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The Book Proposal:8 Hooks to Make Agents and Editors Eager to Read Your Proposal

If you are writing a book proposal during Write Nonfiction in November, I’m posting this blog for you. For the nonfiction writer wanting to find an agent and have their book published by a traditional publisher, this document represents a necessary evil. While fiction writers can simply write their book, and turn in a synopsis, author’s bio and chapter summaries, the nonfiction writer has to have a full-blown marketing document (with only one or two sample chapters, mind you, not even a fully-written manuscript) to convince agents and editors they have a saleable idea.  

I’ve written several nonfiction book proposals for my own projects, and I’ve helped my clients with their proposals as well. I can’t say writing or editing these documents constitutes my most enjoyable work, and I’ve been known to say, “I could write the whole book in the amount of time it takes me to write the proposal!” However, when I’m done, I’ve convinced myself as well that I have a good idea. Additionally, I know my reader and my market, I know what’s going in ever chapter, and I know what I have to do to promote myself and the book. That makes the process more than worthwhile. It makes it necessary.

More than one book exists on how to write a book proposal, but the book proposal bible remains How to Write a Book Proposal by agent Michael Larsen. Writer’s Digest will publish the fourth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal in spring 2010. Mike also wrote How to Get a Literary Agent and, with Jay Levinson, author of Guerrilla Marketing; and Rick Frishman of Planned Television Arts, coauthored Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work. Mike agreed to write a blog on the subject of writing book proposals for Write Nonfiction in November and to share what he calls his “proposal on a page,” which you’ll find in the section titled “Introduction.”

Pay special attention to this section. It’s a new approach to the proposal overview, or first page of the proposal, and here’s what he recently told me about it: “If it’s strong enough, it will sell a book all by itself. It’s the best thing of its kind on the planet.”

I used Mike’s proposal on a page to create a one-page proposal for one of my own books recently. I loved the results. I also used it to create the overview for my most recent book proposal as well as the overview for one of my clients, who plans to send his proposal to Mike in the very near future.

So, without further ado, if you want to get paid to write your book — meaning, you want to pitch it to an agent who will sell it to a publishing house that will offer you an advance — here’s what Mike says about writing a nonfiction book proposal.

The Parts of a Nonfiction Book Proposal

By Michael Larsen

Literary Agent and Author

Michael Larsen-Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agents

Proposals usually range from 35 to 50 pages, and they have three parts: an introduction, an outline, and a sample chapter. Here is a list of the parts of a proposal:

INTRODUCTION

Overview

Make the First Page of your proposal a proposal on a page by writing:

8 Hooks Guaranteed to Make Agents and Editors Eager to Read Your Proposal

Make every sentence help answer one of these two essential questions:

“Why the book?” and “Why you?”

Why the book?     

1. Your Subject Hook: a sentence with the single most compelling anecdote, fact, idea, quote, statistic that will convince agents and editors to keep reading.

2. Your Book Hook: three sentences with:

  • the title (and subtitle if you have one) of your book and your selling handle: 15 words or less explaining why people will buy the book.
  • (Optional) a Hollywood pitch for your book that captures the essence of it by comparing it to one or two books, movies, or television shows. For example,  “It’s x meets y.”
  • estimated length of your manuscript, including back matter, the number of illustrations will have if you are using them, and how many months after receiving the advance you will deliver the manuscript.

3. Your Market Hook: three sentences with:

  • the largest groups of people who will buy your book and how fast they’re growing, if it’s impressive.
  • the largest commercial and institutional channels through which your book can be sold.
  • the largest potential subsidiary-rights markets for your book.

4. (Optional) Your Nichecraft Hook: if your book will be the first in a series, a sentence with the titles of up to three books.

5. (Optional) Your Foreword Hook: the name of someone who will help give your book salablility and credibility in 50 states two years from now who has agreed to write a foreword.

Why you?

