Whether you need one depends.
Doesn’t everything in this industry! But a clear protocol does exist for this one, unlike most publishing things.
If you’re writing a novel, agents and editors are going to want to see the first few chapters, depending upon their specific way of doing business. Some will want the full manuscript, but that’s usually contingent on other factors (you were referred to the agent by someone in the industry; you met the editor at a conference; etc.).
So of course you have to write a bang-up query and synopsis to catch that agent’s eye. And even those differ somewhat by genre.
Most fictional genres still require the one- to two-page synopsis. Tough to do well! But take a look at the inside-jacket-covers of books you have and that gives a great framework for the gist of it.
Some genres, such as most Romance and all of its sub-categories, require longer, more-detailed synopses.
So you do have to know the specs in the genre you’re writing.
But if you’re creating non-fiction, of almost all genres, you’ll need a formal book proposal. And those can just be a bear to write.
Mainly because they can be so dry. Agents and editors slog through them though, and if you can catch their attention in a proposal, you’re well in the door.
They read them because they want to know with a non-fiction book exactly where it goes. And how it gets there. And what to do with it. Before they ever take a look at a single manuscript sentence.
Especially if you’re an un-published writer before this book.
Very specific points go into a book proposal, and just to name a few:
- Comparable Books
- Marketing Plan
Who the Heck You are and why You’re Qualified to Write This Book
I could write an entire article on each of these, and while at first glance this doesn’t look so different from a synopsis, and indeed contains many of the same elements, it’s an entirely different beast unto itself.
What trips most folks up is the detailed outline. For good reason. Encapsulating what a chapter shows, explains, teaches, etc. (proposal-ese), is just tough to do without boring everybody (including you!) to tears. Writing these briefly, with just enough creativity to keep some jaded editor or agent engaged, well, that’s a trick indeed.
And the kicker of course is that even if you’ve written a fabulous one, if you’re unpublished, the book needs to be complete and ready to go before you submit the proposal.
Writers often chafe at this. “But I have the best idea in the world for a book!” comes the refrain.
I believe you! It sounds like a great idea. But before taking a chance on an unknown writer (which is getting more rare by the day), said agent will want to know you can finish the book (because every acquisition’s editor is going to ask the same thing). And the only way to discern that for certain is based upon the fact that you have finished the book.
If you already have a published book or two under your belt, this changes. For the obvious corollary to the above. I’ve sold two non-fiction books based on proposals, because I already had two in print. Didn’t mean I didn’t have to change the books some once I wrote them! But that’s another story J
The best resource I know for this is Mike Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal. It’s clear, succinct, and will take you through the (fairly arduous!) process of writing one.
Whether you do this before or after penning the entire book depends upon which way you work better. Doing so beforehand can sure help you organize and keep focused on each chapter and how it relates to the whole. You can change the proposal as you add or reorganize as well. Writing it after often proves easier, especially with the dreaded detailed outline, as you know what’s already on the manuscript pages.
But either way, find the specs, dive in, and get the book and proposal done. Show that agent you’re a professional, and know how to follow the rules.