Putting together a great book proposal takes a lot of work. I suggest writers look at it as if it were a job application, and it is. You are trying to get someone to pay you to write your book via a stellar “job application” or book proposal.
But every once in a while, we get something that is not going to work, for obvious reasons. Here are two mistakes:
Also known as the claim, “God told me to write this.” We once received a proposal with a line that claimed, “I literally hear from GOD,JESUS, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT.” (Capitalization and punctuation left intact.) One of the most widely read posts from our blog is titled “God Gave Me This Blog Post.” Please read the post, and please avoid this mistake in the future.
I also see authors write or hear authors say, “I know you don’t like it when we say it, but I really felt inspired by God while writing this.” Trust me, I understand. In fact, I believe you and don’t deny the validity of inspiration. But try not to make it sound like your book idea or sample writing is extra special because of it.
With all the talk about platform and the need to have a major social-media presence or visibility, we are starting to see more writers attempting to inflate the value of their résumé in order to attract an agent or a publisher. This doesn’t mean you don’t or can’t list the various activities, awards, or social-media analytics; it simply means don’t exaggerate or lie.
I once saw a proposal where the author claimed to have won a Nobel Prize. I googled the name and the prize and found that the author had been on a large research team that was granted the prize. But the way it was written sounded like the author was the sole recipient. The claim was not inaccurate, but it felt like it. The author was right to be proud of being on such an extraordinary team, but the author should have described it as a team award.
When someone claims “best-selling author” status, I try to take the claim at face value. But if we are not familiar with your work, we will investigate the claim. If it cannot be verified or it comes to light that what has been described is only receiving a “#1 on Amazon” label in an obscure category, I’m not as inclined to be impressed. My annual Christian Writers Market Guide is often #1 on Amazon in the new release category of “Christian Encyclopedias.” Think about it. How many “new releases” in that category come out every week? Not many. So having that label in an obscure category may look nice, but I would certainly not claim to be a best-selling author because of it.
Awards are a little trickier. Here on our site, we have a section for author’s awards. (See the drop-down menu in the Authors section above.) We have tried to focus on those awards that are fairly national or have a strong measure of gravitas attached to their name that will be significant to a major publisher. It isn’t an exact science.
One author claimed to have been nominated for a major book award. Since I had been a consultant for that award, I knew the truth. The author’s publisher had “entered” the book in the contest. It was one of twenty books entered into that category. This author’s book was not a finalist nor was it “nominated” for anything. It had been entered, nothing more. I had to assume that the author was unaware of the difference, but it left the wrong taste when reading the proposal.
The hardest thing is listing social-media numbers. The fear is that what you have isn’t enough. But then what is enough? A mistake of late has been calculating “reach” and not actual numbers. One author claimed to have a “reach” of one million people. But what the author had done is calculate the social-media size of every person who followed them–added everyone’s “audience”–and then claimed their personal social media had a “reach” of 1,000,000. In reality, their actual number was less than 10,000.
“Reach” is a technique used in the media. See this linked article, where they correctly claim, “During an average week in June 2021, radio reached 88.1 percent of all American men aged between 35 and 64 years of age. All adults of this age group were the most exposed to radio, regardless of gender.” It doesn’t say any of that 88% were listening, only that they were “reached.”
Be careful about overstating your platform. We know the tricks.
The Real Secret
The secret to a successful book proposal? Write a GREAT book with a GREAT idea.
I have a bright resume
at which you should look,
and you will find in it the way
that you can sell my book.
Nothing in it’s devious;
for wisdom, I’m a go-to,
The Master Of The Obvious,
but you can call me Moto.
I even have a PhD
from just south of the border,
duly earned and not for free,
and delivered by mail-order:
for experience in rubbish-clearing,
I’m Doctor Of Trash Engineering.
Re-reading this, I guess I might well be phonetically called Dr. Dotty, which, when I tell Barb, will render her unable to stand or speak for gales of approbationary laughter.
My question is: Where do you have the time to do all this stuff including a podcast and all kinds of social media and write books and magazine articles too. And belong to writer’s groups and conferences and read books once and awhile too? Maybe if I had 24 hours in one day… seems impossible. Just saying…
Kristen Joy Wilks
Hmmm … I can see how these mistakes would be so frustrating. It means extra work for you to double check social media influence and awards. It is good to have some guidelines for giving social media stats. Thank you!
“God spoke to me.”
“I was led to write this.”
“God revealed this to me.”
“I have been called to write this.”
“I believe this is an inspired post.”
One or all of the above, always. Always pray before trying to write. Ask for guidance. Be patient. Wait on the Lord and He will help. BUT any Christian publisher will understand without being told it was one or all of the above or you would not be sending out a manuscript. If God says NO so will the publisher, if he is a believer. Do not write because you want money or fame. That comes from God alone. Write because you love the art that God put in you.
I’m old and disabled, but I’d never add that to a ‘resume’. If a publisher asks that I run around the country advertising my book, I apologize, stating why I cannot and adding if they choose to not publish, I understand and wish them well. I’m part of the writing/publishing community and we are to be a blessing on our community.
No, I do not preach at the choir, but write to the unsaved, mostly young adults. The message is there, that seed of the Word, but not slammed at the unsaved. I’m very thankful that the Lord gave me this, to plant the seed. May it grow and some day another will harvest. A blessing on them always. Walk in His beauty
Thanks Steve.. your article brings to mind the scripture.. …”Yet when we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:33)…Thank you for sharing.
It saddens me that there is a seeming prerequisite for a social media following. I write children’s books of the picture book variety. I’m not inclined to blog and am a fairly private person. I always thought the agent and publisher handled publicity. I certainly see and read many picture books whose authors must have had awesome followings, because the books weren’t so great.
Thanks for this insightful post! I have a couple of questions regarding proposal writing:
1) When listing competition, do you accept best-selling novel mentions? For example, when proposing a romance novel, the author lists “Redeeming Love” as a competitor.
2) It isn’t mentioned in your proposal format, but do you want to see a list of future ideas/projects? If so, how in-depth do you want those descriptions?
As always, thank you for providing information via your blog!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
So the fact that I’ve heard of the Nobel Prize doesn’t mean I earned one? How sad…..Thanks for the insight, Steve.
If you’re a good writer, or even an exceptionally good writer, there’s no need for “puffing” yourself up. Simply write. Let your experiences, as well as what and how you write speak for you.
Write as if you’re having a private conversation with an old friend and reader’s will feel as if you’re speaking directly to them. Fiction or Nonfiction, that works both ways, as least it does for me.
Knowing a few important people can’t make you a writer. Although, you can share your experiences with potential readers and, if your experiences extend beyond an introduction, then telling your story can make you a writer.
However, if you’ve been lucky enough to have known some remarkable people who made a difference in your life, then it’s your obligation to say so and give them credit. You know those people and they know, or knew, you.
Memoirs are a fun read, educational and helpful. I love memoirs. Everyone has a story to share.
Regarding your first point….I totally agree. In fact, I think we should be wary of someone claiming their words come directly from God.
And Sarah Young goes even further, claiming that the words in Jesus Calling are Christ’s words, not hers, and she merely records them.
Great manuscripts with great ideas are pasted up all the time, because they were never read.