Books are Sold with Proposals

If you think about it, the first step leading to the eventual sale of any book begins with grabbing someone’s attention with a short description of the book content.

The proposal or short description motivates the agent, publisher, book retailer or reader to take the next step, which is different for each, but everything is set in motion by something less than the full manuscript.

No one first reads an entire book to decide if they want to take the next step. They read a short description and then make the decision.

Many authors who submit their work to agents or publishers will make the same plea, “Please just read the whole book!”

Sure, but only if the proposal is compelling enough.

Let’s think about this in reverse, starting from the reader’s perspective.

At the very end of the book-chain is a reader. They will decide to buy or check out a book based on everything except for reading the book. The title, author, product description, reviews, recommendations, even the cover design will entice someone to pick up a book.

 Readers buy a promise, a solution to a problem, a unique experience or a key to unlock something within them.

Before the reader is the place to obtain the book. While Amazon sells anything, the majority of the bookselling and lending world (retail and libraries) decided to stock a book based on the author, title, product description, author sales or rental history, reviews and even the cover design. They never read the book before they carry it. And most will not read it afterward. (Good luck selling anything on Amazon without a good product description.)

Before this, the publisher will agree to publish a book, with the first step being a proposal from an agent or author. In many cases, the full book is not yet written.

By the way, one reason traditional publishers take so long to publish a book is they want to make certain the manuscript they get from an author matches the proposal they agreed to buy. Often enough to cause hesitation, authors will write a different book than the one contracted, sometimes mildly different, but sometimes an entirely different approach or subject. (It can also be an issue of the quality in the original sample chapters not carried throughout.)

With agents, the proposal is even more important. Agents look at hundreds and thousands of proposals and need to make a decision quickly whether to spend more time reading the actual book chapters. Only if the proposal caught their attention and motivated them to read further will agents take a next step.

This agency blog often speaks to the elements of a good proposal and also what makes up a poor one, which receives a quick decline. Still, many authors downplay the importance of the proposal and just want an agent to read their book instead.

It won’t happen.

Authors need to give away the book (figuratively speaking) to gain an agent’s interest. In the same way, agents give away the book to publishers and publishers give away the book to retailers.

Only with readers can you get creative and not give the entire story away. They need to be intrigued enough to use their own money to purchase it. Readers don’t need to know whodunit. The journey is the fun part for them.

But everyone before the reader needs to be handed the entire story, with no mystery or hesitation, described succinctly and quickly on a silver platter:

“The gardener was the killer with the rolling pin in the pantry.”

“The five key elements for a happy life are…”

Not every book is read, but every proposal is, which makes it the most important part of the book whether you are on your twentieth book or just starting out.

11 Responses to Books are Sold with Proposals

  1. Avatar
    Rebekah Dorris June 20, 2017 at 6:44 am #

    This is the best motivation for spit-shining proposals I’ve ever read. Thanks.

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    Carol Ashby June 20, 2017 at 7:10 am #

    Dan, even as an indie, I find it very valuable to draft and refine many parts of what your agency asks for in a proposal: promo sentence (tagline), back-cover copy (these two go in the back of my published books to intrigue someone who just read and liked the published one), sales handle, single-sentence summary of the novel’s purpose, protagonists quest and what’s at stake, take-away value of the story (these are useful when someone asks you to describe your book), 1-page synopsis (this is great to share with your cover designer!), potential reader profile, comparative titles that would appeal to your potential readers, and how you plan to market.

    The proposal describes your product and business plan, and every author needs to have thought these through if they are writing for more than personal pleasure.

  3. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 20, 2017 at 7:17 am #

    Published on the premise of perceived potential?

    Kind of like getting married, when you think about it.

  4. Avatar
    Karen Saari June 20, 2017 at 7:22 am #

    I just finished writing a proposal and it was exhausting! In a good way 🙂 But I was concerned with every word, and every sentence and paragraph to make sure they flowed, they belonged together and gave an accurate idea of the book. It was an excellent exercise in getting to know the book as I wrote things and then double checked in the book – back and forth and back and forth. When I was done, I did have quite a sense of accomplishment. Whether it goes from agent to publisher is in God’s hands now. And what better place to be!

  5. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray June 20, 2017 at 7:56 am #

    I do not recall which agency website/blog/submission guidelines page said it, but I do recall reading that I need to put as much effort into crafting an excellent proposal is I did/do into crafting an excellent manuscript.

    That was an eye-opening revelation for me.

  6. Avatar
    Courtney Ellis June 20, 2017 at 9:10 am #

    I’ve found crafting a book proposal also helps me in refining the manuscript. It’s a win-win in my book. Great post!

  7. Avatar
    Anna June 20, 2017 at 9:28 am #

    I’m so bad at writing summaries for my stories. However, this article was helpful and makes me eager to give it a go.

  8. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D June 20, 2017 at 10:38 am #

    Dan, thanks for the insight on proposals. I knew they were important to getting published and appreciate your explanation of just how important they are.

  9. Avatar
    Henry Styron June 20, 2017 at 11:41 am #

    Dan, this is one of those “obvious in hindsight” pieces of wisdom that really resonates. Thank you so much for sharing it–really a perspective-changer. God bless.

  10. Avatar
    Ron Andrea June 21, 2017 at 6:17 am #

    “Not every book is read, but every proposal is, which makes it the most important part of the book whether you are on your twentieth book or just starting out.”

    Good summary.

  11. Avatar
    Murambiwa Munemo June 24, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    Thanks Dan for the info.

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