Traditional Publishing

Bulletproof book proposals: three solutions you can implement right now

By Jill Nagle
Founder and Principal: GetPublished, guerilla guidance for your writing adventure – Sunday April 24, 2005

As a nonfiction author, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You don’t have to write your whole book. In fact, you shouldn’t write your whole book. You should write a book proposal, and get paid to write your book. That’s how the mainstream publishing world usually works. 

But before you start breathing too easily, consider this: upwards of ninety percent of all book proposals get rejected. The good news is, you can learn about and avoid the most common reasons for rejection. The bad news is, it takes some work, and there are never any guarantees. 

You don’t have to go through this process alone. You can find a writing buddy in the same boat, or hire a qualified publishing consultant with a track record of accepted proposals to help you through the process, or join a class led by a similarly qualified expert with other authors going through the same process. 

Before I go further into the reasons book proposals get rejected, let’s take a peek at the big picture. Take a moment and put yourself in an agent or editor’s chair. Remember, as an agent or editor, your livelihood depends on picking the moneymaking proposals and avoiding the deadbeats.

There you are with literally feet of paper in front of you, which you’ve lugged home because you couldn’t get through all of it at the office. Dishes are still in the sink, you’d love to at least say hello to your cat, dog or significant other before falling into a tired heap on your unmade bed. 

You pick up the top document. It’s got ink smudges. You quickly put it aside – if an author can’t be bothered to send clean copy, what does that say about the rest of their work? 

The next proposal is written in type too tiny to read easily. That too goes into the reject pile. The third chunk of paper actually looks attractive. This means the agent or editor needs to look inside for a reason to reject the proposal. Look for a reason? Yes! Every proposal that looks like a possible go means a truckload of work for the weary editor or agent, so they look for even the smallest reason to toss your proposal aside and move onto the next. 

Keep this scenario in mind as you write your proposal. Remember, it’s your job as an author to pre-emptively answer every possible objection an agent or editor could make to publishing your book, with a convincing argument about why and how they as publishers will benefit from investing in you. If you do this effectively, you’ll set yourself apart from the other ninety-some per cent of the authors who haven’t bothered to master this process. 

The rest of the question of who accepts your proposal will come down to chemistry, whim and other factors beyond your control. So let’s turn to the factors you can control. Here are three big reasons proposals get rejected and what to do about them now – before you send out that proposal!

PROBLEM #1: Being creative types, authors tend to avoid the economic reality of sales and marketing
Many authors find the process of writing the book proposal distasteful, because it involves stepping away from the ideas themselves and pitching them in an unfamiliar language. So they try to get through the process as quickly as possible and therefore produce a substandard proposal that fails to sell their book. 

SOLUTION: Make a radical shift in your mindset
Embrace the new world of selling your work, and decide to wear the “book proposal writer” hat with gusto, at least until you’ve got your advance check in hand. Realise that a book proposal needs to be written in a different voice, and with a whole other purpose in mind, than your book itself. A book proposal is sort of like a little book about your book, designed to sell the publishing staff on putting money behind the book. It’s essentially a business plan featuring you as the entrepreneur and your book as the product. So, either become an expert in this new way of writing, or hire an expert to do it for you. Either way, your book proposal has got to stand head and shoulders above the rest if it’s going to pass the scrutiny of agents and editors.

PROBLEM #2: The author lacks a platform
The first thing a publisher wants to know about a proposed nonfiction book is, "does the author have a platform?" "Platform" essentially means presence in the world. 

Publishers want to see quantifiable evidence (namely, numbers) of things like website hits, sales of tapes, pamphlets or ebooks, circulation of places you’ve published articles, mailing lists, speaking engagements and media appearances. They want to know who’s listening to you. It’s not enough to have a good book idea – publishers want to see that people are already interested in your message in other forms. This helps convince them that there will be an audience who will buy your book once it's published.

SOLUTION: Develop a platform
It’s easier than it sounds. Here are five things you can do this week to establish your platform:

  1. find an intern at a local college or university who’s majoring in public relations and would like an emerging or published author as her first client, and work with her to make your name and message public;
  2. arrange to give a free talk or series of talks at your local library;
  3. put up a website (or get a graphic design intern to do it for you) using one of the zillions of free services on the internet;
  4. write a short article on your topic and pitch it to relevant websites and local print publications; and
  5. start a mailing list, even if only your friends are on it at first. Get a service like or to manage the list and put a sign-up box on your website so you can add people continually. 

What are you waiting for? Pick three of these and get going! Do the other two next week. By the time your proposal is written you’ll have the respectable beginnings of a solid platform.

PROBLEM #3: Some authors still think marketing the book is the publisher’s job
Oh, would that that were true! Instead, publishers today expect the author to have a plan (a comprehensive plan, if they’re going to put any kind of money behind it) to promote their book. If you’re lucky, they’ll help you out. But don’t count on it.

SOLUTION: Leverage your platform-building activities into a stellar promotion plan
Through your proposal, convey the idea that you think promoting the book is your job and yours alone, and convey in your promotion plan every bit of time and ingenuity that you can promise to promote your book. Remember, your book proposal positions you as the entrepreneur and your book as the product. This means the investor (in this case, the publisher) needs to be convinced that your product is worth putting money behind. The more you show you know how to promote, the better they’ll feel about parting with lots and lots of money to put behind you and your efforts.

What if you really hate the idea of writing a book proposal, or no matter how hard you try, marketing language just isn’t coming to you? If for whatever reason you’re not sure if your proposal is bulletproof, take a course or get an evaluation with a qualified publishing consultant to get your proposal in the best shape possible. If you have more money than time and inclination, get the consultant to write the proposal for you. No, that’s not “cheating”, it’s just freeing you up to do what you love. 

Make sure you choose someone with a successful track record in book proposal writing in particular, which is different from grant proposal writing, journalistic writing or any other kind of writing in that its sole purpose is to convince a publisher to give you money to write your book. The publishing industry operates according to quirky rules which require strict compliance, or else the author’s proposal gets pushed aside as fast as the editor’s next breath. 

Book Proposal Resources:

You can also find the Book Proposal Boot Camp on CD at the above url, as well as books we recommend.

About the Author

Jill Nagle is a published author and principal of GetPublished, which provides ghostwriting, coaching, consulting, teleclasses and more to aspiring and ascending authors. She has been helping other writers get published for the last decade.