Book Proposal

How to Write a Book Proposal: 6 Crucial Elements, Guest Post by John Wilsey

John Wilsey teaches history and philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America and blogs at typewriterYour book proposal needs to be more than good. Your book proposal needs to be magnificent.

Your book proposal is your work’s first introduction to a potential publisher.

It is imperative that your proposal be clean, eloquent, organized, well-researched, realistic, and compelling.

Think of your proposal as your book’s coming-out party. You are giving wealthy suitors the chance to meet the lovely maiden you have raised from infancy. So you better make sure that she has nice teeth.


6 Elements of a Book Proposal

 Element 1: Project Description

The first element of a good book proposal is your topic statement.

In the topic statement, you need to spend a couple of paragraphs broadly summarizing what your book is about.

  • Discuss the importance of your topic.
  • Clearly state your thesis.
  • State the central argument of your book in one or two sentences.
  • Give a couple of clear and precise lines about your methodology.
  • Explain how your proposed book fits in with your other published works OR clearly indicate if this book will be a revision of your dissertation.
  • Write a few lines about your school, your program, and who sat on your committee.

If this first section is clear, concise, and original, your potential publisher will continue reading.

If not, the abyss of obscurity yawns before you.

TargetElement 2: Target Audience

Give details about the target audience for your book.

  • Are you writing for scholars?
  • Students?
  • Religious leaders?
  • An informed audience of laypersons?
  • Will your book serve as a course text?

Be as specific as possible when you identify your intended audience.

Target audience is one of the publisher’s first considerations.

If your book could serve as a course text, write a list of specific courses that could use your book. Again, be specific. Don’t make up interesting course names.

Look at the course offerings in academic catalogues, and get in touch with professors who teach those courses. Ask these professors if they would include a book such as yours in their course syllabus.

Request their permission to list their name and courses in your proposal.


BooksElement 3: Historiography/Comparable Works Section

Give some information on the related book market.

  • Where does your book fit within the literature?
  • Why is another book needed on your topic?
  • What original contribution does your book make?

Write a bibliography of the current literature related to your book. Annotate the 10 to 15 works that are most closely related to yours.

Annotation Includes:

  • A paragraph that summarizes the book
  • A paragraph that situates your work within the existing field. (A brief description of how your book will add to and differ from the book you just summarized.)

Provide another 20 to 50 titles that are less closely related to your work, but are still germane to your topic.

Show how your book is different from those as well.

The “Comparable Works” section shows your publisher that you are up on the literature.

It demonstrates that you have looked at the books in your field, and that you are confident your book contributes meaningfully and originally to it.

If you can show that your book is a meaningful and original contribution, then you are assuring your potential publisher that your book will make an impact, and thus a profit.


Chapter 1Element 4: Chapter Outlines/Annotated Table of Contents

You have to balance 2 goals as you write your chapter outlines:

1. Clear presentation of argument

2. Showcase the features and stories that make your book marketable

Note how you will present your thesis in the introduction of your book and explain how your chapters will argue and further your thesis.

Elements of Chapter Outlines:

  • List Chapter Titles
  • Provide 1 paragraph of summary for each chapter; include how said chapter will argue/further your thesis (NOTE: Do not make your argument in your chapter outlines. Be clear, but include a dash of ambiguity to leave your reader wanting more.)
  • Estimate the length of each chapter (10,000 words = approximately 30 pages of typed, double-spaced text). Many trade presses consider a work of 80-90,000 words the sweet spot.


Element 5: References

Include a list of references, scholars in your field who will endorse your ideas.

Ask 15 to 20 people to look over your proposal and ask them if they will affirm that your proposed book has the potential to make a valuable contribution to your field.

To clarify: these are not people who are endorsing the book. They are endorsing: 1. You, as a qualified scholar and 2. Your proposal.

In other words, you want recognized scholars to affirm that your work will be as valuable as you have stated in your proposal.

Your reference list will give comfort to the potential publisher concerning the viability of your proposed work. When recognized scholars in your field vouch for your project’s legitimacy, it bolsters your credibility.

Don’t be shy about contacting senior scholars and asking them for to help you in this way. Some will decline, but you’ll likely be gratified to see that many are happy to help you succeed.


Quill-and-InkElement 6: Writing Sample

The last element of your proposal will be your writing sample.

The writing sample should consist of a chapter that states your thesis, methodology, and organization.

Make sure, beyond all doubt, that your sample chapter consistently reflects how you’ve written your proposal!


The Finished Proposal

Your completed proposal should be about 10 to 15 pages total excluding your sample chapter.



