proposal. Writers who can produce pages of elegant prose often go weak at the knees at the simple mention of a synopsis.

The first thing to remember when writing your synopsis is that the publisher/agent is looking for the thing that is going to set your book aside from all the other book proposals that they are reading that day. Whilst your book needs to fit comfortably into a suitable genre, your story needs to be different enough to attract attention.

One tip for writers about to embark on a synopsis is that you are describing your story NOT summarising the plot. This means that a step-by-step summary of the key scenes is a big no no. Instead, DESCRIBE your book and it’s narrative. The following pointers will provide some flexible guidelines to help structure your synopsis:

  • The main character: What makes your main character tick? Or more importantly why should the reader care about your main character? This does not mean your character has to be likeable, just possess enough personality for the reader to care about what happens to them. Also add some description to place your character within the context of the novel.
  • The main character’s problem: What problem does the main character have to face and perhaps overcome? Try to relate the problem to your main character, taking time to explain why the main character sees the problem as an issue. It may also be important to explain why the main character has to overcome the problem.
  • The cost: Take some time to detail what is the cost of NOT solving the problem. What would this mean to the main character? What is their motivation to actually solve the problem?
  • Conflict: This is the basis of ALL good stories. In most cases the conflict will arise not from the problem but the main characters attempts to solve the problem. Make sure you describe what the conflict is and how it will arise.

To add a further layer of complexity to the mix it is important that you include an outline of the FULL plot and all of the important sub-plots. Remember to focus on what happens to characters. As a rule of thumb, events are boring it is how people react to them that is of interest.

Writing a synopsis is tough and it is easy to make mistakes. Here are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Write the synopsis in third person present tense,
  • Make sure your ‘voice’ comes through in the query letter and synopsis,
  • Don’t over elaborate. The plot may be complex, and this is fine, just make sure you don’t make the synopsis more complex than is needed,
  • Make sure the setting/sense of place of the story is clear.

How To Write A Successful Book Proposal: THE EXTRACT

Let’s start with a word of warning - agents and publishers vary in what they require from an extract. The STANDARD is three chapters (or fifty pages), double spaced and in 12 pt font. However, it is essential you check each company’s submission guidelines before sending your book proposal.

Some writers like to send none consecutive chapters or chapters from the middle of the book. BubbleCow’s advice is to send the first three chapters or fifty pages. It just makes sense and removes the chance of any confusion. If you feel these are not the strongest chapters - then it’s time to re-write.

Editing your own book can be a stressful and for many writers, a frankly daunting task. At BubbleCow we help writers tackle the problem of editing their own work on a daily basis.

Here’s a collection of the top ten tips for editing your own book as suggested by our editors:

1. Be consistent

Writing a book is a long process that often spans over years. During this period it is easy for writers to lose track of some of the minor plot details. However, it is vital that a writer makes every effort to maintain consistency throughout the writing process. The problem is that readers will notice mistakes. If you tell your readers that a character has blue eyes in the opening chapter, and then six chapters later you say they are green, the reader will remember.

Our tip is to use character reference sheets. These are simply lists of the key aspects for all of your characters. On these sheets you should record all the key facts – age, description, eye colour etc. Also include any details that might be important such as relationships with other characters, home address and other details you develop. One additional tip is to get into the habit of updating your sheets as you build the characters.

2. Use simple grammar

Not all writers are grammar experts. In fact the reality is that many writers struggle with grammar. Our tip is to keep it simple. The correct use of the period (full stop) and comma will get you out of most tough spots. Learning the rules of the correct use of the apostrophe is also crucial, as is the grammar of speech. However, beyond this you are getting onto dangerous ground. If you are unsure of the correct usage of the semi-colon, then don’t use it (even if Microsoft word insists otherwise).

3. Formatting

Consistent formatting is an important, but often overlooked, part of editing. By this we are talking about titles, subtitles, indenting, text font etc. In fact you need to pay attention to anything that appears on the page. One way to get around inconsistencies is to use the ‘style’ function of your word processing package. Another way is to simply pay attention each time you start a new section, type in a header or change font. Being aware is half the battle.

