How to Write a Book Proposal to Land a Literary Agent

Book proposals matter.

My father used to tell me that you could build or fix anything with the right tools.

If you want to land a literary agent and a book deal, the right tool (for a non-fiction book) is called a book proposal. It consists of some marketing information, your biography, and a twenty-page sample of your book, hence the title of this article.

Even if you have written a complete manuscript, make sure you submit a book proposal first—not the manuscript.

Here’s why publishing pros want a sample instead of the whole book:
• They are incredibly busy. The major publishing houses receive as many as 5000 book proposals a week. Literary agents get inundated as well. They just don’t have time to read complete manuscripts.

They want to know why they should invest in you. Publishing is a business. More than half of a book proposal is a business plan that explains how and why your book will make money.
• They may only like part of your idea. An editor may think, ‘gee, if he writes ‘x’ instead of ‘y’, I might be interested.’ And she’ll tell you. But with a complete manuscript, it’s hard to tell someone they should have taken a different path starting on page 37. Instead, you’ll just hear ‘no’.
• If publishing pros do like your idea, they need it in a form that they can present to other people. Literary agents present your material to editors. And editors submit your idea to an editorial board. They make the final decision, and they don’t have enough time to read your whole book.

If you want significant attention from literary agents and publishers, make sure your book proposal includes each of these ingredients:

A great title can go a long way toward selling your book. So your title page is very important. Include your name and contact information on this page.
2. TABLE OF CONTENTS (for the proposal)

Just list the sections of your book proposal and the pages they are on.

An overview is a one to three page mini-version of your proposal.

Start off with a short paragraph that’s an attention-grabber. This is called the hook. Look at any bestselling paperback for an example of how to write three or four sentences that will quickly grab a reader’s attention.

Include a paragraph or two on each of the following: the main benefits and features of your book, who its audience will be, and why they’ll buy your book instead of another one that is already published. Add a paragraph that explains why you’re especially qualified to be the author of this text.

Prove to a literary agent or editor that there are enough people interested in your subject to make your book worth publishing. Make sure you use statistics.

For this section, answer these two questions:
o What are five or six of the bestselling books that compete with yours?
o How does your book differ from each of those books? What does your book do better than they do?
Write six short paragraphs, one per book, about what your book does better than each of these books.

Show why you are qualified to write on your particular topic here. Also mention your general writing experience. Mention anything that indicates you have a built-in audience for your book, including your social network friends, followers and links.

What will your book look like when it’s published? Describe it here.

How many words will it be? (A double-spaced manuscript page contains 250 words.) How long it will take you to finish? (Take your best guess and then add three months.) What format do you want it to be published in—hardcover, trade paperback, or mass market paperback? Will there be any drawings or photographs?

Publishers need to be convinced that your book will sell. Show them how you plan on getting your book in front of the specific target audiences you mentioned earlier in the proposal. Will you hire a publicist? Do you speak in front of groups? Do you have a syndicated column, or an e-zine with lots of subscribers? Are you planning on starting off with a great media event for charity? You need to have some plan so that people can become aware of you and your book.

This section is a short outline of your book.

Build evidence that you have a whole book, not just a long magazine article. Briefly describe the material you will include in each chapter. Use at least half a page, but don’t go over a full page per chapter, unless you have a really good reason.

What do literary agents and editors want to see in your sample chapters? Your knowledge, your heart, your personality and your writing skill.

Include about twenty pages of your book, or one to three chapters. Start each chapter in a way that will captivate readers. Use a stunning statistic, a metaphor, tell a story, or ask questions that will make your reader feel like you are writing about her. Close each chapter in a way that will leave your wanting to read more.
That’s the formula. Write a strong enough book proposal and you could wind up getting paid to write your book.

It may seem like the odds are against you, but as literary agent and author Peter Rubie says, “if you have a polished and well-written book idea, you’re in competition, not with all the others who submit, but with the 5 to 10 percent whose material cries out to be taken seriously by editors and literary agents.”

To look at four samples of book proposals that sold (two by first-time authors who received over 100K to write their books), read my book “Write a Book Without Lifting a Finger,” available at