Submitting a Proposal: A Quick-Start Guide for Writers

Pitch: Like speed-dating, but for books. Either virtual or in-person, a pitch session allows a writer a few minutes to share their book idea with an editor. Time is limited, so you have to make your case quickly and well. I’ll talk more about pitching and query letters in another post, but think of this like the cover letter for your job application.

Query letter: Outside of a pitch session, most publishing houses have an avenue for unsolicited manuscripts (the ones they haven\’t directly asked for.) These are often handled through Submittable.

If the editor likes your book idea — whether she’s learned about it by pitch or by query letter — and thinks it’s potentially a good fit for her publishing house, you may be asked to submit a proposal.

Proposal: Everything an editor needs in order to adequately evaluate your book idea and you as an author.

Proposals will vary slightly between houses; some will actually give you a form to fill out. While you’ve convinced the editor it’s worth looking more closely at you and your idea, the editor still has to review your book with her acquisitions team and potentially two or three more internal teams before she can extend a contract. What you’re sending in the proposal is, therefore, what the editor will have to work with to answer her team’s questions, make a case for why your book is worth the house’s resources, and evaluate what those resources would be. This is the job application and interview part of the process.

Briefly, here’s what you should have on hand and ready to go as soon as you are asked for a full proposal:

  1. Elevator pitch (the brief summary of your book, which I’ll talk more about in another blog post)
  2. Fiction: full manuscript; Non-fiction: annotated table of contents plus a sample chapter or introduction
  3. Your brief bio, plus links for both personal and business websites and social media
  4. An overview of your existing author platform, including newsletter and social media stats, speaking engagements, published works, other platforms where you write, organizations you belong to, etc.
  5. A-list “celebrities” who you know or have a direct connection with — these folks can be asked for an endorsement or a foreword, and we can leverage their platform to sell more of your books. More later, but suffice it to say that your parish priest or your aunt who is the diocesan DRE do not belong on this list.

Again, some editors will ask for more or less, and most will have a particular format they’d like you to use (don’t be afraid to ask!) Unless for some odd reason the editor asks for a hard copy to be mailed to her, always email your proposal. Especially these days, when most of us are working remotely, snail mail is a great way for your book baby to be lost in transit, or in the pile of papers on the editor’s desk.

Last but not least! When should you follow up after you’ve submitted a full proposal? Bear in mind that most editors are busier than a one-armed paperhanger, and we are not deliberately neglecting your email which we did, in fact, ask for. One of my writer friends recommends checking in after six to eight weeks, and again after three months — sounds about right.

If you’ve done it before, do you have any tips and tricks to share about preparing a proposal? If you’re brand-new to the process, what’s worrying you?