To Nail Your Book Proposal: Think in Synergies, Not Sections

Photo by Shiny Diamond

Today’s guest post is by editor and coach Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen). Next week she is teaching The Three Essential Questions Every Agent Hopes Your Book Proposal Answers with Creative Nonfiction.


Writing a top-notch proposal can feel a bit like birthing a baby, complete with grunts, groans and cries by tired writers who fear they don’t have what it takes to push to the finish line. But with persistence, it can be done.

The key to writing a great proposal is to understand the essential questions it must answer, and—here’s the most important part—the synergies that will help you truly answer them.

Those essential questions:

  • Why me?
  • Why this?
  • Why now?

Unlike a query or a pitch, which might answer each question in a single paragraph, these questions get answered across multiple proposal sections. The most common proposal sections include Overview, About the Author, Target Audience, Marketing Plan, Comparable Titles, Chapter Outline, and Sample Chapters.

Why Me synergy

Key Sections: About the Author, Target Audience, and Marketing Plan

Unless you’re famous or know you have a robust platform, this question can feel like the great intimidator. Even experienced writers can get their knickers in a twist when creating a marketing plan.

That intimidation factor can lead to pixie-dust-filled prose about what the writer hopes to do once an agent or publisher signs them. These aspirational lines sometimes read a little like this: “In the leadup to my launch, I’ll publish a Modern Love essay and speak at multiple bookstores and conferences.”

If you’re publishing regularly with big places, speaking at conferences, and have relationships with editors or bookstores, this might be a solid plan. But if you’ve never published or spoken anywhere, how can agents and publishers trust you’ll be able to pull this off?

The best proposals use the About the Author section to lay out your current reach then follows up with a Target Audience section that reveals how your audience includes your readers. Once this connection has been made, you’ll use your marketing plan to show how you’ll leverage your existing platform (which you’ll promise to keep growing) to engage readers in ways that lead to book sales.

Why This synergy

Key sections: Target Audience, Comparable Titles, Chapter Outline, Sample Chapters

This is where the rubber meets the road. To answer the Why This question, you need to prove four things:

  1. People are interested in this topic.
  2. There’s a need for this book.
  3. This book holds together.
  4. The writing sings.

Your Target Audience section sets the stage for your book’s glory by describing the readers interested in this material. Then your Comparable Titles section greases the wheels by showing that yes, other fantastic books have been written appealing to a similar readership, but they’ve yet to say your important thing, or failed to make your important point, or haven’t brought everything together the way you do.

Once you’ve proven interest or need, you’ll serve up your Chapter Outline. This section is the proof of concept for your book and will tell us whether you’ve strung together a series of unrelated chapters or created a meaningful, well-constructed manuscript that speaks to the interest developed in the Target Audience section and delivers on the thing your comparable titles have missed.

If you’ve written a memoir, your chapter outline will deliver a fresh and clear arc of transformation where every chapter serves an essential purpose. In a narrative or traditional nonfiction project, we’ll be able to identify your cogent argument and then see how your chapters work together to answer your book’s essential question.

Chapter outline perfected, you’ll deliver the pièce de résistance: your sample chapters. These crucial pages will prove that you don’t just have a great concept, you have the writing chops to pull it off. Your sample chapters should include pristine pages that reveal your best writing. If you’re selling on proposal, don’t assume impressive bylines give you a pass on this requirement, especially if you’re a debut author. Writing in short and long form aren’t the same thing. Some writers can nail the first while failing miserably at the second. Prove to agents and publishers you can do both, by sharing prose that wows them.

Why Now synergy

Key sections: Overview, Target Audience, About the Author

The Why Now synergy tells us why the world needs your book nowish. I say nowish because the publishing cycle is between 1 and 3 years depending on who’s publishing your book. That means your book-in-progress can’t jump on the latest bandwagon. Instead, it needs to speak to something that will be relevant for a while.

To do this, identify the conversations we’re having now, then think about what comes next. For instance, if our current conversation is about division, what comes after that? That next item is your nowish conversation. To capitalize on this synergy, you’ll refine certain proposal sections to reveal your book’s relevance.

If you’re writing traditional or narrative nonfiction, you’ll use a portion of your Overview to set up this nowish problem and how your book speaks to it. If you’re writing a memoir with a direct relationship to this problem, you might do the same thing, or you might lead with a key moment that exemplifies it.

To strengthen your argument, you’ll share how this issue shows up in popular books, movies, TV shows and other forms of pop culture. If you know your audience well, you’ll use a portion of your Target Audience section to talk about how your readers consume the media mentioned in your Overview. Then you’ll double down on your understanding of this conversation in your About the Author section by reinforcing how certain things you do, such as larger speaking engagements or bylines with traction, demonstrate demand for these concepts—plus you as its best representative. 

Studying well-written proposals is one of the best ways to understand these synergies. As you see how other authors put them in motion, you’ll find ways to do this in your proposal. Lucky for us, Jane has posted some great examples in the supplemental materials section of her Business of Being a Writer website.


Note from Jane: Want to learn more about these synergies and what belongs in each section of your book proposal? Join Lisa for The Three Essential Questions Every Agent Hopes Your Book Proposal Answers on Wednesday, Sept. 28, hosted by Creative Nonfiction.

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