Writing a Book, Part 2: Writing Your Book Proposal

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This is exactly how I feel about cooking, but I tend to think of it the other way around — since I get to do what I love, I never really have to work.  :)

In Part 1 of this series I talked about my passion and how it evolved into my dream of writing a cookbook.  Now comes the fun part – putting it on paper.

Even though the content for your book proposal will be unique to the kind of book you’re writing (such as a cookbook, autobiography, murder mystery, etc.), the general format is the same for most book proposals.  I don’t work in publishing and I don’t claim to be an expert, but this is the format that I used when I wrote my book proposal (my book is being published by Tuttle this fall…it’s currently available for pre-order on Amazon!).  I’m hoping this format will help others get a book deal as well.

[UPDATE:  A Note on Self-Publishing:  For those of you who want to write a book but are planning to self-publish, you should still come up with a few components of a book proposal.  (You wouldn’t try to start a new business without a business plan, right?)  Writing a proposal helps you organize your thoughts – and in turn, your book – and come up with a plan on how to proceed.  That being said, you won’t need all the sections that you would need if you were going to submit your book proposal to someone else (i.e., a literary agent or a publisher); instead, you’ll just need the following sections:  About the Author (you might as well write it, you’ll need it for the back flap/cover of your book anyway); Table of Contents; Book Length, Photographs/Illustrations, & Timeframe for Delivery (writing this section will help you come up with a clearer mental picture of your book and provide a timetable to work with); Competition (this will help you tailor your book to the niche that it will fill), and Marketing & Promotion.]

Components of a Book Proposal:

  1. Query Letter or Cover Letter (1 page)
  2. Title Page (1 page)
  3. Overview (about 3-5 pages)
  4. About the Author (about 1-2 pages)
  5. Table of Contents (length varies)
  6. Sample Chapters (length varies, but generally about 20 double-spaced pages per chapter)
  7. Book Length, Photographs/Illustrations, & Timeframe for Delivery (1 page)
  8. Competition (about 2-3 pages)
  9. Marketing & Promotion (about 2-3 pages)
  10. Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (optional)

