In a column last February, I described the six main elements of a book proposal: overview, competition, market, author description, table of contents, and sample chapter. But I focused on one of them—how to figure out the market for your book—since even academic monographs need to have identifiable, reachable markets.
I wrote then that I would handle the rest of the proposal, including the hardest part—the overview—in a future column. The future is here.
My advice is based on my experience as a book editor and on my discussions over many years with editors and agents about how they help writers develop book proposals. It's also based on my own trials and errors as an author. All of my books—three works of nonfiction and now a novel—were sold based on a proposal. Like many authors, I am better at some aspects of proposal-writing than other parts. What I'm offering here is merely one way to think about your proposal.
About the author. You need to convince the editor that you are the person to write this book. For the purposes of a proposal, this section should be more detailed than what you're used to seeing on the back flap of a book jacket. What are your credentials? Have you spent two months doing research on this topic—in archives all over the world—or 20 years? Does the book grow out of previously published work? Do you teach courses on the topic? Do you have some personal connection to it?
It has become increasingly important, even for scholarly books, that authors have what is called in the trade a "platform," a way to reach a built-in audience for your book.
Do you write a column for the local newspaper? Do you have your own blog, or write for one? Do you tweet to 10 followers or to 10,000? Do you have a Web site? (Do you keep it updated?) Have you done any TV appearances? Lectured at various universities? What other books have you written? Have they won prizes or been reviewed in national media outlets? Where have you lived (that helps in promotion as book stores like to host "locals")? Did you work in the industry you're writing about?
In other words, you need to convey what makes you the expert on this topic and what about you can be used to help promote the book.
Table of contents. Before you can submit a book proposal, you have to be fairly far along in the thinking and research. Unless you're a famous, best-selling author or a celebrity, you'll need to do more than scratch some ink on the back of a cocktail napkin to snag a contract. A table of contents for the submission package is an outline of the book you plan to write, and to do that, you have to know what the book is. (My last proposal took more than a year to get right.) Of course the project may—and probably will—change and evolve during the writing process. You're not committing to anything here; you're just showing off what you've got now.
Your preliminary table of contents should contain good chapter titles and a first sentence that provides the argument for each chapter. Yes, each chapter should have an argument, or at least its own mini-arc: What will you be looking at in this chapter, and how does that contribute to the book's overall narrative thread?
Keep doing research until you have juicy bits for each chapter. You need to convince the editor (and yourself) that there's enough material for a book and not just an article.
Once you start working on the table of contents, you will see how the argument can develop. You may decide to play around with the structure. Is the book really in three parts, but you've shoehorned it into two? Is there a chapter missing? What themes are coming through—threads you may not have realized when you were buried in your notes?
I find this part of the process satisfying because it's where you see the book taking shape. From my hero, John McPhee, I have borrowed the low-tech technique of using different-colored index cards for each chapter. If you're comfortable with PowerPoint, you can use that program to create an annotated table of contents. Label each slide with the chapter title and make bullets for the important points you're going to develop. Then all you have to do is translate those slides into lucid, fluid prose. We all know how easy that is.
Sample chapter. It doesn't have to be the first chapter; it has to be the best you've got. Figure out what's your most compelling stuff—the meat of the argument, the research that will surprise. Do not save the good parts for later. If you can't get an editor interested now, there will be no later.
The urge to hold back, however, seems universal. Annie Dillard tells writers, "Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now."
Which chapter will leave the reader wanting more? Which will allow the editor to learn something and let her see the promise of the rest of the book? Which will show off your narrative skills, or your ability to make an argument using graphics? That's the one to submit.
Overview. This is the hardest part of the book proposal to write for most academics. Why? Because they're used to doing abstracts of their work, boiling down ideas to their essence, and getting their "elevator pitch" down. But that's not enough to get an editor on board.
When writers start telling me what they're working on and I feel my eyes start to glaze over, I ask how they got interested in the topic. That shifts the conversation from an information dump (on me) to the story of whatever fired them up in the first place. Often it's a tale of discovery, of being surprised, of struggling to figure out the answer to a question that kept them up at night. That's where I get interested.
Why do you care about this so much, I ask? If the answer is, "Because my dissertation adviser told me to do it," I rarely expect the book to have much heat.
Remember, the book proposal is an act of seduction. The overview is your chance to get personal with the editor and make her want you. This is where you connect the prose with the passion, and yes, even for academic books, or maybe, especially for academic books, there has to be passion.
In the overview, relate your own intellectual history with your topic by posing a question someone would really want an answer to. Keep in mind that the response to your main argument can't be, "So what?" If you say you're examining the occurrence of butterflies in 19th-century novels because no one's ever looked at that before, it's probably not going to make it out of the cocoon of your brain. Make sure you give an argument for why a reader should care about fictional insects. Was there a plague of monarchs that novelists were responding to? Did they represent some kind of twittery anxiety? Just pointing something out is not book-worthy.
By the time you finish your research and sit down to write a book, you may have moved far from what motivated you in the first place. You may get so enmeshed in the work that you forget that others might not share your Ahab-like focus on one white whale.
A good book proposal will take you—and the reader—back to that initial flush of enthusiasm, even if it means recalling the pain of when that big old beast bit off a chunk of your leg. If you can remember what originally incited your interest, and narrate that story, you can draw someone in.
Too many academics assume that their research will be fascinating to others. It very well could be, but only if you make it so. Often, the overview section of a proposal can form the basis for an excellent introduction to the book.
In the classroom your students have to at least pretend to listen to you. But busy editors and agents find it easy to put down projects that don't compel them. The effort and thinking required to write a good book proposal—and make no mistake, it is a lot of work—will pay off, not only in netting you a contract, but by helping you write with a reader in mind.
Even if you've finished the manuscript, my advice is to create a submissions packet that has all the elements I've described here and in the previous column. Your job is to make it easy for the editor to say yes; being explicit about what the book is, who will buy it, and why you're the right person to write it will help both of you.