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All About Book Proposals (According to Seth Kaufman)

When big publishers buy a nonfiction book, they usually purchase it based on a book proposal rather than the finished book. They don’t want the whole book because a) it takes too long to read, b) they can have editorial input while the book is being written (to, ideally, make it better), and, in my slightly cynical opinion, c) it provides an excuse: if a book gets bad reviews or doesn’t sell, they can say: “Well, the proposal was really good!”

While some publishers accept manuscripts and proposals directly from writers, the ones with the most money only work through agents. How do you get an agent? Generally, you write a query letter and/or send them a proposal. Agents take 15% of the earnings generated by the books they sell.

When a publisher buys the book, they pay an “advance” to the author (and the agent will take 15% of that). Authors often use the advance to pay ghostwriters to complete the manuscript—usually and logically, the person who helped them write the proposal. 

Here are the elements of a proposal:

The Overview - 3 to 6 pages - We hook the editor and convince them that this is a great, must-publish story with broad appeal. We talk about the goals of the book, the stories it will tell, and how it is structured. We also explain why you are the perfect person to tell the story. We outline who the book will appeal to.  

A Market/Readership Analysis - 1-1.5 pages - This is where we talk about the audience for your book and compare your book to other popular titles and provide comparative sales (Usually obtained and inserted by the agent).  

 Marketing Section - 1 page - We explain how to sell this book and who it will appeal to. We make a big deal out of your platform and prior sales. We note any connections or PR ideas that can be leveraged — mailing lists, relationships with influential people or organizations, Twitter followers,  

 About the Author - 1 page (or less)

 A Chapter Outline (each chapter is summarized in a paragraph) 

 A Sample Chapter or Two - 20-30 pages 


How I Work

Generally, I spend a lot of time interviewing my author. We talk on the phone or Zoom. I tape and transcribe the interviews. After a few hours, the vision of the book usually takes shape: the structure, the voice, the chapters. I like to use my author’s voice or words whenever possible, but I believe the language should serve the story and be clear and engaging. How dramatic, detailed, or rigorous a project is depends on the material and goals. Sometimes there is drama in only barebones detail. Sometimes deeply detailed writing will create a crescendo for readers. We will figure it out. Writing is an iterative process.

I like to shape the outline of the book first. Then choose a chapter or two to focus on. Then send it back and forth until we are happy with it.

Reality Check

There is no “sure thing” in publishing. You should know this going in. It’s a tough biz and highly competitive. Agents get hundreds of pitches a week. The editors at big publishers can see dozens of proposals a week. So they have to love something to buy it. In other words, when it comes to books, there is No. Sure. Thing. That said, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I encourage authors to dare to dream. 

If you'd like to discuss a proposal, email me at


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