 * * * * *

  1. Query Letter or Cover Letter:  A query letter is a letter asking a publisher or literary agent for permission to send them the book proposal; unless the publisher or agent specifies that they want a query first, you can typically include your book proposal right along with a cover letter that essentially functions as a query letter.  Done this way, the cover letter should briefly describe your book, your background (focusing on what qualifies you to write the book), and then ask the publisher or agent to read your attached proposal.  Tailor the letter to each publisher or agent you send it to (make sure to lookup a specific contact person’s name and title or call to get the information, instead of addressing the letter “To Whom It May Concern”), but be sure it’s written succinctly and concisely.  Format this letter as you would a formal business letter:  single-spaced with two-line feeds between each paragraph.  I’ll give more information on this and show you a sample letter in my next installment, Writing a Book, Part 3:  Finding a Publisher.
  2. Title Page:  Think of this as the cover page of a book report; it gives your work a nice polished look.  Include very basic information, like the name of the book you’re proposing, your name, address, phone number, email address, and website (if applicable).
  3. Overview:  Give a brief description of the book; explain who you’re gearing it towards, and with what goal in mind as you write it.  Be sure to point out anything that makes your book unique, as well as any features that you think will be good selling points.  Is there a growing current trend that will help make your book popular?  For example, maybe studies show the number of people obtaining fishing licenses is the on the rise across the nation; this would be helpful to mention if your book pertains to choosing the perfect fishing bait, or something along those lines.  (Be sure to give the source if you mention a trend or other statistic.)  Also, if you feel like your book has the potential to be made into a series, mention it here (maybe your book is on popular cars in the 1950’s, and after that you’d like to write a book on cars in the 1960’s and then a book on cars in the 1970’s).  (Just a tip, this section is somewhat summary-like, and so it’s easiest to write last.)
  4. About the Author:  Why are you the perfect person to write this book?  What makes you qualified?  Share your education, work experience, life experience, pertinent hobbies, and anything else you feel is relevant.  If you have had other works published, share them; also, if you have a website or blog, mention it here (I’ll talk more about your website in the Marketing & Promotion section).
  5. Table of Contents:  This is a list of the chapters in your book.  If you’re writing a cookbook, list the recipes in each chapter; otherwise, give a brief (about one paragraph) summary of each chapter.
  6. Sample Chapters:  This gives the reader an idea of your book’s personality, as seen through your writing style and tone.  Include a full chapter (or better yet, two or maybe even three chapters) from your book.  It shouldn’t be the introduction.  It can be the first chapter, but it doesn’t have to be; choose the chapter(s) with the most intrigue or that best represent your work.
  7. Book Length, Photographs/Illustrations, & Timeframe for Delivery:  Give an estimate of the book’s length based on about 250 words per page (for a cookbook, say how many recipes it will include), along with a general timeframe as to when you’ll have the full manuscript completed.  If you’re planning to include photos or illustrations, say how many there will be, what they will be of (including whether color is necessary), and who will be providing them.  If you’d like to provide your own photos/illustrations, state that here and consider including a couple samples along with your proposal; if you do include samples, be sure to label them.
  8. Competition:  This section compares your book with successful books already on the market and explains why your book will be just as successful, or even more so.  List five to ten of the most popular books (along with their authors and publishers) that are currently on the market that your book will be competing with; basically, published books of the same genre with content that is similar to yours.  For example, if your book is on the best summer travel destinations in Italy, you’ll want to research the best-selling books that have already been published on this topic.  If there isn’t a lot already on this topic, you can broaden your research a little bit; continuing with the example of the book on the best summer travel destinations in Italy, if you need to broaden your research, maybe you could include books that focus on travel destinations to Europe in general or the best travel destinations in Italy year-round.  Once you identify your competition, take each book one by one and do the following:  1) give a one-sentence synopsis of the book; 2) list the most notable similarities between the book and your book; 3) list the most vital differences between the book and your book, focusing on what makes your book unique and how it fills a niche better than other books on the market (or if your book is the first book on its exact topic, say so).
  9. Marketing & Promotion:  This section helps paint a clearer picture for the publisher or agent as to why your book will be successful.  State briefly who the audience for your book is, then explain why your book will be in high demand with this audience.  Statistics (such as demographics and polls) can be helpful here, but be sure to cite your sources; for example, if you’re writing a cookbook, it may be helpful to note that the average American woman owns 15 cookbooks, and 30% of women collect cookbooks.  After that, discuss how your target audience can be reached.  Think about other venues that target the same audience that your book will be targeting; for example, conferences related to the topic, magazines, monthly newsletters, and/or specialty shops (as an example, if your book is on various types of artisan cheese, you could mention the most popular artisanal cheese makers or vendors).  List any previous works that you’ve had published, and mention any media ties or existing relationships you have that could be helpful in promoting your book; for example, if your book’s topic is the most influential magazines for teenage girls, and you used to work at Cosmo, say that!  Also, one of the most helpful things you can do (if you haven’t done so already) is start a blog on the same topic as your book.  If you already have an established blog, this is the place in your book proposal to list a few of your stats, such as your blog’s average monthly page views, average monthly unique visitors, subscribers, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, etc.
  10. Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope:  This is optional.  Include it if you want your proposal to be returned; if you do so, be sure to ask the reader to return your proposal in your query letter/cover letter.

A Few Things to Remember:

  • Regarding formatting, be aware that some publishers have their own set of rules.  (If a publisher is accepting non-solicited proposals, or proposals from first-time authors, this will usually be stated on their website; if that is the case, the publisher will generally give a few guidelines for submission.  Be sure to follow all guidelines listed.)  If no formatting guidelines are given, use the following standard:  12 point font that’s clear and easy to read (such as Courier New or Times New Roman); whatever font you choose, use it consistently throughout the whole proposal.  If the publisher doesn’t specify whether they prefer single or double-spacing, the general rule is to single space the query letter or cover letter, and double space the rest of the proposal.  Excluding the letter and title page, I like to add a footnote containing the page number to each section, starting with the number “1” at the beginning of each section.  I also like to start each new section at the top of a new page (even if the previous page isn’t full).  Basically, just think about anything you can do to organize your proposal so it’s easiest for your reader to follow.
  • Once you’re finished writing, proofread your work.  Then read it again.  And again.  Then have someone else do it.  Then read it again.  (Really.  This is your first impression…you’re trying to sell yourself as the author of a book that someone would want to publish.  Make it count.)
  • As you’re editing your work, don’t just look for grammatical and spelling mistakes; also, try to make your writing as succinct and concise as it can be, and use active voice whenever possible and appropriate.
  • If you’re citing stats (for example, in the Overview and/or the Marketing & Promotion sections), be sure to give your sources proper attribution.
  • Make sure your facts are all accurate (like the author names, book titles, and publishers in the Competition section, and the stats listed in the Overview and/or Marketing & Promotion sections).

