Honestly, I’m in favor of the absolute truth in nearly all things.
However, when it comes to a book proposal that you send to publishers and agents, you are describing a book that likely doesn’t yet exist. (You didn’t make the rookie mistake of writing the whole book before pitching it, did you?)
You are not going to write the absolute truth (“I wrote part of one chapter and I have 23 Instagram followers, so please publish my book!”). You need to describe a book that you imagine, but haven’t created yet. And that requires some imagination in your book proposal.
On the other hand, making implausible shit up (“I am the CEO of Fortune 100 company and a featured soloist at the Metropolitan Opera.”) is not just wrong, but stupid. Acquiring editors actually check this stuff before committing resources and five- or six-figure advances.
Here’s a rule of thumb for truth, lying, and exaggeration in book proposals:
In a book proposal, describe what you actually did and what you plan to do. Describe it as if it is actually happening. But don’t make up things that you cannot, will not, or are unlikely to do.
What does that mean for the different parts of the proposal? Here’s a guide for how to create an alluring pitch for your unfinished book while maintaining your integrity. I’ve organized it by the parts of a traditional proposal.
Title, subtitle, and opening
The proposal starts with a title. In the best proposals, the first text you read is actually the first prose at the start of the actual book. That opener needs to captivate the reader — an acquiring editor — compellingly drawing them into your concept. (Avoid the dull “overview” approach to openers.)
You can’t fake a good title. It has to be fascinating, connected to your idea, and not already taken by another book in your field. It make sense to conduct a title jam to get to a great title.
Will the title change in the one- to two-year process from the proposal to publication? It sure could. I see book titles change in about half the traditionally published books I’ve helped with. But that’s no reason to phone it in.
And the prose that starts your proposal? You can’t fake that either. It’s got to be great writing. Get an editor’s help and work on it.
Your nonfiction book needs a big idea at the center of it.
As with the opening prose, you can’t fake the ideas. So here is where you take your best shot. And be aware of what competitors are already saying in your field. If you steal ideas, editors are going to find out: they will not only reject your proposal, but ruin your reputation in the publishing industry.
Here is also where you talk about your access to some unique source of insight, such as extensive interviews, access to insiders willing to talk about an event people are curious about, or proprietary data.
Describe those sources honestly, but in the best possible light. For example:
- “I have access to a series of consumer surveys that reach a total of one million people.” (If you’re still lining it up, say “I’m negotiating for access to a series of consumer surveys.” And you may find it sexier to talk about the total of one million people in the panel than the 700 that answer a typical survey.)
- “I am interviewing insiders including 20 mid- and high-level officials who were present at the time.” (How many have you lined up? Hopefully, some. Indicate what you’re planning, and include names of people who have actually agreed. Don’t make up names that you haven’t lined up — if you say “I will interview Malcolm Gladwell,” it may turn out that the editor knows Malcolm Gladwell, and will find out he’s never heard of you.)
- “The text will include two dozen case studies.” (This is plausible if you already have ten lined up, but not if you have only two and no way to get the rest.)
Words like “I plan to” or “I am in the process of”are appropriate here, especially if you can plausibly show you’ve gotten a successful start on the research. Don’t say “I hope to” or “I think I can” — because the editor will assume you haven’t and most like won’t succeed at whatever you’re promising.
Market and differentiation
You’re going to have to describe the size and shape of your market. It is far better to narrow that down than make a huge claim (“This is a book for women, so there are 100 million potential readers in the United States alone.”) It helps to tell the editor about the size of a market they may be unfamiliar with (“There are 8 million Python developers.”)
Differentiation, like main ideas, is a case where you need to do your homework. If you’ve researched it properly, you’ll be able to make a good case about how your book will stand out, and there is no need to exaggerate.
You’ll also want to list comparable titles (“comps”). Don’t brag about how you’re a better writer than Daniel Pink. Describe similar books and how well they sold, and then define how your book is different — what it includes that the other book doesn’t, or how you’ve taken a different angle on the topic.
Outline/table of contents
Here is where you’re going to need to make stuff up. If the book doesn’t exist; How can you describe what’s in each chapter?
I recommend the following process:
- Create a list of chapters and chapter titles in an order that makes sense. A well-designed table of contents will show an acquiring editor that you’ve thought the book through, and what you plan to include in it.
