In 2019, I was extraordinarily lucky. A publisher approached me to write a book on atmospheric science for the general public, an opportunity I had dreamed of since starting my PhD many years ago.
Because it was a long-term goal for me, over the years I had deliberately done certain things that would make me more attractive as a potential author and allow me, when the time came, to write a proposal for book that finally succeeded.
A book proposal is a document you submit to a publisher outlining your proposed project, who you are, and why you should be given the opportunity to write a book (i.e. why you will generate book sales). As such, simply having an interesting concept for a book is not enough to guarantee success. You are not only selling your idea, but also your abilities as an author and seller.
From my experience, here’s what I would recommend you include in your book proposal, and what you can do before writing one to maximize your chances of success.
1. Have an elevator pitch ready to go
Make sure you can cleanly describe your book project in an ultra-condensed form, conveying subject matter and style in just one or two sentences. This is extremely useful both for the book proposal and for subsequent publicity, which the publisher will be aware of. But it also provides you with a mission statement while writing the book that will keep you on track.
2. Be specific about your audience
Understand that there is no “general public”. Be extremely specific about the demographics – age, gender, interests, geographies – you want to reach with the book and the learning goals you’re trying to achieve. What pressing questions does your book answer for your target audience? Why should they, in particular, care about your book?
3. Provide context in the literature
Give examples of books that you envision your finished masterpiece to be similar to. It could be in terms of subject but also style. This not only gives the publisher clear reference points, letting them know what they are buying, but is also extremely helpful when writing the book. Ultimately what the publisher wants is for you to write a book with your own author voice, and while you should never just copy what another author has done, the use of a few key texts as style guides can be helpful in identifying your own voice.
4. Read books you don’t like
The subject of your book is obviously important, but don’t neglect to consider the format and style of your proposed project. The difference between a mediocre idea and one that takes the world by storm can be the way it’s delivered. To that end, read as widely as possible while getting a feel for your project. You’ll learn a lot from the books you find interesting, but a lot more from the ones you don’t like. Personally, I found my book’s style to be naturally amalgamated after finding certain irritating characteristics in other books (things like very short chapters, a forced friendly tone, and an over-reliance on footnotes). Just like design, good style is invisible, but bad is blindingly obvious!
5. Have a social media presence
Although not to everyone’s taste, having a social media presence is a big selling point for a potential publisher and should be highlighted in your book proposal. Guaranteeing a number of sales – especially trust-building pre-orders – from your followers is a tempting prospect, as is the ease of advertising afforded by simply pointing to your social media handles. In my case, having a large audience on Youtubebut also the followings on Instagram, Twitter and Goodreads, was an important reason why I had the opportunity to write Firmament.
6. Have an existing body of popular writing to point to
As already mentioned, the goal of the book proposal is to convince a publisher that they can be trusted to write something worth publishing and, most importantly, will generate sales. As such, having samples of your writing for a general audience will immediately give the editor an idea of what you will be producing for them, removing any uncertainty about their decision. Plus, practicing your writing for such an audience will improve your craft and allow you to hone your authorial voice. In my case, in addition to writing scripts for my YouTube videos, I published a semi-regular blog which gave me the opportunity to practice my prose, with the explicit intention of eventually sending it to editors.
While these points cannot guarantee success, they can certainly make you more attractive as an author and your project more attractive to a potential publisher. Many of them will require effort over a long period of time and, in my case, several years. But if you have a story you think the world needs to hear, spending a little time crafting the perfect proposal means that when you get the chance to give it a shot, you won’t miss it.
simon clark is an author, videographer and science communicator. His first book, Firmament: the hidden science of weather, climate change and the air around us (Hodder & Stoughton), was published in January.