What is a book proposal, and do you need one?

When an editor “acquires” a book, that means they buy it. An acquisitions editor usually works in house, for a traditional publisher. Penguin Random House, Milkweed Editions, and Scholastic are examples of traditional publishers.

Generally, but not always, when they buy your book a publisher pays an advance against royalties, in several instalments tied to production timelines. The author needs to “earn out” (pay back) the advance through book sales.

To acquire a book, an editor needs to convince their publisher, the sales team, and sometimes other departments (digital, marketing) and the executives. Budgets are often tight at publishing houses, so the editor has to make a compelling case: why this author? Why this book? Why now?

Fiction submissions (novels and short stories) are usually sold on the strength of the full submission; i.e., the finished manuscript. That’s especially true of first-time authors.

Non-fiction submissions (business, self-help, memoir, etc.) can be sold as a manuscript (full or partial) or a book proposal.

Think of a book proposal as a business plan for your book. It’s no different than if you wanted to open a cafe and needed a bank loan. You’d need to make a compelling case to the bank for why they should take a chance on you. The advance is like a loan, intended to help support you while you travel, interview, research, and write the book.

Even if the publisher doesn’t pay an advance, you still need to convince them to take a chance on you and your book. A carefully constructed book proposal helps position your idea in the marketplace, and shows the publisher that you’re a safe bet.

An agent can shop your proposal to a publisher on your behalf. If you have an agent, they can help you create a book proposal. If you are looking for an agent, having a book proposal can be a great incentive for them taking you on.

As an editor with over a decade of in-house experience considering proposals and positioning books for the marketplace, I can help. I sold my own book, Tracking Giants (spring ’23), on the strength of my proposal.

If you would like support with shaping your idea and writing your proposal, please be in touch. I’d love to hear about your project.

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