9 Great Ways to Make Your Book Proposal Stand Out

Agents and editors see tons of proposals at any given time; sometimes, the writing, topic, or author for a project immediately stand out—but that’s not always the case. As an author, you need to recognize that writing a book proposal is really about 1) identifying what the winning attributes of your book are and then 2) convincing others to get on board with you and your idea.

I’ve reviewed hundreds of proposals, so I know that some authors default to gimmicks to stand out—whether it’s a fun or crude title, silly packaging, or excessive name-dropping. If you thought this article was going to offer you a list of tips on putting together the perfect gift basket, phone stalking or robo-speed-dialing an agent (highly inadvisable!), or sneaking into the Random House office building, you are about to be sorely disappointed. But take heart—I respect you more than that. Here’s the deal: the proposals that really grab agents’ and editors’ attention and result in book contracts (which is really what you’re after) are the ones that demonstrate a real competitive advantage or a unique—and useful—approach to a topic.

Below I illustrate nine factors that help proposals stand out—through the lens of imaginary donut cookbook projects. As you read, think about how your project reflects—or can be tweaked to reflect—any of these differentiating factors.

1. Novelty: There’s something new (or trendy) about what you’re offering.

  • Zog Like Donut: Eating paleo is all the rage these days—but what’s the modern caveman to do about his deep and abiding love for donuts? These recipes adapt the beloved donut for those who eschew certain fundamental donut ingredients (like grains and sugar!).

2. Scope: You cover more topics or material; or conversely, you focus on fewer.

  • The Big Book o’ Donuts: This 500-page compendium includes recipes for every conceivable type of traditional donut or donut-related treat (a very broad focus), including tried-and-true American standards and international favorites.
  • Go Glazed or Go Home: This book offers 100 different ways to prepare everyone’s favorite donut, focusing on glazed donuts and glazed donuts only: strawberry glazed, brown-butter glazed, anise-scented with lemon glaze, and on and on (a very narrow focus, as compared to The Big Book o’ Donuts).

3. Depth: Your book goes into more detail than others.

  • The Joy of Donuts: Everything—and I do mean everything—you need to know to make the perfect donut: the ideal grain content of the flour; the perfect oil temperature; the best frying vessels; the pros and cons of different types of oils; the best techniques for getting rid of excess grease on freshly fried donuts; where to stash extra donuts away for yourself so you don’t have to share, et al.

4. Angle: You approach the topic from a different perspective.

  • Do-It-Yourself Donuts: Rather than just a collection of recipes, which most cookbooks are, this book teaches you how to develop your own one-of-a-kind donut recipes by adapting a few key base recipes and principles. So you get recipes and you also learn to create your own recipes, say, for example, to turn each of your kids’ favorite flavors into a special birthday donut: strawberry shortcake donut for Billy, lasagna donut for Garfield, and so on.

5. Access: You have access to facts, data, evidence, or details that others don’t.

  • America’s Best-Loved Donuts: This title reveals secret donut recipes from the country’s 50 most-beloved donut shops.

6. Little-known history or facet: You share information that is not well known or is newly discovered.

  • Das Donut: Recipes from Sprinkel Dorf*, Germany, where donuts were invented. This book includes a wealth of information on traditional techniques and ingredients for donuts made the old-fashioned way.

7. Approach or format: You present the material in a way that is fresh or different.

  • The National Geographic Book of Donuts: These standard donut recipes come with lots and lots of pictures. TNGBoD is for the new cook or the visual learner and includes photographs of every step of the process; it’s perfect for the person who doesn’t know a sifter from a colander and will appreciate the detailed pictorial guidance.

8. Audience: You speak to a specific and/or underserved audience.

  • Clap Your Hands Say Donuts: These simple recipes are for the young donut maker. Kids love donuts—but kids plus hot oil is not a good idea, so this cookbook adapts traditional donut recipes so they are safe, fun, and doable for kids with minimal parental supervision.

9. Contrarian bent: You disagree with nearly everyone or offer a make-’em-gasp point of view.

  • The Salty Doughnut: Only savory donut recipes need apply (and you spell donut "doughnut" for Pete’s sake!). Flavors include olive oil and rosemary; blue cheese and bacon; thai peanut; chicken and waffles; and 40 others . . . because who says donuts have to be sweet?

Now that you have a sense of the ways that books can offer something unique, ask yourself whether any of these components are built into your book project. If yes, you are in good shape—you’re already starting to position your book for success!

But if you can’t easily point to a clearly unique or focused aspect of your book project just yet, don’t despair. Spend some time thinking about how can you incorporate some of these elements into your book. Go through each of the nine factors and ask yourself how it might come through with your particular topic.

And keep this in mind: you don’t have to work in all nine factors—even just one factor, if done well, can be the key. Hone in on what your unique advantage is and you’ll be that much closer to a book contract and a published book!

*Don’t bother Googling that. Not real.


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