Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life Part III: The Trade Book Proposal

The Book Proposal: the most important document that you will create in this whole process. So you know, no pressure.

Many of you may have written book proposals before, for academic presses. The good news is that trade book proposals share much in common with their academic relations; the not-exactly-bad but somewhat confusing news is that trade book proposals come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

I discovered this when I asked a few friends if I could read their proposals, and they graciously shared them with me. Most of them were proposals for history books – although one was about literature and another about popular science – and all of them were unique.

So it was a bit hard to figure out what approach to take for my own proposal. I took notes on their structures and components, and then wrote and revised mine several times. At the moment, my proposal contains the following elements (and all page recs refer to double-spaced pages):


THE HOOK (1-2 pages)


An introduction to your book, with rich description and a sense of place. This looks and reads very much like the introductory section of an article or book chapter – your job here is to capture the agent’s/editor’s attention with some vivid and compelling writing.

My proposal – for Path of the Dead Man, a book about the Civil War West – begins with a Union soldier hauling cattle up an icy mountain pass in December 1861. My goal is to set the reader down in the West during this time period, and to make her feel like she’s out there with the soldier, struggling up that pass in the winter cold.


THE PITCH (5-7 pages)

What is your book telling us that we didn’t already know? In this section, you will want to explain your topic and time period, emphasizing the ways that your book reframes a common question or event, tells an unknown story, or pushes us to think about an important development in a new way.


Remember that the agent or editor likely does not have the depth of knowledge that you have in this topic, so you will need to provide some basic context. Your audience is not an audience of academic colleagues, so be clear and straightforward; avoid jargon.

In my proposal, this section is entitled “The Civil War West,” and it makes the argument for the significance of the West during the war, explaining why it was a region that Union troops, Confederate soldiers, and American Indians fought for in the 1860s.


THE STRUCTURE (3-4 pages)

Where does the book begin and end? How does it progress: thematically? chronologically? Why? You need to be able to convince your reader here that the way you are telling this story is the best way to tell it.

My book has a rather unusual structure – it is a chronological narrative that takes the reader through the events of the 1860s West by tracking the experiences of 9 individuals. There are 30 chapters, which seems crazy but is actually awesome. So I discuss this choice at length in this section, arguing for the usefulness of engaging with both the broad sweep of history and the details of individual stories in the same book.

In this section, you should also include information about the length of the manuscript (in pages and words) and whether or not it will contain notes and/or images and maps.

If your chapters are grouped into Parts, explain them in this section. How do these parts work together to create the structure of the book?


CHAPTER DESCRIPTIONS (anywhere from 15 to 40 pages)

If you have already written the manuscript, this part will be easy. If you have not, this is a challenge, but a very useful one; you will quickly see if your planned structure is holding together or not.

For each description, convey the “action” of the chapter, and how it is articulating your larger arguments or themes. Vary your language and structure within each description, so that they do not read as repetitive.

If you have 5-7 chapters, each chapter description should be 2-3 pages long (3-4 paragraphs). For books with more chapters (or like mine – many, many more), keep each chapter description to 1-2 paragraphs.


SOURCES (2-3 pages)

What kinds of documents (print, visual material, manuscript) are you using? Have you uncovered any sources that have never been used before? Or are you reading well-known sources in new ways?


In my proposal, I talk about archival sources but also about driving around the West. The landscape is an important resource for me as an environmental historian; it also helps me to write with vividness about the places in the book. If you do anything methodologically unusual, mention it.


MARKETING (1-2 pages)

Instead of the academic historiographical statement – talking about those scholars and writers whose work has come before, and with whom you are in conversation – talk about those scholars and writers who have written trade books in your subject that have done well in the marketplace. These are referred to as “comparables.” As Mark Simpson-Vos, editorial director of UNC Press told me, “The value of referencing comps is you’ve helped the editor with some of the advance market research; we have access to sales data that can let us see how books like yours have done, and what that might mean for the financial picture for your project. Comps also help an editor who might not be a subject expert understand where your book fits in the conversation. (This is true for scholarly books and authors and editors, too.)”

Be sure to discuss how your book both adds to this conversation and moves it forward. The agent and editor will want to know that yours is a new voice.

Also, argue here for why a large “public” audience will be interested in your book. Is it a subject that has enduring appeal? Is the approach compelling for general readers?



This is an extended version of the short bio in your query letter.


Establish your authorial experience by listing other books and articles you have written. You can mention the classes you teach, but only if they allow you to argue for your ability to make your topic engaging to a broad audience.

You’ll also want to mention your “author platform,” if you have one: blogs you write, the fact that you have (and might actually use!) a Twitter account, podcasts you produce or contribute to. These are all signs to an agent or editor that you can build your own audience, an increasingly important aspect of an author’s “work” in the marketplace.

If you have a personal connection to your topic that might be relevant, mention it. In my bio, I talk about growing up in Colorado but never knowing about the state’s Civil War histories. This suggests that I have a personal investment in this project beyond just my intellectual interest in the topic – which I do. Like the author platform, this kind of personal connection is helpful for building an audience.


SAMPLE CHAPTER (20-30 pages)

Again, if you have already written the manuscript, this will be easy. If not, you’ll need to write a complete, polished chapter before you even send out query letters. This chapter will demonstrate your larger arguments and your writing abilities for the agent or editor.

The sample chapter need not be the Introduction, or even the first chapter. Mine is Chapter Four, which tells the story of the Union soldier from the hook – which brings the proposal full circle for the reader.


Once you pull all of these components together, edit the proposal a few times. Don’t fret about making it perfect; if an agent likes the proposal and you decide to work together, you will write many more drafts of it.




and send out your query letters.

The next step — the waiting for a response — is the hardest part, and you do not need a blog post to tell you that. So the next part in this series will detail the process of selling/auctioning your book to editors. I have not experienced this myself yet, so it will be a few months (fingers crossed) until I post about it. In the meantime, happy holidays! And write on, my friends.

This post was updated December 18, 2015.


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