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Writing A Book Proposal


R. Dodge Woodson


Writing A Book Proposal

            The first step in getting a publisher to publish your book idea is writing a book proposal. This intimidates some people. It doesn’t have to be frightening. Once you know the components of a professional book proposal you can attack it one phase at a time and prevail with a superior proposal. If you can’t create a winning book proposal you are not likely to be able to sell or write a book.

            What does a book proposal consist of? The basic elements are as follows:

  • Cover letter
  • Title of the book
  • Table of contents
  • Audience
  • Competition
  • Concept and approach
  • Credentials
  • Reviewers
  • Sample chapters
  • Contact information

 Cover Letter

            Your cover letter should be concise. Keep it to a single page. This letter is your sales pitch, so make every word count. Tell in no more than two paragraphs why a publisher should be interested in your idea. Follow this with a brief review of your credentials to author the book and then lead into the proposal contents.

Title of Book

            Choose the title of your book carefully. Don’t make it too long. Avoid being cute with the title. If you are selling a how-to book, the title should reflect the subject matter. An example might be: Remodel Your Bathroom in Less Than a Month! Another example could be: Building Your Own Compositing System. The book title is the beginning hook for securing a publisher, so invest enough time in it to make yourself successful.

 Table of Contents

            How long should a table of contents be? As long as it needs to be. Most non-fiction books contain between 10 and 20 chapters. I would say a good average is around 16 chapters. The word count for such a book is likely to be between 50,000 words and 85,000 words.

            Chapters do not have to be equal in length. You should make them as long as they need to be to convey the required information to readers. A table of contents should begin with a heading for an introduction. From there, you list chapters in numerical order as they will appear in the book. Under each chapter title you should either write a paragraph that explains what the chapter will contain or use a bullet list of at least five key topics to be covered in the chapter.

            Consider if your book will benefit from a glossary or appendix materials. If so, this information should be listed on the table of contents.


            Who is the audience for your book? Never say everyone. There should be a prime audience and a secondary audience. If you are writing a book about treasure hunting, your prime audience will be treasure hunters. Secondary markets could be bottle diggers, metal detecting enthusiasts and so forth. The more defined list of an audience you provide, the better your chances of making a sale are.


            You need to know your competition and point it out to your perspective publisher. Don’t look for a book that has never been written. Publishers like the comfort level of being able to check the sales records of similar types of books to see what the likelihood of success is for your project.

            Online book stores are excellent places to conduct your research. Find three books that match your concept as closely as possible. Then record the following data for your proposal:

  • Book title
  • Author’s name
  • Publisher’s name
  • Date of publication
  • Number of pages in the book
  • Price of the book
  • International Standard Book Number (ISBN) for the book

Determine what makes your book idea better or different and explain it to the publisher. If you can’t do this, your book will probably not get published by a major publisher.

 Concept and Approach

            The concept and approach is your big sales pitch. This is where you describe the contents of your book, your credentials, and what will make your book a pleasure to publish and profit from. This section is usually about two pages long.

            When fleshing out the concept and approach you will want to include the types of illustrations you will use and how many of them the book will contain. How many book pages do you foresee the book having? Will you incorporate tip boxes or sidebars?

            Don’t worry about pricing the book or suggesting cover designs. The publisher will take care of this when the time comes.

            Use this section to describe your writing style. Conversational style is usually desired. Tell the publisher whatever is suitable to your topic in a way to make the book appear more desirable.


            Credentials are a key element in selling a non-fiction book. List all of your experience related to the subject matter. Make note of your education, licenses held, or other information that makes you the right author for the book. List any organizations that you belong to that might be conducive to special sales. Essentially, sell yourself.


            Many publishers will want to receive a minimum of three peer reviews of a proposal before taking a project to the editorial board for approval. Include the names, titles, credentials, and contact information for people knowledgeable of your subject who may be willing to do a review for the publisher. The publisher is likely to use your people and some of their own for the reviews.

 Sample Chapters

            Many publishers will require one or two sample chapters from unknown authors. This allows the publisher to study your style and ability. It is best to use chapters from around the middle of the book. Avoid using the first or last chapter. Make your work shine. If you have gotten to the stage where a publisher is willing to read your sample work, you are well on the way to getting a book contract.

 Contact Information

            Don’t forget to include all of your contact information for publishers to use. It may be surprising, but some authors fail to do this. Make yourself accessible and easy to contact if you want to make a sale.


            The last step is the submission of your proposal. Some publishers will accept electronic submissions while others want printed pages submitted. Check the publisher’s guidelines for the name of the editor to submit your work to and in what form the work should be submitted.

            Publishers frown on multiple submissions. Don’t send your proposal to more than one publisher at a time.

            Once you make your submission, it is a waiting game. Quick answers are often rejections. Expect it to take weeks to get any type of desirable reaction from a publisher. Be patient. If you are lucky, you will get a phone call when you least expect it to discuss the prospects of publishing your book. Making the sale will be an unforgettable experience.

By R. Dodge Woodson

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