How to Write a Killer Book Proposal

Lesson 5/11 - Literary Agent Input: Kristina Moore


How to Write a Killer Book Proposal


Lesson Info

Literary Agent Input: Kristina Moore

Kristina, can you hear me? Hi, I can hear you. Hello, thanks for being with us today. Thanks, Sally. Absolutely. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your agency? Sure, so I've been at the Wiley Agency for eight years. I work with both nonfiction and fiction. I know today we're just talking about nonfiction, so on that side of things, we are principally in what's called quote unquote serious nonfiction, so we're not doing any self-help, cookery, celebrity memoirs, that kind of thing. So we're really at narrative journalism, history, serious works of science, psychology, memoir when it's literary, and we run the gamut from debut authors who we find at MFA programs to taking on people at mid-career to working with authors in their 80s who might be retired diplomats, you know, writing a memoir of their career, so it spans pretty broadly. Okay, and what are your favorite types of authors to work with or topics to represent? I'm particularly interested in people wit...

h a journalism background, people who have a really strong sense of narrative. I do a lot of nonfiction that's kind of social justice-minded, so I recently sold a book on the crack epidemic of the 1980s. I also work with a lot of authors who are trying to move from maybe writing literary criticism and essays to longer books. So that's a particular area of interest. We do love to work with authors at the very beginning of their career, so we really do work to shape the proposal to be right and I meet some people in creative fiction and creative nonfiction writing programs, but also we just read very broadly. So sometimes we'll read a New Yorker article and say, "Hey, this piece should really be "a full-length book rather than "just a magazine article." Okay, what do you like to see in an overview section of a book proposal? So we tend to go for the very anecdote-driven overview rather than, say, this is going to be a book about x-y-z. So you really wanna grab your reader's attention. You know, treat the editor like you would treat a reader. So what's gonna be your really gripping first page of your book? And of course the actual book that you write doesn't need to be what the first page of the proposal is, but you should come to it with that mindset. So if that's a memoir, it's a striking anecdote from your life. If it's a journalistic expose of Washington, it's a juicy tidbit from a senator's, you know, interview that you've done. Just something that will grab the reader. And so then from there, after you've set the scene, you can pull back to talk more big-picture about what this book will be and why it's important to write now. But really, the overview section is, more than anything else, the chance to first show the editor what your writing style is like and what the great meat of this book is going to be. Great. What are some common mistakes you see in the overview section of a book proposal? I would say when you launch too much into comparing yourself to other books or trying to defend yourself before you've told the editor what this book will be, you know, saying, "I am gonna write "the definitive work of World War Two history" before you've shown any of your writing chops. That really turns me off as a reader and also just as a professional in the industry. You wanna let your voice and your research and your writing stand for itself, I would say. So don't use the overview section as a time to acquit yourself. Use it as a chance to really make your case. Great. How is the target audience section useful to agents and to publishers? Sure, so we are a little bit unusual in our approach. I've come to understand in talking to other writers and other agents. I know a lot of agents really put emphasis on the target audience. We think that the best editor-author relationship will be between one where is editor is able to tell from the proposal what the target audience will be and frankly it's the editor's job to make the assessment more than it is the writer's, and, you know, everyone wants their book to reach book clubs, to be number one New York Times bestseller, to be adapted into a movie. That's less useful information. What we like to do is rather than say target audience or marketing plan, we tend to have, maybe, an about the book section that would come after the chapter outline that will convey what kind of original research you're agreeing to bear, maybe, you know, making an assessment of other books in the market, but not getting too into the weeds about "I think my book's gonna do as well "as Cheryl Strayed's Wild," because everyone wants that. Instead you wanna really say, you know, "There hasn't been a book that brings "this kind of perspective to this period of history" or "I am a journalist who has 30 years reporting "background in this topic. "This is why audiences will come to this book." So, is then, based on what you've just said, would you as agent work with an author to create sort of a target audience section before it goes out to the publishers so that you help hone that information a little bit? Yeah, we try to, you know, it's helpful, when my writers come to me with a draft proposal, for them to include that kind of background knowledge that only they can bring to bear about what they think is unique about their proposal or having done their research to see other competing topics, but we really do minimize that in the proposal. Our view is that the overview, the chapter outline, your author bio should give the editor primarily what they need. The target audience section or the marketing overview or marketing comparison section is only really useful if this is, you know, you're writing the tenth biography of Theodore Roosevelt that's come out in the last ten years. Then you really need to make your case for why is this book different. But if you're just trying to say, "Oh, my book is gonna appeal to this kind of reader", sometimes you can actually do yourself a disservice in that capacity, we feel. So you're better off, really, just making the case for, "This is who I'm trying to reach", whether it's, you know, scholars or if it's a lay audience, that's more important information, I think, to include in the target audience section than trying to say, "I'm trying to hit, you know, women in their mid-30s "with this book." Shooting holes in everything I just told my people. (laughter) That's good. I know this is actually kind of counterintuitive to what a lot of people do in preparing a book proposal. And certainly our