How to write a book proposal (off topic, but hopefully helpful posts #1)

I get asked, bizarrely frequently, how to get a book published. Bizarrely because I’m not J K Rowling; I’m someone who’s written a book on national anthems.

But if I can help, I will, so how did I get a deal?

If I’m being honest, one of the key moments was when an agent approached me after seeing an awful article I’d written for the BBC which dodgily claimed I was writing a book on these songs (I hadn’t written a word; I was more marking territory). They gave me some guidelines explaining how to write a proposal and asked me to get in touch when I’d finished it.

I wish I could simply paste those here, but it’s not my work (stealing is bad, kids!) so instead I’ll just give you the gist. And the gist is a proposal needs to answer five questions:

  • What’s your book about? Obviously
  • What’s new about it? That’s especially important for non-fiction. Think how many books there are about the Second World War
  • Why are you the person to write it?
  • Why’s it time for your book? Anniversaries always help apparently. I think my proposal banged on about the World Cup and Olympics a lot and how anthems are in everyone’s minds every two years
  • Who is your audience and why will they buy it?

The proposal itself should be split into several sections, they suggested:

  • an introduction explaining what the book is and answering everything above
  • a chapter-by-chapter outline
  • a section containing all the boring, but important, details like expected length (75-90,000 words is typical), delivery date, what extras could work for an ebook, and whether you’re going to insist on including lots of pictures or music you don’t have copyright for (I was asked repeatedly about who owns national anthems)
  • A biography to explain who on earth you are and prove that you can sell the book once it’s out. Have you done any public speaking or radio, for instance?

I didn’t actually go with that agent – they simply weren’t right for me – but I did follow their guidelines to the letter, wrote the proposal and a sample chapter and sent them off to another who I knew had dealt with similar books.

He loved the idea, fortunately, but told me it was so bizarre (part-travel, part-history) – and me so unknown – that I needed to write two more chapters before he’d consider taking it on.

That took me ages (I was fitting research into holidays, and writing late at night), but it worked out.

How important was the proposal? Vital. No agent would have taken me on without it. But it was also just personally helpful, as it made me work out exactly what I wanted to do and think about such topics as who my audience was which ultimately improved the writing. It was a lot of work (5,485 words, 19 pages), but I wouldn’t hesitate doing it again. Although saying that, the chapters were what actually got me the deal, especially one on Nepal’s national anthem, through which showed I could take the story of a minute-long song and make it have broad relevance. And that chapter was funny. That really helped. Buy my book if you want to read that and wonder why on earth a publisher liked it!

I’ve heard of people securing agents and deals without a proposal just an idea – and obviously you don’t have to get an agent or publisher at all these days – but if you think it’d help you, I really suggest giving it a go.

Apologies to any regular readers for posting something that wasn’t about national anthems. But so many people helped me with my book, I thought I’d try and help a little back. Over the next few days, I’ll do a couple of other posts featuring advice I wish I’d had when I published. Feel free to share/bear with me [delete as appropriate].

1 thought on “How to write a book proposal (off topic, but hopefully helpful posts #1)

  1. Pingback: How to write a book proposal (off topic, but hopefully helpful posts #1) — Republic or Death – MIKE GAGNON

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