3 Classic Book Proposal Mistakes...and How to Turn Them Around | Write Brilliant
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3 Classic Book Proposal Mistakes…and How to Turn Them Around

by Stephanie Smith

As an acquisitions editor at a large publishing house, hundreds of book proposals pass through my inbox every year. Here’s my best advice on how to make yours stand out.

It starts with avoiding three of the most common book proposal mistakes:

1) Hype Words

“Next generation.”


“Push the envelope.”

“Unforgettable journey.”

Your book may very well be a magnum opus, but I’m far more interested in coming to that conclusion myself than taking your word for it. The classic writing advice of “Show, don’t tell” applies to writing about your writing as much as the book itself.

If a proposal reads like a tossed salad of hype words and superlatives, it will sound forced and manufactured.

Write a proposal that exhibits a careful selection of power words—with the substance to back up the style. Now that’s a proposal I want to read more of.

2) A Generalized Topic

This goes for both the topic and the audience.

Too often authors claim their book is “for everyone,” without realizing this isn’t a good thing!

Successful marketing is focused on going deep vs. wide with a target demographic, and publishers are looking to partner with authors who are proven experts on that audience.

Likewise, if your topic is as broad as “living a meaningful life” or “God in the everyday and ordinary” or “finding your calling or purpose,” this is a very full shelf in publishing.

It’s more or less assumed that readers will shell out a 20 with or without change for a reason: they’re convinced your book will help them live the life they want to live. So what makes your project unique?

It’s up to you to pitch the publisher on why your book will stand out and make a unique contribution.

3)Comp Titles” that Work Against You

Every proposal needs “Comp titles” or a list of books similar to yours.  

Compiling these well is a tricky science—even for seasoned publishing professionals. In fact, you’ll get different answers for what “comp” even stands for—competitive, comparative, or comparable.

Many authors don’t realize what a publisher is really looking for in this section of the proposal, and as a result they end up putting their book on the wrong shelf in the eyes of the publisher. This can go in two directions.

If you select only comp titles that are royal opposites of your title, you’ve succeeded in highlighting your book’s uniqueness—but you’ve failed at proving that there’s a market for it.

“There’s nothing out there like it!” might seem like a strength at first blush, but it also alerts publishers to a greater risk because there’s no precedent, no track record, no proven audience need for this new message you’re proposing. There’s no compelling reason for retailers to take a chance on this first-time author.

Alternatively, if you align your book with a list of super bestsellers, it sends the unfortunate signal that you haven’t done your research and your expectations are unrealistic.

Publishers are looking for a sweet spot. If you can show that you’ve done your research, you’re not overreaching, and you can carve out your own unique slant in a category or concept family that has proven resonance with readers today (ideally within the past few years), that’s a win for everyone.

Select comp titles that have a good track record with the audience that is your core audience.

If you feel like your book is one you can’t not write, that’s a great place to start. Do your research and give your proposal the best you’ve got. Because publishers like us are looking for authors like you.


Stephanie Smith is a reader, writer, and all-around word nerd. She lives in Grand Rapids, MI with her husband, where she serves as an acquisition editor at Zondervan and is pursuing her masters in theology at Western Theological Seminary. Find her on Twitter/Instagram at @heystephsmith and join her monthly email newsletter for writers looking to find their angle, write like they mean it, and do it in style at www.slantletter.com



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