What Business Book Publishers Want
The Six Questions Every Business Book Proposal Must Answer
By Rick Wolff, Senior Executive Editor-at-Large at Kevin Anderson & Associates and former Big-5 executive editor with 60+ bestsellers
I have served as a senior acquisitions editor at three major publishing houses for close to forty years, and during that time, I’ve evaluated thousands of book proposals. Let me share with you some of the secrets of that review process.
How a Publisher Decides to Publish Your Book
At the vast majority of book publishers, an acquisitions editor will be the first person to review your proposal (which are almost always submitted by a trusted literary agent). It’s the acquisition editor who will determine whether the proposal might be a good fit for publication.
If an acquisitions editor likes what they read, they will circulate your proposal in-house to get some more feedback from other editors. This is a good sign. Usually, after a couple of weeks, if all the reads are positive, the editor presents the proposal to the acquisition board. In this meeting, the various department heads (e.g. the head of sales, head of publicity, head of marketing, the editor-in-chief, the publisher, and so on) decide whether to make an offer on your book. This usually takes another week or two. Once everyone agrees to move forward, the acquisitions editor will reach out with a deal memo that includes the basic terms—the cash advance, royalties, timing, etc.
The Six Questions Your Proposal Must Answer to Stand Out from the Crowd
Because acquisitions editors usually receive more than a dozen proposals each week, but have limited time to review them all, they look for proposals that are succinct, right to the point, and that answer the following six important questions. And if you answer these questions well, you can help an editor push your proposal toward the acquisition board instead of toward the reject pile.
1. Is this book’s content new, different, and/or unique?
Your proposal should start with a pitch, which should be no more than two paragraphs long that immediately engages the editor and compels them to keep reading.
What stops an editor from reading on? There are lots of reasons. If it’s a proposal that simply repeats content from other books on the same subject. Or if there is nothing especially new or compelling about your point of view. Or if your writing is flabby, long-winded, and difficult to read.
As a result, put some real effort toward making your book pitch into something that is exciting, grabbing, and, in effect, compels the editor to keep reading.
For example: This book proposal presents startling and truly unexpected insights into the three key components that all ambitious entrepreneurs must have in order to succeed. Or here’s what your financial planner isn’t telling you about new and better ways to invest in your 401k and other retirement accounts. Or top AI experts insist that most everyday jobs–including white-collar ones–will be eliminated by 2030, so here’s what you need to know now to protect your career.
Again, your pitch should be right to the point, compelling, and demonstrate why this book will be “must reading,” and, if necessary, even be contrarian to other recent books on the same subject.
2. Who are you to write this book?
Book readers want to hear from experts, leaders in a field, and people who are driving the state of the art to a higher level.
Consequently, explain in a couple of autobiographical paragraphs what your credentials are, how you acquired them, and why you’re the ideal person to write this book at this time on this particular subject.
You don’t have to brag about your credentials; simply put forth your background in a straightforward manner so the acquisitions editor understands who you are.
3. Who is the precise target audience for your book?
While the book’s audience may be obvious to you, the truth is that it may not be clear to the acquisitions editor. Add a couple of lines about who is the intended audience. Try to be as precise as possible.
That is, instead of writing: “This is a book that everyone in business will be drawn to,” try to focus and narrow the book’s appeal to: “This is a book that is aimed primarily to middle-managers under the age of forty who are eager to climb their way to the C-Suite.”
Or, instead of writing: “This is a book for anyone interested in making money,” try the more precise approach: “This is a sophisticated insider’s guide to investing in commercial real estate ventures.”
It may sound odd that you’re, in effect, trying to limit the potential audience. But in the initial book proposal approach, it’s much more helpful for the acquiring editor to know and to be able to pinpoint the book’s target readers.
4. How will you help sell the book?
The sad truth is that too many authors gloss over their media platform in their business book proposal. And that’s a big, big mistake.
The acquiring editor needs to know just what kind of major selling firepower you bring to your book. This is essential.
