At this point, you have a book idea and you have a list of agents. (Right? If not, you can move ahead, that’s okay, I asked everyone to do that first because it’s possible that some of your agents will have a requirements that are different than the standard.)

What’s next?

Writing your book proposal. 

You could write the queries first and send those emails out to agents, but if any of them like your idea, you’re going to have to produce a proposal pretty much immediately. So you’ll want to have that on hand. (I think it takes 2-4 weeks to produce your first draft proposal so factor that in.)

What’s in a book proposal? What does it do? Well it speaks to the sensibilities of a publisher and agent. They want to know:

1. What is your idea? Why is it so great it’s worth taking up one of their 20 spots this year/month (depending on their size, but it’s always limited)?
2. Are you going to do an awesome job writing this book?
3. Is this book going to sell? Are you going to be able to sell it? Are they?
4. How are they going to frame this book when they talk about it to the media, retail stores and potential reviewers?

So it’s a combination of selling your idea plus showing them that this is a very sellable idea with a large, hungry market. In other words: It’s awesome and it’s going to sell like hotcakes.

What if you have an idea you think is awesome but you’re not sure it will sell? Well, stop. Think. Re-frame. We’re not self-publishing here, we’re entering a business negotiation with a publisher. If you don’t believe it’s super-sellable, they definitely will not. You need to adjust the book to make it marketable or find a new idea.

And that’s okay. That’s why we do this process. To get belly-to-belly with our idea, look it in the eye, and figure out it’s place in the world. Is this a BIG idea? Or just a medium one? Is this THE IDEA? Ideas are easy. We’re talking about investing two years of our precious creative lifeblood into this one, particular idea. Let’s make sure it’s worthy.

Note: it is okay to exit this process at any point and decide that while you love your idea, and you must write this book – you’re okay with not going with a traditional publisher – you just want to get it out there. I self-published four books before my traditionally published one, and it really came down to a gut instinct about where I wanted to take those titles. If you’re fretting, don’t! The advice still stands: your book has to be marketable and attractive to large audiences to pitch to agents and publishing houses, but if your book doesn’t fit that mold, you can still write it. You can work with an indie press or self-publish. You can even write your proposal because it will shape your marketing plans when you do launch, but it’s okay to pursue work that’s not aimed at big audiences. The method is just different.

What is in a book proposal?

It can be flexible depending on your book, your platform as an author (are your strengths related to your blog or your 10 year speaking career, or your 20 years working as a OB-GYN? It’s going to impact a lot of how you present your book and the marketing opportunities you have at your fingertips.)

-The Cover Page

-Hook / Sales Handle (one liner describing your book)

-Proposal Table of Contents

-Overview (1-2 pages)

-About the Author(s)

-Chapter Summaries (1-2 paragraphs about each chapter in your book)

-Market (Who is going to read this book?)

-Competition (What else is out there?)

-PR + Media (What do you have for media contacts now, and how do you plan to get media coverage for the book when it launches?)

-Platform (Speaking gigs, workshops, teaching – where can you sell this book?)

-Advance Praise/Testimonials (if applicable)

-Online Presence

-Book Specifics: Title, Cover, Design, Format

-Spin-Off Books & Products (if applicable)

-Legal Issues (if applicable)

-Budget (if applicable)

-Delivery of the Manuscript

-Philanthropy + Charity

Plus Attachments:
-Sample chapters
-Press Clippings
-Speaking Schedules, Brochures, Promotions
-Media Reel


David Black Agency (my agent)
Ted Weinstein Agency
Creative Media Agency
Steve Laub Agency

This Week’s Assignment

For this week we’re just going to focus on Positioning and Sales. That means taking a look at the other books out there (which we started in week 1) and talking about how your book will compete / be better / be a game changer in that niche.

The two sections you’ll be writing are:

-Market (Who is going to read this book?)

-Competition (What else is out there?)

Beginning Your Proposal

We’re going to work through the proposal section by section, because it makes sense from a teaching perspective and it helps you break down this large task into individual line items. But the proposal is NOT a fill-in-the-blank application form. It’s a piece of writing. It’s written to people who love writing. People who read really great writers for a living. It isn’t so much a list of sections and requirements but your first test as a writer. Can you write clearly, directly, and persuasively, in the voice and tone of your book?

If nothing else, this proposal should sound like you.

So for this week we’re looking at a section that’s talking about the market for your book and the competition… however, everyone approaches this in different ways. Here’s an excerpt from book proposal that defined the market space for their book:


There has never been a book about the Epidemic Intelligence Service – the “disease detectives” – of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Atlanta-based federal agency that is the premier public health guardian for the world.

In fact, though it is more than 50 years old, the disease detective corps is remarkably anonymous. That is particularly strange because, when average citizens think of the CDC, it is the EIS – not the lab scientists or statisticians – that they are thinking about: the rapid-deployment force that parachutes into a disease outbreak, solves it, and leaves the next day to attack another epidemic somewhere else in the country, or the world.

About five to seven years ago, around the time that Ebola virus first surfaced in Africa and hantavirus mysteriously killed several people in the Southwestern United States, there was a cluster of books about frightening viruses and the scientists who fight them. Several of those books focused on the work of small parts of the CDC – notably its “special pathogens” unit, which works with highly infectious and little-understood disease organisms. The best known is “The Hot Zone,” by Richard Preston (Random House, 1994), which describes the special pathogens unit’s response to an outbreak of Ebola virus among monkeys in a facility in suburban Washington and was the basis for the movie “Outbreak.”

