Monday, October 8, 2012

How to Get Your Novel Published: Creating a Book Proposal

by Stephanie Morrill

I'll confess, I've been feeling rather nervous about this topic as I saw it inching closer on the calendar. Partially because it seems like every agent wants different things. I'm a girl who likes rules because then I know what to do and not do. But I've decided the good thing about there being no real industry standard for book proposals is that so long as you stick with a couple basic rules, it's not like someone's going to look at it and be like, "Obviously this chick has no idea what she's doing!"

Here are some guiding principles for preparing book proposals:

  • Use a regular font. The agency I'm with, MacGregor Literary, uses Arial. I've seen others use Times New Roman. You're looking for something basic and readable. Black text, white background. Let the words do the work, not your pink, glittery font.
  • Send what the agent (or editor) asks for. In my experience at the very least they ask for is the first three chapters and a synopsis. (Though typically that's called a "partial" rather than a book proposal.) More often it seems like they also want to see your author bio and a blurb about the book.
Here's what you might be asked for:

The proposals that my agent has me put together are fairly detailed, but the idea is you want to present as complete a package as possible. Here are the elements that go into one of my book proposals. I've put asterisks by the ones that apply to previously published writers:

  • Title page: This is a cover page basically that has the title of my book, the genre, my name, and my agent's name/contact info. If you're unagented then your contact info would go there instead.
  • Title/Author/Genre: The next page has my title, name, and genre again.
  • Word count: The number of words in the story, rounded to the closest thousand. 
  • Target Market: Who my audience is. (I talked about that last Thursday.)
  • My hook (also known as a one line): Here's another thing that there isn't as much of an industry standard as I would like there to be. I had been taught 25 words or less, don't use names, etc. Well, my agent tends to like longer ones that provide the basics - the who, what, when, where, and why - in an intriguing way. Other agents, however, still like the ones that are 25 words or less.
  • My blurb: This should read like backcover copy.
  • Comparitive Titles: Oh gosh, if you were to ask me what I dislike most about being a writer, my answer really might be, "Coming up with comp titles for my book proposals." It's helpful to be mindful of the goal of the publishers when they're looking at these titles - they want to know what's already on the market, who's publishing it, and how it's doing. So you want to pick books that have been successful ... but you don't want to pick stuff that's been crazy successful. If you're writing a dystopian, you really don't want to write down The Hunger Games as a comp title. But titles like Delirium or Matched might be appropriate. I typically struggle to come up with three. You list the title, the publishing house, the year it came out, and a brief description. You can also add what's similar about your story and what's different about your story.
  • My author bio and a picture: This is just a short bio about who I am, what I've written, and any credentials I have to my name. It's not where I wax on about  my two really cute kids or hunky husband.
  • *Books I've published and my sales numbers: This is exactly what it sounds like. Books I've written, the publisher, the year of release, and sales numbers.
  • Sales hooks/author promotion: This is where we put things like awards my previous published books won, high-profile blogs or publications that have had me as a guest, and any author endorsements I have. ("Jill Williamson, Christy award winning author, has agreed to endorse Title of book.")
  • Marketing strategies: This is where I list everything I plan on doing to promote the book. If you're curious about marketing, I talked about it a week ago.
  • Additional blurbs: If this is part of a series, blurbs for additional books will go here.
  • Synopsis (2-3 pages)
  • Sample chapters, typically the first 3.
Now, Jill Williamson and I are with the same agency, but her book proposals look different than mine and have some additional elements. (Jill has been kind enough to provide a sample book proposal for her upcoming release, Captives. She also wrote a great article on why you should consider writing your book proposal first.)

Hopefully this is helpful. I know book proposals can feel really overwhelming, but it gets easier with practice. If you have questions, I'd love to help answer them!


  1. I know I say basically the same thing every time you post one of these, but...
    Thank you! This answered a LOT of my questions, and I'm bookmarking it for future reference!

