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Author Tip: Get to Know Your Editor

Writing a Book Proposal

Each publisher seems to have a slightly different take on what’s required for a good book proposal. Most of the key elements are the same, but some are emphasized more than others. I think the best way to learn how to write a great proposal is to study ones written by others. If you’re already in discussions with a publisher/editor, ask them for a sample of one they really like. More importantly, ask them why they really like the sample.

If you’re just starting out though, take a look at what Jeremy Wright has posted. He was kind enough to make his entire proposal document available for review. Here are the three things I like most about what he’s done:

  1. First, it’s crystal clear that he took the time to do the job right. He says he spent 20 hours on it and I don’t doubt it. If there’s one immutable law I’ve learned in this business, it’s this: “Authors who cut corners on the proposal are highly likely to cut the same corners on the manuscript.”
  2. Four pages of competitive analysis! Again, another sign that he’s done his homework. Note that he’s not just spewing facts (e.g., title, author, ISBN, etc.) He’s going to the trouble of formulating opinions of the all the existing titles. The rightmost column of his competitive analysis table is the most important. It explains why his book is different. Remember your audience when you to this though… Jeremy cites an upcoming Wiley book from Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. I don’t buy into Jeremy’s claim that the Wiley book “will be strongly focused on form over function”, but I respect him making the observation.
  3. Marketing and promotional plans. Excellent. An author who really understands that this isn’t exclusively the job of the publisher. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, author platform has never been more important than it is today. If you’ve got a platform to work from, be sure to spell it out in the proposal.

Are there any other authors out there who are willing to post their proposal documents so that others can learn from them?


Lisa Haneberg

I have put up my proposal on my Southwestern blog called Chile Pepper. The proposal is for a book called Chile Pepper High. You can click on the link to download the proposal on the top right hand column of the blog at www.chilepepperhigh.com.

I will also be putting up the proposal for my next business book on my busness blog, www.managementcraft.com in the next week or so.

I would appreciate feedback from anyone who reads my proposal. I think it is 95% there, but it never hurts to improve if further.

Thanks - lisa
email me with feedback at lhaneberg at gmail dot com

Brad Hill

Jeremy Wright's proposal would have taken longer than 20 hours had he included a chapter or two, as many authors do and some agents insist on. Some editors have shown me proposals on their desks that left my jaw hanging--gorgeous, full-color, bound presentations that could practically be published on their own.

As to personal experience, I'm going to be contrary, as usual [smile]. I seem to have developed an inverse relationship of proposal effort to sales. I've landed about two-dozen book contracts, and none of them were spawned from what I would consider a formal proposal. I have written such proposals, including sample writing, but they have not become books. My latest broken project was pitched in an agent-represented proposal, requested by the publisher, that included about 6,000 words of finished writing and lengthy chapter descriptions. It made Jeremy Wright's proposal look like an IM message. But he got his book and I didn't, which might support my inversion theory.

Tripping down memory lane, here are my favorit low-effort book sales:

* My first book, about MIDI, resulted from an editor friend seeing articles of mine, and suggesting we do a book. He was acquiring for a small imprint. I said, "OK." I went to his office and signed a contract.

* That same editor moved to a big NY publisher, called me up saying he wanted to build out the catalog, and suggested a few ideas. We chose two in that phone call and he sent out both contracts at once. He and I ended up doing five books together; I never wrote a word of proposal.

* I was traveling around as the media spokesperson for WebTV in 1996, when my then-AE at IDG called up my hotel room and said we really should to a WebTV book. We agreed to terms just before check-out time. The contract was waiting when I got home.

* The Internet Directory For Dummies was suggested by a managing editor over dinner in New York. I was so transported by the pesto sauce that I could barely follow the details, but later that week a contract arrived, so I must have made murmuring sounds of agreement.

I guess I'm bragging a little, which is obnoxious, but I do have a couple of points.