Follow-up books included “Virus Hunter” by Dr. C.J. Peters, former chief of the special pathogens unit, who is a prominent character in “The Hot Zone” (Anchor hardcover 1997), and “Virus Ground Zero” (Pocket Books, 1996) by Ed Regis, which retells the story of the CDC’s involvement in the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire. “Virus X” (Little, Brown & Co., 1997) by Dr. Frank Ryan, a British physician and author, is a survey of emerging diseases around the world that deals briefly with the CDC.

The appetite for books about scary diseases was triggered by “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1994); several CDC scientists are featured in it. That appetite remains strong: Witness the strong sales of New York Times best seller “Germs” (Simon & Schuster, 2001), which explores the under-appreciated threat of international bioterrorism through the eyes of the scientists who designed biological weapons.

Preston’s new book, “The Demon in the Freezer” (Random House, October 2002), focuses in part on the CDC’s work with smallpox, since the CDC and the Russian government are the custodians of the only remaining stockpiles of the virus. It is based on a New Yorker article from several years ago and is an examination of the history of smallpox since its eradication and of its potential use as a weapon of bioterrorism.

To date, there has been only one book looking at the entire CDC: “Sentinels for Health” (University of California Press, 1992), a history commissioned by the agency and written by college history professor Elizabeth Etheridge.

The fight against infectious diseases combines aspects of two enduringly popular genres, the mystery novel and the horror story: An unfamiliar threat with possibly dreadful characteristics arises, is investigated and explained, and in the end – if we are fortunate – is rendered harmless. Stories of disease detection address our desire to be frightened safely, to experience a frisson of danger but believe the monster can be conquered.

That combination of factors – the public’s curiosity about medicine and diseases, added to the desire for a hopeful ending and wrapped in the accessible form of a recognizable genre – explains why such stories have become so popular on TV as well. “ER” started the trend, but the break-out show that proves the public’s enduring interest is “CSI,” joined this season by the spin-off show “CSI: Miami.” In spring 2002, ABC actually proposed a show based on the CDC’s disease detectives, tentatively called “Flashpoint.” A pilot was filmed, but it has never been shown publicly because the show did not make it into the fall 2002 line-up. And in December 2002, the Discovery Health cable channel will debut three episodes of a new series called “21st Century Outbreak” that looks at global infectious disease threats and the combination of detection and science that may be able to hold them off. Some scenes in the series were filmed at the CDC.

A final note on the continuing appeal of narratives of medical investigation and disease detection: In its most recent redesign in fall 2002, the New York Times Sunday Magazine added a biweekly column called “Diagnoses,” in which a doctor describes meeting an emergency room patient with puzzling symptoms, investigating the problem and arriving at a diagnosis and cure.

Then there is my book proposal, which sold for a good amount to Penguin Random House. Instead of breaking out the market section, I combined the market and competition pieces. This was one of the shortest pieces of my proposal, because I spent more time on the research and story telling aspects of my proposal.


This book is very similar in concept to AJ Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All. The goal is the same: to attain self-knowledge and insight to the world through a very specific and challenging experiment.

The audience for this book is likely women who have read and enjoyed books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver and The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

There will be some crossover with the travel niche, specifically with readers of books that inspire female travelers, like Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman. (Rita Golden Gelman is an interviewee for my documentary and I can approach her for a book quote.)

The idea of learning multiple languages was covered in Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek; but he doesn’t go into as much depth about this process as this book will. I have noticed that several of Tim’s blog posts on language hacking have gone viral because there is a largely unmet demand for information about people who become fluent in multiple languages and how they do it. This book offers something that can’t be address in a single blog post — an in depth look at what it means to learn another language, how bilingualism changes our perspectives and how learning another language is a natural part of human experience, not something reserved for intellectuals.

How do you decide which approach to take?

The best course of action is to gather as much information as you can, then start writing these sections with only the most compelling information. So if you research and find there’s a huge amount of data or reference points for your market, then please, yes, break it out into its own section. However, if you’re not finding that much and you’re really selling the space in the book market place, like I did with the second example, then it’s also totally okay to combine the market and competition pieces. Some sections will be longer than others. If you don’t know what to do, reach out in the FB group as well.

Other things to consider:

Who will buy this book? Why will they buy this book? Who are they?

You need to think like a market researcher here. Here are some general questions to think about:

-How many people are doing or attempting to do what your book is about? Can you get numbers?
-Who else is writing about this? Have they stopped writing? Is there an unmet need?
-Have you written about this for your blog or another publication and had it get a million views? Or some other metric of keen interest?
-Are there any surveys or research you can point to about the growing/emerging/developing trend you’re covering?

What you should research for this assignment:

– Books that did well that are similar to yours
– Trends in pop culture or general interest that point to an interest in your book topic
– Stats or other reference points that prove you’re onto something big

More examples from real proposals

(The name of the book has sometimes been redacted.)

Sample 1
Sample 2

Final note: Only write a rough draft for this section for now. You will circle back to this later so it’s not necessary to spend a lot of time polishing it. You just need to have a structure in place, but much will change about the voice and tone of your proposal once you get your sales handle and overview written!


1Research the market for who will potentially buy your book
2Research other titles that are similar to yours
3Decide on an approach for your target market and competition sections – whether to split them out or write them separately
4Write the first draft of this section, then let it be