On Spec or Proposal?
When you want to sell a book, there are two options. First, you can write the book, hoping that it will sell. We call this writing “on speculation,” or “on spec.” It means you are taking the up-front risk of time and effort to write, in the hopes that someone will buy. It’s the usual method of writing fiction and almost all new authors must follow this.
A second way to write is to create the concept, a couple sample chapters and put together a book proposal. This is common for experienced writers, nonfiction topics and series.
What goes into a proposal?
A proposal includes a clear concept and samples of the writing that will appear in the finished manuscript. Let’s look at non-fiction and fiction separately.
Concept: For fiction, a book proposal a high-concept catchy one-liner is helpful. “Boy meets girl” isn’t enough. You’ll need something interesting enough to carry the proposal, so think about how to phrase the one-liner, the hook.
A love affair with a twist: she wants his bite, but he wants her humanity.
Chapter Breakdown: Usually the first book in a series must have a couple lines per chapter. The editors will want to know that you can, indeed, plot a tight story. Each chapter should include a couple lines about the major actions of the story.
Characters: Sometimes, it’s helpful to include short sketches of each major character. Nothing long, a paragraph at most. Make sure each is unique and interesting and contributes to the story.
Series Outline: If you’re proposing a series, then you’ll need half a page or so on each title. Include an overview with the main problem, major complications and a resolution.
Your Bio: Why are you the best person to write this story? What are your past publications, etc. Keep this specific to the proposal, yet general enough to cover your career.
Writing Sample: You must include a sample of the writing for this book, so the editor has a clear idea of what they will get for this contract. Don’t be skimpy. Write three solid chapters and polish them, put your best foot forward.
Letter: This is the usual business letter that you would include with any query or submission letter. Be sure to include the series hook and a hook for the first book.
The nonfiction proposal includes everything above, except maybe the character sketches. For a biography, though, you’d include it as well. The extra for a nonfiction proposal is the bibliography. You course, you’ll uncover many more resources as you write your story, but you need enough here to let the editor know you have material to write about.
Especially important here is your access to sources. If an editor gets two similar proposals for stories about George Washington, s/he’ll look at the access to sources. Writer A has done online research and has uncovered interesting info. Writer B, though, has contacted Mount Vernon and has an invitation to stay in the VIP suite while talking to staff about the research.
Which writer would you give a contract? Writer B, every time!
With competition so stiff these days, make sure you have the best access to sources possible. It will make your proposal more likely to be accepted.
How Well Do Proposals Work?
Some do, some don’t.
After a successful book, an author might just need to hand an editor a two-page proposal to get a contract. A new author might need to write an entire 100,000 word novel on spec. And everything in between happens in publishing. You’ll have to decide how much you want to do on spec and how solid your relationship is with your publisher. But keep in mind that as your career grows, your book proposals could shrink!