Why a Shorter Book Proposal Is a Better Book Proposal

How to Craft a Proposal That Is Clear and Powerful

How long should my book proposal be?”

I suspect writers ask this question because they want to know how much work they need to do for a solid chance at a book contract.

The good news is often a shorter book proposal is better than a longer one. The bad news is it may take longer to produce a short proposal that’s strong than a long proposal that’s weak. Don’t miss this, though: the extra time is well worth the effort not only because it increases your chances for a contract but because it will make writing the book that much easier and more rewarding.

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Why Shorter Is Better

You may have heard the quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Whether it actually comes from Twain or not doesn’t alter that this statement is getting at something important.

Developing clarity takes time, as does writing powerfully. When it comes to written communication, time, clarity, power, and brevity have a symbiotic and reciprocal relationship. If I were to turn that relationship into a mathematical formula, here’s how it would look:

Time = Clarity + Power = Brevity

So let’s look at how to seize the clarity and power that will help you write a short proposal that has the greatest potential for success.

A Tight Need-Driven Concept

In the publishing business we sometimes refer to name-driven and need-driven book projects. Name-driven projects are those where we rely more heavily on the author’s platform and brand. Need-driven projects are those where we rely on the fact that the book is meeting a compelling need that actual people really have.

Obviously the best situation is for a book to have both a name and a need. So if you have a platform, terrific! Keep growing it the best you can. And if you don’t, it’s time to start thinking about how to get started (here’s a resource for starting). But regardless, the better you’re able to develop a need-driven concept, the more successful you will be.

Here’s a short video I did a while back for readers of Michael Hyatt’s blog on how to develop a great book concept.

To download the infographic in this video, click here.

Developing a tight need-driven concept helps you write concisely within your book proposal.

How to Write a Short Book Proposal

Following is a list of the major elements in a book proposal and how to shorten each one:

  1. Title page. This one’s easy. One page for your name and your title and subtitle, which you’ll have if you follow the process in the above video. Pro tip: Include a list of 5 to 8 alternative titles and subtitles on the reverse side of the title page. That makes it longer, I realize, but only one page, and including this list shows the review committee different ways of positioning your book.
  2. Throwdown statement. One sentence that distills you and your book to its essence. Example: “A New York Times bestselling author and a CEO of an executive coaching firm team up to deliver an engaging practical guide to help people stop drifting and get the life they want.” This is a possible throwdown statement for the Baker release Living Forward. More about that here.
  3. Brief Description. No more than five paragraphs. The idea here is to cast a vision for your book. Along the way we need to know the purpose of your book, intended readership, length, and ETA for the manuscript. If you can get this down to three paragraphs, awesome.
  4. Bio. No more than 300 words if at all possible. Tell us who you are and why you’re credible, your major accomplishments, what you’re passionate about, a bit about your family, and that’s it.
  5. Chapter synopsis. If there’s one part of the proposal where I see the most waste, it’s here. Shoot for three sentences per chapter description. No more than five. Tell us the main point of each chapter. If it helps, think in terms of point A and point B. Point A is where readers will be when they start the chapter. Point B is where you’re going to take them. In and out. We want a sense of the flow and the book’s architecture. You don’t need a lot of space to provide this, especially if you have a clear sense of what each chapter is doing. Pro Tip: We all expect that your book will morph a bit in the writing process.
  6. Marketing section. If there’s any section of the proposal that is exempt from the brevity mandate, it’s this one. This is true mainly because we want to see you brainstorm as many ideas as possible for how to market your book. We want to know every possible angle or network or strategy or initiative. This is the one section where you’re free to go on as long as you like!
  7. Writing sample. This is key. I’d rather read an amazingly powerful ten pages than a mediocre twenty. I remember reviewing a proposal where the first eight pages were only okay, but the last ten were so powerful, they made us cry. The author would have been better off dropping the first eight. Don’t make us wade through to your best stuff. Put it right there up front. And remember, your writing sample is the one part of your proposal that we might send into the world. Try to make it sing.

I’m hopeful that if you invest the time to write a shorter proposal, it will be that much stronger. And I’m also hopeful it will help you in the writing process. If you take the time to clarify your concept and the content of each planned chapter (even if it changes later), you’ll flounder less as you start writing. You will, I hope, have a sense of momentum that will sustain you to the end.

