Craft · publishing

Book Proposals (for fiction)

Sometimes a book will sell on proposal. This means the book sells to a publisher before it is fully written. This often happens in very specific instances, the most common are packaged books (IP) or an author that is already established.

Most newer authors will first experience this with their “option book” for their original publisher of their debut. So, that’s the situation that I’ll be referencing for the rest of this post.

Most publishers will have what we call an “option clause” in their contract when they buy your book(s). This means they have the “right of first refusal” of your next book. They often indicate if it’s your next “Middle Grade” “Young Adult” or you agent can even negotiate it to be even more specific (e.g. “Young Adult Sci-Fi”) which would give you more flexibility to submit your next novel widely if it doesn’t fit under that category (for example, if your option clause states that your publisher has “right of first refusal of author’s next Young Adult Sci-Fi” and you write a Middle Grade fantasy you can technically submit that widely without breaking your contract clause).

However, we’re talking about how to submit your potential option book. Most contracts will dictate how much material needs to be submitted (e.g. 15 pages, 30 pages, etc). But that doesn’t mean you should just submit the first 15 pages of your next novel with no context. You want to give your option book the best chance when it’s being considered by your editor or the acquisitions board.

Therefore, you should probably prepare a proposal for your book. Now, your agent will definitely be integral in figuring out what material to prepare. And every agent is different in how much they think is necessary to present to your publisher (this decision is also often based on your relationship with your publisher at the time including factors like how well your previous book sold, if you’ve won awards, if the book is in the same general tone/vein as your last book with them or not).

But, if you’re anxious and want a guide for how to write a book proposal, then here’s a quick outline of what you can prepare:

  • A logline: explaining the hook/concept/inspiration of the story in a quick 1-2 sentences.
  • A synopsis: think of this like the 1-page synopsis you often have ready when querying
  • Characters: a list of the characters, plus any key traits that are integral to their arc or the plot
  • World: description of the world (often used for Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Speculative novels)
  • Misc: Explanations of inspiration, why this book is personal to the author, etc (don’t make this too long a couple sentences at most)
A mock-up of what your proposal can look like

Note that the proposal and outline is often a separate document than your sample pages. If your contract doesn’t dictate how many pages your editor might want to see, you agent will be key in advising you how many pages to write out. But in general a proposal can include anything from 15-100 pages. (Note: 100 pages is on the high end and often used for wide submission of a book as opposed to an exclusive submission of an option book)

Sometimes a book proposal is used for wide-submissions for authors who have already published. Deciding if this is what’s right for your novel should be a discussion between you and your agent. It is often used for books that are very high-concept, that doesn’t need a full manuscript to show the potential of the story. It is also the format used by book packagers/IP books (I’ll write a separate post about book packagers, so stay tuned!)

Hope this was helpful! If you have any tips or advice on how to write a book proposal, sound off in the comments!

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