Sandra Bishop

Sandra Bishop – Sandra is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary, an agency of two which is consistently listed in the top five dealmakers on Publisher Marketplace. MacGregor Literary is a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR). Prior to agenting, Sandra worked in the marketing department of a major CBA publishing company, and made a living as a freelance writer. Sandra and her husband Glenn have one son, and an adopted Katrina dog who lives with them in Portland, Oregon. Sandra is currently taking new clients, but only open to unpublished authors she meets at conferences and via referrals from published authors.

The Best Book Proposal Ever

Proposal. It’s a word that often strikes fear in the heart of writers. Especially those in the early stages of their careers.

And rightly so, I think. Be it fiction or nonfiction, for most new authors, getting a proposal done, and done right, is the hardest and most dreaded part of the writing process. You’ve already researched until your brain is nearly worn to its stem, and you’ve worked your fingers to nubs writing the blasted manuscript.

And now you have to nail the whole thing down to a one-line blurb. Write a killer one-paragraph description. Craft a riveting synopsis. Think like a reader and pen back-cover copy that will compel customers to take your book to the register instead of plopping it back on the shelf.

Creating all the pieces and parts of proposals can be downright daunting. For crying out loud, a market analysis? Author bio? How can you possibly create an interesting bio when, truth be told, you spend the majority of time in your slippers, staring at a computer screen? And how do you best choose relevant comp titles? Describe your platform? Identify your reader tribe?

Really? Do you really have to do all this just to get someone to consider publishing your story?

Yes. And here’s why.

Authors want publishers and editors take a chance on them, right? It’s only fair, then, that authors provide evidence that the risk they are asking them to take is worthwhile . . . and eliminates some of their potential fear of going in on a project with someone they probably haven’t worked with before, and may not have even heard of.

Editors are not the enemy! They want authors to succeed because it means success for them, for their company, for all of us. But for them to take that chance to help authors succeed, they need proof—for themselves and their teams—that a prospective author is willing to do the work required: that they are professional and possess work ethic, that they’ll roll up their sleeves and do what is needed.

There’s a flip side to this, though, and something I’ve learned to caution people about—especially nonfiction writers. There are no tricks. No matter how clever, a proposal that only pitches a book idea is not enough.

Sometimes I see well-done proposals that promise forthcoming sample chapters, but I never see them. Other times I see what is essentially a one-sheet followed by sample chapters. This is not a proposal.

It’s equally frustrating to see a full proposal from a qualified author followed by good writing and then realize it’s still not ready for presentation. It’s not complete because it needs to be beefed up—or toned down—streamlined, reorganized, updated.

I’m certain I’m not the only agent who has a list of projects I like but still need work, and so they keep slipping to the bottom of my to-do list. Sad truth is sometimes it’s the strongest and most promising ideas—those I’d really like to spend time developing—that get stuck waiting in line while I take care of less time-consuming (or more immediate income-producing) activities.

The authors I am most inclined to respond to are those who have worked hard to develop a complete and compelling proposal to go along with their sample chapters. This doesn’t guarantee success, of course. But very few short cuts exist to getting published. So it makes sense that authors do what it takes to get this very important piece of the publishing puzzle figured out and in place before they pitch their projects. Have it ready to submit when the editor or agent is interested—strike when the iron is hot! Sometimes authors start a proposal at the

beginning of a writing project and work on it along with their novel. Others may find that this is a drain—or a distraction—and opt to wait until their story is complete before they put one ounce of energy into the proposal. Just as there are differences between ways authors approach their writing (some are seat-of-the-pants writers and others plot and plan first) there are different ways to do proposal work. Here are a few tips (and personal preferences) I think every writer should consider:

Keep it current. Like a resume, a proposal needs to be kept updated, especially if the submission process is taking a long time. It’s not a static document, so keep it working for you. If you’ve made substantial changes to your sample chapters, update them in the proposal. If you’ve added a tactic to your marketing plan or received important endorsement offers, make those changes.

Include contact information. This is pretty basic, but you’d be surprised to know how many proposals I receive that don’t include contact info! Yes, it may come to me along with a cover letter or e-mail, but if the proposal gets separated from these, it can be frustrating to an agent to keep it all straight. I’ve had the experience when I’ve wanted to call someone after reading her work, but then had to dig so hard to find their contact info I decided it wasn’t worth it. Even if you’ve been invited to send just a writing sample, it’s a good idea to include headers at the top of every page, showing your name, the title, and your e-mail and phone number.

Know the difference between marketing and market. There are clear distinctions between these, and they should not be lumped together in a proposal.

Include credentials and show potential. A good proposal should show both an author’s credentials and potential. It’s a resume and a sales document. A marketing plan and a commercial. It will contain a lot of information and should be thorough, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be overly long. Keep it organized, present material in a natural order, and don’t repeat information.

Include a synopsis. I will often skip the synopsis (sometimes the whole proposal) and jump straight to the sample chapters first. But the synopsis is still part of the proposal and should precede the sample chapters. Editors use the synopsis to assess whether a story fits their publishing goals, sounds plausible, or doesn’t compete too closely with other projects they’re considering or already planning on publishing.

Want to know a secret? Nothing bogs me down more than helping authors get their proposals in presentable form. And I know I’m not alone. But editors have told me multiple times that the proposals I submit are the best they’ve ever seen. That’s why I’ve decided to teach a series of seminars on The Best Book Proposal Ever!

So keep an eye out on and over at Tiffany Colter’s site,, to learn more about a series of one-day seminars I’m conducting this year that will help authors get their proposals in shape for submission.

A few details:

Sponsoring groups will receive a portion of the registration fees. Participant minimum is ten people, and the anticipated cost for the one-day (six-hour) session is only $99 per person! We’re still working on the 2010–2011 schedule and selecting presentation cites, so if you have a group you believe might be interested in participating, please let us know and we’ll see if we can accommodate you.