The Keys to a Great Book Proposal

“I think book proposals are one of the most difficult things to write, second only to obituaries.”

When I received this email I could relate. I’ve never written obituaries, even though writing one’s own is a popular goal-setting exercise. But I have written and read many book proposals so I know they aren’t easy to write. Sometimes they aren’t easy to read. So how can you make your book proposals easy to read? When my assistant and I are scanning proposals, here are the key points we first notice:

1) Format: Is the overall look of the proposal easy on the eye? A poorly-formatted proposal won’t be rejected if we are wowed by the content, but proposals with a pleasing appearance make a great impression.

2) Title: Tell us immediately what we are viewing: Fiction/nonfiction? Series/standalone? Genre? Historical/contemporary?

3) Hook: What is the spirit of your book?  Fried Green Tomatoes meets Star Trek? Or A Systematic Approach to Spiritual Spring Cleaning?

4) Back Cover Blurb: In two or three short paragraphs, make me want to buy your book. Take the time to make this sparkle, because great back cover copy will help sell me on your book, then the editor, then the pub board, then marketing, then your readers.

5) Info: Can critical facts be found with little effort, including:

a.) published/unpublished status
b.) sales figures for published authors
c.) manuscript status, including when it can be completed
d.) manuscript history

6) Summary: I find that one-page summaries usually work best. If you have already invested in a lengthy summary, you can include a short summary and a long summary.

7) Market Comparisons: Showing us books that are similar to yours will help us know where your book will fit in today’s market. Be respectful rather than critical of other authors’ work when comparing. Show how your book fits into the market, but is still unique enough to attract readers.

8 ) Endorsers: This area causes many authors anxiety because they may not be acquainted with big name authors, or they are afraid that listing a friend may be promising too much. Rest assured that no agent or editor thinks a big name author is a guaranteed endorser. We all know that popular authors’ schedules are packed and that the timing to read your book may or may not work. I recommending listing three names of authors you know well enough that you can approach them for an endorsement. If you honestly have no idea, it’s better not to list anyone than to list impossible names. Don’t distress — your agent can work with you here.

These key points are by no means inclusive. I have only hit the high points on some of the areas that tend to make authors jittery. Don’t worry. Do your best with the proposal, and write the best book you can. That’s all we ask!

For complete guidelines, visit our site here. These may be our guidelines, but they are universally accepted as an excellent and proper way to write a proposal.

We look forward to seeing your work!

Your turn:

What do you think is the hardest part of a proposal to write?

What is the easiest part of a proposal to write?

46 Responses to The Keys to a Great Book Proposal

  1. Terri May 17, 2012 at 3:31 am #

    This is so helpful, just a few simple steps to follow. Now I need some steps to follow for writing the summary itself. As an author it’s so difficult to step back and decide what’s most important to include. Thank you for the advice.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 17, 2012 at 8:32 am #

      Terri, I may make that a future blog post. Stay tuned!

    • Donna K. Stearns March 12, 2020 at 2:22 pm #

      Market comparisons threaten my usual confidence. Really, how does a new unknown compare her work with someone like Max Lucado, Lysa Terkuerst, or Elisabeth Elliot? Then I am made to remember, we each have a story unique to our own experiences and relationship with our heavenly Father. He gives me confidence to keep moving forward.
      I enjoy writing the summary or back cover copy. These make me stop and analyze what and why I am writing.

  2. Sundi Jo May 17, 2012 at 4:34 am #

    I bought Michael Hyatt’s “How To Write a Winning Non-Fiction Book Proposal” and it was a life-saver. He gives step-by-step instructions on how to do the layout. I followed the directions, and though it was still difficult, saved a lot of time and stress.

    • JennyM May 17, 2012 at 5:07 am #

      I bought fiction version, VERY helpful. Gracias Mr Hyatt!

      Tamela, may I ask a question?

      As for #7, I have combed the net and have only found a small handful of Christian and/or books with similar subject matter, which is inter-racial relationships. I am certainly not going to back down on my underlying message, nor am I willing to change the century in which the story evolves. Okay, NOW the question…How does one gauge how receptive the CBA market is, when there is almost nothing out there with which to compare my book?

      I am almost afraid to query anymore because although I believe my book is very good, standing alone on a cold hill waving my flag…is still cold and lonely with only a flag to keep me warm.

      • JennyM May 17, 2012 at 5:08 am #

        oops, sorry, I meant that to be a stand alone comment….

      • Tamela Hancock Murray May 17, 2012 at 8:39 am #

        Jenny, that is a great question. I suggest looking for books that don’t focus on the main topic, but the spiritual arc or overall theme and message. Once they have read through the proposal and move on to your manuscript, agents and editors will see that your book addresses interracial romance and can make their decision based on the story. Don’t be afraid to query.

