At some time in their lives, if not throughout their careers, most writers dream of getting a book published. Today, self-publication doesn’t carry the stigma it once did. Print-on-demand companies like Xlibris and are fairly well regarded, and reliably employed by some good authors.

But most writers interested in book publication would probably admit wanting to see their work picked up by a good mainstream publisher, at no cost to them, and earning reasonable royalties for years to come.

Some writers may employ writer’s agents, a good option for a lucky few, especially since many publishers won’t accept “unagented” material. But agents can often be as difficult to engage as book publishers, requiring extensive self-selling and copious documentation. And their cut of already miniscule earnings can seriously diminish any possible gains in the process.

Learning to write a good quality book proposal can help a writer be his or her own best agent, and adds an enormous sense of achievement when it pays off in publication. Having sold a book to a publisher completely unaided, and out no commission in the process, can be a deeply satisfying experience, not to mention a great ego booster.

Elements of a Manuscript Proposal

There are three basic questions to answer about any manuscript that form the basis of a good book proposal:

  1. What is the author’s purpose or goal in writing the manuscript?
  2. What makes the manuscript unique or distinct from other similar works?
  3. Who is the intended audience for the work?

The more completely an author can answer these questions, the better a publisher can consider and hopefully buy into the author’s vision. In order to address the question of uniqueness, most publishers want to see some comparisons between the manuscript being proposed and other existing similar works.

That’s usually a matter of browsing, finding the closest matches in category and scope, and then seeing what sets the current project apart from them. If it turns out there isn’t much difference, that’s a good indication to reconsider the project, or at least refocus its aim.

It’s also important to know the audience for whom the work is written. Is it for children or for adults? And what segment of either group? Children who like robots? Adults who homeschool?

Again, the more specific – and persuasive about the need for that audience to have such a work available — an author can be with respect to the intended audience, the better a publisher can envision marketing and selling the work.

Annotated Table of Contents

One of the most persuasive elements of a book proposal package can be the annotated Table of Contents. An annotated Table of Contents is simply a short summary description of each chapter or part of a book or manuscript. Of course, this suggests a manuscript might have to be finished, or at least mostly completed, beforehand. But that’s not necessarily the case.

The annotated Table of Contents can serve as an immensely helpful exercise in the early stages of writing. Laying out the size and scope of a work in a logical, digestible sequence can help guide the author’s writing when the time comes, if it hasn’t already. Publishers understand the final work may vary, perhaps considerably, from the initial Table of Contents. But seeing the author’s intent laid out neatly and cohesively in an organized fashion is critical to helping the publisher decide whether to invest time, money and energy in the project.

Along with the annotated Table of Contents, the author should include a preface or introduction and a representative sample of the work, preferably a full chapter, but at least a few pages is helpful.

Manuscript Information Sheet

A Manuscript Information Sheet can help coalesce all the parts of a proposal into a cohesive whole. The MIS should include a physical description of the manuscript that covers:

  • Physical layout of the work, including expected number of pages and illustrations;
  • A short, less than 300 word summary of the work;
  • The goal of the work, specifically identifying how the work is significant in its field, including unique features that would compel readers to purchase the work;
  • Identification of the intended primary and secondary audiences for the work, and a summary of similar works and how the current proposal differs for them;
  • A biographical sketch providing evidence of credibility as an author; and
  • Identification of why the current publisher is being approached (suitability to existing series, physical proximity, readership, etc.)

It can be as difficult and demanding as ever to get published today. But creating a quality book proposal can be not only the linchpin that gets an author’s work up on a bookstore shelf, it can also be the organizational exercise that makes that work a bestseller.