How to Write a Book Proposal That Sells

Assuming you have an idea for a work that a reader would plunk down $25 for, how do you get the HarperCollinses and Hyperions of the world to publish it? [Viral Loop Chronicles Part 5]

Since Viral Loop hit bookstores a month ago, I’ve chronicled the Viral Loop Facebook application that was designed to spread and accompany the iPhone app to promote the book, my social Web marketing plan, explained why publishers don’t market authors, and why book reviews don’t matter anymore. But one question that readers always ask is how do you get a book deal in the first place?

book sales

Assuming you have an idea that a reader would plunk down $25 to read about, the first step (after you get an agent; I’ll address that in a future Viral Loop Chronicle) is to craft a non-fiction book proposal–the more detailed the better. And I’m going to show you how to do that, but first: What kind of book should you write?

You have far greater odds of success writing non-fiction than fiction. According to veteran author June Cotner, 85% of the 55,000 new titles released annually are in non-fiction, and 75% of these are from first-time authors. Six publishers are responsible for about 80% of all books published. But keep in mind that there’s an art to writing a saleable book proposal. It is, above all else, a selling document.


Over the past decade I’ve written seven full-length proposals and sold
three, with each advance more than double the previous one’s. The last–for
Viral Loop–sold at a heated auction involving five publishers bidding
over three days. All told, I’ve earned about $1 million in advances
over the years. But that doesn’t guarantee I’ll ever sell another book.
One basic fact of book publishing is the public can be fickle and
editors even more unpredictable. While every author has different ideas as to what constitutes a great proposal. Here’s mine:

I. Overview
Pay attention. This will blow your mind.
Here’s why you should buy this book. It’s going to change the face of (business, politics, the environment, insert your topic here). Every business book should be pitched in relation to an existing best-seller.

II. The Book
For example, it’s the next Tipping Point meets The Long Tail with a dash of Good to Great and a dab of Made to Stick. And since practically every business writer says that, you’d better have the goods. It’s not unlike pitching a movie (Slumdog Millionaire meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).


III. Market
A list of other books that are similar in scope or theme, and made your competitors serious coin.

IV. Publicity
Explain how hard you’ll work to sell the book. In my case, it was a social Web marketing plan and tie-in with Fast Company magazine, where I am a contributing writer. You write for The New Yorker? Great. Have a blog with 120,000 readers a month? Super. Can you at least guarantee your cousin Melvin will buy 10,000 copies?

V. Author Bio
Your track record. Seriously, they can trust you to get the damn thing in on deadline and in fine shape. No surprises. It will be the work you promised in the proposal. No, really.


VI. Table of Contents
Here’s what the book will look like.

VII. Chapter Summaries
Follow the Cliff’s Notes version of the story. Read chapter summaries and see why this book is worth bidding for.

VIII. Reviews
My previous two books didn’t make Malcolm Gladwell smolder with envy, but they got some killer reviews. Subtext: Maybe this time will be different–with the right publisher.


When my agent sends out a proposal I have no idea what will happen. For Viral Loop, editors received it on a Tuesday and by Wednesday publishers were bidding. That never happened to me before and may never happen again. With Tragic Indifference, seven publishers passed but two made offers; my first book, Spooked, which was about corporate espionage, garnered just one bid.

I’ve also had wrenching failures too, and I think I learned more from these than I did from the works I sold. Five years ago, for instance, I spent three months and thousands of dollars researching and writing a proposal for a book I titled The 100th Man. In it, I told the story of Ray Krone, the 100th person exonerated for a crime he didn’t commit by new methods of DNA testing. Krone, a postman, was charged with the grisly murder/post-mortem rape of a Phoenix bartender. None of the blood or DNA collected at the crime scene matched Krone. Nevertheless, detectives suspected him because the perp left a bite mark on the deceased’s breast, which a so-called bite mark expert claimed matched Krone’s.

A jury found him guilty. The judge, noting that Krone refused to atone, cited his lack of remorse when giving him the death penalty. His family retained a top attorney, who wrangled a retrial based on a technicality. At the second trial, he was found guilty again, sentenced to life.


Krone languished behind bars for 10 ½ years, a model prisoner, until he received a phone call from his attorney.

“What are you doing for dinner?” he asked.

Krone stammered. “What the hell do you think I’m doing for dinner,” he said. “Eatin’ the same prison shit I eat every night.”


“Ray,” he whispered. “You’re going home. The judge just signed the papers.”

A new DNA test had not only exonerated him but resulted in a match with another inmate, a man that had been hanging around the bar the night the woman was killed. Detectives, however, never bothered to track him down, even though he was mentioned in police reports.

As the warden led Krone to freedom his fellow prisoners cheered, screaming, hooting, clapping, rapping tin cups against walls. Krone gave them hope. Nearing the front gate, the warden said, “Ray, call your mother,” passing Krone his cell phone. Krone had never used one before and the warden had to dial the number for him. “Mom,” he stammered. “I’m coming home.”


Outside a phalanx of reporters and TV cameras awaited. The fact that Krone was the 100th prisoner exonerated because of DNA made it big news. Krone stood awkwardly at a makeshift podium.

“Ray,” a reporter called out. “Are you bitter?”

After some reflection, Krone said, “No. I’m not bitter. I’ve been bitter for ten-and-a-half years, and I refuse to be bitter another day.”


When I read what Krone said, I just had to write about him. We arranged to meet in New York, where I accompanied him and his family to The Exonerated, a stage drama that weaves the stories of six innocent people released from prison after serving time on death row. Afterward Krone stood before the audience to tell his story, which was more riveting than anything in the play. Krone and his family agreed to cooperate fully, and his attorney mailed me thousands of pages of court documents, forensics papers and police reports. It was a treasure trove of information.

When my then-agent read the 50-page proposal, he said, “I can’t sell this.” He detailed a rash of problems. How could I drive the narrative when my main character was in prison while most of the action was happening on the outside, as his family and attorney worked tirelessly to get him out? While Krone was a sympathetic character, he wasn’t larger than life, and in his experience publishers would be loath to pay for a work with an everyman as the lead character. Finally, lots of these kinds of stories were being published in magazines. By the time The 100th Man could come out, the public, he reasoned, would have tired of the issue.

I didn’t believe him so I slipped the proposal to an editor at HarperCollins, who said essentially the same thing. He recommended I try a True Crime publisher, where an editor told me she cried when she read the proposal, complimenting me on how beautifully written it was. But she too said no one would buy it.


Which brings me to my last point: Just because you think it’s a great idea, the kind of book you’d want to read, doesn’t mean anyone will publish it.


About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books