      • JennyM May 17, 2012 at 10:00 am #

        Thank you Tamela. Maybe I should title my query (don’t be afraid to query? You are so sweet…)”Skateboarder Amish Vampires From Mars”…then I’ll finish with a bait and switch!

        No? Yes?


      • Tamela Hancock Murray May 17, 2012 at 11:06 am #

        Jenny, that made me laugh. 😀

    • Gayla October 4, 2020 at 11:07 am #

      Apparently, this book doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t even find it on ebay.

  3. Terri May 17, 2012 at 5:06 am #

    Thanks. Now if I can just find that for fiction.

  4. Rick Barry May 17, 2012 at 5:32 am #

    Perhaps part of the agony with proposal writing is that, after spending months writing and polishing a manuscript, authors are eager to get that creation into the hands of an editor. The proposal stages requires doffing the author hat and replacing it with a marketer’s cap, which is a whole different style and skill. Necessary, but different.

    Concerning endorsements, this is another benefit of attending writers’ conferences. You get acquainted with professionals who might be willing to offer an endorsement some day. For my current project, I had to pause and think when the agent looking at it suggested I line up endorsements. I realized I personally know suitable authors, bookstore owners, and a few non-writer experts in related fields. All but a couple agreed to review my story for possible endorsing. (I don’t expect anyone to promise in advance that they will like and endorse my work.) So here’s another plus for conferences that you can’t gain by flying solo.

  5. Michelle Lim May 17, 2012 at 5:48 am #

    Thanks for the helpful post! For me the hardest part of the proposal to write is the market analysis. Finding the best words to show the difference between my writing and another author’s is daunting. Finding a way to express my uniqueness is difficult, I can’t just say I have a unique voice. Everyone thinks that about their writing.

    I think the easiest piece of the proposal to write is #5 The critical facts. It only requires data presented in a pleasing to the eye manner, not nearly as complicated as comparing yourself to other authors in the market.

  6. Jeanne May 17, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    Such a helpful post. I haven’t written a proposal yet. 🙂 This will probably sound naive, but is the one page summary the same as a synopsis? Also, what makes a proposal “easy on the eye?” Thanks so much for discussing this today. I’m soaking in everything I can on this topic.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 17, 2012 at 8:43 am #

      Jeanne, for me, easy on the eye is a proposal I can skim quickly to pick up facts I need. So you want to give each component its own title. Also, Times New Roman is preferred since it’s the standard font for most computers. Hope that helps!

      • Jeanne May 17, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

        Thanks, Tamela. It does. 🙂

  7. Patti Jo Moore May 17, 2012 at 6:53 am #

    Very informative post. Thanks,Tamela! 🙂

  8. Sally Bradley May 17, 2012 at 7:11 am #

    Tamela, could you talk more about manuscript history under #5? Are you asking if any houses have seen it?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 17, 2012 at 8:48 am #

      Sally, yes. Some authors come to us after almost every house has rejected a manuscript. If I have nowhere to go with the work, then it will be a challenge for me to help you. If a manuscript has been turned down by one or two houses, I have more places to go. I also need to know if any editors are looking at the manuscript along with me. For instance, some authors will go to a conference where editors have asked to see the manuscript. Sometimes those editors will recommend that the author sign with an agent. We need to know this status. It is also polite to tell us if other agents are reviewing.

  9. Lindsay Harrel May 17, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    Thanks for these helpful tips! I’m assuming a summary is the same as a synopsis?

    I agree with Michelle. The easiest is the basic info and the hardest is the market analysis/comparison.

  10. Michael Duncan May 17, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    This is great advice! I wish I could have read this BEFORE I sent your assistant a proposal. 🙂

    The hardest part for me is to try and keep it “short and sweet.” There is so much information that I want to share about my work and myself, but keeping it succinct seems critical.

    The easiest part for me is the synopsis – actually telling about the work.

    God bless!

  11. Tamela Hancock Murray May 17, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    Yes, I consider a summary the same as a synopsis.

  12. Mahala Church May 17, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    What is the difference in a proposal, query, synopsis?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 17, 2012 at 11:12 am #

      Mahala, this is another question I may address in more detail in the future. But to give you a quick answer now, a proposal contains all the elements as expressed in our guidelines, and you will see the link is there for you in the post. A query is a letter asking if the agent or editor is willing to look at the proposal. A synopsis is a book summary.

  13. Lori Ann Freeland May 17, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    This is great! Thank you 🙂 I struggle with the synopsis for my novel. For me, that is the hardest thing to write 🙁

  14. Nikole Hahn May 17, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    The synopsis is the hardest to write.

  15. Nikole Hahn May 17, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    I don’t mean summary, but the chapter by chapter. Some people want the main idea and others want different parts of the book quoted throughout to represent the main idea. I’m always confused over the synopsis.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 17, 2012 at 11:10 am #

      Nikole, a general rule is that a one-page plot summary is fine for fiction. With chapter breakdowns, you may be thinking about nonfiction. Since nonfiction, particularly self-help, can address several subtopics within the book’s subject, chapter headings are helpful to agents and editors. I think I mentioned earlier that I will be addressing this topic in more detail in a future post. I appreciate the question!

