Guest Post: 5 Common Proposal Mistakes – An Acquisitions Editor Shares Some Tips

by Kara Leonino, Tyndale House Publishers

When she walked over, all the signs were there. I could tell that her smile was trying to say, “I am excited to be here,” but fear was hovering close. As she sat down, I could see the subtle shaking in her hands and the lilt of her voice that told me her nerves were winning. After we exchanged pleasantries, she took a breath and started telling me about her book project. I asked her some questions, and then, it happened. The moment that always comes—when the person sitting across from me pauses, hoping to hear the words: “I love this project and I want to publish your book.”

This conversation is typical to many that I have had over the years. I go to conferences and events in order to listen to writers share their stories and I offer guidance and direction on what they need to do in order to make their dream of publishing a book a reality. To help guide writers to that place, I must start with the importance of a book proposal and share the five most common mistakes first time writers make.

#1: Not Having a Proposal

Assuming that an idea, even if it is a great one, is enough for a submission and won’t require a proposal doesn’t work. Publishers need a full picture of your book in order to fairly evaluate a project’s potential.  A solid proposal provides all the relevant information such as marketing ideas, competitive titles, influencer and endorsement options, and chapter summaries that enable publishers to gain a clear picture of what your project is and how they can get it out into the marketplace for readers.

#2: Not Knowing the Audience

The fact of the matter is that we all want everyone to read our book and tell their friends, spouses, family, coworkers, and neighbors about it. But the truth is that what we want to write about is not for everyone.  So, when you submit a proposal, be clear and direct about who your audience is and why. The opportunity to broaden your audience is a possibility further down the line, but at the proposal stage it should be crystal clear that you know your reader and can help your publisher connect with them through your book.

#3: Not Knowing your True Competition

As part of a good proposal, not only knowing your audience but also showing where your book fits into the genre you are writing tells publishers that you have a strong market in mind for this book. Take some time, do the research, figure out where your book really fits and go from there. Your proposal will be much stronger and will get more attention if the three to five comparable tittles you include communicate your knowledge of your market, your audience, and the genre of content you are creating.

#4: Not Providing a Clear Description or Summary of the Book

Just as an idea is not enough for a publisher to decide if they want to publish your book, not including sample content won’t help them fairly evaluate your writing.  For a strong proposal, include a few options to summarize your book including a one sentence summary, a paragraph summary, and then a longer description of a few paragraphs that can showcase more details about your project. If you can’t communicate what your book is and what the takeaway is for the reader in a sentence or two, then there is still work to be done.

#5: Not Including Platform Information

The hardest part for new authors when it comes to platform is figuring out when they have enough followers, posts, and email subscribers. Social media has changed how readers interact with content. If publishers can see that you understand the complexities of platform growth, it helps them determine what kind of partner you will be as an author.

While sheer odds mean I am not able to accept most of the proposals that I receive, following through on these five points makes a proposal stick out to me right away. Doing the hard and intentional work of crafting a solid proposal is challenging—but it’s worth it for the writer who wants to pursue traditional publishing.

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Kara Leonino is a Senior Acquisitions Editor for nonfiction at Tyndale House Publishers. She has had the privilege of working with a variety of talented authors, including Gretchen Saffles, Ann Swindell, Valerie Woerner, Amy Seiffert, Nicole Unice, Alisa Keeton and Jeremy Camp. Kara has a bachelor’s degree in English from Ohio University. She will try most anything once, loves dessert, can often be found wandering through libraries, and can read a map.


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Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!