Four Tips for Better Book Proposals

You’ve polished your manuscript or first three chapters until they shine like a fine gem. Now, it’s time to persuade an editor that the public can’t live without reading your work (and will cheerfully pay the publisher for the privilege). How do you accomplish that? By putting the same passion, style and voice into your proposal as you did into the work itself.

“A proposal is one of the most important factors in selling a story idea,” says Maureen Walters, my own agent and vice president of Curtis Brown Ltd. “…It should be concise and powerful, including all of the elements of the story—story line, characters, setting—and should capture the attention of the reader so that the unique aspects of this particular story are apparent. The chapters included in the proposal [should] give a clear indication of the writing ability and imagination of the author, and, if all of the elements are put together well, can smooth the selling process immensely.”

Sidebars to this article cover the key items to include in a fiction or nonfiction proposal, and editors’ pet peeves. Here, we’ll focus on what you can do to set your proposal apart from the pack.

Color: Your Unique Voice
Authors can learn many things: characterization, pacing, tone, grammar, mechanics. But voice is an inherent asset, and we must learn to trust in it, to value it, because it’s what makes us unique, as people and as writers.

“Voice is an author’s fingerprint,” says Jennifer Enderlin, St. Martin’s Press executive editor. “…When I read a cover letter and can see a distinct, high concept story line written with intelligence and professionalism, and with a clear, resonant voice, then I’ll ask for the complete [manuscript].”

Not sure what high concept means? Think in terms of word groups that give a clear image of the story. It could be anything, such as Star Wars or Fatal Attraction.

Virtually all of the eight editors and agents interviewed for this article agreed voice and great storytelling are crucial to the successful book proposal.

“The most important thing to impress me with is your writing and your storytelling skills,” says Cindy Hwang, associate editor for Berkley.

“The most desirable submission is one that is brief and to the point, and presents a story idea with passion and with true storytelling flair,” says Lyssa Keusch. The Avon editor’s responsibilities include contemporary, historical and mainstream women’s fiction. “What makes the greatest impression on me is the sense, from the writer’s style, that she has a great story to tell and that she can make it come to life.”

Agents have the same preferences for the proposals they review. Beyond strong voice and good storytelling, Ruth Kagle, an agent with the Rotrosen Agency, looks for a plot that grows out of consistent character motivation and action as well as originality, either something that feels completely new or a fresh take on a tried and true plot.

Similarly, Wendy Chen, Bantam assistant editor, says: “It’s always nice to see a strong voice right from the beginning, and a fresh hook.”

Clarity: Map Out Your Manuscript
Even the best writing and most imaginative storytelling won’t save the day if your proposal doesn’t explain where your manuscript’s going or doesn’t reach the right editor.

“The best way to think of a synopsis/outline is that it is the road map for the complete manuscript,” says Cecilia Malkum Oh, a New American Library associate editor. “And the most important aspect about a road map is that it should be drawn in scale. The last time I depended on a map that wasn’t drawn in scale, I found myself wandering around Long Island for over an hour, lost, wondering why I hadn’t yet crossed even one of the three blocks I had to pass…. It turned out the map showed the three major streets I had to pass, without a single mention of the numerous smaller streets along the way. In the same way, when a synopsis does not explain the story in proper proportion, I end up judging an inaccurate picture.”

“Show how the story is paced,” says Susan Sheppard, Harlequin Temptation editor. “That is, include the pivotal plot points and, if you’re writing for a sensual line, show how the sexual tension develops and where it reaches a climax. Think of depicting a paradigm where plot point leads to plot point leads to climax leads to denouement.”

It’s your responsibility to see that that road map leads to the right editor at the right publishing house. Visit the bookstore, troll the publishers’ Web sites and network with writers in your area at conferences or on the Internet to find out who’s right for what your type of story. Doing the research can be very time-consuming, and is one reason some writers send proposals to agents rather than publishers. Good agents are likely to know what houses in their area of specialty want.

Agent Kagle gives an example: “When one of my clients first came to me, she had been targeting her work for Harlequin. When I read her proposal, I felt that while it was not particularly well suited to the intended category market, it had all the qualities of a terrific single-title contemporary romance. By identifying and focusing on her strengths, this author was able to turn a near-miss proposal for Harlequin into a winning proposal for a single-title house.”

Berkley’s Hwang also attests to the importance of an agent. “A good agent will not only help you put together a stronger proposal, more important, the agent will help put together the whole package complete with a platform, and not just a proposal.”

Cut: Precision is Everything
Getting to the right editor or agent won’t mean a thing, however, if your submission doesn’t look as if you’re serious about your manuscript. Give them what they want, not what you think they need.

“A proposal should consist of at least two chapters and a synopsis of no more than ten pages—three to five pages is optimum,” agent Walters says. “Given the volume of material that the editors have to wade though, less is more.”

New American Library’s Oh recommends that the proposal disclose secrets or other information in the same sequence as the manuscript and exclude details that don’t affect major plot points. The outline “should not have three pages out of ten explaining the backstory if the author plans to touch only lightly on that past in the manuscript,” she says.

“I see too many submissions that are hand-written, or contain typos, or are just plain hard to read,” Hwang says. “Beyond that, any writing credentials or contest wins is a plus.”

Carat Weight: An Author’s Tips
Now that I’ve shared the opinions of editors and agents, I want to add some personal perspective.

Be yourself. Don’t suffer too much anxiety over writing your proposal. Let your voice shine through.

Be confident. Nothing can sell you better than you. If you grovel in a letter or sound overly desperate, you’ve not only lost that necessary professionalism, you’ve denigrated your own value to the person you want most to impress.

Be honest. If you’ve written ten books, won a contest or an award, or have a complete manuscript to offer, say so. Modesty is not a virtue in this case. But don’t fabricate successes. Editors are far too busy to waste time trying to second-guess your experience level. Besides, if the story appeals to them, it won’t matter if it’s your first, or your 50th. You’ll get the sale, thanks to that sparkling proposal.

Lori Foster’s first book, a Harlequin Temptation, was published in 1996. Since then, three different houses have published 12 of her books. Eight more of her books were released this year, and another eight are planned for next year. She writes for the online writers’ colony Painted Rock and interviews editors for a regular column in the Romance Writers of America’s Romance Writers Report.

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