Your proposal represents your first effort at marketing your book.

Consider it a major project in its own right. Devote time and thought to it.

The quality of your book proposal will determine whether or not a publisher will give your work their full consideration.


Share StoryShare Your Story

How many books did you include in your comparable works section? 

Did you include references with your book proposal? If so, how did you approach your references?


How to Write A Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

lightbulbDo you have a great idea for a non-fiction book? Are you vexed by what a book proposal looks like?

This summer I stood in your shoes.

After discussing how I wanted to revise my dissertation into a book manuscript, a potential publisher encouraged me to write a book proposal.

The publisher provided me with a list of information that I should include in my proposal, but their outline left me perplexed as to what each section should look like.

Frustrated, I hired writing coach Michelle Seaton to help me craft my book proposal.

In this post you will learn what a book proposal is, what sections you should include, and tips that will help you strategically plan each section.


What Is A Book Proposal?

A book proposal is part action plan for how you will write (or wrote) your book and part marketing document.

A book proposal should describe your book in succinct detail and excite a publisher/peer-review committee.

The 10 Steps of a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

  • Rationale
  • Why Press?
  • Description
  • Annotated Table of Contents
  • Sources
  • Readership
  • Comparable and Competing Works
  • Specifications
  • Schedule
  • Author Bio

Before You Begin: Title Your Work

Potential publishers want to know what they are reading, so give your book a good working title.

Tip: Write your working title at the top of the first page and use CAPS anytime your write the title of your book. This will draw editors' tired eyes to your book and help them as they skim your proposal.


typewriterHow to Write a Book Proposal: What Goes into Each Section?


1. Rationale

In 2 paragraphs state why your book should be published.

Briefly explain: Why is your argument important? What is novel about your approach or methodology? How does your work add to the existing scholarship? Who is the audience for your book?


2. Why Press?

Answer the question: "Why should [insert name of press] publish this book?"

Tell the editor why your book is a perfect match for their press.

Tip 1: Do your homework. Google the presses you are submitting to and create a list of the titles they have published that are comparable to yours. Mention these titles as you explain why your book is a great fit for their press.

Tip 2: Explain why you want to publish with [insert name of press]. Show the editor that you are excited about their press and want to publish with them.


3. Description

Write an overview of your book. Describe your themes, concepts, and how you will develop your narrative.

Tip: Divide this section into topical paragraphs.

Your first paragraph should address the importance of your topic; describe your topic and why you chose to write a book about it.

Your second paragraph should explain your "take" on the importance of your topic; what is your angle/argument?

Your subsequent paragraphs should describe each of the themes/concepts you will address in the book.

End the section with a summary paragraph that ties in the importance of your work with the themes/concepts you described.


4. Annotated Table of Contents

Break your book into parts.

List each section of your book (Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and so on).

Under each section heading, replace "Chapter X" with your chapter title and describe the narrative you will tell in that chapter.

Tip 1: Describe your chapters in a way that highlights the narrative tension or drama of your story.

Tip 2: Be sure your descriptions reflect how each chapter will smoothly transition to the next.

Tip 3: If your chapters rely on illustrations, explain how you will feature them and how the illustrations will add to your work.


Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

5. Sources

Name the archives you used to gather your research and provide an overview of the collections where you found most of your material.

Tip: Think of this segment as a "highlights" section, not a bibliography.


6. Readership

Answer the question: "Who will read your work?"

Tip: Do your research and be specific. If you mention "scholars" specify the kinds of scholars who will find your book interesting.

If you mention "university professors," specify the types courses they would use your book in and, if possible, an estimate of how many students enroll in those courses.


7. Comparable and Competing Works

Describe published books that might compete with your book and how your book differs from those works.

Show editors that you know about the marketplace for your book.

Tip 1: Be strategic. There may be 30 books similar to yours; describe only those books that are most closely related to your work.

Tip 2: After you narrow your list of comparable works, search each title on Scroll down to the publication information and look at the their sales ranking. Use this information as you further narrow down your choices to 6-10 books.

Tip 3: Search Google for each title on your list. See if the author was nominated for or won any awards for the work you selected. If they did, mention that award; awards highlight that you have an "award-winning" topic

Tip 4: Respect the editor. Keep your descriptions brief by mentioning the title and author of a competing work, whether they won an award for it, the point they argued, (if essential) how they argued their point, and (briefly) how your book will add or differ from said competing work.


Calendar8. Specifications

State the length of your manuscript with a word count. How many words in the body text? How many words in the notes?

Tell the editor how many illustrations you will use and describe them by type, i.e. 10 maps, 3 charts, and 4 photographs.

