Do You Need a Book Proposal?

Book proposals create a solid road map to success—even if you’re self-publishing.

By Virginia McCullough, Co-Founder, The Book Catalysts

On the face of it, the answer to the question, “Who needs a book proposal?” seems obvious. A book proposal package is the primary tool nonfiction book authors use to market books to literary agents or publishers. However, if you’re self-publishing, you might assume a proposal isn’t necessary. Right? Well, yes and no.

If you’re self-publishing it’s true that you don’t need a book proposal. On the other hand, almost all book authors can benefit from the process of writing specific elements of a proposal, regardless of the publishing method they choose. When they do, they’ll end up with an ongoing action plan that leads to producing a first draft fast—and a stronger book.

So how will you benefit from a book proposal, even if you’re planning to self-publish? Book proposals help you:

  • Think out and plan your book
  • Organize your content into a chapter outline
  • Analyze your potential readers
  • Identify the top selling points of your book
  • Create a strong promotion plan

In other words, even if you’re self-publishing, a book proposal helps you sharpen your focus on your content, readership, and marketing.

So what if you prefer to publish conventionally? You’ll need to approach literary agents or editors at publishing houses with a book proposal, and that proposal must be as strong as the book you’re presenting. A proposal answers key questions about your book and its potential readers; presents the strongest arguments for your book; and gives you an opportunity to show that you’re professional, knowledgeable, and experienced. In addition—and this is significant—you need to show you’re capable of following through on a good idea with strong writing.

Book Proposal Structure

The key elements of a book proposal include:

  • Overview (some call it an Introduction or Executive Summary)
  • Description of potential readers
  • Reason the book is needed—and needed now.
  • Your bio, which makes a strong case for you being the right person to produce this book
  • Promotion plan, a key element that could mean the difference between an agent or editor passing on the book or taking it on

As you can see, all book authors need to address these issues. A book proposal is simply a structured format to guide you through the process.

Getting Organized

Consider the Overview—your chance to hook the reader. (By the way, in the case of your book proposal, your readers are agents or editors. In the proposal, you do refer to your ultimate readers, but you don’t address them directly.) Your hook could be an anecdote or a statistic, perhaps a quote that sums up an important need your book addresses. However, the two most important elements of this section are your premise and your promise. Get this section right, and you’re off to a great start.

So, what is your premise? Put another way, what is your stance or slant on your topic? Your angle? What information are you presenting and why? What does your book offer readers?

Then answer the related question: What is your promise? If readers take this journey with you, where will you take them? How will they be better off at work or at home? What new knowledge will they have by the last chapter? This essentially answers the important question: WIIFM—What’s in it for me?

In today’s how-to and self-help books, most authors address the premise and the promise concept in the first chapter. If you’re marketing to agents/editors, you’ll likely include Chapter 1 of your book in your book proposal package, so spend time clarifying your premise and promise. And if you’re self-publishing, you also can use these questions to help craft a dynamic first chapter that makes readers want to turn the page to Chapter 2.

Can you see how a proposal helps you think out your book? In the process, it also helps you make the case to agents/editors—and book buyers—for your book whatever your topic: cyber-security training for small businesses, the latest customer service training methods, social media to promote professional practices, community-based eldercare training, and so forth.

If you’ve made the decision to write a book, it’s likely that you’ve imagined your readers, perhaps even defined them. Regardless of your publishing method, try to quantify your readers, too. What kinds of small businesses can use your book on cyber-security training? How many of those types of businesses are in the U.S. or North America? What do the experts on trends in aging say about the need for well-trained employees serving the elderly? What are the estimates on how many families need the service or how many towns, cities, and counties are trying to accommodate the need? By the way, these two topics fit into the “we need this book now” category; both are timely and the topic of media reports and stories. That’s good news for both self- or conventional publishing authors.

Marketing Your Book

Promotion plans are the most important part of a formal book proposal because they show you know the importance of an aggressive plan to sell books. In fact, an inadequate promotion section in a book proposal is a major reason agents and editors turn down books. That means all authors need a sound, well-planned promotion strategy. To outline your plan to sell your book, you’ll pull out all the tools in the marketing box, from social media to print and electronic media to bulk marketing directed at your clients’ companies.

Whether you’re self- or conventionally publishing, you can see why addressing key areas of a book proposal helps you plan your book. Then as you organize your material further, you can create a chapter outline that provides many places to plunge in and begin writing a fast first draft of your book. Sure, there’s work ahead. You’ll likely move material around, perhaps identify research gaps, and certainly have plenty of editing ahead, both for your book and your proposal. But these steps will help you get off to a great start and keep moving forward!

This is the second of a four-part series (read the first article at The next article will look at how to tell great stories.

Virginia McCullough is co-founder of The Book Catalysts. For more information, visit

Training Top 125

2017 Training Top 125 winners demonstrated a strong focus on effective training and employee development tied to corporate strategic goals and business impact.

From the Editor

While editing one of the articles, “Lessons for New L&D Leaders,” for this issue, I read something that struck a chord: “When meeting with peers and up-line colleagues, ask: ‘How can I help you

Digital Issue

Click above for Training Magazine's
current digital issue

Training Live + Online Certificate Programs

Now You Can Have Live Online Access to Training magazine's Most Popular Certificate Programs! Click here for more information.

Emerging Training Leaders


Spectacular. Impressive. Dazzling.

Spring is—finally—in the air.

By Lorri Freifeld

ISA Directory