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Six tips for writing a successful book proposal

An interesting concept is not enough to guarantee your book will get published. In crafting a pitch, it helps to be succinct and targeted and to show an ability to deliver

Simon Clark's avatar
Independent academic
7 Mar 2022
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Man at laptop with symbols of academia, how to write a successful book proposal

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In 2019 I got extraordinarily lucky. A publisher approached me to write a book about atmospheric science for a general audience, an opportunity I had dreamed of since starting my PhD many years ago.

Because this was a long-term goal of mine, over the years I had quite deliberately done certain things that would make me more attractive as a potential author and allowed me, when the time came, to write a book proposal that was ultimately successful.

A book proposal is a document that you submit to a publisher outlining your proposed project, who you are, and why you should be trusted with the opportunity to write a book (that is, why you will generate book sales). As such, simply having an interesting concept for a book is not enough to guarantee success. You are not just selling your idea, but also your abilities as an author and salesperson.

Based on my experience, here is what I would recommend you include in your book proposal, and what you can do in advance of writing one to maximise your chance of success.

1. Have an elevator pitch ready to go

Be sure that you can neatly describe your proposed book in ultra-condensed form, conveying the subject matter and style in just one or two sentences. This is extremely useful both for the book proposal and for subsequent advertising, something the publisher will be aware of. But it also provides you with a mission statement while writing the book that will keep you on target.

2. Be specific about your audience

Understand that there is no such thing as a “general audience”. Be extremely specific about which demographics – age, gender, interests, geographies – you are aiming to reach with the book, and what learning objectives you are attempting to accomplish. What pressing questions does your book answer for your target audience? Why should they, in particular, care about your book?

3. Provide context within the literature

Give examples of books you envisage your completed masterpiece being similar to. This could be in terms of subject matter but also style. This not only gives the publisher clear reference points, letting them know what they are buying into, but is also extremely useful when writing the book. Ultimately what the publisher wants is for you to write a book in your own authorial voice, and while you should never simply copy what another author has done, using a few key texts as style guides can be valuable in identifying your own voice.

4. Read books you don’t like

The subject matter of your book is obviously important, but do not neglect to consider the format and style of your proposed project. The difference between a mediocre idea and one that takes the world by storm can be the manner in which it is delivered. To this end, read as widely as you can while forming your idea of your project. You will learn a great deal from the books that you find engaging but a great deal more those that you don’t enjoy. Personally, I found the style of my book naturally coalesced after finding certain features irritating in other books (things such as very short chapters, a forced friendly tone and an over-reliance on footnotes). Much like design, a good style is invisible, but a bad one is blindingly obvious!

5. Have a social media presence

While it may not be to everyone’s taste, having a presence on social media is a large selling point to a potential publisher, and should be highlighted in your book proposal. Guaranteeing a number of sales – especially confidence-boosting pre-orders – from your followers is a tempting prospect, as is the ease of advertising allowed by simply pointing to your social media handles. In my case, having a large audience on YouTube, but also followings on Instagram, Twitter and Goodreads, was a significant reason I was afforded the opportunity to write Firmament.

6. Have an existing body of popular writing to point to

As already mentioned, the objective of the book proposal is to convince a publisher that you can be trusted to write something worth publishing and that, crucially, will generate sales. As such, having examples of your writing for a general audience will immediately give the publisher an idea of what you would produce for them, removing any uncertainty from their decision. Additionally, practising your writing for such an audience will improve your craft, and allow you to hone your authorial voice. In my case, as well as writing scripts for my YouTube videos, I published a semi-regular blog that gave me opportunities to practise my prose, with the explicit intention of eventually sending it to publishers.

While these points cannot guarantee success, they can certainly make you more appealing as an author and your project more enticing to a potential publisher. Many of them will take effort over a long period of time, and in my own case took several years. But if you have a story you believe the world needs to hear, spending a bit of time crafting the perfect proposal means that when you’re given a chance to take your shot, you won’t miss.

Simon Clark is an author, video maker and science communicator. His first book, Firmament: The Hidden Science of Weather, Climate Change and the Air That Surrounds Us (Hodder & Stoughton), was published in January.

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