Book proposal tip: show, don’t sell

Photo: Lewis Clark.

Don’t try to sell an acquisitions editor. They hate it.

To pitch a book to a traditional publisher, you need a book proposal that describes what’s in the book and how you will promote it. The audience for that proposal is the acquisitions editor at a publishing house: the person or group who makes the decision about whether the publisher will bid on your book, and how generous an offer to make.

But there’s an interesting little dance that goes on within the proposal. Acquisitions editors fervently believe — and they will tell you — that the only things that matter to them are the quality of the book and the author’s ability to promote it. They’re not supposed to be susceptible to being sold or romanced.

As a result, any comments directed to the editor in your proposal will generate nose wrinkles and discomfort. So a proposal is a strange kind of sales pitch, one in which you can’t do any actual selling. Instead, you must describe your book in the most attractive way possible, trusting the editor to decide if it’s worth bidding on.

Show, don’t sell

Because you can’t sell, you need to change the language you use in proposals. Here are some examples. Sell, not by persuading, but by demonstrating the value and promotability of what you are creating. Show, don’t sell.

Opening and differentiation section

Describe your book’s ideas, making it clear how it stands out.

Don’t write: “With the right publisher, this book could be a massive success.”

Do write: “This is the first book to address a major trend about A.I. that’s just now peaking.”

Don’t write: “The book will include many anecdotes from my personal experience in the film industry.”

Do write: “Here’s what happened when I got stoned with Martin Scorsese, Tom Hanks, and Lady Gaga. . . .”

Don’t write: “With the right advance, I can invest in a research assistant.”

Do write: “Here’s are some startling facts about what happened during Nixon’s resignation.”

Market size

Describe, don’t pitch.

Don’t write: “As you can see, this is a vastly underrated opportunity.”

Do write: “While Gen Z is just entering the workforce, [x%] of Gen Z workers have already expressed interest in solid investment advice — and will generate [$ amount] in investable income over their lifetimes.”

“Comps” (comparable books)

Position your book against competing books.

Don’t write: “We can clearly dominate [book title] in the marketplace of ideas.”

Do write: “The popularity of [book title] demonstrates the validity of this trend, but [author name] failed to explain how to profit from it. [Title of your proposed book] will provide practical steps for those who want to exploit the shift.”

Extended table of contents

Show what you will include, rather than making statements about how great it is.

Don’t write: “Chapter 2 will excite readers with thrilling stories of people who succeeded with this strategy.”

Do write: “Chapter 2. Story of [name], who used this strategy to start [company name] and grow it rapidly.” Follow with list of the actual concepts in the chapter.

Author bio

List your accomplishments in the third person. Leave the promotional opportunities to the promotion section.

Don’t write: “I will use my extensive connections to promote the book.”

Do write: “[Author name] is the past president of [association name] and has keynoted 150 conferences the last four years.”

Promotion and marketing

This is the only portion of the proposal that should be written in the first person, but even so, do not use it to sell directly. Instead, describe what actions you will take to promote the book.

Don’t write: “I will work with your publicity team to generate high visibility press coverage.”

Do write: “Here is a list of publications that have quoted or profiled me in the last three years. I have hired [name of publicist] to generate press coverage for six months leading up to and following the book launch.”

Sample chapter

Write this to the reader, not the editor. The editor will evaluate it on that basis.

It’s a dance, but you have to follow the steps

Breaking the fourth wall may work in movies and TV shows, but acquisition editors find it disturbing. Your proposal should describe a book that’s as intriguing as possible, and a promotion strategy that will deliver maximum visibility. That’s how you pitch an editor: with actual, demonstrable content. (And in case you’re wondering, that’s how you pitch an agent, too.)

For more on book proposals, see this. And here’s a free download of an actual proposal that a publisher acquired for six figures.

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