Most writers are intimidated by book proposals. I can see why. Writers are writers, not salesmen, not marketers, not researchers, and not necessarily aggressive self-promoters. But all of these qualities are necessary when you are putting together your proposal.
I don’t think proposals are that hard, that is unless you don’t have a clear idea of what your book is about. And even then, I have found that in the process of writing the proposal, the writer’s ideas become clarified, the structure of the book tightened up, weaknesses become apparent, and more often than not the concept of the book gets strengthened. Writing the proposal is time well spent. And a good agent will lead you through that process.
Simply put, a book proposal is a business plan. The purpose of the proposal is to describe your book idea to a publisher and to get them excited about it. But you also need to be careful not to oversell. Publishers are going to give you a lot of money (well, probably only an insultingly small amount of money) based on the material in the proposal, and they have a right to know what they are buying. Trying to dazzle them with hype or baffle them with bullshit isn’t going to work. We have heard the pitches a million times about the book being a shoe-in for Oprah, being the newest Eat Pray Love, or the next Spielberg blockbuster. Certainly all of those things would be nice, but they usually don’t happen. Trying to oversell the book sends the message that the writer is either unrealistic or manipulative. These are messages you don’t want to convey in the proposal.
A good proposal anticipates the questions and concerns an editor is going to bring to her reading of your proposal. I did a blog post about this last year called “Think Like an Editor.” You need to know what those questions are, and your proposal needs to answer them convincingly.
Of course, the $64,000 question is going to be whether your book will make money. And one of the questions you will need to answer is “what will the writer do to help sell the book”. That question needs to be addressed in the “marketing” section of the book proposal. That’s usually the section that authors have the most difficulty with. So let’s talk about that today.
The marketing sections that come to me in draft proposals usually fall between the Scylla of being totally lame and the Charybdis of grandiosity. I’ve previously written a blog post called “The Art of the Pitch” where I tried to evaluate pitches that work compared to those that don’t. We have already mentioned above some examples of grandiosity. I will not allow the word “Oprah” to be mentioned in a proposal that I am submitting, unless you happen to be sleeping with Oprah’s latest diet guru. At the other end of the scale, I see marketing plans which tell the publisher that the author will have a publication party at her mom’s house and might contact local booksellers to (try to) schedule events. These pitches are totally lame. My favorite pitch was by an author who said that he would agree to be on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, time permitting.
Remember that the marketing section is about what you are going to do. You don’t have to advise the publisher about what they already know. You don’t have to make a list of major national periodicals to send review copies to. But if you are aware of niches that the publisher might not know about, you should bring that up.
And you should be quite emphatic about what you will do. And that means don’t fill up the proposal with errant speculation and wishful thinking. I generally tell my clients not to use the word “might” in their marketing section. It’s weak and sends the message that you also “might not” do what you are proposing and probably won’t. And while you are at it, don’t use the word “try” either (as in “I will try to get Cameron Diaz to give me a blurb.)
A good marketing plan needs to be robust, but it also needs to be convincing. You have to speak with authority. That means that you need to have a realistic and professional tone. And you also have to be honest. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
Here are some points you should be thinking about when writing your plan.
- Websites. Publishers expect you to have a website for your book. So you should mention that you intend to do it. Now if you already have a website with lots of fans and lots of unique views, then you have a compelling pitch and you should make it.
- Blogs and social media. Publishers like authors to blog. If you have one, that’s great. And if you have impressive numbers of followers and viewers, let the publisher know. But a lot of writers aren’t going to do blogs. Maybe you don’t have that kind of time. So don’t promise one unless you are committed to it. Publishers also expect you to engage in social media like Facebook and maybe Twitter, so you should address that. And if you have an impressive amount of friends and followers in social media, then let the publisher know.
- Media appearances. If you have strong connections with media and have a realistic chance of getting bookings, then mention that in the proposal. It helps if you have had previous appearances in those venues or if you have a close relationships with people who can help you line them up. But again, don’t engage in wishful thinking.
- Blurbs are good, but make sure that you either already have the blurbs or have firm commitments. It’s ok to say that Cameron Diaz will blurb your book if she has agreed to do it. Don’t make a list of celebrities that you will “approach” for blurbs, although by all means, start thinking about who to approach for blurbs after you get a book contract.
- Speaking engagements. If you do public speaking as part of your job or your platform, then talk about the major venues where you will be speaking at the time of publication. You should probably limit this to major venues with significant audiences.
- Book signings. It’s ok to say that you will aggressively seek out book signings. Remember that publishers usually make the initial contact with the bookstores.
- Book tours. Publishers won’t send you on a book tour unless you are a huge author. Some authors will go on a tour at their own expense. If you intend to do this, mention it in the proposal. Give the publisher a list of cities and tell them you will work with the publisher to line up signings and media appearances in those cities.
- Book groups. Offer to meet with book groups reading your book or to do Skype appearances. It’s always a little tricky trying to ferret out these groups. If you have ways of doing it, let the publisher know.
- Press kits. It’s always nice to put this in the marketing plan, because it shows that you are savvy at promotion. Describe the press kit a little. And if you have creative ways to disseminate it, let the publisher know. Again remember not to tell the publisher how to do their job.
- Other stuff. You should try to think of other creative ways to promote the book that won’t be done by the publisher. Do blog tours, giveaways, op-ed pieces. Hire your own publicist, but let the publisher know and make sure that you will be working closely with the publisher on promotion
- Platform. Platform is a subject unto itself. I have another blog post called “Platform is More than Just a Website and a Blog”. If you have a platform, make sure that you leverage it for marketing the book and explain in detail how you plan to do that.
These are just a few ideas. You need to think long and hard about this. Remember whatever you say in this section, the most important thing is to be realistic and convincing. And that means –in this and in all things–be honest.