Tip: Illustrations cost money so limit them if possible. Mention any information you have on copyright holders.


9. Schedule

Tell the editor when your manuscript will be ready for scholarly review.

State whether you need to revise or write sections and when you plan to finish your revisions/writing.


10. Author Bio

Why you? In 1-2 paragraphs summarize why you are qualified to write the proposed book.



Writing my book proposal proved to be a difficult task for 2 reasons.

First, authors keep their proposals close. Many fear that someone might steal their intellectual property or that a publisher might decline their manuscript because they made their proposal available to the public.

Second, book proposals require a lot of thought. I had to figure out how to articulate why my study of Albany, New York matters and why people outside of the historical profession would want to read a book about it. I also had to consider how I would revise and extend my dissertation. Articulating all of this information was much harder than I thought it would be.

This post contains the information I learned while writing my book proposal. I hope that you find it useful and that it eases your work.


Share-Your-StoryWhat Do You Think?

What did you (do you) find most difficult about writing your book proposal? Share your story, tips, tricks, and questions by posting a comment.





Some Thoughts on Theory: New Netherland Emerging Scholars Roundtable Takeaway

I do not consider myself to be a "theory-driven" historian. Theory influences the way I read and think about primary and secondary sources, but I don’t write about how specific theories apply to my argument. Or so I thought.

Jansson-Visscher_mapNew Netherland Emerging Scholars Roundtable

On Friday October 5, I attended the inaugural New Netherland Emerging Scholars Roundtable. Sponsored by the Dutch Consulate, the Nederlandse Taalunie, and the New Netherland Institute, the Roundtable convened for a full day of discussion about the scholarship on New Netherland by “emerging” scholars.

Eight emerging scholars and eight established scholars participated. The work of the emerging scholars explored the history of New Netherland from the vantage points of architecture, art, objects, ideas, culture, and trade. As the last presenter, I collected nearly 7 pages of notes about the history of New Netherland before the Roundtable turned its attention to my project.

I participated in the Roundtable with the hope that the other scholars would assist me with sources and ideas for how I could study the influence of Native Americans and non-Dutch Europeans on the development of the New World Dutch identity that developed in Beverwyck/Albany between 1614 and 1664. Although I began with this request, conversation quickly turned to my use of "identity" as a theoretical concept.


Roundtable Discussion

Initially, the Roundtable seemed to support my ideas about identity. Participants asked questions about how the concept worked in the 17th century, whether I had looked at religion as a major influence in identity creation, or if I had studied the contribution of African slaves to the New World Dutch Identity of Beverwyck. As I considered these questions, Walter Prevenier raised his hand: “I don’t get identity.”

I explained that I understood identity to be the way a person understood their relationship with their ethnicity, religion, community, region, and nation. I also explained that the word “identity” was fraught with ambiguity, which is why I avoid using the word in my written work as much as possible. Instead, I use “self-understandings” or refer to specific subjects of my study.

Prevenier pressed further: “How can you tell how the Dutch colonists identified unless they tell you in the written record ‘I identify as Dutch’?”

Great point.

Without intending to, I had latched on to "identity" as a theory and centered the argument of my dissertation on it. Subconsciously I knew I stood on shaky ground, but the urge to make a grand argument that would contribute to the historiography overwhelmed my objections.



Historical arguments do not have to be steeped in theory to be interesting or compelling.

Prevenier’s point seemed obvious. In fact, as soon as he articulated it, I understood his confusion and realized that it mirrored my own, hence why I used the terms “identity” and “self-understandings” sparingly in my written work.

Prevnier’s remarks helped me to admit that I was trying to force a modern-day concept (albeit a popular one) on my historic subjects who would not have understood “identity” the way I do.

Once I stated this realization out loud, I felt free to leave the theory of “identity” behind me.


Book Proposal Tweaks 

The Roundtable scholars supported my decision to abandon "identity." No one advocated a complete overhaul of my project. Instead we discussed different ways I could reframe the argument I want to make, which is something along the lines of "early Americans used cultural adaptation as a mechanism for surviving life in a sparsely-settled frontier, war, intercultural diplomacy, politics, and economic and demographic change."

I am still working on my new 1-2 sentence explanation of my project, but once I have it, I will tweak my book proposal to reflect it.

I am grateful for the New Netherland Emerging Scholars Roundtable participants for their conversation and ideas. They provided me with invaluable insight that will improve my book.


What Do You Think?

What do you think about using theory to make a historical argument? Do you think theory is necessary to answer our questions about the past? Do you think historians overuse theory?