Five No-Longer-Secret Steps to a Book Proposal that Sells

Editor and author Christina Baker Kline starts off Passion Project winner Monique Fields' journey to publication with a few tried and true lessons based on what agents and editors look for in a book proposal these days.

After talking to Monique Fields, who used the pseudonym Honeysmoke when she submitted her work to the SheWrites contest, I am even more excited about her book proposal than I was when I read her submission. For one thing, I’m glad that she’s willing to use her real name; it is doubly difficult to find an agent if you’re not able to personally promote your book. Monique explained that she was persuaded to use a pen name for her personal blog and memoir by a fellow journalist at a time when she was a reporter covering mental-health issues, but that she no longer feels it’s necessary – so right away, one of my concerns was alleviated.

Monique has already written a proposal for this memoir-in-progress, along with about 24,000 words of the memoir itself. Last spring she sent the proposal to five agents, but though these agents were enthusiastic about the topic and Monique’s writing, none were willing to take her on. “The thing that is mystifying about the process is that there’s no right or wrong, but there’s clearly something I’m not doing right,” she says. “I know I’ve got all this great material, because people keep telling me it’s great. Why can’t I get it in a form that works?”
As we talked further, Monique acknowledged that the proposal probably wasn’t ready to send out. She needed more material, more of the memoir itself, and a clearer idea of the arc of the story.

Lesson #1: Be diligent. You often only get one shot with an agent, so don’t rush it. Be absolutely sure your proposal is in the best shape possible before you send it out.

I asked Monique to read me the feedback she’d gotten, and we found that there was some consistency to the responses. Several of the agents were concerned that there wasn’t enough material for a book (“This feels like a magazine article to me”) and that she isn’t an expert in interracial parenting because her children are young. Some said that they wanted more interviews and anecdotes about other people.

Lesson #2: Be wise. Use negative feedback to your advantage. If Monique can address these points in the proposal, she’ll be able to anticipate and deflect criticism. I suggested that she explain why her story is larger in scope that a magazine piece, and also talk about other memoirs that cover a short time period. She needs to convince an agent that she consciously and deliberately chose to end her story when her daughter goes off to kindergarten for valid reasons.

Monique was concerned about this. She said, “I don’t want to bring up these things because I’m afraid I’ll give people ideas.” I explained that in my experience the proposal writer has to be like a trial lawyer or a debater, anticipating any possible criticisms. It makes the writer look clear-eyed, rational, and prepared.

As we discussed the “problem” of the short time frame of the story, Monique said, “I see this book ending when I send my oldest, Simone, to kindergarten because it took those five years to go from ‘What? This kid doesn’t look like me’ to ‘This kid is mine, no matter what.’ It was a process of coming to terms.” I asked if she ever says that in the proposal, and she said, “Good point. Probably not.”

Lesson #3: Tell a story. Remember that the four basic elements of any story are: character, conflict, choices, and consequences. You want to convey the arc of your story in your proposal. Take your reader on a journey with you.

As Monique spoke, I realized that she was talking about her book in terms of her personal narrative – “I want to tell my story. I want to tell my daughter’s story” – but not necessarily in terms of the zeitgeist.

Lesson #4: Make your proposal relevant and topical. I encouraged her to explain why her story could only be written now, at this moment in history – a period when we have a black president, an ongoing and heated national dialogue about race, and interracial families are the largest growing group in the country. Monique’s personal journey is a microcosm of a much larger cultural conversation.
As we finished our conversation, I made my final point.

Lesson #5: A proposal is not the book itself. It’s a sales tool. It may feel awkward to sell yourself, particularly when you’re writing something as personal as a memoir. But keep the two documents – the proposal and the manuscript – separate in your mind. You need to persuade an agent (and publisher) that your book should be published, and in order to do so, you will have to use persuasive, active language. This is not, nor should it be, the language of the book itself.

Monique is doing a lot of things right. She attended a film and literary festival in L.A. to network and research last spring; as she says, “It was good exposure and good to find out what’s out there.” She’s planning to go to a critical mixed-race conference in Chicago in November; she is writing a blog on the subject of her book, and gaining new and loyal followers every day. I have no doubt that Monique is on the road to getting her book published – and I’m eager to follow her journey on She Writes!

She Writers--Need help with your own book proposal?

Description of Services
Christina offers a variety of services for nonfiction and fiction writers, including manuscript evaluation, line editing, consultation on book proposals and concept development, and writing coaching. Every one of the 23 book proposals she has written or edited has sold to a major publisher; she has also edited more than 75 book-length manuscripts.

About Christina Baker Kline
Christina is the author of four novels, including, most recently, Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be. She has edited four anthologies, including About Face: Women Write about What They See When They Look in the Mirror, Room to Grow, and Child of Mine, and is co-author of The Conversation Begins: Mothers and Daughters Talk about Living Feminism. She is Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University. Her blog is Writing/Life: Notes on Craft & the Creative Process.
Christina is available for a She Writes Virtual Lunch—a comprehensive hour-long phone consultation for 100


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Comment by Adela Crandell Durkee on September 24, 2010 at 12:18pm
Thanks so much for the information.
Comment by Christina Baker Kline on September 22, 2010 at 8:07am
Hi Miranda! Monique's blog is It's really terrific -- I think you'll like it.
Comment by Miranda C. Spencer on September 21, 2010 at 3:02pm
This is fantastic advice that I will surely use as I hone my own book proposal. I think comparing a nonfiction work to fiction re: the story -- character, conflict, choices, and consequences -- is illuminating and something I can use not only with my own book but in helping my ghosting clients who are working on queries.

Now, you tell us Monique has a blog but what is it?! I think we'd love to check it out :-)


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