Book Proposal Basics – Your Publishing History

This section is scary for authors who, for one reason or another, had a book or two that didn’t sell well. Many times, this isn’t even the author’s fault, making weak numbers all the more tragic. However, facts are facts; and we must report them. Please don’t hide anything. No exceptions.

Need to Know

  1. Book title
  2. Publisher
  3. Date of Publication
  4. Lifetime units sold to date

The units sold to date can be an estimate if a firm number doesn’t appear on your royalty statement. Author Relations at your previous publisher can help you if you are unable to determine your numbers yourself. If your publisher has closed its doors, give your best estimate.

Will Publishers Understand?

Authors want to know if publishers will understand that the:

  1. Previous publisher discontinued a line.
  2. Previous publisher didn’t get behind their book because of in-house issues.
  3. Previous publisher is a small house.
  4. Author self-published several books.
  5. Author wrote poorly received books years ago but is writing differently now.
  6. Author wrote steamy books but is now writing for the Christian market.

There is no firm answer to any of these questions that I can share on a blog post. I listed them to let you know that if you are an author with these questions, you are not alone. My best advice is to be up front in the proposal; and when you make inroads in talking with an agent, ask your questions then. The agent can speak with you about strategy for your career. This is a talk you need to have when signing with an agent anyway.

Not Published

Don’t include this category and leave it blank. Just omit it.

Though this section may take some time to compile, it’s essential. If the agent doesn’t ask for it (and all agents should), I assure you an interested editor will.

Your turn:

What tips can you offer for writing this section?

Did I leave anything out?



Steve Laube has a course on book proposals at The Christian Writers Institute that includes a one-hour lecture, a short ebook on the topic, and sample proposal templates. Click here for more information.



20 Responses to Book Proposal Basics – Your Publishing History

  1. Avatar
    Elisabeth Warner May 30, 2019 at 5:19 am #

    This topic is scary for me because I haven’t published a book. I haven’t won any awards (well, except for two awards in elementary school for a poem and essay I wrote). I didn’t even major in English! What I’ve discovered is that I need to show I can do the work. If I do my research, follow-up, and put myself out there, eventually someone will notice.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 30, 2019 at 6:56 am #

      Don’t worry. Keep entering contests for new authors, keep writing, and keep submitting!

    • Avatar
      Bryan Mitchell May 30, 2019 at 7:43 am #

      Ditto. You’re in the same boat as me. I think what helps unpublished authors, besides stellar work, is getting some sort of platform. I’m neglecting this which may come back to haunt me. Most of my effort has been hammering at my novel, but it’s definitely time to rally some sort of base, even if it’s a small one. So once the work is ready, I and anyone else invested in my work can rest assured that someone will be itching to buy it. Either way, best of luck to you!

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 30, 2019 at 6:47 am #

    There are things we did and have to face
    that put us in a dimmer light,
    and they seem to pull the grace
    from the day to make it night.
    The circle like the jackals
    (is this something that you’ve felt?)
    raising dark dread’s hackles
    as you’re wounded on the veldt.
    But when you stand impassive
    with resolution and a steady eye
    you’ll see jackals become dassies
    scurrying off to hide.
    What’s in your past may cripple you
    but ‘crippled’ doesn’t mean you’re through.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 30, 2019 at 6:49 am #

      Oh, and ‘dassie’ the the colloquial name for a rock hyrax.

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray May 30, 2019 at 6:57 am #

        Very good, Andrew!

        • Avatar
          Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 30, 2019 at 7:44 am #

          Tamela, I do have a question – what if your publisher went under and you honestly have no idea of the number of books sold?

          The records I had are now lost, and they were suspect anyway, because the house closed for legal reasons connected to under-reporting sales and not paying royalties.

          (The charges against them include extortion, which must truly be a first for a publisher.)

          • Avatar
            Tamela Hancock Murray May 30, 2019 at 8:48 am #

            Andrew, I’m sorry that happened to you. I recommend giving your best estimate and label it as such. Then, if the editor or agent asks questions, you can discuss.

