Greetings from Jackie M. Johnson!

When I worked at Alive Communications, “the world’s leading literary agency devoted exclusively to the representation of faith-based and inspirational authors,” I read thousands of book queries and submissions. Some were good; most were lacking, both in storyline and presentation.

Many writers who can craft a well-written book often forget—or don’t know—that they need to take the same care and effort to create a successful book proposal. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction it is essential to write a book proposal that captures the agent’s attention so he or she will enthusiastically shop it and sell it to the best publisher.

Michael Hyatt, a well-known industry expert and bestselling author confirms this. As the former Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers and a literary agent for six years, he provides the inside scoop: 

The real secret to securing a book contract is knowing how to write a powerful, compelling book proposal that leaves agents begging to represent you—and publishers eager to sign you.”

One of the most important things you need to know in order to create a book proposal that gets results is this: Your proposal is a marketing piece; it is intended to grab an agent’s attention so he or she is highly motivated to shop your book idea to publishers. Your job is to convince them that you are the best person to write this book. Let them know who your target audience (the people who will most likely buy this book) is and persuade them with words that “sell,” not just words that “tell.”

What goes into a book proposal?

The format and number of chapters required will be different for fiction and nonfiction writers. I’ve listed below the main items that need to be included. However, you may want to check with your agent to determine the specific criteria he or she requires.

A good story (or nonfiction topic) is important, and so is the layout. Make sure your book proposal has all the necessary elements. Then, check your final piece for grammar, punctuation, and spelling. You may want to use an editing service or a critique service for your book proposal and/or manuscript. 

Nonfiction – Your nonfiction proposal should contain the elements listed below and at least two or three sample chapters:

  • Cover page (with book title and subtitle, author name, and contact information)
  • Title
  • Author
  • One line summary
  • Category
  • Tone
  • Target audiences
  • Benefits (in bullet point format)
  • Manuscript length and completion (word count and when the manuscript will be ready)
  • Rights
  • Book synopsis (about three or four paragraphs)
  • Author biography
  • Connections for promotion and possible endorsements: (Who do you know that would be      likely to provide a written endorsement for your book?)
  • Promotion ideas
  • How this book differs from the competition
  • Table of Contents
  • Summary paragraph about each chapter

Fiction – Unlike nonfiction, novel writers need to complete the entire manuscript before submitting a book proposal. Plus, you need a great “hook” (an attention-grabbing tagline that briefly summarizes the content of your novel) to sell the book idea.

According to Rachelle Gardner, an agent with Books and Such Literary Agency, you need these essential elements for a great fiction proposal:

  • Title page (with the book title, names of authors, phone numbers and email addresses)
  • One sentence hook (a tagline, one sentence that creates interest in the book)
  • Brief overview (two to four paragraphs, similar to back-cover copy that is exciting and tells the publisher succinctly what the book is about)
  • The market (the audience for the book, why somebody would buy this book)
  • About the authors (half page or full page on yourself and why you are qualified to write this book, previously published books or articles, sales figures and awards received)
  • Author marketing (your platform and how you will reach your target audience to market your book)
  • Comparable books (list four to five novels that you think are similar to yours and list the title, author, release year and a few sentences about the book and how yours is similar)
  • Details (word count, number of chapters and if the manuscript is complete. Note: Unless you are a multi-published novelist, you must have a completed novel before approaching agents and editors.)
  • Longer synopsis (in two to six pages describe the story start to finish)
  • Sample chapters (include the first 40 to 50 pages of your manuscript. These should be the first few chapters of your novel.)

Where do you send your book proposal?

Most of the time, you will be sending your book proposal to a literary agent who has asked you to send it in. As you may know, the majority of publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts or book proposals, so it is essential to have a literary agent who will represent you to the publisher. (Note: We will talk about finding a literary agent in my June CAN blog post.).

Bottom line: If you have an amazing book idea, make sure your agent and publishers know it. Your book proposal can be more effective when you have a marketing slant (to sell your idea), include all the necessary elements, know your particular agent’s requirements, and present it in a clear, clean format.


Jackie M. Johnson is an author and freelance writer in Colorado. She also helps writers as a book publishing consultant. Previously, she worked at the premier literary agency, Alive Communications, and the CBA-publisher, WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group. Visit her encouragement blog, A New Day Cafe, or website for more information.

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