  16. Patrick Craig May 17, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Writing a proposal is actually harder than writing the book!

  17. JennyM May 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Tons of stuff to read and think about here!

    So, Mizz Tamela, what about “foreign” writers? I live north of the 49th and your agency guidelines state just to query and not include a proposal. I promise not to write the proposal in French. Would my query get round filed if I stuck the proposal in?

  18. Carol Moncado May 17, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    I’m glad to see that re: possible endorsers. I’m friends with lots of authors who might be willing at least in theory, but can’t/won’t commit to reading with an eye for endorsement until the time actually comes. Glad to know these names don’t need to have committed to it but a list of possibilities [presuming, of course, that I actually know these people and don’t list JK Rowling just because I have a wizard – which I don’t, but you know…].


  19. Martha Ramirez May 17, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Great tips, Tamela! Thank you!

  20. Sherri Wilson Johnson May 18, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    The hardest part for me is getting started and knowing exactly what an agent or publisher is looking for. I have found that asking other author friends how they did it and also searching great sites for examples is super helpful.

  21. Ashley Ludwig May 18, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    Having just completed a proposal, I agree. Writing a concise synopsis puts the work under a microscope, and can help authors discover any plot or character issues they might not have noticed otherwise. Thank you for this post, and the tips, Tamela!


  22. Jim Ayers May 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    Hi – I am new at writing, and have been at a story for a couple years now. I started to write so my kids can edit it and possibly be inspired by the process. Not so much luck with that yet.

    I decided to write a fiction about a subject that I am knowledgeable in and requires little research on my part. I also decide to make it a loose allegory of Bible stories which follows a theme of Grace.

    Question: If I decide to make a proposal, does it have to be the beginning chapters?
    I am writing this story in stages. Characters and sub plots are being introduced and told throughout the book, intertwining and coming together throughout the book. I am not writing it from beginning to end, rather by character and events.
    Can I submit a major part of the story, an event that takes place and makes sense as it is, instead of the beginning chapters?
    Thanks for your help and response – Jim Ayers
    (I am emailing this question to whomever looks at the “Ask Us a Question” as well)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray June 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

      Jim, please accept my apologies for the woefully long delay in responding to your question. I was away when you posted, and just happened to come upon this today. The response is, yes, for fiction, we need to see the beginning of the book. Even better, send the complete manuscript.

  23. Bryan Sands December 17, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    I have a completed book proposal, but I keep second guessing myself. At times I feel confident and yet there will be times I think, “What am I doing?” Then there is the issue of time. It seems as if writing and then getting one’s work published takes forever.

    Thanks for your post!

  24. Judy Wallace March 11, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

    Thank for sharing about book proposals. I recently finished my first novel and working on revisions. I’ve considered writing a proposal for my novel and sending it in but feel apprehensive about it and have a question.
    1. Should a novel be completed including the editing, before submitting a proposal?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray March 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

      Judy, if you have never written a novel, yes. Look at it this way: once you get a contract, you just have to sign. The bulk of the writing will be done! All best to you.

      • Tamela Hancock Murray March 11, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

        And let me add — agents and editors will want to see your best work. Authors have only one chance to make a good first impression.

      • Judy Wallace March 15, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

        Thank you for the reply, I’m working on revisions and definitely want to submit my best work.

  25. Monica Rowan August 15, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

    My biggest fear is that my characters won’t get the chance to meet the possible readers if I don’t do my homework well enough to get published. I’ve completed five manuscripts where the fictional characters are hounding me to take the next step. Your posts have been an enormous help in guiding me towards being published. I take each piece of advice very seriously. I am writing part of the proposal as I read your blog. Thank you for sharing.

  26. Judy Wallace May 24, 2019 at 9:59 am #

    Tamela, I have a question about the manuscript status section of a non-fiction book proposal. How do I figure out the manuscript status if the book is still in the process of being written?

  27. OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU May 22, 2020 at 7:56 am #

    Thanks for your post Tamela which has really blessed me. It enables authors to begin to develop the critical eye of an agent on their own writing before submitting their proposal. For me who has been self publishing, I feel like a novice writer. There are so many things I never knew that is all new to me! Writing a proposal gives the author the opportunity to self reflect and evaluate what they have written. What an interesting exercise that has made me conscious of Best and not been satisfied with Good!
    Olusola Sophia Anyanwu
    London, UK.

  28. Aleena Martin June 9, 2021 at 1:55 pm #

    I’ve question for Endorsers can i take short authors name with reference

  29. Jennifer Graham July 28, 2021 at 6:20 am #

    This post is really awesome and I’d like share it on our social media handles.

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