  3. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson May 30, 2019 at 7:15 am #

    May be slightly off the central focus of your article (sorry if it is, Tamela!) but I’ve learned in the years I’ve been building my author career to take responsibility for how my writing business has gone. If something didn’t work out well (my first book with a traditional publisher didn’t) it’s my job to right the ship and get it moving again. I don’t believe any project bombs solely because of one party. Traditional publishing is a close partnership between many people with lots of moving pieces. To say I didn’t contribute to a failure as the author of the work is ridiculous. It’s only in hindsight that I see the true extent to which that applies. Anyways, long way of saying, I don’t think it’s reasonable to try to put the blame completely on a publisher if your book tanked. Be reasonable, admit fault, show proof you’re plugging the holes in the ship, but also be realistic about the contributing factors and find a way to succinctly explain the most important ones.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 30, 2019 at 7:28 am #

      Good points, Brennan. As for the proposal itself, just present the numbers and let them stand alone. Editors and agents can ask questions if need be. Most of us in the industry are aware of different events that affect(ed) book sales, so proposals are considered as a whole, on a case-by-case basis.

      I don’t like the “blame game” either. Waste of time. Thanks for the reminder.

      • Avatar
        Brennan S. McPherson May 30, 2019 at 7:37 am #

        I’ve wondered about that (what exactly you shouldn’t put in the proposal), so thank you! Very helpful.

  4. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan May 30, 2019 at 10:43 am #

    Hi Tamela –

    Great insight as always.

    Of course, that brings up a question. In a proposal I am working on, I did list that I am a contributing writer for a Christian magazine.

    My one ‘however’ is I have a self-published cookbook from 2012 that I revamped in 2014 but under my ‘real’ name, not my pen name. It was truly my first work and I revamped it ‘partly’ to address my writing pitfalls but also to add some recipes. I consider the 2012 book… cringeworthy.

    My sales were poor on Amazon, primarily because I had a marketing scheme (muuuaaahhh) where at my office, I removed all reading material except my cookbook in each room. My sales went through the roof selling it at 20 dollars instead of Amazon’s pittance in royalties. My publishing costs were very low so I bought boxes of the books and sold over 2 years. I decreased the price for the leftover books for folks who were on Medicaid to 5 dollars.

    However, not the same genre, just jokes for the most part, advice, and recipes, and an old book. A month of free ebooks ‘sold’ 300 copies.

    I didn’t put that in my proposal and hope I don’t have to, haha. Thankfully I haven’t sent the proposal out (as in I still hope I don’t have to have it in there…)

  5. Avatar
    Mary Kay Moody May 30, 2019 at 11:40 am #

    Helpful tips, Tamela. And if one has not published a book yet, but has contributed to anthologies and had magazine or e-zine articles published ~ should that information be included in a proposal? Or would it just be in the way? Thank you!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 30, 2019 at 2:50 pm #

      You may as well list those. If you’re getting into hundreds of articles, just list the last five or so, or the five most impressive and say that you’re the author of hundreds of articles.

  6. Avatar
    Judith Robl May 31, 2019 at 6:05 pm #

    The numbers on my devotional gift book published by Harvest House are not spectacular, but I”m not sure what they are. It was a small print run in the beginning.

    A couple of years ago, I contributed a novella (experimental for me) to an indie published anthology. Because one of the authors decided to move her writing from one pub platform to another, it was available for a very short time. Like less than 60 days. I have no idea of the numbers sold.

    How pertinent are these numbers if I’m talking with an agent/editor about a novel?

  7. Avatar
    LINDA STRAWN June 10, 2019 at 10:34 pm #

    I published a book through a POD publisher in 2007. Back then, I was a novice on many levels and thought submitting my “unedited” book was okay. Now this company, according to the BBB in their home state, is no longer in business. I attempted to get the rights back, but my inquiries have gone unanswered. I don’t want to hide the fact I had published before; however, I can only give a rough estimate of how many copies were sold (it’s nothing to write home about.) On a positive note, I did get some good reviews from a few readers =)

  8. Avatar
    Mary Foster May 15, 2020 at 1:55 pm #

    Proposals and all that goes with it are so intimidating. It’s scary. I’ve done them, so I know I can do it again, with prayer, but does it ever stop being intimidating?

  9. Avatar
    Jeannie Delahunt October 8, 2020 at 7:45 am #

    After reading all of these:

    I self-published two ebooks on Amazon and on Smashwords. Though I do receive occasional sales, I’m not at all independently wealthy because of them.

    They aren’t/weren’t meant for a wide audience, instead geared towards Christian parents/grandparents who love a heroin addict.

    Additionally, my writing and audience via and Twitter are growing. Should mention of these be included? Different materials from my ebooks. One is a work-in-progress Christian Fantasy, the other, intended for those who need to heal from heartache written in the form of a children’s story.

    And while I’m on that subject, would any of these, be submittable for traditional publishing, even though they are currently on the web? Thank you so much. Lots of great information in this series. Thank you for taking the time to put it all together, Tamela!

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