Lydia Yadi

Written by

Lydia Yadi

13 October 2021


Lesson 1: What is a book proposal?

The Novlr step by step Guide to writing your non-fiction book proposal

This is part of our free non-fiction book proposal course written by Lydia, Senior Editor at Penguin Random House. To see all posts in this series, please click here.

What is a book proposal and what is in it?

A book proposal is a document that outlines key information about your book idea. The proposal helps agents and publishers understand your book idea and assess its potential as a book.

The proposal should convey a clear sense of what the book will be and who it will be for. It’s important that the proposal includes all the information a publisher needs in order to fully understand the project, and also give some sense of what the final book will feel like as a reading experience – this is why sample writing is so helpful. 

Book proposals are usually about thirty to seventy pages of A4 (around 15,000-30,000 words), depending on the type of book you plan to write and how many sample chapters you choose to include in the proposal. Generally, the more detailed the proposal, the better, as it gives publishers a very comprehensive insight into the book and also shows the author is fully committed to the project. 

A proposal usually includes the following sections:

  • Table of Contents for the book proposal
  • Book Overview (including a Positioning Statement, Summary and a Blurb)
  • Target Market 
  • Book Table of Contents with Chapter Summaries
  • Competing Books (or Competitive Titles)
  • Author Biography 
  • Marketing and Publicity Ideas
  • Specifications
  • Sample Writing 

We will go through each of these sections in this course. But while the proposal usually opens with a positioning statement and summary of the book, this course will address the target audience first. This is because identifying and understanding who your audience is will influence how you talk about the book and help you craft a more compelling positioning statement and summary. 

Why is a book proposal important to a publisher?

A book proposal helps a publisher to decide whether a book idea has commercial appeal. 

It helps a publisher and their team assess the strength of the specific book idea and understand whether there is a gap or need in the market for your book. This is why it is vital to produce a proposal that is really clear in its objectives, one that shows that you have done as much research as you can to establish that there is a ready market for the book and a clearly defined target audience. 

The proposal helps publishers decide if you are the right person to write this book. They will assess this by looking at the credentials that you present in your biography, by seeing how well you communicate your ideas in your positioning statement, chapter summaries and sample writing, and they will also be trying to gauge how committed you are to making the book a success by looking at your marketing and publicity ideas. 

Who will read my book proposal? 

Book proposals are submitted to members of the editorial team within a publishing house, as it is the editorial team who take responsibility for acquiring new books. People who acquire books on behalf of the publishing company will usually be called one of the following titles: Editor, Commissioning Editor, Editorial Director, Publisher or Publishing Director. For ease, we’ll refer to them as ‘publishers’ from here on. 

Most publishers will typically be sent around ten to thirty different book proposals each week! So that is why it is so important to make sure your book proposal captures the publisher’s attention from the beginning. If a publisher reads a proposal that they like and think the publishing company should consider commissioning they will then share the proposal with their colleagues in different departments and discuss the merits of the book. 

Besides the publisher, there are many more people who will have a say in the final decision to commission the book. That will usually include members of the sales team (who are thinking how many copies can we sell?), the publicity team (who are thinking can we promote the book or the author successfully?), the rights team (who are wondering will we be able to secure a serialisation in a newspaper or sell the rights to translate the book into different languages?), and marketing (who are thinking are there ways we can get to the likely readership quickly and cheaply?).  

The proposal is therefore designed to answer the many questions that each different publishing department might ask about the project. 

The editor or publisher who is putting a proposal forward for consideration generally acts as a cheerleader for the book within the company, pitching the book at an ‘acquisitions meeting’ or ‘acquisitions board’. It is the publisher who will have to answer all the tricky questions from the other departments so if your proposal pre-empts any likely questions, it makes the publisher’s job easier, and also gives the publishing company confidence in the proposal and in you, the author, because it shows that you’ve thought about publishing the book in a professional manner.  

This is why a book proposal must be more than just “a good idea”.  It has to leave the publishing team knowing that there will be a market for it and you must be able to demonstrate that you are the right person to bring it to life. 

Quite simply, writing a fantastic book proposal is the best chance you have at landing a book deal. 

What role does a literary agent play and should I get one? 

There are two main routes to getting your book published – securing literary representation and having them submit your proposal to a publisher or submitting directly to a publisher yourself.

A literary agent will provide you with support through the publication process like offering advice on your proposal and idea, securing and negotiating a deal and any subsequent translation deals, and giving insights on book design, publicity and marketing ideas. As they are experts in specific genres and types of books, they will know which individual editors and publishers are interested in those genres, so they’ll have a greater understanding of who best to submit your book proposal to.  In return for representation, a literary agent will usually take a 15% commission. 

If you are thinking about getting a literary agent to help you on your journey to being published, most agents will request to see a book outline in some form. Each agency differs in how they’d like a book outline to be presented and often they’ll ask for less information than you might include in a book proposal. But making a start on a full book proposal now, rather than a short outline, will stand you in great stead for submitting to an agency as it may impress the agent and make them more likely to take you on.

If an agent likes the material you submit, they may ask for a meeting with you to discuss your idea further with the view of taking you on as a client. If they do decide to take you on, they will work with you to develop your book outline into a full proposal that will impress publishers. If you’ve already written a full book proposal, they will provide additional feedback and insight to elevate your proposal further. 

You may decide you are happy to represent yourself either because you feel confident going it alone or because you don’t fancy giving up 15% of your work. 

If you’re not looking for representation, it’s even more important that you spend time and energy developing your book proposal and making it as good as it can be before submitting it directly to an editor or publisher at a publishing house by getting in touch with them on email or LinkedIn. In non-fiction publishing, most commissioning editors and publishers are happy to receive proposals direct from aspiring authors, though some may prefer to work with agents. 

Whichever route you decide to take, writing a stellar book proposal is the best way to secure representation with an agent or a book deal directly with a publisher.

In the next lesson, I’ll explain what a target audience is and how to identify the target audience for your book.