Recently I had the good (ahem) fortune of writing a book proposal, a document I’d avoided for years because it simply didn’t seem necessary. My book was done; I’d been sending it around without one, so why the need? But when I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, an agent I’m interested in working with—along with a former book editor-cum-entrepreneur whose advice I trust—said in no uncertain terms that every memoirist needs a robust (read: 100-page) book proposal. I realized that if only for the very practical reason that if I wanted to query this agent I’d need a book proposal, that I had to write one, daunting as it was.
The tricky thing about a book proposal is that it calls on a completely different part of your brain than the one you use to write your book. You hope the book-writing part uses the creative, spontaneous, brilliantly fresh part of your brain; the book proposal requires something more like an MBA. Here is the book market, you need to say. Here is how I fit into it. Here is how my book improves upon and contributes to the many voices already writing memoir, anxiety, romance. And here is why I’m the best person to write this very book. You also need to learn to talk about your book and why you’ve written it in a way that suggests confidence, poise, and drive, plus no small measure of self-aggrandizement.
My first draft was a disaster. I followed a template to the letter of the law, in the process confounding an editor I’d hired. In my chapter summaries (oh yes: you need a roughly 1-page summary of every chapter in your book, which in my case is 20+ chapters long) she couldn’t find the theme of the book; she didn’t understand what the climax of the story was or how anxiety even fit in. Since anxiety is supposed to be the very bottom building block, the most important thing, I knew this was a major problem. And while the editor didn’t have much negative to say about my 12-page Marketing and Publicity section, it was killing me: I spent hours coming up with a list of blogs and publications and connections and opportunities, but somehow this all felt folksy, redundant; that it didn’t really describe how I plan to market and promote my own book. Did I really need to state that I planned to Tweet about it? I mean, duh, right?
Luckily, a writer friend to the rescue. She let me look at her book proposal. And then I found a few others, remembered that an old college buddy had, years ago, sent me his. Reading these through, I realized that the most salient point of a book proposal is that, while in an actual book you have pages upon pages to allow themes to marinate, in a book proposal you have mere sentences to make yourself understood. You have to hammer home your points in a way that a busy agent or book publisher, skimming your proposal, can easily grasp. So I rewrote and rewrote those chapter summaries, emphasizing the two main threads of the book—making peace with fear, and love as acceptance, if you’re wondering—in every single one. And in the Overview section, I strove for an almost-painful clarity: the theme of the book is this, I said. The most important takeaway is this. Finally, instead of concentrating all my industry-speak into that one Marketing & Publicity section, it occurred to me to sprinkle it throughout, and to use the “About the Author” section to tout my accomplishments (man, that’s an uncomfortable phrase to write) and emphasize the ways this book fits into a larger scheme of me as a writer.
The surprising thing about writing this book proposal was not facing the discomfort of shamefully selling myself, though that did give me pause, but rather how damn useful it was. Being forced to write a sentence like “the themes of the book are X, Y, and Z” helped me to reflect on, well, the themes of the book. It allowed me to go back and look at the book and ask myself whether those themes were in fact clear (and if not, to take one last moment to make them clear). Similarly, writing the “Comp Titles” section—where you compare and contrast your book to others in the same genre—allowed me to really envision where my book sits on the shelf at the library. It allowed me to come up with catch-phrases to describe the genre and what I’m trying to do. It gave me the opportunity to think of ten books that I really, really like and describe how my book complements them. Finally, the book proposal was a great opportunity to talk a little about anxiety, to throw some statistics around, to say what I know and very much believe to be true: that Americans are more anxious than ever, that anxiety has become a huge part of our national identity, that more people need to be reading and writing about it. Because I truly believe that.
Last week, with very little fanfare but a nice oomph of satisfaction, I sent out that book proposal. I’m now in that awful period where you wait and wait and wait. But it actually doesn’t feel so awful, I think because I’m really happy that I finished that book proposal and feel good about it. If nothing else, writing it helped me to really put the cap on the pen that has been this long, long writing project. If nothing else, I gave it a very good shot.
Resources That May be Helpful if You Are Writing a Book Proposal: