Early in my career, I thought a query and a proposal were two names for the same document. Boy, was I confused?
A query letter is a short communication to get an agent or publisher’s attention. If your query letter succeeds, they’ll ask for a book proposal. A proposal is a lengthy, detailed document that shares key elements of your book in organized sections. If they like your proposal, they’ll ask to see the full book (for fiction) or encourage you to move forward in writing the book (for nonfiction).
The Query Letter: There’s a lot of information online about writing a query letter. Unfortunately, there’s disagreement over what to do. It seems to be as much art as science. Despite differing opinions on the specific content and order, here are the pointers I’ve picked up and use:
- Address it to a specific agent, following the agent’s guidelines and making sure they accept queries in your genre.
- Open with a concise connection to the agent (sincere and non-embellished), followed by a great hook, sell your idea, and then sell yourself (including your platform). This should take four paragraphs. Making it longer makes it too long.
- Keep it to one normal page (even though you will email it as text).
- Don’t ask them to click a link or download an attachment. I understand most will skip your link and few will download an attachment unless they know you and requested that you attach a document.
- Keep it professional. Avoid being cute, clever, or gimmicky.
- Spell-check and proofread carefully.
Note that in the non-book world, some periodical and online publishers also want you to query them first. Others just want to see the finished work. If they ask for a query, the preceding discussion applies.
A-One Sheet: Something like a query letter is a one-sheet (sometimes called a one-pager). It’s a document that you might hand to an interested agent or publisher whom you meet at a writing conference. It contains much the same information as a query but can include more, as much as comfortably fits on one page. A one-sheet can also include relevant graphics and professional formatting, which you should avoid in a straight-text query letter.
A Book Proposal: Whether you have a fiction or nonfiction book, agents and publishers who like your query letter will expect you to send a book proposal next, even if the book is complete. There are many courses and books that teach how to draft a book proposal, so I won’t try to cram all this information into a brief overview.
Do an online search, and you’ll receive more matches than you have time to read. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with the expectations for a book proposal and some contradict each other. Focus on recommendations from successful agents and authors who have sold a lot of books to traditional publishers. You will benefit from their experience.
Here are the sections I include in my nonfiction book proposals:
- book title
- target audience
- table of contents
- detailed outline
- about the author
- author platform
- competitive titles
- sample chapters
Though I’ve never done a fiction book proposal, the sections are about the same. The main difference is that, instead of including a chapter-by-chapter detailed outline, a fiction proposal needs a concise summary of the entire book, including any spoilers. Don’t hold back. Condense your book into a couple of pages.
Search online for specific examples of nonfiction and fiction book proposals to further guide your work on your own proposal.
Make the best proposal you can. Some agents and publishers will tell you what they expect in a book proposal. Follow their instructions exactly.
If your proposal follows their format, it’s easier for them to evaluate. And if it doesn’t meet their expectations, it’s easier for them to reject, because they know you’re a person who won’t follow directions or doesn’t think the instructions apply. You will be a challenging writer to work with. No one wants that.
Peter Lyle DeHaan is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.