    Honestly, where would I be without Go Teen Writers?? Not even gonna think about that ;)

  2. Thanks for the post Jill. I also find comp titles difficult; finding something similar, but not too similar. I just joined goodreads, though, so that might help generate some ideas. I already have one, possibly two in mind.

  3. My agency also asks for the theme--I usually use a verse and then a brief exclamation of how it applies, or sometimes just a one-sentence statement of the theme itself.

  4. Mmm, yeah, that first paragraph. I like rules, structure, and schedule too. It's been coming back to bite me since last Thursday :(

  5. This is so helpful! Just a question: would things like target audience, marketing strategies, and author promotion be a bullet point set up or should it be in a paragraph form?

    1. Great question!

      It's kind of a combination, honestly. The key is readability and bullet points are great for that. So regarding target audience, it would look something like:

      Genre: YA Speculative Fiction

      Target audience: Girls ages 13-18

      But for marketing strategies, you might do something like:

      The author will promote the release of AWESOME BOOK TITLE with the following strategies:

      -Great idea 1 - Explanation of great idea.
      -Great idea 2 - Explanation of great idea
      -Great idea 3 - Explanation and sample of the announcement

      Make sense?

  6. Reallllllllly really helpful, Stephanie! Thanks so much....I needed to read this and get my head around the whole idea of a proposal. I have trouble with the comparable title thing. I did have two questions for you:
    1. What does a synopsis entail? Is it literary a step-by-step walk-through of your book?
    2. What do you say if your comp titles are older books like Caddie Woodlawn, Eight Cousins, and The Railway Children? (as is the case with my first book)
    Thanks for doing these, Stephanie!

    1. Glad it was helpful, Rachel!

      1. Synopses. A synopses might vary a bit in length, but the general rule is a 2-3 page description of what happens in your book. From start to finish, revealing it all. The purpose is so the agent/editor can see in a couple of pages if you've randomly thrown, say, disco-dancing goblins into the last chapter of your Amish romance rather than having to discover it after reading 90,000 words. They want to make sure you've done a good job with the story.

      Many writers groan as though the synopses are the bane of their writing existence, but I happen to love them. Here are a couple posts I've written in the past:

      Writing your synopsis:
      Organizing your synopsis:

      2. Comp titles. Now THOSE are the bane of my writerly existence. I noticed in Jill's proposal she listed The Giver as a comp title, which is certainly fitting for a dystopian project. But she balanced it out with new books as well. I would look for some modern books too. And you don't want to get too "classic" with your older books. Like a regency writer should not put "Pride and Prejudice" as a comp title.

      Hope that helps!

    2. Yes, that did help. Thanks so much Stephanie! :)

  7. This was really helpful, especially the sample novel proposal. :) I have a question, what if I just want to get one story published but don't have any long term goals to be a professional author as my career? Or what if I want to basically get one novel published to try it out but not automatically have that commitment? I love writing stories but my novel ideas, and when I want to write something and hope to get it published, that just comes spontaneously. Like, I don't want to be forced to write with a time limit and all that. Is it possible to just be able to decide when I want to write without having to have an agent and company and all of that? Does that make sense? Sorry if that was confusing :P

    1. That makes sense, Kim. I don't say this too often, but I think that's a situation where self-publishing would make sense. Obviously there are some writers who have done okay with one book (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee being the obvious example) but that's really rare. And as a novel writer, if you're not interested in a career, it would probably be tough to get an agent or editor.

  8. This is really helpful!
    If I ever get to this point, I think I'm going to hate comparative book titles. :P

    1. They really are the worst. For me, anyway. I struggle with one sentence descriptions too, but at least with those I'm writing and I can see my progress. With comp titles, I feel like I'm just surfing the internet, hoping to land on the right book. Blah!

  9. One of the most helpful post for me so far! :D I find the idea of proposals and synopsizes really daunting but this seems to ease my mind... a little ;D Still nerve-racked!!

  10. Thanks so much! I haven't started thinking about this yet, but when I do get here, this will be awesome.

  11. It really does get easier with practice. I'm definitely still a novice at this and most of the book proposals I've created will never be used, BUT that first one was the hardest. :)