philosophy is that every book proposal needs to fit the book at hand, and that's why we actually don't tend to give prospective authors sample proposals because we want them to take a shot at writing it first. Our philosophy is that it would be giving someone a bespoke suit fit for somebody else to try to hone your book into somebody else's proposal. So I think there can be a real benefit to a target audience section if you've really become the master of this field and you know precisely what else is out there, sure, include that. But for the kind of nonfiction we do, I think it's more about the voice. It's more about showing on the page why you're a compelling writer and why this is a compelling story. Terrific. What is the most annoying thing that first time authors do when pitching their work to you? Yeah, I think a little bit of reiterating what I said before, just in terms of making broad comparisons. It's not helpful to say you wanna write, you know, the next Lean In. You want to be very specific and you want to approach agents who really do work with the kind of work that you want to be in conversation with. So you want to show you're familiar with what this agent does, you've read some of their writers but not overestimating what you think your book might do, really being aware of this is why this agent is the right person for me, this is the right kind of book for me to be writing. We get a lot of nonfiction writers who maybe have had a really illustrious career and they think that just be listing their CV that'll be sufficient in a book proposal. So you really wanna show that you can be a writer too. That you wanna do the work for it. To me that's the kind of most annoying thing, when someone might show up and say, like, "Oh, I have this brilliant idea, "I've done all this research," but the writing isn't actually there in the proposal. Because you can't really teach writing or editing in that way. Great. What do you feel is the most important part of a book proposal? I really do think the chapter outline is the most important part. You're convincing the editor that you've really thought through this book and you've really seen how it's gonna go from A to B to C, how every logical chapter will lead into the next. And of course in the actual writing of the book, that may wildly differ, especially if it's a book that requires new research. But you wanna at least give the illusion that you've written this book. You want the editor to walk away from your proposal saying, "I just bought an amazing "book", even though what they bought was a 30-page document. It's that level of imagination that you've inspired in them. And to me that really comes from seeing a great, well-written chapter outline that shows exactly how this argument's gonna be thought through, how your personal narrative is thought through, how, you know, your compelling advice is thought through. To me that comes from these, you know, one to two paragraph descriptions of each chapter. And it also shows your ability to distill information in an interesting way, which is essential when you're actually out there in the world selling your book. Absolutely, okay, we are going to get to the chapter-by-chapter outline. Haven't done it yet, but we're goin' there. All right, we're about ready to wrap up. Kristina, do you have any other advice for aspiring authors? I think that about covers it. Again, my major takeaway from having read a lot of proposals is you don't want to try to shoehorn your book into somebody else's. You wanna approach the proposal as if you were writing the manuscript for the first time and it's really how you want to envision your book and keeping that philosophy in mind will really help guide how you structure the proposal and the kind of voice that you have on the page and the kind of information you're persuading your editor you have at your fingertips. All right, thank you so much for your time, Kristina. Really appreciate it. My pleasure. Thanks, good luck with this class. (applause) Thank you. All right, Kristina Moore. All right. So, helpful? Very. Excellent. She is a fantastic resource, and as you can see, a lot of the things that she said are completely the opposite of what I have been telling you and that we'll actually, later on the course I'm gonna show you some submission guidelines from various agencies and you'll that they're very different, depending on who you're querying. You may end up having to send them only part of what I'm recommending that you create here, or none of it and they may send it back to you and say, "You know what, I really" -- Kristina might respond to you and say, "You know, I really just want an About the Book section, "I wanna know, give me a different perspective "on the same information." So keep that in mind, but I will say that the six sections of the book proposal that we're talking about today are pretty industry-standard. I don't think you're ever gonna encounter an agent where you send them these six things and they're like, "Well, what is this garbage?" They'll recognize those as valuable pieces of information about your book.

Class Description

You might have an amazing book or idea to sell, but the only way you’ll be able to seal the deal is with a strong, persuasive book proposal. Much more than just an introduction to your book, a proposal gives literary agents and acquiring editors the information they need to make the tough decision to take on your work.

Writer, editor and consultant Sally McGraw will teach you the six essential elements of a solid book proposal and how you can make your case in the most creative and convincing way possible.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Persuade rather than summarize.
  • Figure out your target audience.
  • Create a market analysis and choose comparison titles strategically.
  • Write a bio or have someone else write it for you.
  • Define your author platform and explain what you’ll do to make your book a success.
  • Create a chapter-by-chapter outline.
  • Write a short, sweet and attention-grabbing query letter.


Beth Howard

Sally's presentation was excellent. She is articulate, professional and informative. I learned some great tips about adding statistics (and how/where to find them.) I especially appreciated her guest speakers, two seasoned literary agents who added helpful perspective. More classes from her, please!

Lee-Sean Huang

I am currently in the process of preparing my own book proposal. Sally's class is concise and super helpful in breaking down the elements and considerations needed to be awesome. I feel like I will be coming back to re-watch this while I prepare my proposal.