The tyranny of book proposals: some guesses about where they came from but no excuses…

If you want to sell a non-fiction book, you have to hand publishers a thirty to fifty-page document which, if done right, provides an overview of the book, summaries of every chapter, a sample chapter, author bio and a section that explains exactly what the market for the book is. The book proposal is painstaking to produce and authors have to do it even if they have already written their books. We write and edit a lot of book proposals for clients. What, we often wonder, is left for publishers to do? Don’t they know the market better than a single author? Shouldn’t they have an idea what is going to sell and what isn’t?

We googled every riff on ‘book proposal’ we could think of and still have no clue as to its origins. But we got a hint on the Web Sites of several agents, who note in their book proposal sections that it isn’t necessary anymore to actually write a book before selling it. Since these are folks with perspective on the book business, we paid attention.

Great numbers of people, who contact us, seem to take it for granted that actual writing is not required to sell (or even produce) a book, but really, there was a time when books had to be written before publishers bought them. We would bet that the change in thinking on this – and the dreaded book proposal – came about sometime during the nineties when publishers became very interested in mega-bestsellers and lost pretty much all interest in what are called mid-list books, books that sell only a few thousand copies. At that point, they must have been looking to be served up the next big idea on a platter. Hence, the book proposal.

A hundred years ago, getting published was a matter of contacting an editor at a publishing house. If the editor liked your book, he sought approval from his publishing house colleagues and published it. But by the early 1900’s that kind of personal transaction was already becoming obsolete. The first literary agent had appeared in 1875 and now, they were beginning to proliferate. So were books. In the decade between 1900 and 1910, 83,512 books were printed in the United States (THE BOOK PUBLISHING INDUSTRY, Albert N. Greco, Routledge, 2005). In 2009 alone, 288,355 new books and editions were published ( And that is traditional publishing; it does not include e books.

Wouldn’t you just know, a good number of those books are how-to’s on writing book proposals? A search on Amazon yielded over 14,000 results on the subject. That book proposals are now an industry demonstrates how much a part of the system they are. They are not optional; publishers expect to get them. Proposals do give authors an opportunity to promote their work. And, as big as the market is these days, wouldn’t you rather put your slant on it?