You need to list in your proposal how your media platform will directly help the publisher in selling your book. Such a list would include your media (including TV or radio appearances), your social media following (especially your numbers on Twitter and LinkedIn), and how many corporate speaking events you do each year. It should mention if you have a popular podcast and how many listeners it has and whether you have a major website and a large number of email subscribers. This is your golden opportunity to highlight how your platform will fuel your book to generate major interest.
This part of your proposal will be read with great interest by the publisher’s sales and marketing departments, because they know that authors with substantial media platforms are much easier to sell than those with modest platforms.
For example, if you appear on a regular basis on “The Today Show” or on CNN or have a million followers on Twitter or have an extremely popular podcast, then publishers will sit up and pay attention. That’s the kind of media platform they salivate over.
Of course, very few authors have that kind of platform. That’s why you need to put some real effort into putting together an impressive package in your proposal when it comes to how you can spread the word and help sell your book.
By the way, be sure to highlight any noteworthy “Special Features” in this section, such as your plans to buy back a significant number of copies at publication time, to hire a publicist, and that your book will include a foreword by a well-known and noteworthy individual.
5. Are there examples of recent comparable books that sold well?
When an editor presents your book proposal to his colleagues at the acquisition meeting, the head of sales will want to know three similar books that were published in the last three to four years that are related in subject and scope to yours, and have sold well.
That’s because when the publisher’s sales rep presents your book to an account, like a Barnes & Noble or Amazon, they have very little time in which to impress that buyer. It’s much easier for the sales rep to start by saying: “This new entrepreneurial book is in the same vein as Guy Raz’s recent major bestseller How I Built This and Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog. But our new book is even better and unique. Let me tell you how.”
In short, this approach gives the sales rep a real and immediate advantage in selling your book by quickly engaging the account with these kinds of well-known “comp” titles.
6. Does your book solve a problem?
Why do business book readers go to a bookstore and search for books? Often, it’s because they have a specific problem they need to solve.
Business books can range from memoirs to exposés to narrative histories to financial advice—and everything else in between. But there’s a sizable number of business titles that are written to solve specific problems.
For example, a reader who needs to know: How can I get my employees to work harder? might turn to Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Or a reader who was recently promoted to manager might wonder: How can I give straightforward feedback to my subordinates? That book buyer might turn to Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss without Losing Your Humanity.
The point is, if your business book is focused on how to solve a specific problem, try to be clear and direct about that in your proposed title and subtitle. That kind of clarity will greatly aid the acquisitions editor and everyone else in the publishing house when they are deciding on whether to pursue your book. Remember, when it comes to titles and subtitles for problem-solving books, it’s always better to be direct and right to the point.
The process of describing your solution will also help you define the target market. This will then let you size that market, something agents and publishers also want to know because it will help them predict the potential sales of the book.
Extra Tip: Be sure your proposal is well written, succinct, and professionally edited
The proposal should not read like an info dump. Remember, the proposal is a selling tool; it is not the book itself.
Business book editors are very busy, and very mindful of their time. They want to be able to go through your book proposal in as little time as possible; that is, they already have a pretty good sense of what they are looking for in your proposal.
Even if it has taken you years to put your thoughts on paper, just remember that the acquisitions editor is going to review it quickly. They are all looking for a powerful proposal, and ideally, one that runs no more than forty to sixty pages, double-spaced. And make sure the font is either Arial, Calibri, or Times New Roman, and 12-point type so it’s easy to read.
Selling a book to a publisher is never easy, and in fact, the majority of them are turned down. But by paying attention to the six questions above while preparing your business book proposal, you will get that much closer to seeing your dreams made real.
Need Help with Your Business Book Proposal?
If you have any more questions about how to write a business book proposal, or would like hands-on assistance, feel free to contact KAA to discuss your project and your publishing goals with us directly.
In his distinguished publishing career, Rick Wolff has acquired and edited more than 60 New York Times or Wall Street Journal bestsellers. Wolff started his trade publishing career at Macmillan, then went to the Time Warner Book Group (which was eventually acquired by Hachette). During his time there, Wolff was a Vice President/Executive Editor and created and oversaw his own imprint, Business Plus, for 15 years. He eventually left Hachette to go to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to serve as their Senior Executive Editor.