Once your proposal is down on paper, you’ll need to send it out (that is, if you’re not planning to self-publish)…stay tuned for Writing a Book, Part 3:  Finding a Publisher. 

If you missed it, here’s my first installment, Writing a Book, Part 1:  Finding Your Story. 

For more info on my book, please take a look at My Book page.

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  1. says

    Such splendid advice, Faith. My friends have been at me to write a cookbook for 20 years and my response was always the same, “What’s my HOOK??” Having a black book of wonderful recipes is great but without a through line, it’s not much good.

    It took a discovery of old menus at NYC’s Player’s Club to find my point of view — my hook and reason to blog and, like you, I’ve had a great time doing it.

    Congrats on the book… can’t wait to read it!

    • says

      Hope you do write a book, Deana. I’d happily read anything you write and I’d love to have a collection of your recipes in one place!

  2. says

    Awesome info Faith. Thanks for sharing this. I think you’ve now spawned a bunch of future cookbook writers.

    Sounds like a lot of work.

    • says

      Laz, I’m going to be 100% honest — it is an incredible amount of work. And I don’t mean writing the proposal; that’s the fun part. :) Writing the book itself is the work. But (in my humble opinion) it’s completely worth it in the end.

  3. says

    Very useful advice for those looking to be published. I attended a workshop where a well known recipe developer/cookbook author basically discouraged everyone from writing a cookbook – too much work and pressure. But congrats on your book deal – look forward to seeing your lovely recipes in print :)

    • says

      Priscilla, If you have your heart set on writing a cookbook I don’t think anyone should be able to discourage you (well-known author or not). It is absolutely a huge amount of work and pressure, but there’s nothing that can touch feeling of satisfaction and joy that comes from seeing one of your dreams realized. In the end it’s up to you and no one else to determine if it’s worth it.

  4. Urban Wife says

    This is such great and detailed post. Thank you so much! It is good to know that even with all the hard work, it isn’t impossible to write a book. Can’t wait for your book release. :)

  5. says

    Thanks for the info Faith! I’ve looked at several books on this topic, and it’s nice to have your perspective since you’ve been through the process!
    I think in my future projects, I’m looking toward self-publishing at first…but, hmmm, this process is sure in my mind too!

  6. says

    I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I didn’t even think far enough ahead about the proposal part so this is wonderful information Faith! Thanks for posting about your experience!

  7. says

    Your advice is priceless Faith! Thanks so much for the insight and the encouragement! I’ve already decided to self-publish but their may come a day when I change my mind and this will be the first place I come.

  8. Lora @cakeduchess says

    So happy for your book and this is a wonderful post. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge:) I wish you great success.

  9. says

    I have an idea for your next book: “How to Get Published!” This was so well-written, I can just imagine how impressive your proposal letter was. Thanks for all the great tips.

  10. says

    Superbly generous post series. I think I can speak for everyone reading this post {and the last one, and future ones) by saying that we are all looking forward to getting our hot little mitts on a copy of your cookbook and to mulling over these fantastic posts meantime. Thanks so much for sharing your journey and process. Like may others I have had people nag me about doing a (cancer-prevention/in-treatment) cookbook, and was even going to do one in conjunction with the cancer charity I work with, but life and full-time work got in the way and for now I am happily settling for blogging, as a happy medium between the desire to share and also keep my life relatively sane. I so admire your bravery – because that’s what it is – and of course your skill as a writer, recipe developer and all around great blogger. All best wishes for huge and deserved success.

    • says

      Kellie, I really appreciate your kind words…and speaking truthfully, it’s almost as though you know me because in a lot of ways it did feel like I was taking a huge chance writing this book. Not only the time, energy, and resources that went into it, but also bearing my heart and soul. Thank you. XO

  11. says

    It’s so fantastic of you to put this all together Faith! It is making something that seems elusive and perhaps intimidatingly unattainable, a detailed reality! Wonderful information :)

  12. says

    This is such useful information. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. I have bookmarked this page for future reference, when I finally finish and pitch my cookbook lol. You’ve given us gold here. Have a beautiful weekend =]

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