First, I think my pattern derives from not having good ideas of my own. Looking over my book list, I see only one that was my idea--the others were brought to me. I often smack my head and think, "Why didn't I propose it to THEM?" All my AEs have been incredible at coming to me with books they want to publish. In this light, it's possible that meeting deadlines is a more important skill than writing proposals.

Second, long-term relationships are crucial, and definitely more important than proposals. I got started with Dummies books by getting on the phone to the company (writing down the idea didn't even occur to me, because my previous books hadn't sold that way). Amazingly, a managing editor answered her own phone and I pitched the idea directly to her. (She remains a friendly contact, but I don't know if she wants to be named in public.) She immediately flattened it, but suggested other lines of thought. Over the next few months, I pestered her so much that she eventually dumped me on somebody else, and I tortured that poor individual for a couple more months. During this time I did a lot of sample writing and tossed out innumerable ideas. They finally gave me a book (their idea, of course) to shut me up, most likely. All subsequent Dummies books have resulted from good relationships, not good proposals.

That said, it is important to block out a book in advance, and I've written tons of TOCs. I guess that's what a typical proposal means to me ... the TOC. If the I'm pitching an original idea (which I might as well just give up on, already), then I get into sample writing and marketplace evaluation.

Brad Hill

Lisa -- now *that's* a proposal. It's not the type of book I would try to sell without an agent. Also, have you considered publishing it yourself? I ask because of your stated willingness to invest $15,000 in promotion, and because of the personal quality of the writing. It might make a great experiment in self-publishing. But whatever you do, best of luck. I think it'll be an absorbing and evocative book.

Lisa Haneberg

Brad - Thanks for the feedback on my proposal. My first choice is to do this through a traditional publisher, but I may consider self publishing if needed. Yes, I agree about the agent (I think). I have an agent looking at it now as my regular agent for my business books is like a fish outta water in dealing with a narrative travelogue. He admits that he does not know the right editors to pitch this to.

One point of clarification on the promotion budget - I am willing MATCH up to $15,000 of out of pocket promotion funds. If the publisher invests in the book, I will too. I think that's fair. In addition, I am a very active promoter and think this is key these days. this is a business partnership and writing is just ONE of my roles. I learned a lot about what to do and what NOT to do with my first book (I'm sure we all do!).

Anyway, long answer to say thanks for the feedback!

Brad Hill

Lisa -- thinking more about your proposal. I understand about the matching. Still, you're stating a willingness to pour your entire advance (most likely) into the book. Maybe more. If you have a typical royalty deal (10 percent of invoice), you own a roughly five-percent equity in the book. Making a substantial personal investment into a property of which you own so little seems alarming, doesn't it? That's what makes my thoughts return to self-publishing, in which you'd own 100 percent equity (after expenses). I keep thinking your equity should be comparable to your willingness to invest cash.

At the very least, if you sell your proposal, I hope you arrange for the $15,000 potential commitment to come out of your advance, and to be accounted that way, so that you don't have to earn back the advance IN ADDITION to paying cash into the project.

My $.02.

Lisa Haneberg


Good points, thanks. Certainly something to consider. I think the question is, for this kind of book, how important is the distrubution channels of the publisher? If the answer is that it's a buy online book versus a browse and buy book, then self-pub has appeal. If I think this is a browse and buy book, that would stear me toward a traditional publisher.

It also depends on the publisher and the editor. It is worth something to me to work with, and learn from, a great editor.

Naba Barkakati

Lisa, That's a great proposal you wrote! I think it's a little bit different for computer books, especially if you have a long-standing relationship with the acquisition editors (as Brad explains in his post). By the way, if you are considering self-publishing, take a look at Tim O'Reilly's thoughts on self-publishing.

Lisa Haneberg


Thanks for your thoughts and for the link. I think the critical statement in O'Reilly's post is "what business do you want to be in?" And really, I want to be in the writing and promoting business if possible.

Brad's comments on the financial considerations are certainly valid and important too.

If I can attract a publisher, someone I WANT to work with, I would like to go that route.

I appreciate the feedback. Thanks, Joe, for prompting the conversation!

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