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With or without an agent you need the ability to write a hard hitting, well defined, proposal to catch a publisher's attention. If you're lucky you'll catch the attention of more than one publisher and have a bidding war on your hands - may the biggest cheque win!
The purpose of a proposal is to sell or convince a publisher that what you have will make them money, enhance their product line, and add to their arsenal of authors to further establish their position in the cut-throat world of publishing.
To convince them that you have what they want, you have to provide them with a detailed, not necessarily lengthy, clearly written proposal that gives them the full story without taking up a lot of their time. Every publisher has decision makers who are extremely busy, but very receptive to a well thought out proposal. After all, without the proposals they would have no incoming material to work with.
Keep the content of your proposal on target by doing some research first. Think about the audience to whom the publisher sells and the books they primarily produce, and then ensure that you are approaching the right publisher before sending off your proposal. It's important that you choose the right companies, otherwise sending a romance novel proposal to a sci-fi publishing house is just a waste of everyone's time and money.
In your request always approach from a position of confidence that what you have they need, but don't present it as the next best thing since sliced bread. If the proposal reads like it is coming from an egotistical maniac then odds are in your favour that it won't get read.
You have to be somewhat formal, but not snobbish, firm and positive, but not tell them their business. In other words make your proposal inviting, but confident in the knowledge that what you have will sell, and then let them come to that conclusion on their own. Your proposal should be the hook and impelling force that stimulates them to provide a positive decision and publish your story.
Many writers make some basic mistakes when writing a proposal, such as using excessive rhetorical phrasing, not having the proposal proof-read a zillion times, and using choppy, hard-to-read sentencing.
Another spot that writers get stuck in with proposal writing is structure and form. You must make the effort to ensure that the decision maker can easily and quickly read and reference your proposal. A basic structure is as follows:
A specific title immediately tells the publisher what your idea is about. It's hard to misinterpret a title such as Invasion From Mars - Sci-Fi; The WWII Battle of Sun Ridge - Historical War; Seven Gunmen, Six Bullets - Western; In Love She Falls - Romance.
Sub-headings are important reference elements publishers to skip back and forth inside your proposal, especially if your proposal is lengthy, so use them. They don't need to be catchy they need to be informative and easy to recall.
The introduction, content, and close is the meat of your story. It is in this area that you need to convince the publisher that what you have is unique, sellable, interesting, entertaining and financially viable. You need to convince the publisher that their audience will be interested, but you can't tell them that. Instead, tell them the core of your story: the highs, lows, flow, tension, problems, resolutions, and ultimate outcome.
If need be, use bulleted items within paragraphs to drive home your story points. Make the whole proposal easy to read by providing proper flow and layout in clear, concise sentences.
If you don't have a finished manuscript your proposal serves two purposes, one is that it pitches publishers to purchase the rights before the book is written and two, it provides you with a perfect outline to write your manuscript.
Kimberly Dawn Wells has a short article at Suite101 titled Should you Write a Book Proposal? that furthers the idea of using your proposal as your book's guideline as opposed to writing the book and then the proposal.
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