13 Misteaks That Turn Your Book Proposal into Chopped Liver

If you are a traditional publishing holdout, a nonfiction writer who sees the benefits of having their work produced by a publishing house, who does not want to become a self-publisher (for any number of reasons) or who simply has always dreamed of receiving a contract and advance for your book, you will need a book proposal. Without a book proposal you cannot sell your book to a publishing house, nor can you land literary representation. And, you will need literary representation—an agent—if you want to approach a mid-sized or large publishing house.

I read a lot of proposals. Their pages tend to be devoid of the necessary information, the required sections, good writing, and a full understanding of the purpose the document serves. Often the writer prepares the proposal long after having pitched a nonfiction book to an agent at a conference or via a query letter. If the writer then receives a request for a proposal, he or she is faced with the need to produce a proposal in a matter of weeks—or make the agent wait. In most cases, the writer make the agent wait not just weeks but months. That’s a big “misteak,” as literary agent and expert guest blogger Michael Larsen would say.

Today Michael, author of How to Write a Book Proposal, offers us 13 book proposal misteaks that might ensure your idea never makes it onto bookstore shelves—at least not as a traditionally published book. If you want an agent and a publisher not only to read your proposal but to purchase the book it describes and publish it, avoid these misteaks at all costs. (Watch for the final FREE telesminar of this year’s WNFIN event on November 30th at 5:00 p.m PST, “Content, Character & Connection: Becoming a Successful Writer in a Bottom-Up World,” with Michael. To be sure you receive registration information, please go to www.ninaamir.com and sign up for the free newsletter.)

13 Misteaks That Will Turn Your Book Proposal into Chopped Liver
By Michael Larsen

Your book will be published. You can do it yourself for free. But if you want a big or midsized house to publish it, your proposal has to be impeccably written and presented. It has make it easy for editors to say “Yes!” and impossible for them and everyone else on the editorial board to say “No.” Here are a thirteen ways writers fail to do this and how you can prevent these common mistakes:

1. Don’t be passionate about your idea, your book, and your promotion.

Novelist W. Somerset Maugham once wrote: “No one can write a bestseller by trying to…. The best seller sells because he writes with his heart’s blood.” The time, energy, and perseverance it takes to write and promote a book are so great that your proposal has to convey your passion for doing whatever it takes to write your book and make it sell.          

2. Don’t have at least one book or author to use as a model.

There are more books and authors than ever for you to use as models for your books and your career. You don’t have to figure out how to write or promote a how-to book. See how other authors do it, and use them as models for your books and career.

3. Don’t have literary and publishing goals for your book.

Your models will help you set literary and publishing goals for your book. Decide what you want your book to achieve, who you want to publish it, and how successful you want it to be. Then write the proposal that will show how you will achieve your goals. Your goals will determine what you want to write and how you write and promote your book. If you want a small house to publish your book, the next three points won’t be as important as they are for big and midsized houses.

4.      Don’t test-market your book.

The only way to get the best editor, publisher and deal for your book is to maximize the value of it before you sell it. The two simultaneous ways to do this: test-market your idea, title, and content in as many ways as you can and build your visibility while you’re doing it. Only after you’ve proved your book’s effectiveness can you make it as strong as it will have to be to have the impact you want it to have.

5.      Don’t build your platform before writing your proposal.

Your platform is your continuing visibility, online and off, on your subject with potential book buyers. If you want a gusher of sales, you have to prime the pump by exciting potential readers with a blog, guest blogs, social media, talks, articles, videos, and podcasts.

6.      Don’t include a promotion plan.

Your promotion plan will show editors how you will use your platform to move books. More than eighty percent of the books that are published fail, and it’s harder than ever for publishers to launch new authors. So the ability of authors to prove their ability to promote their book will usually determine the editor, publisher, and deal they receive. Your promotion plan must prove that you will make your book as successful as you want it to be. Let what your publisher does supplement your efforts.

7.      Don’t build communities of people to help you.

You can’t do everything you need to do by yourself. Fans, friends, and colleagues you haven’t met yet will be happy to help you. But you have to build communities of them, online and off, and ask. The Web makes it easier than ever to create the communities you need by getting people to know, like and trust you. The better you serve them, the more they’ll help you.

8.      Don’t get feedback on your proposal.

Your proposal must contain all of the information editors need and have the desired impact. Every word must convince editors to read the next word. But you’ll be too close to your work to judge it, so you have to build a community of readers who can tell you what’s wrong with it as well as what’s right with it. Four ways to do it:

  • Build a diverse community of early readers who know writing, the subject, competing books, and are fans of books like yours.
  • Join or start a critique group, online or off.
  • Hire a freelance editor you will enjoy working with, who has worked for publishers like those you want to buy your book or whose books have been bought by houses to which you want to sell your book.
  • Check www.larsenpomada.com for a list of the kinds of readers who can help you.

