What I learned from writing the book proposal for my memoir
I got so many questions about the book proposal I recently in 2021 as part of a retreat I took last year with London-based agent Jacq Burns, that I felt compelled to share with you what I learned from the specific process of writing a book proposal for a memoir.
Please note that in June 2023 I successfully landed a book deal with Affirm Press by pitching my book directly to a publisher on a 3-minute Zoom call via Literary Speed Dating a service provided by the Australian Society of Authors.
Let’s start with the obvious.
Why do you need a book proposal?
Book proposals are used to sell non-fiction books.
If you are writing a novel you don’t need a book proposal. You will need a complete manuscript and a query letter.
Non-fiction books, ie. a self-help book or a memoir, can be sold on the strength of a proposal and about 3 sample chapters. However, this is rare for first-time authors. Since this is my first memoir (and my first non-academic book) I aim to have the entire memoir written before I actually submit the proposal.
The first thing I learned about preparing a book proposal is that it’s a lot of work! But it is also super useful in helping with fine-tuning your overall idea and structure and I encourage you to start thinking about your proposal early. I wish I had been that smart!
What is a book proposal?
Essentially a book proposal is a sales pitch. You are trying to convince an agent and a publisher of the saleability of your book. This may come as a surprise, but when it comes to non-fiction books, your ability as a writer isn’t as important as the marketability of your book, your professional expertise or your platform. Although, when it comes to memoir, which is typically written as narrative non-fiction, your storytelling ability has to shine and your writing needs to be top notch.
What are the parts of a book proposal?
Synopsis or ‘elevator pitch’
This is the hardest thing to do for your own book and virtually every writer struggles with this. But it’s also one of the most useful things you can do as it helps you to clarify what the story is actually about.
If you are part of a writers group try writing each other’s synopsis. We did that in one of my groups and it was so helpful to read how another person perceives what your book is about.
Know what your premise is
This is one of the first things the lovely Jacq Burns hammered into us at the retreat. I had never thought about my premise before. But as this seasoned book agent explained, being clear on your premise from the very start is crucial because everything, every word, every paragraph, every chapter, needs to feedback into the premise. Surprisingly, many authors don’t really know what their premise is until submission date. So get a headstart and start thinking about your premise.
I thought long and hard about my premise, but I struggled to condense the complex life event I write about in my memoir into one sentence. The first thing Jacq asked after I’d shared my 50-page book proposal with her was: ” What is your book about?”. You’d think I’d have it nailed by now, but I struggled to give a coherent and brief answer. Despite the 50-page submission, I still didn’t have my elevator pitch down pat.
So what is a premise? It’s a one- to two-sentence statement summarising what your book is about. You can also think of it as your ‘hook’, the statement that grabs a potential publisher, agent and reader right away. It really pays off to pay a lot of attention to this as early on in the process because it will focus your writing.
Here’s an example of premise in MEMOIR:
Educated by Tara Westover
Educated is the story of a young girl who grows up in an American survivalist family that doesn’t believe in formal education, and goes on to earn her PhD from Cambridge University.
Here’s an example of premise in FICTION:
The Handmaiden’s Taleby Margaret Attwood
Offred, a Handmaid who is forced to be a breeding vessel with no freedom or rights just wants to stay out of trouble and bear the Commander a child. But her Commander is probably infertile and pressurises her into breaking the law.
What else goes into a book proposal?
Title and subtitle. Ideally the title should capture your hook. Have a look at this one: Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in difficult Times. It’s a great title (and book) because it essentially summarises the premise of this lovely book by Katherine May.
You will also need to provide an overall word count and an estimated completion date of your final manuscript.
This should be no longer than two pages and should show your overall story idea, theme and content. It should be written in your distinctive authorial voice and it should engage the reader, revealing a little more about your book. The key here is to keep it concise and to the point without waffle and repetition. The focus should not be on summarising the content of your book, but on why this content should matter to a reader. Essentially you are trying to convince a publisher why the world needs your book and why now.
This is also the part where you get to ascertain your authority (ie. your professional expertise or your personal experience) to write this book.
Chapter outline or table of contents
A chapter outline should contain a short paragraph for each chapter summarising the idea, theme or story presented (about 100-200 words per chapter).
This is very useful to help you plot your story and to decide what goes where.