- Write a list of topics in each chapter. This includes case studies you expect to include, concepts you plan to cover, and advice you plan to give. For chapters you’ve already written (including the sample chapter), write down what’s in the chapter. For those you haven’t, write a wish list of content as if the chapter already existed. Don’t say “I plan to write x, y, and z.” Just list x, y, and z as if they are already part of the chapter.
Is this lying? Well, yes. You are describing parts of a book that doesn’t exist. But the editor knows that. They are looking for a high density of useful concepts and case studies, organized in a logical way.
What happens if they acquire the book and you change the content from what was in the proposal? Nothing. So long as you deliver well organized and well written content that roughly matches the total of what you promised, no editor is going to say “Wait a minute, this isn’t the same list of chapters that was in the proposal.”
Don’t lie in your biography.
List actual degrees you’ve completed, positions you’ve held, speeches you’ve given, publications you wrote, and the like. But don’t invent things.
If you published three books, don’t say you’ve published five. It’s easy to check: the acquiring editor will just search your name on Amazon.com.
And for lord’s sake, this is one place where you absolutely cannot invent a “best-selling” credential. If your previous book was on New York Times or Washington Post bestseller list for a week, say you were a New York Times or Washington Post best-selling author. If you got an orange ribbon for being the top new book in the Amazon sub-subcategory of “International Corporate Culture” for one day, you’re not a best seller — and if you pretend that you are, the editor will laugh and laugh and think you’re a huge fool.
The marketing plan is where the greatest amount of lying and exaggeration occurs in book proposals. Your editor knows that. But it doesn’t mean you can just make things up.
Your marketing plan should list your marketing assets along with a plausible plan for how you will deploy them. These include:
- Publicity resources, including corporate PR departments or a publicist you plan to hire. Don’t list any resource you haven’t actually contacted and discussed as a potential partner.
- Describe actual media mentions and interviews you did, with links.
- List social media accounts. List actual follower counts. Don’t exaggerate.
- List regular content publishing outlets: your blog, podcast, video channel, or columns that you write. Describe traffic numbers if they are at all impressive; describe amounts of content otherwise (e.g. “Includes 40 posts, published every other week.”) Do not describe things you plan to do but haven’t started (“I plan to start a blog”) — because those will not impress anybody.
- List people who will make bulk purchases. It’s best if you’ve actually at least discussed this with the people you mentioned.
- List people who will potentially endorse you, interview you, or provide cover quotes around the time of the book launch. Describe people who actually know you. If you say you will get Seth Godin, and the editor checks with Seth Godin, will he say “I have no idea who that is?” That won’t help your case.
- Describe creative tactics you plan to use. Editors will be impressed with your creativity. Say “I will do xxx,” not “I plan to do xxx.”
As with the outline, the key here is to show that you’ve thought this through. If your actual launch plan is different from what you describe, they won’t hold you to it. (But if you say you will hire a publicist, they’ll certainly expect you to actually hire a publicist, even if it is not the one you mentioned.)
You’re going to have to write a real chapter. It should be complete. Publishers are not impressed with fragments — they want to see a real chapter to see what one would look like.
Not only that, everything in the chapter must be real. You cannot make up numbers. You cannot make up interviews and quotes. You cannot make up case studies. You cannot plagiarize. If you lie in the sample chapter and the acquiring editor catches it, they will assume you will lie in the book. And they won’t publish a (nonfiction) book full of lies.
If this seems like a lot of work, then how will you do the work when you actually have to write the book? Prove you can do the work.
Authors typically rewrite sample chapters when it’s time to actually put them into the manuscript. The publisher won’t care about that. They just want to see that you can write a complete and compelling chapter.
Making an imagined book seem real
Are you getting the idea here?
Imagine the book is actually published.
Why is it a great and differentiated book? Tell us about that.
What will it include? List that.
How will you promote it? Describe that.
Write as if the things you imagine are real.
But only include what you can plausibly expect to be true.
And where possible, do the planning to make sure that what you describe actually has a good chance of becoming true.
The publisher wants to see the quality of your thinking. But they aren’t interested in flights of fantasy. If you can show what you will do, and it sounds great, that will impress.
That takes some imagination. But it’s not a deliberately made up fantasy. I’m hoping, as a smart writer with some integrity left, that you can tell the difference.
If you want to see a real book proposal that sold, you can download one for free here.