Written by Denise Loock

Clients need developmental edits, substantive edits, and line edits. But before they pay you for any of that work, talk to them about book proposals. Why? The best way for newer authors to attract an agent’s or a publisher’s attention is by attending a writers’ conference and meeting with literary agency or publishing house representatives. To prepare for those conversations, your client needs a book proposal.

For the author, the proposal is a blueprint that lays out the book’s design, parameters, and unique features. The author also specifies genre and audience. Fiction proposals include a plot synopsis; nonfiction ones give a chapter-by-chapter annotated outline. Creating these sections helps the author see gaps and redundancies in the book’s content, which they can address before they talk to an agent or acquisitions editor.

Fiction and nonfiction proposals should contain a tag line (AKA hook, premise), which is a memorable phrase that grabs a potential reader’s interest. Most also include possible back cover copy (BCC). For fiction, give two or three paragraphs of plot summary to help a reader connect with the main characters and care what happens to them. For nonfiction, the BCC focuses on how the content will benefit the reader.

A nonfiction proposal should include a purpose statement that highlights the felt need the book addresses and why the author is the one to address it. A felt need is one that potential readers are already aware of—an itch they want scratched. This statement should also deliver a promise—what readers will gain from reading the book.

These proposal elements narrow the book’s boundaries. As authors write or revise a manuscript, they can return to these sentences/paragraphs to see if they are on target and adjust them if the book veers in another direction.

The comparative analysis part of a proposal enables authors to see how their book lines up with similar books in the market. If several best-selling fiction authors have used a similar plot line, an unknown author needs a fresh approach. Likewise, if several popular nonfiction authors have tackled a topic, an unknown author needs a unique angle.

Proposals also include future book ideas. This helps the author see that not every plot thread or research result needs to be used in one book. If you know other books are planned, you can encourage your client with positive feedback such as “this is a great idea for the next book in this series” or “this research may be useful in your next book.”

Helping an author create a proposal makes your job easier too. As you and your client work through the process, you’ll both see how marketable the book is. Doing the hard work of refining the topic, the content, and the audience before a substantive edit will assure the client you’re interested in helping them create the best book possible, not just making money.

What if your client is going to self-publish? If you’ve ever watched DIY shows on HGTV, you’ve discovered the importance of a good plan. The same is true for building a book.

If you feel unequipped to offer book proposal services, go to a writers’ conference and attend classes on book proposals. Plenty of examples and tips are available online, including two insightful blog posts from The Steve Laube Agency: 5 Questions a Nonfiction Book Proposal Must Answer and 4 Questions a Fiction Book Proposal Must Answer.

Denise Loock is the owner of Lightning Editing Services. She teaches Editing Devotionals 101 and Sentence Diagramming 101 for The PEN Institute and is the director of PENCON, the only annual conference for Christian proofreaders and editors. The next PENCON will be held May 1–3, 2024.