9.      Don’t provide information on the comps.

Meg Leder, an editor at Perigee, spends more time on the comparable books section of proposals than any other part of them. Your ability to concisely capture the strengths and weaknesses of competing books proves you understand your book’s position in the marketplace. Also include complementary books that prove the market for your book.

10.  Don’t have ideas for other books.

Editors want authors who will continue to write at least a book a year. If you have an idea for a series of books that you are eager to writing, promote, and use to build a brand, you may be able to keep you and your publisher profitably occupied for years.

11.  Don’t write an effective query letter.

Your query letter is the fourth part of your proposal. If your letter doesn’t excite agents or editors enough to read your proposal, they won’t. An effective query letter is three or four paragraphs on one page that provide the hook, the book, and the cook:

  • The hook: the reason why you’re contacting a particular agent or editor, if you have a reason, or the most exciting thing you can say about the subject
  • The book: the title and subtitle, if there is one; the selling handle: up to fifteen words about why booksellers and buyers will buy it; the length or estimated length of the manuscript and the proposal; and if it’s the first book in the series
  • The cook: your track record and credentials, and the most important parts of your platform and promotion plan

Get feedback on your query letter and have someone proofread it.

12.  Don’t be professional in approaching editors and agents.

Publishers and agents’ websites have proposal guidelines. When your proposal is ready to submit, follow them. Submit to as many of either as you wish simultaneously, just let them know you’re contacting other people. Follow up if you don’t hear when their guidelines say you will.

13.  Don’t be committed to reaching your goals.

More than three million books are published a year, tens of thousands of them by experienced authors eager to do whatever they must to make them sell. Add competing media and all of the ways consumers can spend their time, and you have a sense of the challenges you face in making your book succeed. But thousands of books by new authors succeed every year, and writing good books and staying committed to achieving their goals is how they do it. If they can do it, you can.

There are more subjects to write about and more ways to promote and profit from your work than ever before. The right proposal sent to the right editor at the right time will lead to a published book and the beginning of a long, lucrative career. I hope that’s what the future has in store for you. You’re welcome to contact me if you have questions that aren’t answered at www.larsenpomada.com, which has a list of the parts of a proposal and other information.

About the Author

Michael is the author of How to Write a Book Proposal and How to Get a Literary Agent, and coauthor of Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work. He writes a blog to help writers understand what they need to know about writing, publishing, promotion, and agents.

Michael Larsen-Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agents / Helping Writers Launch Careers Since 1972 / 415-673-0939 / Members: AAR /  www.larsenpomada.com / larsenpoma@aol.com

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / www.sfwriters.org / sfwriterscon@aol.com / http://sfwriters.info/blog / @SFWC / www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference / 415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109 / San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / www.sfwritersu.com / sfwritersu@gmail.com / @SFWritersU

Register for the second WNFIN FREE teleseminar, “Fans, Followers and Friends: How Authors Can Maximize and Monetize Social Media,” with Penny C Sansevieri, author of Red Hot Internet Publicity!  It’s a must-attend event on Wed., November 16 at 2:30 p.m. PST/5:30 p.m. EST. To register, click here. And watch for the final telesminar of this year’s WNFIN event on November 30th, “Content, Character & Connection: Becoming a Successful Writer in a Bottom-Up World,” with Michael Larsen.  To be sure you receive registration information, please go to www.ninaamir.com and sign up for the free newsletter.


  1. This is a great article. In particular, I like the specifics you listed in number 5: blog, guest blogs, social media, talks, articles, videos, and podcasts.

  2. Hi Michael:
    It’s been ages since we presented at the same conference, so it’s nice to see you here. Loved that you mention an author should be passionate about his or her book in the proposal. Often authors think of proposals as being business letters and their experiences with business letters is…well, dry and boring! It’s important to let the author’s voice show. We authors know what “voice” is. If we don’t, then that would come under that rule about doing the preparation necessary to write a book! (-:


    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

    Excited about how much the new edition of the Frugal Book Promoter (expanded! updated!) can help writers with the tried and true and the new media, too. Now a USA Book News award-winner in its own right (www.budurl.com/FrugalBkPromo) it the original edition was also a Reader Views winner and an Irwin Award winner.


  1. […] agents to offer trips about how to write book proposals and query letters. (You can read some here, here, here, and here, or search the site for more.) This year, I’ve  asked my experts to discuss […]

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