4. Narrative arc

Your story needs to have a clear start, middle and end. We are all aware of this but it doesn’t always come across in writer’s work. Our tip is to read your work with the three phase structure in mind (start, middle and end). Can you pin point the three sections of your book clearly?

Here’s a couple of sites that explain the narrative arc well: here and here.

5. Tense usage

When talking to our editors the issue of tense was highlighted as a common problem. The switching of tenses (past to present/present to past) is something that happens to all writers. It is for this reason that you must pay particular attention to this problem. This is one of those things that readers tend to spot. This blog post might help.

6. Read out aloud

This is a tip that I think every editor worth their salt will pass onto writers. Once your work is completed read it out aloud. Personally I use a software program called TextAloud. This allows me to follow the text as the computer reads it out (in a robot voice). Reading your work out aloud will help you to spot silly mistakes but also the sentences that don’t flow. Another tip is to print your work out and read it from paper. I am not sure why (something to do with screen resolution?) but this seems to help spot mistakes.

7. Let a ‘trusted’ third party look at your book

The emphasis here is on the word trusted. The key is to find someone who will give you constructive feedback. You don’t want someone who will simply say the book is good or bad, you need critical and detailed feedback. It is also important that you TELL the reader that you want critical feedback. Make it clear that you can take the rough with the smooth. Give them guidance in what to look for when reading. Are they looking for just mistakes and inconsistency or something else more specific?

8. Using critical feedback

This follows on from the point above. As a writer you must learn to implement the correct feedback. Typos and grammar errors should be corrected without any real questioning. However, big issues need to be considered carefully. Sometimes a reader will not like a certain section or suggest changes that go beyond simple sentence structure. In these cases you need to consider the feedback carefully and only make changes that you feel improve the book.

9. Be harsh – cut the dead wood

All of our editors agreed that this is one area that many writers find very difficult. Cutting back is a vital and very powerful skill for writers to develop. The foundation to the exercise should be for the writer to look at each section and ask ‘do I need this?’ Over wordy sentences, extended paragraphs and repetition should all be removed. In addition, ANY section that fails to move the plot forward should be cut. I have seen novels where whole characters have been removed. Cutting back the work is painful but if done correctly will improve your book tenfold.

10. Read each line as a line, then a paragraph, then a section, then a chapter…

If you have carried out all the steps above (and you are happy with your novel) then it’s time to start all over again. This time go through the novel on a line by line basis. Scrutinise each sentence in turn, fine tuning as you go. Then when finished, go back and look at the text on a paragraph basis. Be critical. Next examine each section, then chapter and so on…

OK you now have everything you need to produce a killer book proposal. The advice offered here is indeed the same principles we use at BubbleCow when helping writers prepare books for submission. This said you may feel you still need a bit of help and guidance. BubbleCow are always happy to lend a helping hand.

We have developed a highly detailed guide to writing a book proposal. This contains more than 20,000 words of advice, guidance and help.

You can find out more about How To Write A Successful Book Proposal by clicking here - it is FREE!

Finally, if anyone has any questions then pop them in the comments.

Good luck…

About the Author

By Gary Smailes - Co-founder at BubbleCow, helping writers to write, get published and sell more books. Google+ Twitter

  • Charmain Winter


    First of all, thank you for all this advice, it’s great to get some pointers.I’ve nearly completed my first draft of a fiction book, which exceeds 200,000 words. It will need a lot of work in editing and re-writing - I guess at least another year. Is it worth writing a book proposal now, or should I wait until the final manuscript is closer to completion? Thanks for all your help!Kind regards,Charmain Winter

  • Anonymous

    I would always suggest that a writer waits until he is in a situation to
    submit his book before approaching an agent or publisher. Often, the
    best possible reply you can expect from an agent is a request for the
    full manuscript. If your book is not ready then you are left in a
    horrible situation — do you submit an unfinished book and risk
    rejection or do you keep the agent waiting. Far better to wait until the
    book is ready. 

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