Flashback: Sell Your Book

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

Written By: Steven Walker
Date: 08/02/2001


Whether you’ve written that best-selling novel or just have an idea for one, you’re going to have to present it to an agent or a publisher. What is the best way to do that, you ask? In today’s market, almost every agent, publisher or editor will require a professionally written book proposal. For book-length works, the query letter is becoming obsolete.

The only response you’ll get, besides the dreaded, “form rejection”, is a request for a book proposal. You may as well concede to the fact that you’re going to have to write one if you want to publish a book.

For most writers, writing a book proposal is, at the least, an unsavory task, and at the most, an impossible project that is shrouded in mystery.

Here’s the latest scoop; it’s not a mystery at all. After extensive research and multitudes of rejections, I’ve discovered the secret of a successful book proposal.

There are nine steps to successfully selling your novel and each of them should be included in your proposal, in the order that is laid out below.

If you follow this procedure, you will answer all of the publishers questions in a way that they can not refuse to contract your work. The only reason that you could possibly get a rejection, if you follow these steps, is if you have targeted a publisher who does not handle your type of story, you have an unsaleable subject, or you simply did not write it well.

After your greeting, begin your first paragraph by answering question number one, then move on through the entire nine step procedure. The first paragraph of your proposal should answer the publishers main concern, “Who will buy the book?”.

1. Who will buy the book?

Publishers make money selling books. It’s that simple. Find out what group of people or what market would be interested in paying money for your proposed story idea? In other words, who’s going to be interested in buying your book if the publisher contracts it?

2. Why is this book different?

Find out who else has written a book or articles on the same subject that your book deals with. Story ideas, movies and books tend to be trendy and usually fill the market in waves until public interest has peaked and then moved on to new horizons. Give examples of other publications that deal with your subject and then tell the publisher why your proposal is unique.

Is it written from a different perspective or another person’s point of view? Do you have theories or facts that haven’t been explored yet?

3. Why should you be the one to write this book?

Are you an expert in the particular field that your proposal deals with? Have you been formally schooled in a subject that directly relates to your story? Have you had a similar experience? Were you a witness to events that are involved in the story? Have you done any specific research to justify your qualifications to write this story? If none of these apply, then omit this section, however, if this is the case, you might reconsider attempting to take on this project to begin with.

4. How long is the book going to be?

Give approximate word count. Of course, you cannot be completely accurate at this point but take a guess anyway. A novel length work would have to be at least 40,000 words and usually average as much as 60,000 to 90,000 words in length. Always give a word count, not a page count, as different fonts and typesetting will effect the final number of pages despite the number of words that are printed.

5. When will the book be finished?

Believe it or not, many editors and publishers are weary about manuscripts that are already completed. This does not pertain to newspapers and weekly periodicals but when it comes to book length manuscripts, even if the project is completed, it is sometimes better not to reveal this information. Give a date in the near future, when the publisher can expect your proposed novel to be complete. When doing so, always add at least 40% to the amount of time that you think you can achieve this to allow for complications and distractions. It is always better to beat a deadline that you set for yourself. Missing a deadline is guaranteed to cause dire consequences and be harmful in future projects.

If the publisher or editor requests that you meet an earlier deadline, then you will have to think whether or not you can commit to those requirements. It is better to turn down a job that you know is impossible to meet, than it is to agree to a time and then not be able to finish your project with the quality that is expected of a professional writer. Missing your deadlines is a sure fire way to end a writing career before you even get started.

6. Can you promote your book?

The next part that should be included in your book proposal is whether or not you will be able to spend the time to promote yourself and the sale of your book. Can you make public appearances and do book signings? Are you able to travel?

If you have other commitments that will prohibit you from undertaking such a task, you may be at a crossroads in your life where you have to decide what your goals are. Do you want to be a writer or are other priorities in your life more important to you? This is a decision that only you can make.

7. The next part of your book proposal is the meat and potatoes of the whole thing. This is where most writers draw a complete blank and yet it should be the simplest part of your proposal. All you have to do is tell what your book is about. The dreaded synopsis is the downfall of even some of the greatest writers.

Before getting into that, if you are writing a fiction novel, you should include a paragraph about each of your main characters, giving their names and a bit of insight about who they are, what their personalities are like and what their goals are. Keep it as short as possible but give the publisher a taste of them so he doesn’t have to read 50 pages of the manuscript to know who they are.

8. Chapter by chapter synopsis

How can I do a chapter by chapter synopsis of a book that I haven’t even written yet? That’s a fair question and it is one that is often asked of me. When proposing a book, you should have a pretty good idea of what is going to be in it. At the very least, you should know how you want to present your story, what conflicts are going to be involved and what resolution you would like to end it with. By developing your characters prior to writing your story, you should be able to come up with a few sub-plots for them to deal with within the main story idea. Out of the combined knowledge of all these things, comes your synopsis. This can also be used for your story outline, which makes writing the book much easier as well. A publisher knows that a proposed synopsis is not carved in stone and may change slightly with the creative talent of the writer. It is simply used as a basis of what to expect from the finished product. If there is a dramatic change in the plot of your story, as it is being written, it would be a good policy to get the publishers approval of any new ideas that you are including.

When writing your synopsis, use this simple format.

Chapter One

Include one to three paragraphs that introduce your story. The first two paragraphs of the actual story may be good enough to put here. Introduce your main characters here if this is where they will be introduced in your book. Remember that it is the first few sentences in any successful novel, that grab a reader and intrigue them to continue reading.

Chapter Two

Add two more paragraphs here to develop your conflict or begin your sub-plots and introduce any other characters that may be involved.

Chapter Three

Add two more paragraphs here to develop your story more and continue this format throughout each chapter until you finally reach your climax. Make sure that your last chapter description resolves your conflicts and leaves your reader with a feeling that the story is complete.

9. Include sample chapter.

Finally, include a sample chapter with your proposal. Yes, that means you need to actually write something. It doesn’t really matter which chapter you include as your sample, as long as it’s your best one.


A complete, quality, book proposal could take anywhere from two days to two months to complete. Is that a big investment? You bet, but if you plan on investing a year writing the book and plan on doing something with the completed manuscript besides using it to level the legs of your dining room table, it is time well spent.

Lori Soard started Word Museum in 1997. She’s a published author and has written thousands of articles over the years for newspapers, magazines and online. She has a PhD in Journalism and lives in Southern Indiana with her husband. They have two grown daughters, both animal lovers their house is always filled with pets.

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