October 14, 2022

5 Tips for Writing & Pitching a Great Book Proposal

book proposals
Book Publishing
Traditional Publishing

Lately I’ve been living in proposal land—ghostwriting and editing proposals, coaching authors through their proposals, and even teaching an online class about pitching! I’ve found myself responding to a lot of the same concerns and making the same recommendations over and over, so I thought I’d share them here with you!

Remember, what an agent or editor cares most about is the quality of your ideas and platform, not the formatting of the proposal itself.

I get it—we all want to present our best selves to the gatekeepers of the publishing world. And don’t get me wrong—I can be meticulous and fussy about making sure my clients’ book proposals look good. But I see too many writers focusing more on following the “rules” of book proposals and not spending enough time sharpening their ideas and maximizing their strengths. Here’s the unfortunate truth: A well-placed comma or a catchy title cannot hide a bad idea. 

Write (and memorize) your one-sentence summary!

One of the best tools you can utilize in your proposal, your pitch, and later in marketing your book, is a one-sentence summary of your book, aka positioning statement, aka elevator pitch. It goes by many names, but the purpose is the same: You should be able to concisely deliver a short pitch that answers the questions:

  • What is my book about?
  • Who is it for?
  • How will it help them/what’s the message?
  • Why is it important? 

The other day I was talking to a friend who asked what my book idea is about, and something embarrassing happened. I didn’t have my one-sentence summary memorized. Instead of delivering a smooth and confident pitch, I rambled for five minutes about the book, coming up with on-the-spot justifications and struggling to follow my own train of thought. I could hear it as it came out of my mouth. It’s ok, because I was just talking to a friend, but it was a good wake-up call. I don’t want that to happen when I’m talking to agents or editors!

Understand how your book contributes something new and unique to the market.

Agents and editors read books and book proposals all the time. They know better than anyone all of the options that a reader has when they’re looking for books on a particular topic. Honestly, it all starts to sound the same! There are trends in publishing, and when one topic becomes fashionable, it can be hard to make the case for one book over another. 

That’s why it’s absolutely essential that you read up on and study other books that are being written for your audience and about the same topic. Aim to make your book complementary to those books, rather than competing with those books. You and your agent/editor need to know how to differentiate your ideas from the plethora of other ideas available to readers. Your goal is not to replace those other books (unless you truly think those books are wrong!); rather, your goal is to create something that will add unique value to the reader. 

Think about how to maximize your network.

It’s tempting to think of your platform as just the number of followers you have on social media—but your platform encompasses both your online and IRL connections! In fact, your friends and colleagues may be much better assets for you in promoting your book than a slew of followers who really don’t know you. Think of the power of an organization you’re a member of that will buy your book for all of their members. Or the cache of a friend with a large newsletter, who’s willing to promote your book in that newsletter. A personal recommendation goes so much further than an ad on Facebook! Think now about who you can ask and how you can maximize any groups you are a part of.

Practice talking about your book.

Many authors I work with are still sheepish about their book. They’re not confident yet in the idea or still nervous about people’s reactions when they share their message. I often counsel my authors to start telling people that they’re writing a book, because those people will ask you about it again later and help to hold you accountable. But more importantly, the more practice you get talking about your book, the more confidently you’ll be able to deliver your pitch to agents, editors, and future buyers.

Like the children’s song says, hide it under a bushel? No! You’ve got to let it shine! The best advocate you will EVER have for your book is you. Your confidence about your message is infectious. Let it shine!