The Two Hardest Parts of your Book Proposal
Hi Manuscript Workers,
Someone recently asked me which part of a book proposal is hardest to write. I’m not really comfortable answering that question, because what’s hard for one person may not be hard for another, and all the parts are tricky in their own ways, to be honest—especially if you’re new to this whole thing and not exactly sure what publishers are looking for).
But there are two parts of the typical proposal that are the most substantial and thus may take the longest or involve the most thinking and revising, and those are the project description and the chapter summaries, also known sometimes as the annotated table of contents.
(If you want a handy guide to all the parts of an academic book proposal, see this post for a list and this post for a visual cheat sheet.)
The project description has a lot riding on it. It’s where you sum up what the book is about, why it matters, and how you’re going to tell the story within the pages of the book. It’s also a kind of writing sample, where you prove that you can make your topic and findings compelling to an intelligent (but not necessarily expert) reader. You’re essentially distilling years of work and tens of thousands of words of writing into a few pages. It’s f***ing hard, not to mention intimidating and maybe even paralyzing.
Because it’s not an easy thing to write, I’ve come up with some prompts to help authors generate raw material that can then be used in the project description (or elsewhere in the proposal or query letter to editors). Here they are:
What first made you interested in writing about this topic?
What people, places, and things do you describe in the book?
Why do your research findings matter?
Who should read this book? How will they benefit from doing so?
How did you conduct the research for this book?
What’s the most interesting story from your research? Why?
What does this book add to current conversations?
What makes this book special?
Why are you the right person to write this book?
What’s the main thing readers should understand by the end?
You don’t have to answer all of the questions, but if there are any that mildly inspire you or jog your thinking or make you excited to sit down and write a pitch for your book, go ahead and follow that urge.
I used to send this list of questions to people when they signed up for my Book Proposal Accelerator, so that they could start drafting some material and be ready to hit the ground running when the program started. This year, I’m opening enrollment only a few days before the Accelerator starts, so I figured I’d just send these questions out to everyone who reads my newsletter.
If you’re planning to do the Accelerator in January, definitely go ahead and start jotting notes in response to these questions. If you end up joining the program, you’ll be well prepared, and if you don’t, you’ll still have material you can eventually use in your book proposal.
The other thing I have historically asked Accelerator participants to work on before starting the program is summarizing each of the chapters they plan to put in their book. Of course your chapters can shift a bit as you work on the manuscript, and we will tweak and improve these summaries within the Accelerator itself, but I still think it’s worth doing in advance.
If you were going to be working on your book proposal with me, here are the bullet points I’d ask you to hit in each of your preliminary chapter summaries:
Argument or point of the chapter
Objects and methods of analysis (if a body chapter)
How the chapter relates to the book’s main thesis and fits into book’s overall arc
You might not yet know the argument of all the chapters or how they fit into the overall narrative of the book. That’s ok—that’s often what you’re forced to get clear on as you work on the book proposal itself. But again, having some notes jotted down for each chapter can help you build momentum on what can seem like a huge, intimidating task.
If you are definitely planning to enroll in the next session of the Book Proposal Accelerator, note that registration will open on January 3rd, 2022, at 9am PST.
The program runs from January 7th to February 18th. You can find more info about it in last week’s newsletter and on the enrollment page (which you can also bookmark to get ready for the 3rd if you want).
Send any questions you have about the program my way!
If you’d prefer to work on your proposal on your own, I hope the prompts in this post will help. There’s also lots more info and guidance in The Book Proposal Book. Good luck!