Chip MacGregor

June 8, 2012

Let’s Recap: Putting Together a Great Proposal


People have been writing in with questions about proposals…

Elizabeth sent me this: “My writing is great, but my synopsis is awful. What should I do — just send it as is and hope the editor looks at the writing first?”

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. If it were me, I’d get some help creating a better synopsis. As an agent, I occasionally see an author who has spent two years creating the manuscript, and two minutes creating the synopsis. I’m the type of agent who doesn’t care that much about the synopsis initially (I always look at the actual chapter first), but eventually I’m going to get around to exploring the overview of your story. And let’s face it — if your synopsis is terrible, that’s going to color the way I view the rest of the book. Why risk that? Make sure your synopsis reflects the strength of your writing.

Amy said, “I was thinking of doing something creative with my proposal, just to make it stand out. Does that sort of thing help?”

True story: I once received a woman’s romance proposal wrapped inside a lacy thong. Apparently the author thought it would make the project stand out in my mind. It did… I assumed the author had lost her mind. My job is interesting enough as it is; I don’t need to add “touching someone else’s underwear” to my to-do list. This sort of creative thing can seem downright weird unless you explain it. So no — I don’t think these types of extra bonus things help very much. Ultimately it comes down to the idea, the writing, and the platform of the author. If you do a good job with those three things, you’ll be way ahead of everybody else.

Jennifer asked, “Is it really important to include comparative titles in my book proposal when I first send it?”

Absolutely. Good comparable titles make the editor’s job easier. It sets up your manuscript and gives it context. It allows the editor to tell his or her sales staff, “This book is like that book.” Besides, it’s not that hard to do — as we noted last week, spend some time on Amazon, then poke around the shelves at Barnes & Noble and Booklist. In a short time you’ll quickly find some appropriate comparable titles. The one lesson I’d keep in mind is “not too big, not too small.” In other words, don’t compare your book to Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Purpose Driven Life, or The Shack. That just looks stupid. You can’t really be expected to compete with runaway hits. By the same token, don’t compare your book to something nobody has ever heard of, a book that sold 12 copies, or a book that died a dog’s death. Hello! That just suggests your book includes a one-way ticket to Loserville.

Rob wants to know, “If an agent at a conference invites me to send him a proposal, how long is okay to wait before I send it?”

Generally you’d want to send it as soon as possible. I mean, if you need a few days to polish it, by all means put the finishing touches on your work. But agents see a lot of proposals, and they aren’t going to remember many they saw briefly at a conference. True Story II: I received an email from someone last week that reads, “I met you at a writing conference two years ago…” Um, really? Two years ago? My first thoughts was, “Who cares? I’d have a hard time telling you what cities I was in two years ago, let alone remember some guy who had another book idea. Besides, the marketplace for books changes all the time — I don’t know if an idea that was good two years ago will still be viable today. So don’t delay. If an agent asked to see it, send it along.

And Anita asked me, “Can you show me a sample book proposal?”

If you go to my company website (, you can find a sample fiction and a sample nonfiction book proposal. If you go the website of my former employer, Alive Communications, you’ll find sample fiction and nonfiction book proposals (Alive is a very good literary agency with a great site). I’m sure other agencies have sample proposals on their sites. Or check out Michael Hyatt’s How to Create a Winning Book Proposal on Amazon. If you need help, I also like Terry Whalin’s little tome, Book Proposals That Sell. You can find it on Amazon for about ten bucks, and it’s got good information to help you create a decent book proposal.

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  • Tom Morrisey says:

    Chip, I once asked an acquisitions editor what it was that most writers neglected to include in their proposals. She replied, “Chocolate!” So, the next proposal I sent her (a coulee of years later), I included a box of handmade chocolates from a shop near my office. No reply; not even a “no.” I saw her about a year later and asked her if she remembered the chocolates. “Yes,” she said. “I do remember them. Why did you do that? That was weird.”

  • Katie Larink says:

    Good gracious…a thong, really? Just when you think you’ve heard it all…

  • Martha Ramirez says:

    wow I can’t believe someone sent you a proposal wrapped in undies. Trying to be creative can back fire lol!

  • kathy b says:

    Would it help if the manuscript was wrapped around a bottle of Scotch instead?

  • Kirk Kraft says:

    Just when I think I’ve read it all, you post about women’s underwear. Original and an attention-grabber, sure but I still can’t understand why someone would do that. “I’m sure they wont be able to refuse my proposal with THIS included.”

  • Richard Mabry says:

    “…woman’s romance proposal wrapped inside a lacy thong.” Weird things. By the way, Chip. If you don’t like the proposal you recently received from Texas, would you return the copy of the Playboy calendar it was wrapped in?

  • Just a note for novelists — Whalin’s book is specific to non-fiction. I found Elizabeth Lyon’s Sell Your Novel Toolkit to be helpful. Hyatt has one book for fiction and another for non-, so make sure you get the right one for your work.

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