Publishers look at an outline to see whether or not your idea is strong enough for an entire book (rather than an article) and that you have enough content, examples, ideas and/or research.
If you are pitching narrative non-fiction, your outline needs to show that your story has a clearly defined arc (ie. What’s the inciting incident? What’s the crisis? What’s the end point?) to build dramatic tension and to keep the reader engaged.
Keep it focused and remember that this is a sales pitch, not a CV. Always keep your audience in mind. What does a publisher or agent need to know about you that is relevant to the book you are pitching?
This is your opportunity to dazzle and to show that you’ve got what it takes.
If you are writing narrative non-fiction, ie. a book that is told sequentially with a distinct beginning, middle and end, then your sample material should be arranged sequentially, starting at the beginning of the book.
If you are pitching a book that is not narrative, ie. a self-help book that a reader can dip in and out of, then use the meatiest and most impressive chapters.
Include three chapters (up to 10,000 words). The more the better I am told.
Target market analysis
Here you need to show that you know exactly who your target market is and who your peers are. If you have an online community, then you will be in a privileged position to know exactly their pain points and how you can help solve their problems or questions.
Provide a page with comparative titles in your niche. Choose successful books. This is to prove that you have a clear understanding of where your book fits within the existing market. This is also where you need to prove why the world needs your book in addition to what is already out there. In other words, what makes your book unique? Which gap in the market does it fill? Which target market will it appeal to? Remember you are trying to convince a publisher that the world needs your book. You are helping them see where your book will fit on the shelves of a bookshop and which target market it will appeal to.
Do you have an online platform? Only share what you already have or what steps you have taken to create a platform. Avoid making vague promises, ie. ‘I plan to write guest blog posts for a big platform’, or ‘I will apply for a conference’ etc. Your job here is not to dazzle a publisher or editor with the many marketing ideas you can come up with, but with the actual connections that you already have. A publisher wants to know how visible you are in the market and how many potential buyers you are currently connected with.
Provide concrete numbers and stats here. Do you have an author website? How many subscribers do you have on your newsletter? Do you have an engaged following on Instagram/Youtube/Facebook/podcasts? What social media channels do you use and how big is your reach? How many unique visitors does your website get? Tell them about speaking gigs and professional associations or regular publications (ie. a column or guest blog etc).
I found this part totally overwhelming. But Jacq Burns from the London Writers Club assured me that I don’t have to be a mega influencer to get a book deal. Memoir, in particular, can also be sold on the basis of a masterfully written, strong and compelling storyline. And don’t forget, these days nano-influencers (1000-10,000 followers on social) are recognised alongside mega influencers because they typically tend to have much more engaged audiences. In short, if you don’t have a platform, start creating one now. It is always better to show that you have the start of a platform than having none at all.
The other thing you should do now is collect endorsements or quotes by important people/experts in the field/other writers. This is another part where my inner introvert wants to run a mile! But it needs to be done. So start now!
Resources I found helpful in preparing my book proposal for a memoir:
How to Write a Book Proposal by seasoned industry expert Jane Friedman. If you are planning to publish a book, then I highly recommend subscribing to her weekly newsletter. It’s always packed with very useful information.
My experience writing the book proposal for my memoir was eye-opening
After so many years of preaching to my students about show-don’t-tell, I am guilty of exactly the same mistake. Trying to frontload my opening chapters with the juicy parts of the story, I needed to provide some backstory to orient the reader. This meant leaping backward and forward across time and space which is confusing and it also meant that I had to summarise a few key points. In other words, there was way too much telling and not enough showing in my sample chapters. How could I have missed that?! That’s the value of feedback from an outsider. It really opens your eyes to how a reader perceives the story you have crafted. But don’t ask your life partner or your favorite aunt for feedback; ask another writer or a seasoned reader to give you honest, informed feedback! Better still, invest in a professional writing coach. It’s money well spent.
The best piece of advice that I walked away with from this experience was Jacq’s advice not to try to force the story into a structure but to ease off and to allow it to unfold. So it’s back to the drawing board for me. I’ve got to finish the final three chapters and then I’ll need to have a look at the overall shape of the story. How do I tell it? What’s the entry point into the story? What do I include and what do I leave out? But most importantly, I need a laser-focused answer to two important questions. What is your book about? What is your premise?
I’ll share that with you soon. But for now, I invite you to think about your own premise.
What is the story you are dying to tell all about?