6. (Optional) Your Credibility Hook: a sentence proving you can write your book because of your track record, credentials, years of research, or experience in your field

7. (Optional) Your Platform Hook: a sentence about what you have done and are doing to give your work and yourself continuing national visibility with your audience

8. Your Promotion Hook: a sentence with the most impressive two-to-four ways that you will promote your book.

The Other Parts of the Introduction

Expand on the hooks as needed as you come to them. Nine of the thirteen parts of the Overview are optional. You may not need them.

Special features (Optional): humor, checklists, sidebars, exercises, summaries

Back Matter (Optional): use comparable books as a guide.

Markets for the Book

  • Other groups of people who will buy your book
  • Other channels through which it can be sold
  • (Optional) Other subsidiary rights markets starting with the most commercial one.

A Mission Statement (Optional): one first-person paragraph about your passionor commitment to write and promote the book

The Author’s Platform (Optional): the other things you have done and are doing to build and maintain your continuing national visibility online and off

Promotion (Optional): the rest of a plan as long and strong as you can make it

Competing Books (Optional): basic biblioigraphic information and phrases starting with a verb about what each does and its weaknesses

Complementary Books: up to ten books on your subject proving the interest in it

Resources Needed to Complete Your Book (Optional): out-of-pocket costs of $500 or more

About the Author: in descending order of importance, a page with what’s not in your platform

The Outline

From a paragraph to a page of prose about every chapter and the length of each chapter

A Sample Page of Outline

Here’s an outline from what became How to Get a Literary Agent.

Chapter l2

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: How to Handle Agency Agreements           l9 Pages

This chapter starts by balancing the pros and cons of agency agreements. Then it covers eleven essential points that should appear in any agreement, as well as clauses for writers to avoid. Four representative agreements follow, including the author's which appears on the next two pages.

          The discussion of agreements concludes that since no agreement can encompass every potential contingency, the most important basis for any agreement is the good faith of the people who sign it.

          The next part of the chapter presents separate bills of rights for authors and agents stating their responsibilities to each other whether or not the agents have an agreement.

          The chapter ends by analyzing the causes for changing agents and the three-step procedure for doing it:

  1. Try to find a satisfactory solution to the problem.
  2. If that is not possible, notify the agent in writing of the change.
  3.  Find another agent.                                                                                                                          
The Sample Chapter

The representative chapter that best shows how well you write about the subject

These are the ingredients of a proposal. They’ll give you an understanding of what you will need in a proposal, but they can’t tell you how to write one. The recipe is in the book (How to Write a Book Proposal by Mike Larsen).  

Please write or call if you have questions, 415-673-0939, larsenpoma@aol.com.

Michael Larsen-Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agents

www.larsen-pomada.com 

1029 Jones Street / San Francisco CA 94109

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

About Michael Larsen

Michael Larsen and his wife Elizabeth Pomada and started the Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents in San Francisco in 1972. They are members of the Association of Author’s Representatives and have sold hundreds of books to more than 100 publishers.

Mike handles general adult nonfiction that will interest New York houses and has social, esthetic, or practical value. He also handles anything that is so so needed or so beautifully written that its commercial value doesn’t matter. Elizabeth represents fiction, narrative nonfiction, and books for women. Their associate agent, Laurie McLean, handles genre fiction, and middle-grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction.

Mike and Elizabeth are co-directors of the 6th San Francisco Writers Conference that will take place on President’s Day Weekend, February 13th to 15th at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel. The keynoters will be bestelling authors Richard North Patterson, Jane Smiley, and Lolly Winston, www.sfwriters.org. Mike and Elizabeth are also co-directors of the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference, www.sfwritingforchange.org.

(Note: I apologize for the formatting problems in this blog. I am having some trouble posting blogs from the original Write Nonfiction in November site, www.writenonfictioninnovember.wordpress.com, to RedRoom.com. The posts don't always want to format correctly. If you want to follow the blog there with comments, please feel free to visit www.writenonfictioninnovember.wordpress.com. However, I also encourage you to read the blog here; I am posting every day. And I encourage you to comment here as well.)