Good proposals are essential. The proposal is usually the first – and only – thing publishers will read before making their offer. It will usually determine whether or not you are published, the offer that is made and how your book is published.
Remember – some 30 people in an editorial meeting may be considering your submission, one of dozens they consider each week, so it needs to be concise and it needs to be structured so that even if they only read the first page they will know what it’s about.
The format that has served me well over the last 30+ years in publishing is as follows:
1. Introductory page
A first page introducing the subject in a paragraph, followed by bullet-point revelations and a note on proposed word count and delivery date.
The key in this section is to show what makes your book different and commercial. What is its Unique Selling Point (USP) or Proposition? Perhaps it’s a new hook, interpretation or information. If you can extrapolate this to one exciting strap line which the editor can use to pitch in a meeting or the salesman can push to a bookshop, then all the better.
2. Personal profile
A page on you and your qualifications to write the book, together with a photo. Have you an academic background, published widely in the field? Are you respected as an authority on the subject? Have you written lots of successful books before or won awards?
3. Comparable/competing books
Give the title, author, publisher and date of publication of between five and ten reasonably successful books published in the last 20 years by trade publishers, with a few lines on how they compare to your book. You are trying to plant subliminally in the reader’s mind that there is interest in the subject but that you have a slightly different take. This will help the publisher place the book in the market.
The fourth page lists primary sources – whether it’s archives or interviews – and demonstrates that there is something new and original in the book rather than simply a synthesis of the existing information.
Finally include a note on the market and how it might be reached; who is going to buy the book, why and how can they be reached. Perhaps there are specialist organisations, websites, magazines, television or radio programmes or bloggers with a particular interest in the subject? Give details, if possible, of numbers of members, subscribers, followers, etc.
6. Chapter synopses and samples
The next stage of the layered approach are the chapter synopses. This should give a clear sense of content and structure of the book without being overwhelming.
Now come the sample chapters, perhaps on a separate Word attachment. The more you supply the better – a finished script means the publisher knows exactly what they are buying so they will be less cautious – but certainly include the first chapter.
7. Covering note
The covering note with the proposal doesn’t need to be long, but tailor it to the agent or publisher, explaining why you are approaching them by naming specific other books they have handled in the same genre. This is flattering and shows you have done your research and focused your submission.
Remember that editors and agents are busy people and will be making quick decisions. Anything that jars with them or makes them lose interest means they will move on to the next script. You don’t want that to happen – which is why the proposal is so important.
Andrew Lownie has been a Cambridge history fellow, bookseller, publisher, journalist and director of Curtis Brown. He has run his own literary agency (www.andrewlownie.co.uk) since 1988 and according to publishersmarketplace.com is the top-selling non-fiction agent in the world. He is President of the Biographers Club and an award-winning biographer in his own right. He is the author of The Sunday Times bestseller The Mountbattens: Their Lives & Loves (Blink Publishing 2019) and Stalin's Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring (St Martin’s Press 2016). Follow him on Twitter @andrewlownie.