Question: So I’m curious. What book is burning in you? I’d love to hear about it. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • This just sent by a CBA editor. LOVE having this as a resource for clients! Gracias!

  • Hi Chad My agent sent me here and I am finding this so helpful. Thank you!

    I’m working on a book about growing up as a white Afrikaner girl during Apartheid in South Africa. It is my journey of acknowledging, confessing and turning from the deep racism in me.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Welcome! Glad you’re here, especially glad my blog is helping you. It sounds like your book has a powerfully relevant message. Just curious: Who’s your agent?

      • Thank you! // Rachelle Gardner.

  • Steph Penny

    Hi Chad, long-time reader, first-time writer. I found this blog quite helpful and clear in terms of what a book proposal actually looks like. I’m working on releasing my first non-fiction book later this year, so this stuff is highly relevant for me! While I don’t have a great platform (started building it about 6 months ago), I believe my book has a great concept and meets a real niche need out there. It’s a book for Christian singles about surviving the challenges of the single life in a Godly way.

    Beyond the book proposal, I’ve also been considering going the self-publishing route. I feel more passionate about getting the message out rather than making money. I have a graphic designer friend who has offered to take the project on, and she seems to know about self-publishing. Any thoughts?

    • Chad R. Allen

      Steph Penny, self-publishing is a great option for a lot of people. Given your priority of getting the message out there, presumably as quickly as possible, I say, go for it!

      • Steph Penny

        Thanks Chad! There’s so many different opinions out there, it’s easy to get confused, but self-publishing really does seem to be the most straightforward option. Straightforward appeals to me.

  • Karen

    Great video! My idea/ self published book is a tactile alphabet book http://www.abctraceandsay.com
    My question is do agents/publishers look for bigger platforms from self published authors? And are publishers interested in books that are more difficult to print? I’m thinking of the tactile part of my book.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Hi Karen, what a great book! The children’s book space is a world unto itself, and I suspect the educational children’s book market (where your book would fit) has characteristics that are specific to it. So it’s difficult for me to say how important a platform is in this market. What I can say is having a platform is never going to hurt your chances of getting published, and it will very often help. As far as books that are difficult to print, this all has to do with a publisher’s profit-and-loss statement. Publishers that have experience printing such books know the sales thresholds they need to cross to be able to turn a profit. They also have a sense of the best price for a book within its market. In other words, publishers in this space won’t be scared of a hard-to-print books as long as they’re confident they can sell them. In fact, such publishers will understand the value of the tactile feature of your book. Karen, if you’ve already tried shopping your book to agents/publishers, have you considered launching a kickstarter campaign. My friend, Cathryn Lavery, over at http://www.littlemight.com has some great content on this, and I believe she’s launching a course on it soon.

      • Karen

        Ah, I never even thought about a kickstarter campaign. I will check out Cathryn Lavery today.
        Thanks Chad!

  • Tracie Heskett

    My first project: to decide which book to move to the forefront for focused efforts based on the great help through your blog.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Sounds like a plan, Tracie!!

  • Hi Chad. I’m currently working on what I would describe as being similar to a Hallmark gift book. It’s an inspirational, easy-read, approx. 40 pages. What are your thoughts on that type of project, and how would I approach a book proposal? I did have DaySpring purchase a line from a blog post last year, so wonder if I should reconnect with the person who made contact with me. Thanks for the valuable info in this post! Sharing!

  • Thanks Chad! Does this format work for both fiction and non-fiction?

    • Chad R. Allen

      Jenni, I’m a nonfiction editor, so this definitely applies to nonfiction. I can’t speak for fiction.

  • Anita

    Thank you, Chad, for all of the timely advice on writing a proposal–it’s exactly what I need right now :). I’m currently working on one, but struggling with the genre–what exactly does one call a memoir written in three voices?

    • Chad R. Allen

      Ha! Good question, Anita. Sounds interesting.

  • Nurya Love Parish

    This is very helpful. FYI your link in #2 is not active.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Thanks, Nurya! I fixed the link. I really appreciate your letting me know!