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Write the Proposal First

Anna Leinberger Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.

Write the Proposal First

Today's Confessions is brought to you by someone else's experience with the Slushpile.  There is a long and illustrious history of people who have reviewed and responded to book proposals before I took over the post- one who I still work with very closely.  Everyone's reaction to this task is different, so I wanted to ask her for the biggest piece of advice she could give to aspiring authors.  Her response was the following: Don't write the book.  Write the proposal first.  


Writing the proposal (using one of the many "generic book proposal formats" you can find on the internet) will force you to clearly articulate your message and the goals for the book.  You will start thinking about your audience, the need for the book, and how you can situate yourself to be the authority on this topic. You can take this a step further and even start sending the proposal to publishers and agents.  Not everyone will respond to you, but a few might, and you will gain valuable feedback on whether or not your proposed topic has a good chance of taking flight.

Lean Startup Applied to Books

Writing a book is an enormous proposition, as many authors will tell you.  Not only in volume, but in quality.  How many of us have agonized over the wording of a one-paragraph email?  Now imagine doing that 600 times.  Exhausting, no? Now imagine doing that 600 times, and then spending years trying to get your book published.  I would imagine that could crush the most stalwart of spirits.  To put the effort in of writing 50,000 words, 300 pages of material and to see your work go nowhere- I do not recommend this experience. Take a page from the Lean Startup- fail early and fail fast. Try an idea, run it by some professionals, and if it does not work, take the feedback and make a better proposal.  But wait, there is more!

The Less Obvious Benefit

I know to worry when I see the following phrase "the book is ready for publication with just a light edit." The reality is that a book, until it has been through the publisher's editorial process, is not anywhere near ready for publication- even if you have had it professionally edited.  When we sign a contract, that is the beginning of a very long editorial process that involves multiple outside editors, as well as extensive work with your in-house editor.  The bottom line is that the book will almost certainly change immensely.  When you are working with a proposal, you are working with the main ideas and the core structure- and that is what generally evolves in the editorial process.  It makes much more sense to work with the core of the book and clarify the main ideas with your editor before writing the book itself- or else you will end up re-writing the whole book, and that will be 100 times as much work.

Be Glad!

Writing a proposal is both much easier and much harder than writing a book.  It forces you to be very clear and concise about your subject, but it is also much shorter. Editors do not read whole manuscripts that are submitted- we go straight to your table of contents and we read your proposal. Engage with us through that document, and you will be able to improve your book faster, and who knows? You may just see the book deal come out of the proposal, and sign the contract before you write those 50K words.