Friday, March 3, 2017


I recently consulted with an established narrative non-fiction writer on a potential book publishing project. As we talked, he said “I can write the book proposal... that’s not a big deal,” and began to speak of other issues. I stopped him almost immediately and asked “Have you ever written a book proposal?” He admitted he had not.

Unfortunately, this is biggest impediment most writers face in the book publishing process, and one that is usually the difference between just having an idea for a book and actually having one published.

The purpose of the proposal is two-fold. One, it helps a writer clarify and identify the book they intend to write, to push the concept forward from “I’d like to write a book about X” toward something more specific and coherent. Here’s an example: Several years ago as the 100th anniversary of the building of Fenway Park approached, I knew I wanted to write something about that – I had the authoritative background to do so. But I also knew that the anniversary was certain to inspire a number of titles on Fenway Park. How could mine stand out? And how could I do something different?

Although I knew I wanted to write about Fenway’s history, simply saying I wanted to write a book about the history of Fenway Park was not nearly specific enough – all anniversary books would in some way try to do that. I needed an organizing principle, one that could be distilled into a single sentence that was clear, concise and unique. A lifetime of writing and more than a dozen successful proposals for single books and series had taught me this.

I was driving to my local town dump one Saturday when it hit me: instead of trying to tell the entire 100-year history of Fenway, I would tell the story of only its first season, from groundbreaking in the fall of 1911 through the 1912 World Series, which culminated in a world championship for the Red Sox. I knew that as I told the story of the ballpark’s construction and first season that would give me the opportunity to write about its larger history as well – the first home run hit over the left field wall would allow me to write about the Green Monster. My idea could then be easily distilled to a title and a single sentence: Fenway 1912, the building of America’s most beloved ballpark and its first championship season.

When I returned home, I sent a one paragraph description to my agent and he was immediately enthusiastic. I had written more than a dozen successful proposals before, and consulted on a number of others, so I was familiar with the format and intention. But having a well-defined idea was essential, and made the proposal itself a relatively straight-forward process. I had a finished proposal within a week and received an offer almost immediately. That book, eventually entitled Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year was easily the most successful of what eventually became nearly 20 books written in response to the anniversary, making best-seller lists in New England and winning several awards.

But that’s just one aspect of the proposal – just as important is recognizing that the proposal is a sales document. If a writer does not have an agent, the next goal of the proposal is to attract an agent, and then, in turn, a publisher. A writer needs not just an idea, but then needs to know how to frame and present that idea in a way that underscores both his and her own abilities, but also the marketability of the manuscript, to show its appeal to a well-defined readership.

Unlike what the writer believed at the start of this post, this is actually“ a big deal.” In fact, It’s actually a HUGE deal, for even a great idea, poorly presented and executed, is easy to reject. Every year publishers are hit with millions of book ideas. The whole idea is to make it impossible for them to say “No.”
This is a skill, one that can be taught and learned, and something I now do professionally, both privately and in workshop settings. If one wishes to become a professional author, learning how to write a successful proposal is absolutely essential. How essential? One more short story.

Three weeks ago I was speaking with a publisher. A basic book idea came up in conversation, but one that, due to timing, had a relatively small window to succeed. Within 24 hours I had taken that basic idea, drilled it down to something clear, concise and unique, and completed a basic proposal and forwarded it to my agent.

A few days later, my agent and I reached agreement with a publisher on a contract.

 Glenn Stout is the author and editor of more than 90 books. He will be teaching a three-day workshop entitled “Writing the Non-Fiction Book Proposal... Not just talking about it” at the Archer City Story Center in Archer City, Texas this summer (, and giving a one-hour presentation “The Book Proposal: What Agents Want” at the New Hampshire Writer’s Project “Writer’s Day” on April 1, 2017 ( He also does private consultations on longform narrative non-fiction, book proposals and book manuscripts. For more, see