The Book Doctor on Proposals

The book doctor shares submission info for the self-publishing and traditional author.

Q: This “book proposal” stuff is a fine kettle of fish. Too much advice, and much of it contradictory. Double-spaced, single-spaced, some of each, etc. When YOU write a proposal, do you use strict Standard Manuscript Format, including a Courier-style font, or do you write more like you’re writing a long letter and using a more Roman-type font? Do you single space ANY PART of the proposal? Do you underline, or do you italicize? And what about bold? And what about these double hyphens? (–) You see what I’m asking. A manuscript is written the way it is because it’s written for a typesetter. A proposal, however, is written for an agent to use to sell a manuscript. Can the proposal be written more like a letter, or is sticking close to the Standard Manuscript Format the best advice?

A: I, too, have seen conflicting guidelines about book proposals, including a recent one, in which a publisher allowed me to submit the whole proposal in the body of an e-mail, and to heck with all the formatting, because e-mail takes most of it out, anyway.

For the publisher who bought my most successful book, Write In Style, though, I followed the style set forth by Michael Larsen in his book simply titled How to Write a Book Proposal. His suggestion, and I followed it to a T, was that the entire book proposal as well as the sample chapters be in Standard Manuscript Format: double-spaced, 12-point Courier type, no boldface type, and underlines to indicate italics. Double hyphens are used to indicate a dash, and no space goes before or after dashes.

Yes, manuscripts are written in Standard Manuscript Format because it used to be the style typesetters required. Agents and publishers got used to seeing manuscripts that way, and most still want them that way, even though computers have changed things.

One ghostwriter I know zips together a quickie proposal in single-spaced Times New Roman and still gets many a job, but he has an extensive successful track record, and several of his books have won national awards. Until you feel as confident, you can never go wrong by following the rules, but you can sometimes go wrong by breaking them. I worked with one publisher who said he never even reads the first line of a manuscript that is not in standard manuscript format, because any writer who can’t or won’t follow rules is either uneducated or too much of a prima donna to make a good client.


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Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at http://www.zebraeditor.com.

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